Marking a Nation
Isabel Nieves: The way in which we operate is defined in large part by our memories. Memory is a core component of the human identity. In this show we hope to explore the nuances of this fundamental aspect of our brains. These conversations aimed to illustrate the strengths, weaknesses, and mysteries surrounding remembering and forgetting. I'm Isabel Nieves and I'm Tanner Chaille and this is Remembering and Forgetting, a podcast by Themester. Even though there might not be a physical reminder of it, our history is all around us. Most of the time what part of history we decide to remember is subjective. On this episode I talked with Alex Lichtenstein about his book Marked Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American History and marked and unmarked landscapes that remind us of our nation's past. On this episode of the semester podcast, we have Alex Lichtenstein. He is a professor of history at Indiana University who has done an extensive amount of research on memory and forgetting in terms of sites that we commemorate, whether we leave them marked unmarked, remembered or forgotten. I'll be asking a lot of questions coming out of your book Marked Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American History and then a few from some of the writings that you've done for different studies. So, in your book you talk a lot about remembering unsavory landscapes, sites where traumatic episodes of certain groups have happened. Why should we remember these unsavory landscapes? Why is it important to do so for our nation's history?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, as you know, remembering the past is often an exercise in hey geography and championing the great march or freedom or focusing on particular historical figures, statues, sculptures, statues that you want to remember, generals and other heroic or supposedly heroic figures. Uh, so those sort of commemorations often hide the past, right? They hide the fact that the march of progress, whether it be westward expansion or American democracy, often came at a set of social costs for victims of those developments are including native peoples, including workers and especially in the United States, including African-Americans. So, on the one hand, I think too much of our commemorative statuary and physical landscape commemorates as well as forgets certain aspects of the past. So that needs to be corrected. Um, yeah, so I would say, you know, that's a false past and it's much better to come to terms with the past and all of its messiness and cruelty and contradictions to simply erect a false image.
Isabel Nieves: Why do you think that we're creating this false image and creating this false past and trying to forget certain traumatic episodes?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, I mean, all societies, not just the United States wants to tell itself a nice story about its national past and that's to be expected. But I do think that there's a tendency in societies that have been racked by social conflict, whether it be civil war racism and white supremacy, colonialism or the Holocaust, uh, run the danger of forgetting the costs of the past or forgetting the pain of the past. And that's a, not necessarily a positive way to engage in moving forward into a more equal and just and democratic future. So on the one hand, it's a natural tendency. I think to create a heroic pass for your nation, but one does. So at the peril to truth really in the United States in particular I think has been especially bad at remembering, right. So that we'd glorify him. And again, the debate around the confederate statues has been the most visible and obvious example in the past couple of years. Right? So certain people get glorified and perhaps they do not even deserve to be glorified within a national past and other parts of the past get hidden because they're uncomfortable to discuss.
Isabel Nieves: Yeah. And I think that's interesting because a lot of the debates on, um, confederate statues, confederate flags, a lot of people weren't aware of that history. So it just shows how well, um, uh, at least leaders are pushing this false history. Um, or really just a lot of family memories of what those, um, events with those people, uh, kind of meant to them. Um, but all these other people are just now learning about this history.
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, the problem with putting the past into public is that it generates a set of different kinds of responses and it's hard to know who has the right to adjudicate that response. So for example, right now in San Francisco, there's a big debate going on. One of the thing that was quite similar to the one here at a u around the Klan Mural in Woodburn hall. Uh, there's a beautiful mural from the 1930s in a public high school in San Francisco that George Washington high school that portrays Washington, I would say in a rather critical light, for example, as someone who advocated and was, you know, a slave owner himself or someone who advocated westward expansion at the expense of native peoples. When that mural was painted, it was really a counter narrative to a heroic portrayal of Washington. Today, students of color in that high school won it, painted over because they say it's, they find denigrating. I'm not sure how one adjudicates those, those, uh, whether one goes with how depictions of the past make people feel or whether one needs to be more aware of an accurate rendition of the intention of that commemoration. Clearly with confederate statuary, the explicit intention when those statues were erected on every southern courthouse lawn across the, the south, it was designed to embody and glorify the lost cause of slavery and to justify the current cause when those things were put up of white supremacy. So there's really no argument in terms of the intention, no matter how much people want to say, well, it's just my heritage. That's my family. I'm proud of that. Why shouldn't I be that is a, that negates the actual intention of how, when and why those things were put up.
