Museums And Memorials Are Powerful Political Tools

Museums And Memorials Are Powerful Political Tools

What a weekend in Alabama taught me about memorializing atrocity

Emi
Emi
67
views

The rhetoric of "Make America Great Again" implies that America was once a glorious nation of opportunity and economic promise. It sparks visions of white picket fences and comfortably cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods; of backyard barbecues and 4th of July fireworks. It suggests that America has historically been a land of freedom and equality, becoming the exemplary student in democracy for the rest of the world to follow.

This, however, has never been the case. Historically, America has been a nation of slavery and oppression, of racism and discrimination, of prejudice and pain. It has been a land of opportunity for wealthy whites because of the economic benefits reaped off the hard labor of slaves and the genocide of Native Americans. It is because of the institution of slavery that America became the "great" nation that is idealized in rhetoric today. The impact of this horrific period of American history is still largely felt today.

African-Americans are one of many marginalized groups in American society that face continuous oppression due to historical biases and systemic racism. After spending the past weekend in Alabama visiting museums and memorials and walking in the re-enactment of the march across the bridge in Selma, I have still only just begun to understand the extent to which the past impacts the present. From mass slavery to mass segregation, to mass incarceration; African Americans are not and have never been treated as equals in this land of the free.

Learning about past atrocity is difficult for many reasons. First, it is hard to grasp the true extent of the evil that occurred. It can be troubling to understand how human beings treat other people in such horrific ways. Once the extent of atrocity is grasped, it is difficult to communicate this to others. Who gets to narrate the story? How is it told? How will people understand and remember a terrible time period so as to prevent it from occurring again? Oftentimes, the answers to these questions lie in museums and memorials that both honor victims of atrocity and educate citizens in order to never allow such crimes to be committed again.

Museums and memorials, especially those constructed on actual sites of atrocity, are powerful political tools to shape future generations. However, they are also used as vehicles for peace-building and reflection. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, both developed and supported by the Equal Justice Initiative, are located in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial honors the thousands of black Americans lynched in the Jim Crow South following the dissolution of slavery, while the museum traces the historical treatment of African-Americans from slavery to incarceration.

Montgomery's proximity to many plantations and slave-owners positioned the city to become the capital of slave trading in Alabama. The Legacy Museum is built inside an old slave-trading warehouse, while the memorial is built in a state that has over 300 documented lynchings. Choosing to build a museum on the same site as one of the most heavily utilized slave warehouses in the country adds an entirely new layer of meaning to the museum. While it is a space for learning and understanding, it is also a space for feeling. It is a place to take a step back and acknowledge the atrocity that occurred literally where one is standing. It adds a sense of reality to the museum because as one is reading about the horrors committed in slave warehouses and against black people throughout history, the ghosts of that atrocity are reading over one's shoulder. There is an overarching eeriness to the space because visitors cannot be removed from what they are learning about due to the physical site itself.

Similarly, the memorial carries a different impact due to its location. The landscape is filled with hauntingly beautiful steel pillars representative of individuals lynched. The architecture of the space, gradually carrying visitors along a decline the farther into the memorial they walk, leaves guests far underneath the pillars. Looking up, one quite literally feels the gigantic weight of human cruelty and suffering. Furthermore, the simplicity of the site allows one to feel the full impact of one of the darkest corners of human history. Rather than having countless plaques to read or videos to interact with, visitors can openly interpret and truly feel the emotions of the space. The simple and tragically beautiful memorial, combined with a picturesque floral landscape and calming water features, not only provides an opportunity for deeper understanding of the horrors committed against fellow humans, but it is a space for healing and coming to peace with a painful past.

This is the true power of these memorials and museums. By better understanding the past, one can begin to come to peace with it. By connecting the past with the present, one can see connections to current injustice. By acknowledging that America has never been great and still has a long way to go, we as a country can start to begin to move towards a more just and equitable society that truly is a land of the free for all.

Popular Right Now

This Is How Your Same-Sex Marriage Affects Me As A Catholic Woman

I hear you over there, Bible Bob.
319110
views

It won't.

Wait, what?

I promise you did read that right. Not what you were expecting me to say, right? Who another person decides to marry will never in any way affect my own marriage whatsoever. Unless they try to marry the person that I want to, then we might have a few problems.

As a kid, I was raised, baptized, and confirmed into an old school Irish Catholic church in the middle of a small, midwestern town.

Not exactly a place that most people would consider to be very liberal or open-minded. Despite this I was taught to love and accept others as a child, to not cast judgment because the only person fit to judge was God. I learned this from my Grandpa, a man whose love of others was only rivaled by his love of sweets and spoiling his grandkids.

