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.