Isabel Nieves: What are the implications? Um, and maybe that's a strong word to use, but what are the implications if we don't challenge memories, um, or traumatic episodes of our nation's past?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, I think the danger is that we move forward with a false image of what America looks like and looked like. And therefore it makes it much more difficult to incorporate the diversity and richness of current American life. If we don't understand the history of slavery and white supremacy, it makes it much more difficult to live honestly in a, an interracial and racially egalitarian society. If we don't accept that westward expansion, uh, it wasn't just, you know, the conquering of the frontier, but actually included genocide of native peoples. If we don't recognize that, then we can't recognize current practices, which might, for instance, a reprise those things if we don't admit that there were concentration camps in the United States during World War II and these are commemorated, right, the Japanese American internment camps, uh, it makes it more difficult for us to come to grips with the fact that we now have concentration camps on the border of the United States with Mexico. So it's really a question of being honest about the past. So we can be honest about the present.
Isabel Nieves: After completing Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American memory, what, um, out of all the sites that you documented, um, either marked or unmarked, um, which ones stood out to you the most or the one that interested you the most?
Alex Lichtenstein: Now I should say for those people who haven't seen the book that the book is as much a, a documentation of my brother Andrew's photography as it is my, a recapitulation of the site. So that the, to the degree that we present historical sites marked unmarked or remembered in this book, we present them visually through the lens of my brother's camera. The one image that sticks with me is one that's in the section called remembered. And our point there is that, um, the meaning we give to physical locations of the past takes place through social action takes place through people's interaction with the spots. For example, this wasn't, isn't my favorite one necessarily, but, uh, there's an amazing photograph he took of confederate, commemorate hers, uh, celebrating, I guess it was, um, Jefferson Davis's birthday or maybe inauguration, uh, celebration, the a hundred and 50th in 2011 and he got a photograph of three women dressed in confederate dress who happened to be sitting on the bench that Rosa parks sat on in 1955 when she boarded the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. So that's a powerful symbol of sort of how these places are contested. But the image that sticks with me as one from 2016 and that was a moment in which the mayor of Waco, Texas made a public apology for lynching that took place in that town in 1916. The lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. And the image is very powerful because it's not a photograph of an atrocity. It's a photograph of the descendants of Jesse Washington peering up at the balcony from which the, uh, photographs of that lynching had been taken a hundred years before the balcony, which also happened to be attached to city hall. So, uh, to me this was, and is a photograph at a place that suggests that remembering can carry with it redemption, not necessarily forgiveness, but coming to account with the past, an apology on the part of the white mayor of this town. And, uh, I'm not an acceptance of the apology, at least an acknowledgement by the descendants of Jesse Washington that someone had, had, uh, admitted that this place was, uh, traumatic ground for black people in this town and our memory of a terrible atrocity. So that to me remains a powerful image. Yeah.
