I just finished reading Lauret Savoy’s Trace. “We make our lives among relics and ruins of former times, former worlds,” she writes. “Each of us is, too, a landscape inscribed by memory and loss.” These words weigh on me, in the seventh month of my mother’s illness, in the midst of a global pandemic that has turned everything upside down.
It is not safe for me to travel to visit my family. I will fly home in January for a visit. Traveling in these times fills me with dread. I worry I will become sick, or will pick up the sickness and carry it with me to people more vulnerable than I.
“From what do we take our origin? From incised memories?” There is so much wrong in this world, and so much darkness. I think of my home town often. Thinking of place, and her place in it, Savoy notes that the “American land preceded hate.” Always, I think that things did not have to be the way that they are. It is the historian’s incessant cry: Along with “Why?” there is always the question of “Why not something else, something better?”
An immense land lies about us. Nations migrate within us. The past looms close, as immediate as breath, blood, and scars on a wrist. It, too, lies hidden, obscured, shattered. What I can know of ancestors’ lives or of this land can’t be retrieved like old postcards stored in a desk drawer.
Savoy speaks to me. As a person struggling to get by, feeling burdened and unmoored. I have work to do, and I attempt to do it as we careen towards an election where the irrational and the millions of Americans who are historically illiterate threaten to cast aside those things we hopefully tell ourselves make us special. About place names, Savoy wisely writes that “if history can be read in the names of the land, then the text at the surface is partial and pieced.”
A reader might do well to look beyond ‘official’ maps for traces of other languages, other visions. He or she might do well to acknowledge, and mourn, the loss of innumerable names born out of textured homelands that no longer reside in living memory. We all might do well to remember that names are one measure of how one chooses to inhabit the world.
Where are we? Who are we? Sometimes I feel like I do not know how to answer these questions. So many people seem never to bother asking them in the first place.
In one chapter Savoy tells of her visit to Walnut Grove Plantation in the South Carolina piedmont. She took the tour, listened to the docent. The tour and educational materials produced about the plantation lionized the owners as hard-working immigrants who had attained self-sufficiency and independence. The enslaved peoples, whose graves Savoy saw nearby, were not mentioned. The visit reminded her of Edmund S. Morgan’s “American Paradox”: that American freedom and American slavery are intertwined and entangled so thoroughly that one cannot be understood apart from the other. In American history, and at Walnut Grove.
“What to remember, what to forget?” Savoy asks. “How a society remembers can’t be separated from how it wants to be remembered or from what it wishes it was–that is, if we believe stories of ancestors reflect who we are and how we came to be. The past is remembered and told by desire.”
We do not comfortably tell stories of enslavement, Savoy writes, or of dispossession. Stories like these don’t work well with “heritage tourism.” Americans do not like to be reminded of their nation’s misdeeds. The current president has declared a culture war on those who seek to undermine American heroes and challenge American monuments. And here’s the problem with that.
A supposedly long-gone past offers an illusory comfort to the living. It’s not my fault. I didn’t own any slaves, and neither did my family. Barricaded safely in the present, the living can condemn the institution while ignoring what made it desirable to privileged classes–and what has fed an ever-mutable caste system to the present.
Reflecting upon, and rejecting, the history taught her as a child, Savoy writes that
the events that occurred and the narratives told of them can never be complete or single-voiced. Each of us participates in it. We contribute to it as players, as witnesses, as narrators, as producers, and consumers in an ongoing past to present.
“What to remember, what to forget?” Much of my own teaching serves to dismantle the comforting myths and half-truths my students learned in elementary, middle, and high school. Thinking of the burial ground at Walnut Grove, Savoy notes all the graves of the enslaved, and the stories not told about those people who enabled the owners’ self-sufficiency and independence. Few of us want to look there. Few of us wish to see where the bodies are buried. Yet the Walnut Grove burial ground, she writes, “seemed to belie the enslavers’ power to extract work without consent from the enslaved. Not just work, but blood, breath, life itself. Silence reminded me, too, of pieces erased from a many-storied past: complex communities excised, interior lives of ‘property in person’ ignored.” Pasts erased, lives forgotten, experiences ignored.
We live among countless absences of memory in this country. They convey both remembrances and omissions, privileging partial arcs of story while neglecting so many others. Historical sites are contested story sites for the meaning of America’s past-to-present.
To whom is history responsible? What I realized at the burying ground was that each of us is implicated in locating the past-to-present.
History layers itself in language and acts, “of meanings shrouded over generations. The question has to be turned around and made personal: What then is my relationship with history, told and untold, on this land.”
It is hard to engage painful elements of America’s past and be self-reflective, particularly if one must confront deeply ingrained beliefs and ideas that have shaped, or made comfortable, one’s sense of self or place. Or if one seeks to shed a sense of inherited shame or pain in order to step away from stories of group victimization. But the legacy of slavery, and the racism it fed and reinforced, remains a malignant symbiosis. It feeds who we Americans think we are, as citizens and as communities. It still festers as untended wounds, open and disfiguring to some, hidden from view to others.
This is a beautiful reflection on the work of the historian, at least as I have come to see it over the thirty-odd years I have spent in graduate school and as a teacher. I write about Indigenous peoples. I work to understand the processes of dispossession that shaped the land upon which I live. I have worked, in small ways, in the conqueror’s courts in what so often seems like a futile effort to obtain some remedy for the clear crimes of the past. Always, I tell myself that it wasn’t inevitable, that hardly anything is inevitable. It did not have to be this way, and there is another path if we wish to take it. Sometimes, however, when I am reading through the mountains of evidence that document these injustices, I find this especially difficult to believe. But I hope. Always. Savoy’s concluding thoughts about her visit to Walnut Grove resonate with me.
I don’t have answers, but I do have desires. That the intricate relations implicating us in each other’s lives could be acknowledged by the recent immigrant and native, by descendant of colonists and those enslaved by colonists. This isn’t being trampled by history or consumed by guilt over the past, nor is it being victim without end. It is instead honoring the lives of those so often unacknowledged by taking responsibility for the past-in-present–by opposing injustices today for which accountability is direct. This comes closest to my mind for a true re-pairing toward truth and reconciliation.