I first stood at Jamestown as a history-enthralled 11-year-old. The picture of the 17th century ruin of the church tower, abutted to the 1907 Memorial Church, is seared in my mind. I also remember the water lapping at the nearby shore, serving as a reminder that the people at Jamestown had the most tenuous of toeholds on this continent in those early years.
While I didn’t know it at the time, the narratives of life in early 17th century Virginia — told by the guides, the plaques that lined the walls of the 1907 church, and the books I devoured — were incomplete and sometimes egregiously false. White Christian Europeans were the focus. If they were mentioned at all, Native Americans, along with the enslaved African Americans who began arriving against their will at Jamestown in 1619, were small, dependent actors; impediments, if you will, to the greater story of the colonists and settlers and the shaping of what it meant to be an “American.”
Those Europeans were not home. They were the outsiders. Yet we are still fighting over how to interpret their presence in what would become Virginia.
Fifty-four years after I visited Jamestown, the President of the United States stood in the National Archives Museum and called for a “restoration” of “patriotic education” in our schools. A project designed to reverse what some conservatives have seen as a growing emphasis in American public schools on themes of civil rights at the expense of more traditional historical narratives, mainly those revolving around white men. Patriotic education would fit right in with those 1966 interpretations.
Today, thanks to the scholarship of historians, works like the 1619 Project, the explorations of archaeologists, and the education efforts of groups like Preservation Virginia, the interpretations at Jamestown are more richly textured, recognizing the various layers that make up this iconic place in American history. Something worth understanding happened there in the early 17th century. There are stories worth telling and people worth remembering in part for the significance they bring to our lives today. But because history is not what happened, it is a story about what happened, we need to be thoughtful and as truthful as possible in how we craft our narratives of remembrance.
Our recollections need a reckoning and a reimagining. A reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining through recovered stories with hope for our collective future.
It may seem strange that someone who has spent more than four decades working to preserve the places and stories from our past finds strength in the belief that America is focused on the work of the imagination, a word that speaks not of past facts but to hope for the future. The writer and social critic Lewis Lapham captures my beliefs about the country’s soul when he writes,
“What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”
Stories about the past and the places of our lives always seem to be much more on our mind in my native South. Our celebrations and troubles often appear in starker relief. They are imbued in our writing and infused throughout our music. Some are even true. Yet Southerners are not alone in commemorating a past that never existed, while ignoring the one that did.
Marie Howe has said, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.” Neurologists have been saying the same thing now for decades, just not as eloquently. Psychologist and professor Michael C. Corballis notes that our memory…
“was clearly not designed by nature to be a faithful record of the past. Rather, it supplies us with information — some true, some false, and always incomplete — that we use to construct stories. We may well be what we remember, at least in part, but our memories, like clothes, can be selected and modified to create what we want to be, rather than what we actually are.”
In a recent conversation with distinguished Southern historian Edward Ayers, director of the New American History project, he suggested to me that history is not always what it looks like because part of what you are preserving is the memory of what has happened. Stories built on memory can be good, bad, accurate, or wildly false, as Corballis notes. I agree with Ed’s thesis, and with his suggestion that we need to learn how to preserve the “change” that is so much a part of our lives. Preservation at its best should not wallow in nostalgia. Instead, we should work to preserve and honor the stories from our individual and collective memories, seeking the truth through an understanding of how they connect over a continuum of time to help build our personal and national identities.
Many scholars, preservationists, and history lovers — individuals who also love America and its ideals — are working to better understand those stories and memories and tell the truth about our nation’s past. As Ayers considers the half-century of sustained right-wing assaults on historical scholarship, he writes that the charges concern and puzzle him.
“…because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books…
If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.”
Over a four-decade career in preservation, often facing difficult histories at places ranging from lovingly preserved plantations to the battlefields of great conflicts to formerly unrecognized slave markets, I have yet to find among those pushing for a fuller, deeper understanding of history someone who “hates America.”
We all face choices as to how we express love for one another and for our country. Some come to a point of view and steadfastly defend it, seeking support in those who share that worldview while condemning individuals on a different path.
Others choose to believe that seeking the truth and finding clarity about the events in our past takes work and requires deep listening to those who do not look like us, read the same books, attend the same schools, or share our life experiences.
Patriotism as I envision it involves a willingness to examine, rather than paper over, the troubles in our past. My stories of the places from my history — coming from my very privileged status in the South as a straight, white, Christian, male — celebrate both triumphs and difficulties. But I write them out of a spirit of hope. Hope that is grounded in memory. Hope that is a part of — when I am at my best — a never-ending education and ongoing effort to seek the truth.
When we make the choice to hope, refuse to paper over our troubles, and go down into our figurative basements to work on the often hidden issues that divide us as a country, perhaps then we can move beyond a celebration of a past that never existed and begin understanding and honoring the past that did.
(NOTE: During October, I am writing articles on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing as a country and a democracy. Besides this story of revealed history, you can find posts on wrongful imprisonment and racial violence, religious liberty, and voter suppression, in addition to a book review on how democracies die by clicking on the links.)
More to come…
Image: Jamestown Memorial Church (credit: Preservation Virginia)