Isabel Nieves: When I was, um, reading your book and I was looking at the images, I think what really stood out to me where the images, um, about labor history, um, specifically, um, the Fisher body plant in Flint, Michigan. Right. And that's because, um, last summer I actually went to Detroit, Michigan, um, for a conference and I, I did a tour on one of the plants there. And which one do you remember? I'm not sure. Rouge, probably. Yeah, probably. It was in east Detroit. And, um, even just going on that tour, you can see all of the huge houses, you know, where, um, and these in these factories, these buildings where labor was booming and those houses show the prosperity of Americans because of these, um, because of industry. And I would say that, you know, Detroit, Michigan in and of itself is an unmarked but seen, um, landscape of failed industrialism within the US and the same within Flint, Michigan and in the area. And I live in, um, the region in northwest Indiana, super close to Gary. And it's the same thing. You, you see the steel mills that are abandoned the huge houses. Um, yeah. And I definitely saw or found that the labor history, um, that's what was super interesting to me. And the, I feel like that was more of like the modern labor history. You also, um, document and, um, show through photos, um, like agricultural history. Um, I remember seeing a picture of a cotton field and, um, you know, the, the southern slave economy. Why do you as a historian believed that remembering Labor history is important? Because of course it's important to remember, um, the traumatic episodes that, uh, the indigenous people of the nation went through. And also African Americans. Why do you also think that Labor history was an important topic to decide?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, in part it's because I am a labor historian. That is, that's what my own scholarship is about. I write the history of, of workers and laborers and particularly their struggles for social and economic justice. So that's something that's important to me as a historian. Uh, secondly, it leaves pretty remarkable sites on the land, as you're noting, right? Big factories, you know, housing complexes, uh, environmental scars. In the case of places like West Virginia, we have some photographs that they're of West Virginia. Um, and it's, and, but I think most importantly, it's to recognize that the prosperity that these places signal, that is the one time prosperity when Detroit was so the so called arsenal of the world, right? Arsenal of the free world rested on, on struggles, struggles of working people. So that image that you note of Flint, Michigan isn't just about industrial decline, although it certainly is of that, right? It's a parking lot where our factory used to be, but a site at which there was a heroic struggle of auto workers to build, uh, the United automobile workers against the opposition of General Motors and the business class. And that, that successful struggle actually is what promoted the prosperity, how auto workers over the next generation were able to send their children to college and, you know, buy their own homes and live decent, decently a sort of a world that is beginning to fade away now materially as well, you know, and economically as well. And in the southern case, all right, pictures of cotton fields, although the one you're referring to actually as a way of illustrating the murder lynching of Emmett till in Mississippi in 1955. Um, but to note that the Jim crow system of segregation and white supremacy structured the southern social order was rested on an economic order, which is, you know, dates back to slavery and economic order that that depended on the labor of a black people on, in cotton fields and many other industries as well. So I think labor history is a particularly, it's physical remains are everywhere, right? Many of these sites are very specific to, you know, a particular racial atrocity, a battle between native people in the army, uh, internment camps. But Labor history is, is really every community in this country has a labor history, right? As an abandoned factory. W now usually a Condo, uh, like the one in, uh, Lawrence, Massachusetts, right? It's just now a shopping complex as a site of this incredible struggle that went on there a hundred years ago. I remember having a student once from Lawrence, Massachusetts and she said, Oh yeah, you know, my, uh, my grandparents worked in the textile mills, but I never heard about the strike of 1912 that's in the community in which she grew up. So these pasts get buried even though they're physical reminders of them everywhere. So by pointing out the physical reminder, we hope that people like you, we'll take a look at these places, either as a tourist or just as someone walking down the street and ask themselves about the past. I mean, particularly Northwest Indiana is a really amazing place. That whole stretch of mills and other industrial sites from Gary all the way up to the south side of Chicago, not all of which is abandoned. There's still working mills there, but they're amazing sites. They're one that we didn't take a photograph of, but that we wanted to do is the, um, Memorial Day massacre, 1937 strike against republic steel. And I forget how many, nine, 10, 11 workers were killed by the police. There's a physical site, they're right on the Indiana Chicago border, which I want to go look at some time.
Isabel Nieves: I feel like a lot of the events that were covered, um, all relate back to the growth of the nation. No matter how unsavory the landscapes are, it all leads back to how the nation grew. Um, and, and you would think that's important to, to remember, um, because how did we get here? But there's these false memories, um, which, which doesn't necessarily accurately portray that growth.
