November was an important month for America’s racial tensions. The guilty verdicts in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder trial, and the federal court decision ordering prominent white supremacists to pay $25 million to victims in the 2017 Charlottesville white-nationalist marches, are significant decisions. But are the Kyle Rittenhouse non-guilty verdict and the Glenn Youngkin victory in the Virginia governor race, which some attributed to his closing argument, banning critical race theory in public education? All of these have something in common — they are chapters in a national legacy on race that just won’t go away.
There are theories as to why, and one of them has to do with memory, particularly in white communities. Since America’s origin, race has been implicated in violence and injustice, stirring anger, hatred, fear and racial separation. We like to believe historical memories are benign. But they marble their way into culture, shape perceptions and perspectives. They influence the way people relate to one another and creep into institutional policies and practices like the subtle veins of fat in a slice of prime rib, difficult to see and impossible to trim out. As the Irish novelist John Banville once said: “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” But it is a heart Americans never wants to look at too closely or for too long.
Historian David W. Blight’s book “Race and Reunion” found three memories developing after the Civil War and still operating in America. One is an unabashed white supremacist memory, remembering the war as a fight to retain a superior white, Christian culture. A second reconciliationist memory, the most influential and enduring, recalled the war as competition between different values and constitutional interpretations. To support this memory of “good people on both sides,” two hero cults grew up around Abraham Lincoln in the North and Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the South. Meanwhile, a third emancipationist memory saw the war as a battle against slavery and the re-founding of America on a fuller appropriation of its principles. All three memories developed their own histories, mythologies and theologies, and preferred “facts.”
The emancipationist memory, the most historically accurate, lived mostly in Black American communities until historians started reevaluating primary sources, confirming the Civil War was not about state rights, agrarian versus urban values or economics. It was about the South preserving slavery. One reason race won’t go away is that the nation today is fighting over the replacement of a softer reconciliationist memory with the much more dehumanizing but accurate emancipationist one. For many this is a difficult transition that they are beginning to share.
U.S. Army Brigadier General Ty Seidule, former chair of West Point’s history department, grew up in the South, building his identity on Lee, who was presented as the iconic southern Christian gentlemen. A painful study of history convinced Seidule that his identity was built on illusion. Lee, his hero, was a seditionist and a white supremacist. In his 2020 memoir, “Robert E. Lee and Me,” Seidule details his conversion from a reconciliationist to an emancipationist memory, and the ways it has impacted his understanding of the past, interpretation of American culture and political decision-making.
Memories wound and divide. But they also heal and awaken, inspire and energize, cultivate forgiveness and unity. Blight provides tools for understanding the complicity of historical understandings in America’s racial tensions. Seidule offers a compelling personal story that can teach America the truthful lesson once captured by another Southerner never escaping an illusionary American history, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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