Memorial Day, is, at its heart, about that which was.
In the face of the annual holiday in 2019, it becomes apparent that it is more difficult than ever to see the future right now. There hasn’t been a time quite like the Trump Era in American social and political history. Without precedent, without a map, it can make the coming years and decades daunting and impossible to predict. Politicians, pundits, people: everyone seems stumped. In moments like these, it is easy to rely on an easy, nostalgic version of history. When the present is dysfunctional and the future hazy, looking backwards can be comforting. It is no coincidence that we have seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right movement that harkens back to a mythical Southern past, often utilizing highly subjective and concocted narratives to make more palatable the dark history that hovers over the region. The way we preserve memories and tell the stories of the past says a lot about how we want to remember ourselves and reflects how we see (or want to see) ourselves now.
The past can be manipulated by people with social and economic capital. In the South, it is common for cities, states, and private institutions to exclude minority groups from museum displays, promote illiteracy that stunts the dissemination of documentation and evidence, erect monuments that romanticize cruel acts, and preserve the homes of significant historic (and often deeply problematic) figures.
Even in the face of obstacles as a result of systemic racism and economic disparity, the past be harnessed for progressive resistance. This need not employ the tactics of historical revisionism that either lauds or ignores that which fits a group or politician’s needs. Rather, the resistance can explore all sides of the stories of the past, opening up America’s veins to expose the great breadth of culture that exists among us. By learning from people different from us, we may be able to find a new solution to guide us forward. By working to establish facts and work in the service of unvarnished memory, we can keep the past from hindering the present.
In Virginia, the past is all around us. This is epitomized by the Sully Historic Site in Chantilly. Even during the massive growth spurts seen in Northern Virginia that threaten many environmental and notable areas, the plantation house and the surrounding land continues, stalwart, in the face of rapid changes.
Scenes from Sully Plantation in Chantilly, Virginia
Unlike many preserved, slave-owning sites in the South, Sully makes a point to remember and commemorate those in bondage that were forced into labor at this and myriad other spots around the country. The South relies on the tourism industry for a large swath of its commercial enterprises, and enshrining the homes and locales of the influential is part of the South’s DNA. These places often have histories that have been shrouded from view – an ugly past that does not fit the stories we want to tell about our ancestors. Looking beyond the shining wooden furniture and marble fireplaces, we need to be searching for those that worked behind the curtain to make it happen (often by force). Sully has tours and presentations of slave culture and habitation right alongside house exhibits. The states around us should take heed.
By including the stories of everyone – specifically, oppressed minorities – we can pool our collective identities and memories to find new answers to what seem like unsurmountable problems. Acknowledging and reckoning with our history is one of the first steps in changing today’s world. It is self-obvious that learning about that which once was can enlighten our modern perceptions, but it is crucial to realize that what we may be learning is not altogether representative of the true past.
So, on this day – this day of looking back – let’s remember to contextualize our collective memory and think critically about the past.
Main photo: The “big house” at Sully Plantation (now referred to as a “historic site”).