Memory is the foundation of civilization.
Forgetting is the end of culture.
I mean to say, history — remembering it — is everything.
There is something quite odd happening in America right now. Influential people, people who’ve been afforded the best education money can buy, people with large media platforms, people to whom many turn to be informed are suffering from an incredibly focused amnesia. But it’s not just the blank spaces in their memories that worry me — it’s what’s been programmed to fill the voids.
“This isn’t the America I know and love.”
“This isn’t us.”
The Trump administration has sentiments like these ringing out of newspaper columns and blue-checked Twitter feeds and cable news commentary. We all should be outraged when faced with stories of immigrant children being ripped from their mothers’ arms by government agents, or photos of those children asleep on thin mats on concrete floors inside cages. These images (which were taken during the Obama administration) are horrifying.
But to say they aren’t American is to deny the history of the country.
The separation of families by agents of the government has been part and parcel of the American experience since the founding of the nation.
It was quite American to rip the children of Indigenous people and enslaved Africans away from their mothers. Even now, Native and Black children are much more likely to be removed from their homes and sent into the foster care or group home system.
Think of the juvenile justice system and all the young Black and Brown men who’ve been swept up by mass incarceration. Schools are often the funnel into those juvenile facilities.
There is a blindness to all this in many segments of American society. It’s white noise, static in the background. No one can hear it over the P.A. systems blaring the national anthem and the fighter jets overhead. The United States is brutal to its own people in a manner that is unique among its peer nations, and a shockingly high proportion of Americans don’t know it. This means they’ll never remember it, much less have the chance to forget it.
No one knowing history is, for all intents and purposes, it not existing. Those proverbs about the dangers of forgotten histories are casting long shadows at the moment.
It’s been quite astonishing to realize how many people have no idea the stove has always been hot.
Following the Santa Fe school shooting, I wrote that I didn’t hold out much hope for America stopping its decline, because that requires confronting, wrestling with, and redressing the damage caused by the nations’ longstanding, constitutionally enshrined White supremacy.
That is the blind spot: White supremacy and how it drives the myth of American exceptionalism.
Until this blockage is cleared, until the wounds it has caused are acknowledged, until genuine efforts are made to heal these injuries, America will have no history. I fear what that means for its future.