A Dream Realized

The opening of Washington, D.C.’s new Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday, September 24, occurring as it did in the same week as police shootings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte, captured perfectly the mixture of grief and dignified struggle that has defined the African American story.

The juxtaposition was obvious to all.  We carried it inside us as we shared in the realization of a long-held dream to see the African American story honored in a central spot in our nation’s capital. President Obama underlined that the museum would not cure the racial ills of the United States. But, he said, the museum’s exhibits “can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly see each other.”

The new museum, with its distinctive architecture described by the New York Times as an “inverted ziggurat,” stands close to the familiar obelisk of the Washington Monument, within view of the site of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech and of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that provided King his setting,

The day of the museum inauguration was a day when we thought a lot about dreams. Many who spoke that day referenced the poem of Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Hughes spoke for African Americans in the twentieth century. In recent years a new swath of African American writers have eloquently confronted us with the continuing deferral of African Americans’ dignity in American society: Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Edward Baptist, (The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns). Black Lives Matter has gotten the word out about the kind of acts that have been rife ever since the ending of slavery but that have been treated with denial and callousness.

The opening of the museum was not so much an explosion as a jubilant acknowledgment that the African American story is and always was central to the American story. The ongoing struggles make that affirmation more meaningful, give it an edge, remind us that the battle for the world we aspire to is never won, is fought daily.

And somehow or other, I, and, I believe, many, many of us, felt drawn in last Saturday, knowing we were all part of this story. The story sends out a shaft of light that pierces our ongoing protections and defenses, that brings us alive, that teaches us what it means to love and engage.

Attending a concert of spirituals at Washington’s National Cathedral earlier in the week that was held in honor of the museum opening, I sat down beside a young black man and we introduced ourselves. “My name is Efram,” he said. “Pronounced like A-frame,” he added. I said my name was Margaret. The concert began, and I saw that Efram was looking up each of the songs on his i-phone so that he could follow the words. “Nobody knows the trouble I see,” “Take my hand, precious Lord,” “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” – songs of resistance, of acknowledgement of deep emotions trampled, of separation of mothers and children, of exodus, of pleas for deliverance. When the audience was welcomed to join in, Efram shared his i-phone with me. It turned out that he had been born in Ethiopia. None of these songs was familiar to him, but he wanted to know them.  Leaning in towards each other, we sang the three verses of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” reaching our heads higher for the crescendos as if we had been doing this together for all of time.

Book Review: David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting

David Rieff is not the only writer discussing the current history-memory “boom” to propose that “forgetting” might have some social advantages over “remembering.” His book, In Praise of Forgetting, published earlier this year, is the most recent in a genre of literature that asks us to fine tune our assumptions that more knowledge of the past offers liberation or healing.

Reiff’s book is a complex reflection on matters of memory. Early in the book he cites Ecclesiastes 1:11 (“No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them”), alerting us to the possibility that all efforts to uphold memory and history imply an unfounded romanticism about the enduring value of the past.   But this is not Reiff’s real point, for he recognizes that human beings order their experience around memory and history, even if such efforts turn out to be shortlived.

Neither is Reiff questioning the importance of addressing war crimes in the immediate aftermath of conflict, especially crimes that were kept secret by a regime. That said, he recognizes that the longer the delay in revealing such secrets, the less satisfying is apology, or by implication, redress.

In arguing for less memory rather than more, Rieff underlines that ending impunity can sometimes have negative consequences, which, he says, is contrary to the message spread these days by the human rights establishment. His case in point is the Dayton agreement, ending the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. A “just” ending of the war would have meant prolonging the war. The decision to allow Bosnian Serbs to retain most of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina they had seized through “ethnic cleansing” was a recognition that the best was the enemy of the good: ending the war was a more important goal than achieving true justice.

Reiff’s main target is collective memory – the process by which groups assert social identification – and the romanticism and nostalgia that this has created in Israel, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Armenia, to name a few. Collective memory is a product of social and political forces, and therefore is never a truly accurate rendition of what actually occurred in the past. Reiff argues that collective memory is usually false and often dangerous.

This argument pushes back against a late twentieth century tide of interest in collective memory that Rieff understands well. He captures the way that the Holocaust has elevated “memory” or “remembrance” to a form of justice. This is understandable in the face of an event where almost no justice in the legal sense of the word was possible.

Likewise, Rieff captures the way that the translation of Maurice Halbwach’s book Collective Memory into English from the original French in the 1980s provided new openings for exploration of the power of group memory in society.   Halbwachs’ book, first published in 1925, has been used to legitimize the validity of substate group identifications in an era when the power of the state to define national identity has been on the wane.

Rieff also captures the ongoing discussion about the difference between history and memory. Today memory, the living remembrances of individuals, has won the preferred position over history, the written record that remains after all who lived through the events have passed on. Thus story telling, even if not vetted for its objectivity or fact-based rendering, has moved center stage in current culture. And concerns about accuracy, whether in such movies as Selma and The Imitation Game, or even in some local history endeavors, have been reduced to second place.

