Freedom and Remembrance: The Problem with Memorializing

September 18, 2016

If you walk through Rosslyn, Virginia, out of the tiny downtown and over the freeway, you can see the U.S. Marine Corp memorial at the trailhead of Arlington National Cemetery. Its surface is a life-sized relief of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Its base is inscribed with names of all the places the Marines have served, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. From Lebanon, where the U.S. helped rig an election in 1957, to Vietnam, where countless people lost their lives to prop up Diem’s failed puppet state, to Granada, where we did… only Reagan knows what.

We make memorials to honor the dead. What did any of these people die for? Some, for freedom. Some, for voter fraud and Vietnam. I want to honor our troops as much as anyone, but every time I look at that memorial, I can’t help but think that plenty of these soldiers died for a cause that didn’t deserve them. Maybe the whole point of a memorial is to remind us that there is  no honor in some deaths.

In November of last year, President John DeGioia, alongside the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, approved changes to the names of Mulledy and McSherry Halls, named after the Jesuits who presided over the sale of 272 slaves which funded Georgetown University. Almost a year later, more recommendations were announced, including renaming the buildings again, offering an official apology for the university’s tarnishing history with slavery, creating a memorial for the enslaved, and offering preference to any descendents of the original 272 who apply to Georgetown.

As a species, humans, and I think in particular Americans, have a knee-jerk reaction to injustice, or at least, the concept of it. Ironically, this is a big reason we’re so slow to change anything; positive reform requires acknowledging that we’ve let a wrong go unrighted, something we hate admitting. Better, easier, to just imagine the world is perfect as it is, which is probably why, in my own experience,  so many people are convinced that racism ended with MLK. And once we as a society do recognize an injustice, our country’s history with slavery being the most obvious, it’s anathema to us, as good people, to admit there’s a problem we can’t fix, that the institutions we have positive views of may be flawed or broken.

Herein lies the problem: everyone who was once involved is now dead. Mulledy, McSherry, and everyone sold in that horrible inhumane institution, all have been decomposing for the better part of two hundred years. If justice is a contract between aggressors and aggressed, then it’s long, long expired. And we can rename the buildings as many times as we like, but frankly, it does about as much to make up for the crimes of the past as would digging up the dead Jesuits and yelling at their bones. As a gesture, it’s pure symbolism. That’s not to say it’s unwelcome, or offensive, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking this represents any kind of real change.

So how to make amends for the university’s participation in the slave trade? You can’t. That ship has sailed and it’s never coming back. Now you can and should apply triage to address the effects slavery leaves on the community – poverty, crime, the school-to-prison pipeline, and so forth. And you can offer preferential treatment to applicants descended from the original slaves, which is something I support. But the rest of it – the apology, the memorial, the “Reconciliation”, the names on the buildings – it means nothing. It’s a  nice gesture, a little knee-jerk guilt assuaging, but it doesn’t fix the problem any more than the Emancipation Proclamation fixed it, or the Civil Rights Act fixed it. For the people who suffered it, nothing will fix it.

Maybe the solution isn’t to memorialize this. Maybe the only option we have is to let go. Not to deny our history, not to forget its legacy or neglect to fix the problems it left behind, but to accept that some injustices are so far in our past that they’re beyond our reach, rather than driving ourselves to a guilt-ridden frenzy over how to atone. The world, at least at Georgetown, has gotten undeniably better since Mulledy and McSherry. There are still problems that need our attention, there always will be, but that’s a burden shared by everyone in every country.

Yesterday was bleak. All we can do is come to terms with that, understand that we’re not the same people, and try to make tomorrow brighter.

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