David Blight on Memory, History, and Hope

blight

I just came across this great Martha Hodes’s interview of David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (among many other books).

In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:

MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?

DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.

On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.

Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.

And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.

And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:

MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?

DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.

MH: Clearly.

DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”

And hope:

DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.

The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.

MH: Beautiful.

DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.

To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.

Read the entire interview here.