In the face of conflicting tides and whirlpools of debate that feed the memory boom, Reiff cuts through the sentimentality about collective memory. The political purposes that hold memory hostage and the illusions that collective memory produces do indeed raise the question whether the caché currently accorded all memory is such a good thing. As Reiff proposes, in a number of cases Santayana’s aphorism that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” may well have become displaced as a moral imperative by Nietzsche’s “active forgetting.”

But forgetting is not easy to bring about, especially in our era of democratized communication. Moreover, memory is an important source of meaning making in rapidly changing times such as those we live in. The question whether we can find a morality of memory to fit our age is one that Rieff only partially examines. He does not reference the literature of forgiveness or restorative justice. But he does propose that we cut through the cant in the exploration of this important area of human experience.




























It could be that the rapid in which we live enlivens our interest in memory because we feel the need to anchor our sense of things and impose meaning on a world that challenges previous definitions. in the 1 believed that collective memory supported our hope for progress. Margalit expanded on this idea: memory, he said, allows us to hope that all is not meaningless.


Here is diverges somewhat from


Reiff is


In the peacebuilding world, we have long recognized the short term inter-relationship between peace and justice in post-war countries – that more of one implies less of the other. Another aphorism that reigns in post-conflict peacebuilding is that one the long term you cannot have true and lasting peace without justice. This latter proposition, argues David Rieff, comes from the human rights community, whose endeavors are framed with reference to the law. The call for justice is a call for remembering, to the point that remembrance is at often synonymized with justice. And certainly, in the immediate aftermath of war crimes, justice cannot be side-stepped.


But Reiff raises the question whether the human rights community has served us well.

Elie Wiesel, my teacher

Tributes to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the days since his death last week recognize a great humanitarian and a courageous spokesman but also an individual whose eyes never ceased to reveal the haunting nature of his personal experience of the Nazi crimes of 1933 to 1945. He reached beyond his own people, offering all of us ways to speak about those terrible events, and held a flame against the dark temptation to be silent. His going marks a rite of passage, forcing us to recognize that in coming decades fewer people will be alive who remember the Holocaust as a personal experience, and at some point those events will pass from living memory.

In the autumn of 1986, during my final year as an undergraduate in the Boston University history department, I enrolled in a class called The Literature of Memory, taught by Wiesel. He traveled once a week from his home in New York to Boston to teach the class. Several weeks into the semester, news came that our professor had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which brought TV cameras into our classroom and reminded us, if any of us needed reminding, that our professor was a person who spoke on a global stage.

Clearly, the purpose of the class was to engage with the Holocaust. As most of the students in the class were Jewish and I was a person of Christian background, The Literature of Memory supplied my first experience of being immersed in the collective Jewish worldview. I had had close Jewish friends over the years, but they had not been able to convey to me what this class conveyed. The experience of the class showed me how something you already think you know can mature into to new level of awareness. I was probably far more aware than the average gentile of the details of the events of the 1930s and the Second World War. I was far less aware of possible ways to reflect on the meaning of those events.

I encountered for the first time pushback from real people against the notion that Jews had killed Jesus. Intellectually I knew that this was a problem with John’s gospel. And I had appreciated that Jews of the twentieth century would object to being called Christ-killers, not only because the notion suggested that something that happened twenty centuries earlier had contemporary relevance, but because it was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews. I assumed that the idea that Jews killed Jesus grew from the fact that the crowd that called for Jesus to die and Barabbas to live had been Jewish, even if it was the Romans who orchestrated the crucifixion. But to say such a thing in this particular group was not acceptable and exposed me as the shallow and naïve gentile I clearly was for failing to understand the full weight of 2,000 years of Jewish fury at being dubbed beyond the pale of acceptance because of their so-called role in killing Jesus.

But the principal message I absorbed from Wiesel’s class, viscerally if not directly, was that if there was ever to be an event in history that would defy Christian notions of forgiveness, the Holocaust was surely that event. An appeal to forgiveness in the face of such acts was surreal. This was not a situation where statements like “We are all human,” “We all commit errors” could possibly seem appropriate. By being in Wiesel’s class I was allowed to feel this truth in the marrow of my bones.

Wiesel’s class thus freed me from the inner requirement to defend my inherited Christian principles and forced me to examine them afresh. It allowed me to drill down to the place where I could say that something that had occurred was unacceptable and leave it at that. I no longer had to rationalize the unacceptable into being less than totally unacceptable because the doctrine of forgiveness required this of me. I began to recognize how this aspect of my Christian culture had the power to undermine my passion in the face of needed social change, and could devolve into denial, setting up and supporting elaborate superstructures to conceal the uneasiness that truth introduces. Forgiveness, certainly an option, could never again, after Wiesel’s class, be, for me, a moral requirement.

Wiesel suggests in the introduction to Night, that the Holocaust actually changed the world’s consciousness about God, for clearly God is not all-powerful if God allows such a thing to happen. “…I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity,” he says, “whose revelation was to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.” Wiesel perceived that the hegemony of widespread assumptions about God was undermined by the Holocaust. God, if God existed at all, would have to be discovered differently.

