The danger of substituting Memory for History

Robert E. Lee Monument (Charlottesville, Virginia) - WikipediaStatues are coming down!

Richmond is roiling. Robert E. Lee, once the one untouchable ikon of the vanquished South is closer to being removed from the Avenues.

Since Charlottesville, the whole monumentalizing of the Civil War has come under scrutiny. Once these momentos of  history were remembered through the lens of reunion, the “gentle peace” that Lincoln so wanted.  Now, through the lens of Jim Crow and the resurgence of White Supremacy, they are seen as divisive and hateful, representing the glorification of those who fought to preserve slavery.

For those that I work with who are into stories and concerned about what role stories play to fuel racism, the statues are a site of research to explore what is going on. They are also sites of interpretation that my Tour Guide community has to decide what to say and what not to say, when finally the tourists come back to visit our city.

World War II Memorial (U.S. National Park Service)Stories and monuments go together. They recreate a place and time and those that made it worth remembering.  All things receede into history but part of our history is where our future was born.  We want to make Presidents Washington and Lincoln and FDR and the Civil War accessible again.  But we do it by way of a mental trick.  We build glorious monuments to remind us of who we are now. But to do that successfully, we have to build them to pretend to show what we were back then.

Take the World War Two memorial as an example. That war shaped the modern USA in so many ways, but it took almost 50 years to build a memorial. By then, the heroic myth of the USA winning freedom for the world, liberating Paris, storming Omaha Beach etc had become the preferred way we looked back on it. Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” was “the greatest generation” Recent war histories have challenged our self-serving patriotism.  Yet when you build the WWII monument, do you include the Allies or Russia? USA lost 400,000 and Russia lost close to 17,000,000. They played the decisive role that ended in an Allied victory. In other words, we helped Russia win the war. But no,  you build the memory that makes the most sense to us in our time. We won.

One cannot imagine in the middle of the Cold War building a monument that honors Russia’s role, and we decided even later not to amend our memory to be more historically accurate. Memory won. History lost. Or was it monumental amnesia? If you lost your grandfather in World War Two fighting alongside the USA and he was from Australia or South Africa or Russia or India or Canada, you won’t find him here. He is MIA.

File:Andrew Jackson sculpture (Lafayette Square) - DSC01026.JPG ...ANDREW JACKSON
I love training and supporting new DC Tour Guides and warning them to be careful not to misinterpret a memorial, not to perpetuate the myths that memorials are built to fortify. It is much more interesting to offer visitors a nuanced reading of a memorial, to show the difference between what we remembered back when it was built and what we know now. When President Andrew Jackson’s statue was created in Layfayette Square outside the White House, he was represented as the trimphant General who beat the British in New Orleans. It is as if we had to salvage one belated victory and place it beside the White House, the White House that the British burnt. Was it for fear that we might remember that the USA decisively lost that 1812 war? Even the Congress was in ruins. Jackson is there to snatch minor victory from the jaws of  total defeat.

Fort Bragg: US Army 'open to bi-partisan discussion' on renaming ...FORT BRAGG
We name military bases after Confederate Generals and feed the cult of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson perhaps for the same kind of reason. Southerners, looking back through the lens of defeat and humiliation, want to hold memories that salvage something. Don’t we all?   It may look to us as homage to White Supremacists but back then, white supremacy was normal. Who needed to build a monument to it in the 1920’s? Only now does it become obvious. Meaning moves. Memorials built in the permanence of marble easily float away on clouds of irrelevance and reinterpretation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial | monument, Washington ...MLK
One other memorial is badly due for a makeover and this one may surprise you. It is the MLK memorial. As a recent tribute to MLK and the “I have a Dream” speech, the memorial represents a rather gauzy memory of those times, choosing to quote MLK’s universalism and botherly love, choosing to have the mountains fully formed, choosing to literalize “Mountain of Fear, Stone of Hope.” The mountains were supposed to be eroding away, and King’s face was meant to be half formed, still emerging from the stone. The quote was meant to quote King’s 1963 speech quoting Lincoln quoting Jeffferson. King was meant to be looking eyeball to eyeball at Jefferson’s “We hold these truths”  in his memorial across the Tidal Basin. They even got that wrong. King is looking at a tree.

