Contested pasts: Memory's selective, misleading and emotional history

In the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a clever Queen says: “It is a strange sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Lewis Carroll created this fictional character in the late 19th century, the Victorian era during which a wide range of artists and scholars grappled with the relationship between the past and future, and between memory and identity. These and other “long-dead white dudes” deserve more attention in South Africa.

Insights into memory and reconciliation neither sprouted fully formed from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nor from other post-conflict “solutions” in the 20th century, but reflect issues as multifaceted as they are universal.

During the scramble for Africa, intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust and James Joyce all noted the importance of “collective” or “social” memories to the development of individual psyche, distinct cultures and to European nation-building writ large. Their writings, though often lambasted for reflecting the biases of the period, laid the foundation for subsequent research in memory studies, as well as nascent fields relevant to post-colonial Africa, such as transitional justice and identity politics.

Every culture, they showed, carries memories of oppression, discrimination and victimhood. For evidence, we need not just look to Europe. In the United States and many Latin American countries, for instance, a contested past resurfaces on Columbus Day every October 12, which commemorates the conquistador’s arrival in 1492 and the dawn of Spanish conquest of the so-called New World. Never mind the persistent inequalities felt by indigenous people: Columbus misnamed them “Indians”; now they are called “First Nations”.

In the South African context the past officially resurfaces on Heritage Day every September 24 and also in heated debates over race-based reparations, whiteness and songs like Kill the Boer.

The point is that memories blur clear-headed critiques of the present. But what about the future of memory? How will memories of oppression affect the future of the “rainbow nation”? Any answer is provocative because the past, without exception, is political. As numerous theorists have noted, public appeals to memory tend to be less about the past than the present, less about finding facts than identifying who may speak today about what “really” happened.

Inclusion and exclusion

Several common questions reflect this concern: Who is, and is not, interviewed on television for Columbus Day or Heritage Day? What pasts are included, or excluded, in memorials or museums? What street names should be changed and who makes these decisions?

The tendency to spotlight memories of factors once silent or ignored—workers and women, the poor and powerless—is meant to offer a valuable counternarrative, an opportunity to hear more “authentic truths” than are available in the academic discipline of “history”. This noble hearted goal should be celebrated and its tradition perpetuated in the future.

But the underlying assumptions deserve more critical examination. Are memories of lived experiences closer to the “truth” than history? Are memories more transparent, or devoid, of ideological, cultural, or political biases that riddle historical analysis?

The answer to both questions is a resounding “no”, as confirmed by Freud’s psychoanalysis and Proust’s “episode of the madeleine”. Part of what fascinated these thinkers is the fluidity of memory: the complex ways in which individuals represent and create, or recreate, their pasts to reflect contemporary needs or desires.

Retold in different ways to different audiences, memories of past traumas may be as inaccurate as they are contradictory. At the same time, however, memories are considered more democratic and inclusive than the academic discipline of “history”, as demonstrated by the paucity of professional historians involved in the 35 truth commissions conducted in the past two decades.

This is because “history”, in comparison with memory, suffers from a terrible reputation. From its origin the discipline has often masqueraded under a banner of “objective truth” and historians have supported myths that have at once sidelined, if not attacked, the oppressed and legitimated the oppressor. No matter how many “oral histories” collected, or the range of scholars consulted during research, historians face an inherent democratic deficit while also clinging to a “critical distance” from their subject matter.

For all its weaknesses, the discipline of history must still be sensitive to patterns and changes over time, accidents and causes and effects.

Multiple perspectives
History, in other words, requires at least some critical evaluation—of multiple perspectives, sources and unrealised possibilities—to make sense of what happened. Memories, meanwhile, exchange the head for the heart; they are far more tied to the individual than to context.

Precisely because personal recollections are deemed more “accurate” than history, the present circumstances that evoke memories—from tastes to feelings—tend to be obscured. This explains why, in the sociopolitical context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, some people remember Belgian colonialism with ambiguity, if not outright nostalgia.

An imminent danger is that memory will replace history in post-colonial Africa. When political elites have invoked memories of colonialism, the goal is clearly to sustain empathy for those who suffered, not to analyse the specific details of what happened, let alone consider continued patterns of inequality. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe comes to mind, but South Africa is far from “exceptional” on the continent in this regard. In South Africa, too, memory politics risk replacing critical histories, at everyone’s expense.

One consequence is that dissenting memories—those that do not fit within a collective, politically acceptable narrative—are discounted as “inauthentic,” “racist” and so on. A hegemonic memory, just like a hegemonic history, risks breeding more intolerance of “other” interpretations of the past. A second result is that a nuanced understanding of the present becomes impossible.

Colonialism, for instance, assumes more flavours of genocide than Christian missions, more racism than infrastructure development. What emerge are polarised views on whiteness and blackness, sexuality and religion, as anathema to the values enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution as they are to any vision of a cosmopolitan, multiracial future.

A recipe for unity?

Again, no past is apolitical and no memory without its context. Critical history boasts a far greater potential than memory to escape this impasse.

I remember an example—when my papa, furious after a guided tour of a Spanish mission in California, raised his hand. In his thick Spanish accent he sputtered: “I understand you Indians suffered under the Spanish. But did we not bring the Christianity you still practise; did we not protect your women from war; did we not teach you to read and bring new technology? Did we not do more for you than the Americans?”

I blushed in horror. The tour guide stayed silent for a moment and then, to my amazement, she agreed. Though she reiterated the suffering of her people, the Juaneno Indians, under the Spanish, Rosa explained that her goal was to present a history less obvious than the lasting legacies of the Spanish architecture and culture, street names and language in California.

She was, in fact, a graduate student in history.

That day, she taught me that we each remember differently, a recipe for more division than unity.

Critical history, unlike memory, offers us an opportunity to empathise with “others”, those who feel, act, look and think differently from anything “familiar” in our own lives. Critical history gives us an opportunity to explore the connections, failures and successes alike, of a common humanity. The future needs more of Rosa’s historical analysis, less of my father’s sentiment, to avoid repeating the mistakes of our ancestors—black, white and everything in-between.

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