I recognized, by spending a few hours a week in close proximity to Wiesel, something of the struggle for meaning once a person has been pulled into the undertow of the world’s evil. For Wiesel, what redemption was possible came through testimony. As a student of history myself, I had often heard quoted Santana’s warning that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. But Santana had never seemed to capture the issues well for me. Too often, precisely, those who remember hang on to patterns of thought that predispose them to repeat history. Remembering in order to prevent similar actions in the future was, for me, a discredited idea.

Wiesel was saying something different from Santana. We witness, he said, because there are times when witnessing is all we have. “I decided,” he said, “to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead.  And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”  When facing a choice between “history,” the written record endorsed by the hierarchy – the official narrative – and “memory” – the personal narrative – Wiesel chose “memory,” and he regarded memory as the essence of morality. “Memory,” for Wiesel, was not unreliable. It was not poetry. “Memory,” for Wiesel, meant testifying to the facts of the case. Even though he will have a place in history as a man who contributed hugely to the collective memory of the Holocaust, his life and teaching point us away from the current fashion to reify manufactured collective memory, instead locating truth in the lived experience of the individual.



What meaning should we take from President Obama’s Hiroshima visit?

A month has passed since President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, but the discussion continues. A Japanese friend of mine wrote to me Monday saying that The Japan Times earlier this week had a full page Readers Forum entitled “What do you think about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima?” Comments in this Forum were positive and largely forward looking: e.g.,

“President Obama is pursuing a change. Now, it is our responsibility to take the next step.”

“The strong words of President Obama are engraved in my heart. His visit to Hiroshima did not only please the Japanese people but also gave the entire world a glimmer of hope for the future. After listening to the historic speech, I thought ‘What can I do?’…”

But comments also recognized that this visit was about the past, even if apologies were not being offered:

“Through this visit I hope the world can see the importance of acknowledging the past.”

Even though most Japanese continue to believe that the atomic bombings were unjustified, nearly 80 percent of surveyed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said they were pleased with the visit, according to a Kyodo News poll taken at the time of the visit. Only 15% felt that an apology from the US was called for.

Whatever political motivations Obama had for this visit (think North Korea’s nuclear threat and the US’s new security “pivot” towards Asia), he was, surely, sending a message about the past. He was demonstrating that it is possible to acknowledge the pain of the past even if politics keep aspects of the injurious past alive. He might even have been saying that matters of apology matter less than acknowledgement of pain and forging a new path together.

When asked before the trip whether he would apologize, Obama said in an interview with NHK,

“No, because I think that it is important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions.

“It is the job of historians to ask questions and examine them, but I know as somebody who has now sat in this position for the last seven and a half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during war time.”

“My purpose is not to simply revisit the past, but to affirm that innocent people die in a war, on all sides, that we should do everything we can to try to promote peace and dialogue around the world, that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The discussions around the matter of apology during these weeks have been complex. Some commentators said the Japanese government preferred that Obama not apologize, because this might have place an unwanted requirement on Japan to apologize for gross human rights violations committed towards prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War. Others felt that the framing of this event, focusing on common concerns about nuclear weapons, demonstrated that it is time to move on from the discourse of World War II apology, which seems stale in the 21st century.

After Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, I sat down at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, with Lily Gardner Feldman, a scholar of political reconciliation. Feldman, Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, makes a distinction between “moral reconciliation” and “pragmatic reconciliation.”

With regard to “moral reconciliation,” Feldman highlights that Germany started very soon after 1945 to look for ways to make amends towards former enemy countries and to the Jews of Israel, and over time has continued to observe joint commemorations of the historical events in question, even when it was no longer necessary for Germany to do so. She emphasizes the role of civil society organizations in building links between the German people and citizens of countries involved in the war against Germany, and the assiduous efforts made to rewrite textbooks. She believes that the two primary aspects of moral reconciliation are a repeated acknowledgement of the painful events that occurred, and the willingness to take responsibility for them.

Feldman describes Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as an example of pragmatic reconciliation. She likewise describes Japanese apologies proffered since World War II as pragmatic, linked, as they have largely been, with attempts to reach political goals, rather than to take a moral position per se.

Prime Minister Abe has, likewise, been criticized by the political left in Japan for taking a less-than adequate stance with regard to moral reconciliation.  His 2015 official apology to South Korea for the sexual abuse of Korean women who were forced to “service” Japanese men during the war, while acknowledged as a step forward, had written in an insistence that the matter would not be revisited. This falls short of Germany’s model.

In spite of all of this discussion, or perhaps because of it, I found Obama’s visit refreshing. I did not see it as only pragmatic. He offered a different way of thinking about the past in a situation that has become stuck in one particular frame. True compassion was present, I thought. His embrace of the survivors was deeply genuine. Obama found a way to acknowledge the unprecedented and terrible experience Japanese people underwent, and to point in the direction of a common future.

But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves whether acknowledgement of the painful past is only likely to produce reconciliation between countries or political entities who are motivated for other reasons to be bound together in a political future…