Alex Lichtenstein: I think that's a really important observation. So, I mean, sort of the three axes of our, of our, we had marked unmarked remembered, but the themes that we focused on primarily were, uh, native American history, labor history and African American history. Uh, and all three of those histories I think are histories of the costs of growth, right? Westward expansion as pris is presented often as this great march of civilization westward onto the frontier. Uh, but in fact, of course native peoples paid an enormous cost for that form of so called progress. Ditto with industrialization, which provided, uh, you know, our modern economy all to the good, but the social costs to working people was, was very high. And obviously, uh, in the United States, economic growth has depended very heavily but unacknowledged on the history of slavery in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th. So calling attention, I guess to the costs of the heroic march forward of growth is really essential. Uh, the one sort of theme that we considered doing and we just left out of the book was environmental history, right? And that strikes me as particularly important. Right now as I'm speaking, I gathered Trump is giving a speech about what a great environmental steward he is. It's almost laughable, but, uh, but the point is, is, you know, if we don't reckon with the costs, the environmental costs of growth, it makes it very, very hard to contemplate how we have to change what we understand as economic growth and a healthy economy in the less we're going to tank the entire planet in the next generation. So, um, so there are two, I think, you know, it's recognizing that the costs of progress that matters.
Isabel Nieves: Do you think that there is a certain way that we go about, um, you know, as Americans and as Americans dealing with these memories of traumatic episodes in our history, do you think that there's a certain way that we go about remembering events of violence and tragedy?
Alex Lichtenstein: Unfortunately, yes. Uh, you know, again, I think it's natural to try and hero a size one's national past and this is all something all societies do, but there are other societies that have had particularly violent or traumatic past that have managed to come to grips with it in a positive way. There are two in particular that I know, well, uh, South Africa where I spend a lot of time and uh, and Germany where I've spent some time in, in Berlin in particular. And these are two examples of societies that have tried I think fairly successfully actually to write into their memories and to physically create a set of sites and memorials that represent the difficult parts of their past in Germany, obviously the Holocaust, uh, and the war itself in South Africa of system of segregation and white supremacy, unfortunately similar to that in the United States, they're light years ahead of the United States in terms of coming to grips with that. Um, so, um, so the United States I guess has a lot of work to do in terms of what in the South African case is called Truth and reconciliation. Right. And we have very little acknowledgement. I mean increasingly, obviously historians put this forward, but very little acknowledgement of the painful parts of our past. Um, I'm not sure why that's a particularly bad American habit, but I do think the United States stands out, um, as a country that rested very heavily on slavery but is particularly reluctant to acknowledge that in public forums. I mean, it's remarkable. The, again, I hate to go back to and I always pick on the confederacy, but it is remarkable. I mean the last time I went to the Mississippi Delta, there's a wonderful site there, which is the recreation of the courtroom in which the murders of Emmett till, this is a 15 year old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for looking the wrong way at a white woman. And the people lynched him. Everyone in the community knew who it was. All white jury there acquitted the courtroom and the courthouse are still there. And a group of black and white citizens in this town, tiny, tiny town in the Mississippi Delta have worked to recreate the courtroom. And you can walk in there and you can almost feel the ghost of this trial, a very important trial nationally in terms of putting civil rights on the national stage. And then you step out of the courtroom and back onto the city square town square. And you noticed standing right in front of it, still there, built in 1903 is a confederate monument to, you know, the confederate dead. It's still there. Um, so that's pretty astounding. That would be like going to, you know, see typography of terror in the center of Berlin and stepping out to see a, you know, a statue of Himmler or something. And, uh, it's just, it's completely, uh, at odds with the attempt to create a different set of memories. So that's quite peculiar. And in the United States, I think in that case it's a regional, there was a civil war, there's still disagreement about its causes and its nature. That is the section south. The North don't always agree about this. So that's one aspect of it. Um, I guess I'm still struggling to explain why the United States is so reluctant as a collectivity to come to grips with the painful parts of our past. But we are, and I think compared to Germany and South Africa, it really stands out.
