Remembering the absences of history

This week in North Philly Notes, Roger Aden, author of Upon the Ruins of Liberty, writes about how absences in history can yield surprising tensions and stories.

I was reading a story the other day about a former college basketball coach who had in his possession an immensely valuable historical document: the text used by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963. Stunningly, the most memorable portion of the speech did not appear in the text. Instead of concluding his remarks as planned, King both ad-libbed and drew upon previous orations as he shared his dream with the nation. The coach’s prized possession thus gains much of its symbolic power not just from its provenance, but also from the striking absence of language that still resonates in memory half a century later.

Our nation’s stories are full of absences. While we rightfully treasure historical artifacts in which powerful remnants of the past are embedded, we also tightly grasp the stories, memories, and events which remain meaningful to us even if we have few, if any, physical reminders of them. That’s what makes the stories of the President’s House site in Independence National Historical Park so compelling for me. Here, on the front porch of a new building dedicated to remembering and displaying one of our nation’s most treasured historical icons (the Liberty Bell), and less than a block away from a colonial-era structure in which the Declaration of Independence was approved, lies the site in which the revered George Washington dodged Pennsylvania law to ensure that the enslaved Africans toiling in the executive mansion in Philadelphia remained in bondage to him and his wife. We have little physical evidence about the lives of those enslaved Africans nor have we historically devoted many resources to telling the stories of any enslaved Africans in the national commemorative landscape, yet those stories have nonetheless lingered on the periphery of national memory. The excavation of these stories at the President’s House provided powerful reminders that the seemingly absent is always present and that our national embrace of liberty was imperfectly enacted—even in its birthplace.

Aden_2.inddIn Upon the Ruins of Liberty, I explore how this tension between absences and presences manifested itself throughout the development of the site. From the park’s initial reluctance to disrupt its relatively seamless stories of the triumph of liberty and the potency of American exceptionalism, to the dedicated efforts of historians, community activists, and dedicated political leaders to give a presence to the stories of liberty denied, even the initial controversy about how to handle Edward Lawler, Jr.’s discoveries about the site and all of its inhabitants sparked a great deal of soul-searching about the inclusion and exclusion of stories in the park, the commemorative landscape, and the nation’s history. Both the inertia of history and the passion of those whose stories have lingered on the edges of that history starkly emerged in the early stages of the controversy about what to do with Lawler’s revelations.

Nor did the inertia and passion dissipate during, and ever after, the completion of the first federal site dedicated to telling the stories of slavery. Every step in the project’s development—deciding what to do at the site, picking a design for a memorial installation, revising that design after the surprising results of an excavation revealed remnants of the original structure, and telling the stories within the design—featured discussions about how to make present, in the national historical park nicknamed “the cradle of liberty,” the absences of the past. I explore those tensions in Upon the Ruins of Liberty, while drawing upon the insights of those intimately involved with the project and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering which led to the site’s development as it stands today. And, because the stories of history are always open-ended, I illustrate how the completed site remains a place of controversy because of what it includes and excludes in its telling of history. The President’s House site and, I hope, the book which tells the story of its development prod us to remember that the absences of history are not forgotten, but nor are they easily integrated into narratives which possess the inertia of centuries of sharing. The story of the quest for liberty in America, as Dr. King reminded us, is a story we should continue to embrace, while we also work to make present and remember all such quests pursued by the people of the United States.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: