Notebook: Memorial, Memorials, Memory, History (Part II)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Gathering soil at the site in Center, Texas, where sixteen-year-old Lige Daniels was lynched in 1920, for inclusion in the Community Remembrance Project of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Alabama
Read Part One of this post here
The Russian advocacy group Memorial came into existence, and endured, in part because Russia never embarked on a national process of facing and reconciling with its past, in contrast to the extensive self-reckoning that has taken place in Germany since 1945 and reunification, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, Argentina, and many post-Communist countries. As the website of the Memorial archive says, although the “concept” of a state policy to recognize victims of political repression was approved in 2015, the Russian government created no corresponding national program. The national program is left to brave individuals.
One recent independent initiative springing from Memorial’s database is the “Last Address” project organized by the journalist Sergei Parkhomenko. Recalling the original impulse behind Memorial, “Last Address” places simple metal plaques at the final known address of victims of state terror; it was inspired by a similar project in Germany. People complain that the markers are gloomy, says Parkhomenko, they don’t want their children to see them, they turn their towns into a cemetery, people want to move on. But “our aim isn't just to put nameplates on every building in the country, although you probably could. What’s important is to gather people around them. So that they explain what happened to those who don’t know, and tell their children.” In Poland, where the country’s role in the genocidal crimes of World War II remains highly politicized, the artist and educator Magdalena Gross is in the early stages of a project to engage local communities in a commemorative recovery of the traces of their towns’ lost Jews.
In America too it seems to take determined volunteers to identify and mark the painful shadows where our past crimes lie. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is complimenting the effort to remove statues of leaders of the Confederacy and others who persecuted Black Americans (the post-Soviet world has also had its statue-removing moment and ongoing statuary disputes) with the restoration to history and the landscape of those who suffered without acknowledgment. In 2017 EJI released the most recent report on their research into the scale of American lynching, documenting over 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the US between 1877 and 1950. They have opened a museum and memorial dedicated to the legacy of slavery in Montgomery, Alabama. A “Community Remembrance Project” encourages local communities to erect narrative markers on sites of racial violence (interactive map here) and send jars of soil from these sites to incorporate into the memorial in Montgomery. As with the “Last Address” project, the goal is both memorializing the dead and starting a public conversation. (The architect of the Montgomery memorial, The MASS Design Group, is also working on the Polish project and has used design and architecture toward healing the traumas of the pandemic and gun violence.)
Bryan Stevenson has written, “there are very few, if any, significant monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of the struggle for racial equality and of lynching in particular. Many people who live in these places today have no awareness that race relations in their histories included terror and lynching.” President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherrilyn Ifill, whose 2007 book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century laid a cornerstone for this modern reckoning, told a journalist researching the history of lynching in Maryland on the occasion of an EJI-inspired symposium there in 2018: “The mere fact that lynching is not visible in the landscape doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have power. And the fact that it’s not talked about—the silence was always a big part of lynching.” Not talking about it allows the message of lynching—“a message to the African-American community about the boundaries of citizenship: This is what you can do and this is what you can’t do. These will be the consequences if you cross these lines,” as Ifill describes it—to go unchallenged.
This year Ifill was present at the unveiling of a memorial to one of the victims whose story advocates were studying in 2018. Clint Smith notes in his 2021 book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, that the site of New York City’s slave market, which during its operation from 1711 to 1762 was the second-largest in the country, was forgotten and ignored until an artist and writer named Chris Cobb began researching it during Occupy Wall Street in 2011 (there is now a plaque); that the site of the only cemetery in New York City in which Black people, free or enslaved, were allowed to be buried in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which contained the remains of between ten and twenty thousand people, was unknown until it was uncovered in preparations to erect an office tower in 1991 (it was designated a national monument in 2006 after a long process); and that the Statue of Liberty was designed by its creator as a monument to Emancipation, but that was deemed too controversial by the recipients and the emphasis was shifted to (European) immigration. The invisibility of these histories has allowed New Yorkers to convince themselves that their city had little part in the taint of slavery.
Clint Smith’s book opens with an epigraph from Frederick Douglass, whom recent biographer David Blight advanced as a founder of our “second republic,” the post-Emancipation one, saying that “our past was slavery,” “written in characters of blood; its breath was a sigh, its voice a groan, and we turn from it with a shudder. The duty of to-day is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage.” It is the job of history to turn characters written in blood into words on the page. Douglass spoke these words at Washington, DC’s Bethel Literary and Historical Society, a group founded by Black intellectuals in 1881, like Memorial, as a “debating society” for proclaiming and discussing a then-unacknowledged history and the imperatives for the future springing from it.
The long labors of groups like Memorial and the Equal Justice Initiative offer a parable illustrating how fragile is the substance of memory itself, even when a memory is monstrous, perhaps especially when it is monstrous; how hard people have to work to enable something as simple as remembering; how threatening the simple act of remembering can be. Memorial considers its work to be “preventing a return to totalitarianism,” and indeed one of the pretexts for branding it a terrorist organization is the presence on its list of living political prisoners, people like the recently poisoned activist Alexei Navalny and those advocating for nationalities subsumed under the Soviet and now Putinian state. Erasing, manufacturing memory is the first job of the demagogue, and the discomforts of memory ease the demagogue’s way. The territory of what lies before the eyes of children is some of memory’s most contested, and important ground. Those of us who live by books are charged with creating a vessel that will shelter the truths of memory and sift them from lies. Those on memory’s front lines, like Roginsky and Stevenson, are counting on us to do this work with stamina and courage.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. Subscribe and receive straight-to-you book posts. Coming soon! Book posts from Marina Warner, Erik Reece, Mona Simpson, Jeffrey Madrick.
Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books are Book Post’s Winter 2021 partner bookseller! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their communities. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com.
If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”