Isabel Nieves: So it seems like, you know, although the United States has a lot of work to do, we're making these, um, these slow improvements to, you know, accurately remember, um, unsettling parts of our history such as the courtroom trying to recreate it, but then going out and seeing a confederate statue that seems like, yeah, there's a, there's a lot of, um, great work being done, but there's like these contradictions. Yeah. Um, within these memories, what do you think, um, are the implications of those contradictions?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, on the one hand, one could argue I wouldn't in the case such as cider, but one could argue that, you know, the past is messy and people's memories of it and attachment to it are differential. There's not always, nor should, there always be agreement. The past requires dialogue in different points of views. So that's potentially a good, but sometimes when those points of view just seem so diametrically opposed, one wonders how they can share the same public space. So I don't have an answer to that. I mean, some of the best museums, that one goes to put these things into dialogue and recognizes that, you know, they're, they're different, uh, accounts of the past, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently in Mississippi. Um, now there are two wings to the State Museum. One wing focuses on the heroic phases of the civil rights movement. It's very powerful. It's a fantastic museum. The other wing is sort of about Mississippi history and it's relatively unchanged. It celebrates Mississippi history in a rather uncritical way. Failing to acknowledge that Mississippi history is entirely bound up with white supremacy. There's no other way to understand the history of the state. Um, but that side is still narrated as if, you know, it's just this ordinary state past being, you know, marching forward, uh, weather displacement of native Americans or enslavement of African Americans. It's just an incident in that past, not a central element of it. So those are incommensurate past and I'm not sure how they can be reconciled. Um, on the other hand, yeah, I mean sometimes I think dialogue or contradictory understandings of the past is inevitable and perhaps even useful. So, um, I'm not sure how to adjudicate that, but I think that that's what trying to think about public history is all about, is figuring out ways of, of coming up with mixed messages that are both understandable and not offensive. And again, this the, the example I started with the mural in San Francisco painted as a critique of the American past. Now understood locally as somehow indeed the school board people testifying before the school board said this mural was painted by a colonialist designed to, you know, denigrate native American and black people. Actually it was painted by a communist who disagreed with the national narrative of heroic George Washington and was trying to rewrite it with his art. So does his intention matter or is it only the way that people interpret this image today? That matters? I don't have an easy answer to that actually.
Isabel Nieves: What do you think students at Indiana University can do to open this dialogue, um, about, you know, remembered and unremembered forgotten, remembered and forgotten, um, landscapes, um, that build our history, our nation's history. What do you think that we as students can do to open up this dialogue more?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, the Glib answers take a history class, but uh, that's just propaganda for my department. Uh, the reason I would say take two history class though was something you could do just on your own, which is to just as you, again, you were describing when you went to Detroit, make yourself more aware of your surroundings. What are you looking at? Every single place you go in this country has some aspect of the past written on it physically, even if it's not marked right, the Ho houses that you pass, you know, people live there decades, centuries ago. The graveyards that you pass, there are people buried there. I mean there's this little, I live on the east side of town and there's this kind of new housing development that's been going up there and there's a tiny little graveyard there which has been fenced off. And if you go in there, you notice that, uh, there were people who fought and died in the civil war and I know we're in southern Indiana, but they died fighting for the union. So someone flying a confederate flag in southern Indiana, I might want to go look at that graveyard to see that some of their ancestors actually might've fought against the confederacy. That's a nice example. So I think it's a way, it's, it's a question of being aware of your physical surroundings and recognizing that they embody a past that goes back long before your lifetime. And if my brother and I wanted to accomplish anything in this book, it was just encouraged people to look around them and to recognize that the physical past, even in a place where it appears to be obliterated a, such as a factory that's been torn down, it's still there in some way, shape or form. And the more that we can be aware of that, the more we're able to, to reflect upon and reckon with that past or so I hope.
