As the protests following the death of George Floyd have mushroomed into a broad-based nationwide movement for criminal justice reform and racial equality, we have seen scores of statues and monuments associated with slavery and the Confederacy toppled. And on the heels of these dismantled monuments, like clockwork, traditionalists have emerged from the woodwork to admonish the protesters against “trying to erase history.” They would argue that we should leave intact these statues—which memorialize people who fought and died to protect the institution of slavery—because to destroy them would constitute an Orwellian revision of our history that would doom us to repeat it.
But to tear down these monuments to the progenitors of our nation’s greatest sin would not be to erase our history. In fact, it would accomplish the exact opposite: it would help accelerate the generations-long, arduous process of moving this horrific era in our nation’s past from the most accessible layers of our cultural memory, where it currently resides, to our history, where it belongs.
The distinction between memory and history is crucially important, because history is nothing more than a catalog of events that have filled our nation’s history, but memory is what those events mean to us and how we carry them today. We don’t get to choose our history, but to a large extent, we get to choose our memory. What is happening right now in cities across the nation is a rare and remarkable thing: enormous, powerful masses of American citizens declaring, in real time, that America’s shameful story of slavery belongs in its history, not in its memory.
To remove something from our memory is not to diminish its importance or deny that there are valuable lessons (very valuable lessons) to be drawn from a certain piece of history. It is simply to assert that our children and our grandchildren and every generation thereafter should live in a nation where they study something as history, rather than live it as part of a present reality. In this case, it is an assault not on the history of slavery, but on its persisting legacy, which is perpetuated and reasserted every time someone walks past a Robert E. Lee High School or a Jefferson Davis Boulevard. After all, memory is what ties the past to the present, and to sever that cultural link is a vital step to moving on not just from a piece of history, but from its pervasive and lasting effects.
If citizens or governments don’t take deliberate, decisive action to turn memory into history, there’s no telling how long a piece of history can sit prominently in a nation’s cultural memory. Take Serbia, for example, whose most celebrated national holiday commemorates a battle that took place in 1389. Or look at the Middle East, where geopolitical relationships are complicated by a religious schism that happened in the 7th century. History can have tremendous staying power—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Americans tend not to look at history with as long a view as in most other parts of the world, so it doesn’t seem to occur to many people that this could be an issue that plagues our country for centuries to come. People seem to believe that, with the passage of time, the legacy of slavery will slowly evaporate like a glass of water. Perhaps they’re right. But it’s certainly not difficult to imagine this issue staying in our memory, lodged in our present rather than in our history, for generations and generations.
Doing away with publicly sanctioned monuments to those that fought to preserve slavery goes a long way toward dislodging its legacy from our memory and etching into the checkered annals of our history. It is but a fraction of the work that will be required to make reparations and forge a society anew, but it is among the easiest concrete things we can do right here and right now to move forward. To do so would not be a disservice to American history; the real disservice to American history would be to keep the legacy of slavery in its current role as a bedrock of our cultural memory.