“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history serves and in whose interests it is often purveyed. For example, who has the privilege of having a history in the first place? On the flip side, who has the privilege of forgetting (or at least selectively choosing) moments of historical importance?

This has become a particularly pressing question in light of the recent attention being paid to the long history of police violence and brutality against people of color, as well as the deeper, far more insidious racist histories of which said violence is but the most recent manifestation. The protests of Colin Kaepernick and others expose these histories, forcing all Americans to take a piercing look at the ways in which racism and the exploitation of bodies of color has structured and undergirded the entire expanse of American history.

Those who strenuously condemn Kaepernick continue to insist that those who are protesting lack an awareness or a proper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who have served. Embedded within this criticism is an assumption that somehow those who kneel for the National Anthem are either ignorant or dismissive of a history that should make them proud and willing to uncritically accept American society as it is, rather than dare to raise the specter of criticism.

Naturally, those who make those claims conveniently overlook and ignore the deep roots that make systemic racism and exploitation possible  Just as importantly, these also critiques also overlook the fact that, as Jason Johnson has observed, the song in question (unsurprisingly) contains racist lyrics (that are, it has to be said, frequently not sung during performances). History, in this instance, troubles the very stability that it purportedly supports.

All of which leads me to ask again:  who has the privilege of ignoring history? Who has the ability to pretend that somehow the unpleasant realities of the past several hundred years have not taken place? Who benefits from the ability to pretend that the past is safely buried and has no bearing on the present and the structures that currently impact the daily lives of people everywhere? Who gets to pretend, who is able to pretend, that we somehow live in a perpetual present?

The easy answer, of course, is those who benefit the most from forgetting about the past so that they can go on about their everyday lives as if they do not and have never participated in the racist legacies that remain baked into the collective social, cultural, legal, and political DNA of the United States of America. For them, this colossal act of forgetting is in some sense necessary in order for them to continue going on about their daily lives. Confronting these realities in any meaningful way would, in most cases, simply be too painful, too complex (or so the argument goes) to be adequately addressed.

It is much harder for those who continue to live with the legacies of slavery and genocide that have so profoundly influenced America’s sense of itself to ignore those histories or to pretend that they don’t exist. America’s institutions, its structures, its ways of being are so reliant upon and indebted to a racist and colonialist past that it is hard to imagine an America without them. It is this vast, almost incomprehensible scope and depth that, I suspect, lead to inability of many to even begin to acknowledge, let alone accept, their complicity and their benefit from these histories.

Thus, when I ask my friends and family back home in Appalachia (West Virginia, in particular), about how they think about race and the fact that so many people of color remain systematically cut out of the benefits that American life seemingly offers all of its citizens, they really struggle to understand how the actions and structures of the past continue to exert a smothering pressure on the present. For them, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to think outside of the twinned epistemologies of presentism and individualism that structure their way of understanding and being in the world. For them, they cannot understand how it is that their present position near the bottom of the economic latter constitutes a privilege, nor can they see beyond the fact that their ancestors did not own slaves.

If, as I have repeatedly asserted throughout this month, we are truly invested in making the world a better, more just place for all of its citizens, we must continue to press against and challenge this kind of inherently privileged thinking. We have to recognize and come to terms with the conflicted and painful histories of which we are a part. Continuing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of history and pretending that it hasn’t happened is itself a form of violence, a violence all the more pernicious in that it masks itself as innocence rather than complicity.

As Vann R. Newkirk II remarks in The Atlantic, the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC offers a rare opportunity for America as a whole to meaningfully contend with the painful legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the other aspects of American history that have proven so intractable in our attempts to make sense of contemporary race relations. While I agree that there is something deeply and powerfully symbolic about erecting a museum devoted to African American history in a city founded upon and built by slave labor, I also think that it will take a great deal more on the part of each and every American citizen to make progress.

It will require frank and uncomfortable conversations within and among our various communities, both in person and in digital spaces. It will require frank and unambiguous acknowledgment and acceptance of the darker parts of history. Going to a museum devoted to the experiences of people of color is definitely an important first step, but it must be followed by an actual change in the way(s) that we collectively think about our past. It will require actual changes in our everyday lived experience and ways of being in the world, actual changes in what we think and how we do it.

I see these posts as one part of the larger cultural conversation. Hopefully, they will resonate with those who, like myself, desire to make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for everyone.

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4 comments

  1. Of course history is a site of privilege, and for those who don’t know that, they clearly don’t understand the dynamics of writing and publishing in general. Thanks for this look at why we need to be vigilant about the way we approach history.

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