Friday, April 18, 2008

Race, Memory, and Denial

Roger Cohen writes in the NY Times about our failure to confront our tragic and immoral history of slavery and racial oppression. Though he is writing specifically about a new museum to be built in Washington D.C., I think he makes a broader point about where we are today:

For nations to confront their failings is arduous. It involves what Germans, experts in this field, call Geschichtspolitik, or “the politics of history.” It demands the passage from the personal to the universal, from individual memory to memorial. Yet there is as yet in the United States no adequate memorial to the ravages of race.
Cohen was living in Berlin in 1999 when the Bundestag decided to build a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. He comments that "It takes time to traverse the politics of history, confront guilt and arrive at an adequate memorialization of national crimes that also offers a possible path to reconciliation."

America’s heroic narrative of itself is still in flight from race. The decision, approved by Congress in 2003, to build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to open in 2015, reflects a desire to plug this hole in the nation’s memory. But what this $500 million institution will be remains to be invented.

“The Holocaust is a horribly difficult subject, but the bad guys are not Americans,” Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, told me. “Race, however, is the quintessential American story and one that calls into question how America defines itself and how we, as Americans, accept our own culpability.”
Forty years after King was gunned down in Memphis, with an African-American soon to receive the Democratic presidential nomination, many of my white friends feel that the issue of race is behind us. I think they ignore a lot of evidence - just as they ignore the latest news from Iraq. We are a people in denial, and it has taken far too long for a nation dedicated to the lofty rhetoric and ideals of our Declaration of Independence.

One presidential candidate talks about hope, and about the responsibilities of the "Joshua" generation - laying a duty on this generation to fulfill that hope, to overcome our inertia and our evasions and to do the hard work needed for this nation to reconcile herself to her past and to bring about the change that we all say we hope for - a future in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not constrained by race, and in which we see one another clearly as equals.

I wonder - can a people who are reluctant to face their history succeed in building such a future?

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posted at 10:08:00 AM by Neil

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