I was always vaguely aware of plans for a memorial at the site of the World Trade Center, and by the time the museum opened in 2014, I was a high schooler-cum-news junkie, fully plugged in to the controversies surrounding the price of admission and tastefulness of certain items sold in the gift shop. In college, when I took an anthropology course on tourism, I focused my final project on the Memorial & Museum, and I considered revisiting it as a potential topic for a master’s thesis.
In surveying the literature and doing coursework for my degrees, I eventually came to realize that collective memory has an oft-overlooked counterpart: collective forgetting. While defenders of Confederate monuments cling to the rallying cry, “You can’t erase history!,” in reality, the construction of history is as much a process of forgetting as it is of remembering. We have not documented everything that has ever happened since humans began recording our existence—to do so would be impossible. What we remember as history is necessarily incomplete—and that is what makes curating what we choose to memorialize all the more important. We have all heard it said that history is written by the victors, and unfortunately, this has often resulted in what Hortense Spillers calls “the discursive and iconic...misfortunes, facilities, abuses, or plain absences” of marginalized peoples in the historical record.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum commemorate unspeakable tragedy, but they are also a celebration of American resilience; visitors to the site are meant to feel proud that we were not cowed by terrorists who despised our values. They are a confirmation of our goodness and worth as a nation. But it is perhaps equally—if not more—important for us to consider how we memorialize the shameful parts of history. After all—if the reader will excuse yet another cliché apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The Legacy Museum, located in downtown Montgomery, memorializes an undeniably ugly part of American history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the integral part it played in the United States’ economic and cultural development. The Museum is located blocks away from what was once an auction site where Black people were forced into bondage and sold as chattel, and it reminds us that history is not some disconnected past. It ripples into the present through the stories we choose to remember and share—and those we choose to forget. Writing history is a process of making value judgments; to deny a person’s story is to deny their importance and worth. And that is why we must reckon with the ugly parts of history as well as the triumphs.
Recognizing the misdeeds of the past does not have to negate the positive parts of our history that we gladly celebrate. Although it was once an important center of the American slave trade, Montgomery is also known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is home to numerous sites commemorating the milestones of that struggle. History is complicated and sometimes uncomfortable, but in an age of “culture wars” and hand wringing over public-school curricula, it is vital for us to realize that there is room for both the good and the bad in the histories that we write.
About the Author
Phoebe Duke-Mosier graduates this spring with master’s degrees in Religion in Culture and Library & Information Studies. She is originally from Central New Jersey, which residents of North and South Jersey will tell you does not exist. She hopes to integrate her training in library science and her background in the humanities into a career supporting information access and literacy in an academic library.