A Reflection on Collective Memory

A few days ago I went to the Museum of Our National Heritage in Concord, Massachusetts, to hear a lecture by Dr. David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

With me was Bernadette, supervisor of my work as historical interpreter on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. With others of our staff, we are both grateful for the work of David Blight, and we went to Concord eager to learn more from him, and to show support for him.

There were about ninety people in the lecture hall at this site which celebrates the beginning of the American Revolution. When Bernadette entered the room, the percentage of people of color present experienced an exponential rise; she was the only one. My hunch is that most of the people came from the surrounding towns, Concord, Lexington, Bedford, Acton, and though each of these is a community, there was little sense of a community in the room. People came in, mostly in pairs, took seats, and sat quietly speaking with the persons with whom they came, awaiting the lecture. That is, after all, why they were there.

The introduction was a dry, dull, impersonal recitation of credentials, which for David Blight are considerable. The lecture was an insightful and wise recounting of the argument developed in the book, namely that after the Civil War there were forces at work in the nation to create a collective memory of what the war was about, what its significance is for our history and understanding today. While it is a wonderful study, and one I wish all to read, here I do not want to focus on the content of the book, but rather on the idea of and experience of collective memory.

As he began the lecture, David appropriately addressed the question, “Is there such a thing as collective memory”? The book depends on an affirmative answer to the question, so the lecture included an appropriately brief claim to that effect. That question raised as it was, in the context of that gathering in Concord, becomes the focus of this reflection on the experience of that day.

Bernadette and I had another place where we also wanted to be, so we left during the question period, and headed for Roxbury. Sighting Memory is the title of an exhibition in Roxbury at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. The photographs are by Dr. Reginald L. Jackson; the poetry by Dr. Dwadwo Opoku­Agyemang. The combined work of these two is based on a study of caves in the north part of Ghana, used in another century as hiding places for those who were escaping the clutches of slave traders. A subtitle of the showing calls it “an exhibition of poetry and photographs dedicated to those who resisted.

There were about the same number of people at the Roxbury museum that late afternoon as there were in Concord. A little after our arrival a white couple came in, and that made the total of white folk present about twelve, while the rest were people of color, largely people of African descent. They too came from several surrounding communities in the Boston area, including Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain, at least. But here there was a distinct feel of one community; greetings exploded as friends saw each other, introductions gave a feeling that everyone knew everyone, with a kind of knowing that does not depend on acquaintance.

On that early evening, Dr. Jackson engaged the gathered folk in discussion, aided by leading comments from Professor Anani Dzideyeno, from Brown University. The group was quickly engaged in a vibrant remembering focused often on the past but always on the present implications of that remembered history. There was no need there to even raise the question about the existence of collective memory. Had the question been raised, my guess is that it would have been greeted as irrelevant, and the questioner’s sanity doubted. The discussion here seemed to almost say that there was only collective memory. That, of course, cannot be true, but it represents a feeling level I experienced for the umpteenth time in that same community. The discussion in that community was rooted in a common experience of the world, grounded in a common history, a common memory. No need to ask about collective memory; there it was!

Questions for further reflection:

– What is the source of this collective memory as experienced at the museum session in Roxbury?

Is there a similar collective experience shared by those who were gathered at the museum in Concord, maybe buried somewhere in the denial of the “emancipationist vision?”