The past once offered the present certainty, stability and security. This was either through continuity or repetition (we can survive this catastrophe as we made it through the others – resilience of the Blitz spirit) or via the contrast that time and distance afford (we could never imagine living like that – haven’t we progressed!) Remembrance helps us move on, as Runia says, ‘The more we commemorate what we did, the more we transform ourselves into people who did not do it’.
But lately the past seems broken, its turning over not providing a consensus of history but rather a conflict of new memory. Hence the overnight evacuation of centre ground politics and media in America has been aided via a radicalisation of remembering.
This is evident in the memory crisis in the wake of the white supremacist rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the 12 August 2017, in which Heather Heyer was killed as a car drove into her and other counterprotestors, injuring dozens more. These weren’t the first protests by the white alt-right at the planned removal from a public park of a statue commemorating the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. For, on the 13 May 2017, a small torch-wielding group had gathered in Charlottesville that included the alt-right leader Richard Spence, evoking memories of their use by the KKK.
The spilling of public rage over the legitimacy or otherwise of Confederate statues, highlights a racist past that has festered, visible yet invisible, known yet unknown, pushed aside from rather than woven into a mainstream narrative. And the shattering of trust in the institutions of the American mainstream includes history itself. This has been revealed in recent weeks by historians wondering how to combat the new politics of memory after Charlottesville, coming out in defence of their value. James Grossman for instance, rightly condemns historical ignorance and its official tolerance in that large swathes of the American public and media ‘are debating whether or not to erase a history that they don’t know very well’.
But nostalgia for a past as a basis of the American dream endures. And that past is mostly remembered, edited, and erased by a society that is institutionally white. Donald Trump’s election-winning slogan’s promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ recharges white nostalgia as the driver of the politics of the present as well as shaping the parameters of what is possible in the future.
The phrase is itself an echo, as both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in their 1980 campaign had used ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’. But it was only Trump who submitted a patent application for exclusive rights to use ‘Make America Great Again’ in politics, as though he could re-chart American history to legitimate his election and presidency. The question that needs asking is when was America great and what else was at stake when America was great? How do we look at America’s great past, through the lens of apartheid, categorised, when everyone was separate? What is missing from the line is ‘make WHITE America great again’. It is absent in the imaginary text that everyone’s hearing.
But how then can a racist past be functionally retold and refolded into the present? The problem with history is that some of its very foundations – it archives and images – are always already toxic, reproducing rather than revealing its white lines.
For instance, the curator and producer Mark Sealy shows how existing fissures in the record of post-war black America is re-institutionalised over time. Sealy in working with the contact sheets of Wayne Miller’s Guggenheim-awarded Chicago work, of black mid-twentieth century living in the south side of Chicago, shows what didn’t make it into the American publications even and especially those published in this century. This includes images of black and white couples and those not focused on the conflict of the civil rights movement. Sealy urges us to confront the archive and its white curations to reveal a fuller and more nuanced view than photographic records afford; he calls for a new history of photography.
Thus the mistake of many of Trump’s critics (who the Atlantic calls the ‘first white president’) is to find too readily a stability and security through pre-Trump nostalgia. It is instead that the current view of a mainstream American past needs breaking to expose its racist reproductions over time and to illuminate this presidency as marking continuity rather than change.