They Can't Take That Away

They Can't Take That Away

Activism May 21, 2012 / By Erich Matthes
They Can't Take That Away

We can maintain and engage with historical significance by creating communities of memory around it.

The past is all around us. Objects and places from long ago all converge in the present, like tributaries to a river. Which of these things we take to be historically significant, though constrained by the facts about the past, depends in large part on what we care about. The mere fact that something is old is not necessarily important (no one cares about 200 year old lint); rather, we care about things that are connected to significant persons, places, and events in significant ways.

In a previous post, I claimed that our relationship to objects of historical significance is often complicated by the fact that it is not always clear how to successfully engage with the past (in contrast with more straightforward modes of engagement with value, such as viewing a painting, or tasting food). One potential candidate for an historical mode of engagement is memory. This is not a simple proposal, and it raises many questions. For instance, most of what we take to be historically significant occurred before we were born, and hence it is beyond the bounds of conventional memory. In response to this problem, we might appeal to collective memory or communities of memory, but these suggestive concepts result in further questions. How precisely does this avoid the problem? How is a memory shared? How are the relevant communities constituted?

A simple response to these questions is to say that the memory is not of a given event, for instance, but it is a memory that the event occurred, in a certain place, involving certain people, and in a significant way. Thus the individuals who remember these facts and who care about them might be said to constitute a community of memory. But moreover, if, as I have suggested, historical significance itself depends in large part on what we care about (not to mention what we ought to care about), then one way of both maintaining historical significance and engaging with that past may be to expand and deepen the relevant community of individuals who care. 

Some of the residents of Florence, Alabama care about the family cemetery of General John Coffee. Wal-Mart has proposed to build a new store (a mere 3 miles from their nearest location) that abuts the cemetery, but questions have arisen about the cemetery’s true borders. Coffee owned slaves, and there is some evidence suggesting that their unmarked graves extend beyond the walled-in confines of the current cemetery proper. If this is in fact the case, the new Wal-Mart’s parking lot would cover those graves. And even if these unmarked graves are elsewhere, the development threatens the surroundings of the cemetery proper. For a sense of the impact, check out this impressive video made by concerned citizens.



I hope that the defenders of the cemetery are successful in saving it. However, independent of their success in this regard, they have already succeeded in another way. They have expanded the community of individuals who care about and are informed about an historically significant place. In defending the cemetery and growing the community who cares about it, they create its historical value anew.

There is a sense in which the history of a place cannot be destroyed, it can only be added to: the addition of a Wal-Mart parking lot to a cemetery is an unfortunate addition. On the other hand, the historical significance of a place can be lost—we lose it by forgetting. By creating a community of memory around the cemetery, its advocates remind us of historical events both great and terrible, no matter what transpires next. That memory persists so long as we maintain it. It cannot be taken away.

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