I recently finished Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday, 2018). It is a fascinating study of the Troubles and their aftermath. But the questions Keefe raises transcend Northern Ireland: Why is it important to reckon with the violence of the past? What role does collective memory play in a healthy democracy? How do we break historical silences?
Regarding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement—which brought an end to 30 years of violence between Irish (Catholic) republicans, (Protestant) loyalists, and the British military—Keefe writes: “In their effort to bring about peace, the negotiators had focused on the future rather than the past. […] [T]here was no provision for the creation of any sort of truth-and-reconciliation mechanism that might allow the people of Northern Ireland to address the sometimes murky and often painful history of what had befallen their country over the previous three decades. […] Northern Ireland had always been devoted to the theater of historical commemoration. But there was no formal process for attempting to figure out how to commemorate, or even to understand, the Troubles” (Chapter 20: A Secret Archive).
I am struck by the extent to which this passage applies to the United States’ relationship with our history of slavery. White Americans have long participated in “the theater of historical commemoration”—think Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War reenactments—but our national reckoning with slavery and its 150 year legacy has been piecemeal. As such, past traumas continue to haunt the present.
Things may have turned out differently had Abraham Lincoln lived to see the U.S. through Reconstruction—as I’ve been reminded over the past couple weeks, while teaching 19th century history to immigrants here in Los Angeles who have applied to become naturalized U.S. citizens. My mom and I still vividly remember reading the following passages in Joy Hakim’s “A History of US” during an 8th grade history lesson: “Reconstruction didn’t turn out the way Lincoln intended. He wanted the nation’s wounds bound carefully. He wanted healing to take place. He wanted North and South to be one united nation. He wanted those who had been slaves to be treated like full citizens” (War, Terrible War, p.148). Instead, thanks to John Wilkes Booth, we ended up with Andrew Johnson: “He didn’t listen. He didn’t try to represent the whole country. He didn’t know how to compromise. He seemed to stand against most Northerners, all blacks, and the moderate Southern Unionists. He went on a speaking tour and said wild and nasty things about Congress. Often, he didn’t act dignified or presidential. Some people were ashamed of their president. […] He was convinced that it was not the responsibility of the nation to help the newly freed men and women get fair and equal treatment before the law. He thought that was the states’ job” (Reconstructing America, pp.30–31).
So, Reconstruction did not provide the opportunity for collective reckoning so desperately needed after 250 years of slavery. What would such a process look like in the U.S. today?
In the fourth episode of her new podcast, “The Last Archive,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore analyzes three projects that have, over the past century, aimed to counter the silencing of Black voices: Oral histories with the last surviving Americans born into slavery, conducted by the WPA between 1936 and 1938; Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “made up of black voices”; and Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), based upon hundreds of interviews with aging participants in the Great Migration. Ida Mae Brandon was one of the octogenarians Wilkerson interviewed; at one point, Brandon says—of the history she lived—”The half ain’t been told.” Running with this theme, Lepore concludes that “Ralph Ellison and the WPA opened a door, a door to an entire archive. But somehow that door keeps slamming shut, and getting locked again. And still, people keep trying to pry it open, and record the evidence. In 2013…George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and Black Lives Matter began. […] Black Lives Matter is about justice; but it’s also, profoundly, about evidence: the capturing of video and sound, the recording of what—to whites—had been unseen, hearing what had been unheard, knowing what had been unknown. […] Some truths still can’t be spoken, some frequencies haven’t yet been heard. But you can still set them down for the record. You listen, you record, and you write. Because the half still hasn’t yet been told.”
Too many voices have been silenced throughout U.S. history. We must continue breaking these silences. That means an end to romanticizing, white-washing, sanitizing, and erasing the ugliness of our past. For white Americans, it means listening. Black Lives Matter is the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle to reckon with this country’s traumatic history.
I will conclude with the following excerpt from a Seamus Heaney poem, quoted in Say Nothing:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.Seamus Heaney
Here in the U.S., as in Northern Ireland, hope and history can rhyme only when we allow silencing to continue no longer. Only when we have faced our demons can we forge a better future.