‘Race and American Memory’

by Michael O. Allen on April 17, 2008

Roger Cohen of The New York Times (or should I say the International Herald Tribune?) is fast becoming my favorite columnist. He is a great writer with a searching conscience and vision.

Cohen was writing about the decision by Congress in 2003 to spend $500 million to build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open in 2015.

The question Cohen asked, after taking a measure of the Holocaust Museum, was why there is no institution before now to wrestle with the America’s tortured racial history, especially as it pertains to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and violence perpetrated against African Americans, including lynchings.

A timely question.

For nations to confront their failings is arduous. It involves what Germans, experts in this field, call Geschichtspolitik, or “the politics of history.” It demands the passage from the personal to the universal, from individual memory to memorial. Yet there is as yet in the United States no adequate memorial to the ravages of race.

The King Center is a fine institution. But it’s a modest museum, like others scattered through the country that deal with aspects of the nation’s most divisive subject. Why, I wondered as I viewed the exhibit, does the Holocaust, a German crime, hold pride of place over U.S. lynchings in American memorialization?

Let’s be clear: I am not comparing Jim Crow with industrialized mass murder, or suggesting an exact Klan-Nazi moral equivalency. But I do think some psychological displacement is at work when a magnificent Holocaust Memorial Museum, in which the criminals are not Americans, precedes a Washington institution of equivalent stature dedicated to the saga of national violence that is slavery and segregation.

I lived in Berlin for three years, a period spanning the Bundestag’s decision in 1999 to build a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The debate, 54 years after the collapse of Hitler’s Reich, was fraught. It takes time to traverse the politics of history, confront guilt and arrive at an adequate memorialization of national crimes that also offers a possible path to reconciliation.

Germans have confronted the monstrous in them. In the end, they concluded the taint was so pervasive that Degussa, which was linked to the company that produced Zyklon-B gas, was permitted to provide the anti-graffiti coating for the memorial. The truth can be brutal, but flight from it even more devastating.

America’s heroic narrative of itself is still in flight from race.

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