Opened in 2011 by President Obama, the first black President, one would be forgiven to think it marked the beginnings of a post-racial America. The fiery prophecies of MLK are missing. His late embrace of much of Malcolm X’s views or his fierce denunciation of American capitalism and militarism that still enslaved the poor are ignored. Even the event of his death, a hate crime allowed and condoned by the FBI, is forgottten. It might be because back then, as many rejoiced as mourned his demise. All of that is what we chose NOT to remember when we built this memorial. And now, because we distorted that sorry history and turned it into Disney, we made a monument not to the dream but to the delusion. It is a memorial to a future that never happened. And even King lived long enough to know that.

King's Son And Friend Talk New Memorial, Media : NPRThe America that MLK wanted so much to change, the America that killed him and lynched so many of this brothers and sisters, even assassinated his mother, is still the America we face in the repeated police killings and the riots and the belated outrage of the ruling classes.

The monument wanted so badly to show how the story had changed. But if it had dared to surround itself with more honest  1967 MLK quotes like “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today- my own govcrnment” and  “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” and “Why America may go to hell,’ the sermon he was going to give before being assassinated, the monument might speak to our current crisis.

It was safer to let our memory distort our history to make us feel better. We chose adenoid quotes out of some Boy Scout Manual like “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” (Thank you Buddha.)  and “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” (Peace and Love and Haight Ashbury)  and “”Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” Sounds like the preamble to the UN Charter. His nation is burning with racial hatred and we make him sound like Mister Rogers!!!


Visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC | Washington.orgThe Lincoln Memorial was built to celebrate a nation reunited after bloody war and connected by a bridge to Robert E Lee’s house in a sublime achitecture of harmony.  But at its opening, African Americans were segregated in the crowd. Just as they were when  African American opera singer Marian Andersen sang on Easter Sunday 1939. We tell that story as one of liberation from racism, but its ironies are too heavy to ignore. Do we have the courage to tell these stories and do our audiences even want to listen?


We have allowed our memory and the dreams that we wanted to come true to distort what the memorials are meant to be about. They should serve as milestones on the road, benchmarks on the upward climb “Towards a more perfect union.” They always reflect unfinished business. There was never a “Make America Great Again” but ” Make America America again” as black poet Langston Hughes would say.

The nation might think it is restoring history and purifying memory by taking down statues that offend, and statues that tell lies. But the one memorial that presents the  one person who gave his life for this cause is in danger of becoming irrelevant.  We need the King of 1963 to meet the King of 1967-68.  And if we did, the memorial would be a different place, one that might  remember King as a preacher, a radically righteous and dangerously revolutionary prophet that the nation was not ready for then, and perhaps is not ready for now? In his later years, he spoke as if he were looking at the memorial and remembering 1963. This is what he thought:

 “I talked in Washington in 1963 about my dream, and we stood there in those high moments with high hopes, and over and over again, I’ve seen this dream turn into a nightmare!

Martin Luther King Jnr.  speaks hauntingly to our future and what is happening before our eyes. He predicted it because he died feeling failure.  His faith was his only life raft. His last trip was delayed because of a death threat. The previous peaceful march in Memphis had been mired in violence.  Peaceful resistance was not working. The memorial with our consent made this  victim of violence and racism into our saint of Non Violence and post-racial reconciliation. In other words, we made MLK into a lie.

King in 1967: My dream has 'turned into a nightmare'The memorial to him was meant to make clear his was unfinished work.  It was up to us to take up where he left off.  But it sends the opposite signal of a  “Mission Accomplished.” That story is being rewritten on the streets as we speak.  There is no stone of hope.  There was no sustainable dream. That mountain of despair has no gap in it at all and King knew it. It killed him as he always suspected it would.

……These are evil times. In our own nation, we see the evilness of the times with a sickness all around. We see the riots in the streets. We see people being killed. We see communities being burned down. And we see the conditions that make people act in this misguided, desperate fashion.”

We built a memorial to King’s rhetoric. That’s about all. The real memorial is being built on the streets since Labor Day. He would love that.  We wish along with Robert E Lee coming down, we make MLK rise up again to speak  to us when we most need him to.


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