Recovering Our National Memories

America has a national amnesia when it comes to our history. So much of the past centuries since the European colonizers claimed the continent for themselves—and ignored the inconvenient presence of the Indigenous—is simply erased and forgotten, as if it never happened.

Instead, we have a national conversation about our past that involves some men, but very few others. Almost no women, and almost no one who is not of European descent. Their exploits are described as glorious victories of conquest—but the reality is that these men and their acts were squalid, vindictive, and destructive. But because these are our founders, we want to hear stories that make us feel good. We talk of explorers and settlers but not that our current prosperity is from the stolen labor of kidnapped people working the stolen land of evicted people.

Our past is imagined, and it glorifies thieves and kidnappers who took from the powerless to give to the powerful. The Doctrine of Discovery told Europeans to just claim all the land drained by any river as their own. Manifest Destiny still tells us that God wills an America that extends from sea to shining sea, never mind who is in the way. It’s all there in our stories, but we don’t see it—the past is hidden by charming pictures and tales of exploration civilizing a “New World.”

Perhaps the reason for our inability to look at our past is due to the trauma of this past, however. We don’t want to look at the past to see how we got to the present. We embrace blindness, whether from forgetfulness or by the erasure of our past by historians, politicians, teachers, and preachers who want a glorious past to defend our current prosperity. To see the past as it is would be to open ourselves to deep pain and great responsibility. Yet we’re dimly aware that our past was not wonderful to the exploited and wounded. We’re uncomfortable with that past that shapes our present, vaguely aware that much of our history is based on theft and lies. We would return a stolen item were we to find it in our possession—what do we do when we consider the history of America? Who should have their land and prosperity returned to them?

A traumatized nation erases its past because it is too much to handle. There are too many contradictions based upon the founding of America as the “city shining on a hill.” The very nature of forgetfulness is to help us function in the present by leaving behind the pain and the tears. It is a natural scar to cover up our deepest national wounds.

But the trauma must be healed if we are to be able to become a nation that is whole. We must look at the past, see what happened, feel the pain, mourn the losses, and accept the responsibility of reconciliation, reconstruction, and even reparations if we are ever to become whole and healthy.

America, it’s time to remember. We have pushed away the pain, the tears, and the wounds and it seems as if we can never again remember. But we must remember, to think about those who had their lives, their children, and their homes taken from them. We must start to think about our current state. And we must think about what we must to do share responsibility and grief, and to seek for our own healing. We must tell the truth if we are to become healed.

By Stephen Matlock

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