While I learned this at an early age, not everyone else in my hometown — or even within my own church — seemed to get the memo. When same-sex marriage was finally legalized country-wide, I cried tears of joy for some of my closest friends who happen to be members of the LGBTQ community.

I was happy while others I knew were disgusted and even enraged.

"That's not what it says in the bible! Marriage is between a man and a woman!"

"God made Adam and Eve for a reason! Man shall not lie with another man as he would a woman!"

"Homosexuality is a sin! It's bad enough that they're all going to hell, now we're letting them marry?"

Alright, Bible Bob, we get it, you don't agree with same-sex relationships. Honestly, that's not the issue. One of our civil liberties as United States citizens is the freedom of religion. If you believe your religion doesn't support homosexuality that's OK.

What isn't OK is thinking that your religious beliefs should dictate others lives.

What isn't OK is using your religion or your beliefs to take away rights from those who chose to live their life differently than you.

Some members of my church are still convinced that their marriage now means less because people are free to marry whoever they want to. Honestly, I wish I was kidding. Tell me again, Brenda how exactly do Steve and Jason's marriage affect yours and Tom's?

It doesn't. Really, it doesn't affect you at all.

Unless Tom suddenly starts having an affair with Steve their marriage has zero effect on you. You never know Brenda, you and Jason might become best friends by the end of the divorce. (And in that case, Brenda and Tom both need to go to church considering the bible also teaches against adultery and divorce.)

I'll say it one more time for the people in the back: same-sex marriage does not affect you even if you or your religion does not support it. If you don't agree with same-sex marriage then do not marry someone of the same sex. Really, it's a simple concept.

It amazes me that I still actually have to discuss this with some people in 2017. And it amazes me that people use God as a reason to hinder the lives of others.

As a proud young Catholic woman, I wholeheartedly support the LGBTQ community with my entire being.

My God taught me to not hold hate so close to my heart. He told me not to judge and to accept others with open arms. My God taught me to love and I hope yours teaches you the same.

Disclaimer - This article in no way is meant to be an insult to the Bible or religion or the LGBTQ community.

Cover Image Credit: Sushiesque / Flickr

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

The Disrespectful Nature Of My Generation Needs To Stop

Why choosing phone games over a Holocaust survivor was my breaking point.

139
views

While many students that attended Holocaust survivor Hershel Greenblat's talk were rightfully attentive, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a few outlier students tapping away on their phones. They were minute movements, but inappropriate nonetheless.

Immediately I became infuriated. How, I thought, fuming, did my generation become so blithely unaware to the point where we could not proffer basic respect to a survivor of one of the most horrific events in human history?

Perhaps the students were just texting their parents, telling them that the event would run a bit long. 10 minutes later, my eyes diverted from Greenblat back to the students. They were still on their phones. This time, I could see the screens being held horizontally—indicating a game or a show was being played. I wanted to get up, smack the distractions out of their hands, and ask them why they thought what they were doing was more important than a Holocaust speaker.

I will not waste any more time writing about the disrespectful few. Because they could not give Greenblat the time of their day, I will not give them mine. Instead, I want to focus on a massive trend my generation has mistakenly indulged ourselves in.

The Greenblat incident is only an example of this phenomenon I find so confusing. From young, it was instilled in me, probably via Chinese tradition, that elders should be respected. It is a title only revoked when unacceptable behavior allows it to be, and is otherwise maintained. I understand that not everybody comes from a background where respect is automatically granted to people. And I see that side of the story.

Why does age automatically warrant respect? It is the fact that they have made it this far, and have interesting stories to tell. There are exceptions, perhaps more than there are inclusions.

But this fact can be determined by the simple act of offering an elderly person your seat on public transportation. Sure, it can be for their health, but within that simple act is a meaningful sacrifice for somebody who has experienced more than you.

Age aside, at Greenblat's talk, majority of the disrespect shown might not have been agist. Instead, it could have been the behavior students just there for the check-in check-out extra credit that multiple classes and clubs were offering. While my teachers who advertised the event stressed the importance of attendance not just for the academic boost, but for the experience, I knew that some of the more distracted students there must have been those selfish, ignorant, solely academic driven cockalorums.

I stay hopeful because majority of my classmates were attentive. We knew to put aside our Chromebooks, regardless of note-taking, and simply listen to what Greenblat had to offer.

It would be wrong to label my generation as entitled— that's a misnomer for the generation before. We are still wavering between the line of automatic respect and earned respect, but we need to set a line for people whom we know the stories of. Especially a Holocaust survivor.

Related Content

Facebook Comments