Isabel Nieves: Um, the one last thing that I wanted to mention, and that actually ties in perfectly with what you just said about being able to recognize your surroundings. I'm not sure if you're aware of the history of people's park--
Alex Lichtenstein: Which part of the history, the, uh, the black, uh, owned a shop that was there and was burnt down by the clan in 1969 or 1970?
Isabel Nieves: That exact history. And how, you know, we commemorate, we do commemorate the park, um, in, um, a different way and we commemorate it in a remembrance of antiwar protestors. But why do you think we don't commemorate what used to what used to stand there even before that?
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, a less heroic story, right? Less narrative, a narrative that is rather shameful rather than something that the community wants to be proud of, which is anti-war era. How is the antiwar protest commemorated there? Is there a plaque?
Isabel Nieves: Um, I think that, I mean the, the whole reason that they called it people's park, um, was to commemorate a protest that happened. I lead in San Francisco, Berkeley, Berkeley. Yeah. Um, for these anti-war protesters. And, um, I think eventually the town of Bloomington ended up acquiring the park, but, um, they, and they continue to call it people's park, but I'm not sure if there's a plaque there, but, um, I just recently found out about that and I was like, how come? No one, no one's remembering this. Um, and even like some of the building names.
Alex Lichtenstein: Well, right. I mean if students wanted to do something, uh, locally and productive, they could investigate the names of the buildings. You don't want to know who Jordan Hall is named after, for example. But yeah, someone who on the one hand, very important figure historically, but had some rather unsavory ideas about race and genetics, if I recall. Right. So, um, and this is something that's going on in a lot of university campuses. University of Minnesota is having a big discussion about, you know, which people buildings on it. It's amazing how I have to say that. Thinking about my own education. So I was an undergraduate at Yale University, which famously or infamously has a college which is sort of like a dorm called Calhoun College, which is named after John C. Calhoun, the pro slavery senator from the 19th century. I had no idea when I was a student there that Calhoun college was linked to this pro slavery ideologue and students recently objected to this and got the name of the college changed, which is pretty interesting. Uh, also interesting though is how deeply some alumni dug in their heels and said, no, we want this to still be Calhoun College. It's not as if it was named Calhoun College in the 1830s when Calhoun was a respected senator, even though, or maybe because he was a pro slavery advocate, it was named after him in the 1930s. So you have to ask yourself, well, why was this a moment in which southerners were feeling particularly at odds with the northern liberalism at Yale? And so they decided to sort of show their muscle by naming this Calhoun College. I don't know, but someone could do research on that. So it really is not just a question. We have this idea that somehow these monuments or buildings are named and that write something into stone, although sometimes it does. Uh, but we never questioned why they were named that at a particular moment. Sometimes it was to glorify people, but sometimes it was to glorify rather unsavory characteristics of people.
Isabel Nieves: Yeah. I, I think that you would agree that if you're an IU student listening to this or even just a member of the faculty or a member of the community, look up the true history of People's Park and look in again, like you said, look into, um, the names of the buildings at Indiana University or, um, even that cemetery. That's something that you could do locally to try to make yourself aware of these landscapes. Um, and to get a better and more accurate look of our history. Even just even here in this town as well in the, in the RCA plant that is now closed. Unsavory events in our history and may be hard for us to want to remember, but it is important to do so. For the present state of our history. If you enjoyed this talk, professor looked in. Stein is teaching the semester course, Civil Rights and Freedom Summer this fall. Remembering and Forgetting is a podcast produced for Themester at IU. Special thanks to IU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Tracy Bee, Ken Smith, and The Media School for today’s episode. Music for this episode by Jack Brown. For more discussions on memory surrounding the tragedies of the Holocaust, the mysteries of brain science, and more, check out the rest of Remembering and Forgetting. Thank you for listening.