CULTURAL AMNESIA AND THE RECOVERY OF HISTORICAL MEMORY
In the wake of apartheid and the violence, injustice, and racism that sustained it, a process of truth and reconciliation was created in South Africa that has spawned similar efforts worldwide to heal the gap between official histories and the experiences of those excluded from these histories. In 2004, the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the United States was begun in Greensboro, North Carolina. It sought to expose and heal an intercommunity wound that occurred in 1979, a symptom of a larger structure of racial injustice flowing from the times of slavery in the United States. In 1979, during a demonstration, White Klan and neo-Nazi members killed five Black members of the Communist Workers Party, and injured 10 others. Aware of the potential for violence at the rally, the police decided to be absent, colluding with the violence that erupted. As many White city officials distanced themselves from the event and never inquired into the underlying issues, these issues continued to fester and create enmity between White and Black communities. The TRC proceedings offered public space for many to come forward from various sectors of the community to give testimony regarding what happened in 1979. The commissioners hoped that increased public acknowledgment would lead to institutional reforms and citizen engagement and transformation. Recommendations that arose from the TRC included the establishment of living wages, anti-racism training, citizen review committees to ensure police accountability, and the creation of a community justice center. There were representative present at the TRC proceedings from Tulsa, New Orleans, Selma, Rosewood, and Montgomery. Attempts at reconciliation seed other such attempts. They expose the walls that exist in communities, inquire into their history and function, address grievous wrongs that have been hidden, and begin a process of imagining and embodying multiple means of reparations for the past, reparations that create connective tissue between historically alienated communities for the future. The Slave Reparations Movement is a similar effort under way in the United States. The debates that have been opened through consideration of reparations for slavery address publicly not only the 246-year history of slavery in America, but also the legacy of slavery for the continuing economic servitude of many African-Americans. Historians and economists working in this area are clear that in general while Blacks work harder than Whites, they are paid less. Despite affirmative action initiatives, the economic capital base of Whites that was built on the labor of slaves—particularly through textile manufacturing, the building of the railroads, tobacco production, and the insurance industry, where slaves were treated as material property— continues to give Whites an unfair advantage. This automatic inheritance of economic privilege by Whites happens regardless of their families’ length of stay in the U.S., because it is an inheritance based on skin color. Freed slaves were never given the compensation of 40 acres and a mule promised by Sherman as part of Reconstruction. The facts that they were kept out of neighborhoods that accrued value, denied mortgages, excluded from the Homestead Act of 1862, and that economically prosperous Black areas were destroyed as in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 have led to continuing equity inequality. Historian Manning Marable and others have called for a national commission whose aims would be the erasure of racialized deficits through the provision of such things as equitable healthcare and schools for Blacks, as well as more access by Blacks to managerial roles. Many community arts projects also seek to bring extruded aspects of history into current awareness. The Confluence Project, Maya Lin’s memorials along the Columbia River to mark the meetings of Lewis and Clark’s group with Native American groups is one example. Another is the Ford Foundation’s Animating Democracy Projects, which included museum displays of furniture and finery of the colonial period along with the telling signs of slavery—such as shackles and whipping posts—which supported such elegance. Community murals and art, such as the ones presented in this article, educate new generations about histories of injustices suffered and communities’ dreams of a more just future. These movements bring into dialogue aspects of American history many would prefer not to know. For Whites, not knowing or not remembering leads to a false sense of entitlement, an unquestioning acceptance of economic privilege which distorts their image of themselves, their labors, and rights. Keeping the past at bay allows privilege to continue to accrue, balancing economic gain with soul loss. SITES OF RECONCILIATION In part, the past can be metabolized and the future created differently by informal exchanges in the present between individuals from groups that have been historically divided. In most towns and cities, meetings between migrants and citizens happen only on top of economic and ethnic divides. Immigrants without documents are not free to speak of their difficult experiences on account of their fear of racism and deportation. There is a collusion of silence that keeps Whites ignorant of the challenges and heartaches borne by their fellow townspeople. To create sites of reconciliation requires insight into the need for them and sustained effort to build bridges across separations established over a long history. The learning of each others’ languages is a first step toward more personal communication. Neighborhoods, workplaces, adult education centers, and religious congregations can set up intercambios, where pairs of people divide the time between speaking in one mother tongue and then the other, all the while sharing the bits and pieces of daily life. Beyond language acquisition is the creation of relationships freed from the usual divisions. Knowing how unsafe migrants feel in the larger community, citizens can offer their support to community centers where migrants go for information about housing and healthcare; they can help with immigration issues; and they can assist in the learning of English. Such intercultural meetings spawn relationships that can transcend delimited normative notions of hospitality by opening “spaces and forms of exchange that allow for mutual obligation, engagement, and civic participation.” Such spaces are also part of American history, echoing from the beginning of the settlement house movement of Jane Addams’ Hull House days in Chicago.