In 1965, James Baldwin visited the Slave House in Dakar, Senegal. Winding through the building, similar in size to an ordinary house in New Orleans, Baldwin describes how the suffering of enslaved African people, bound for the Middle Passage, lingers like a ghost. “This may be my imagination,” he writes, “but it seemed to me the odor was still there, that I could smell it.” The scent of cramped bodies “chained and speechless” emanates from the walls as memory.
I read this essay on the morning that students, faculty, and community members gathered at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C., to protest the tenure denial of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. In a surprising move, the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill overruled the university faculty’s decision to grant tenure to the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant-winning journalist. Since her appointment was announced in April, the board of trustees for UNC-Chapel Hill has been pressured by conservative activists and proponents of “objective” journalism to void Hannah-Jones’ appointment. The University of North Carolina has until Friday, June 4 to offer Hannah-Jones a tenured position or face a federal lawsuit.
Despite her substantial credentials and experience, despite being the first Knight Chair not to be hired with tenure since UNC began working with the foundation in the 1980s, despite recommendations from the faculty, Hannah-Jones was told she would be hired for five years; then she could apply for tenure. The trustees struggled to come up with a legitimate reason to deny a hiring package with tenure.
As if no time at all had passed, Baldwin’s words illuminate the controversy: “What is most terrible is that American white men are not prepared to believe my version of the story, to believe that it happened,” he writes of his memories in the cells of the Slave House. “In order to avoid believing that, they have set up in themselves a fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications, which system is about to destroy their grasp of reality, which is another way of saying their moral sense.”
In North Carolina, memory is politics. I’ve learned this over the past three years organizing with a coalition of North Carolinians working toward the creation of lynching memorials in Wake County. I’ve seen it in the concerted effort of our Republican state legislature to safeguard the Lost Cause narrative through a vast network of legal protections for Confederate statues. I’ve felt its power, standing beside these monuments as I taught the history behind their production, and as they were torn down before my eyes in the heat of a racial justice-fueled summer.
Our Republican legislature understands the power of memory. Like many states, North Carolina’s GOP-dominated General Assembly is pushing through legislation to reshape the narrative of history taught to students. A recent bill introduced by our Republican legislators would make it illegal to teach “the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.” The GOP in North Carolina understands that teaching a whitewashed version of our racial past produces the politics of our future.
Public memory is cultivated, and so is forgetfulness. Because of this, memory is an admission to the past that is woven into our formation as a public. Public monuments to racial violence like the Atlantic slave trade “make the perpetrators visible,” Ana Arujo reminds us. Public space is claimed by memory, often with accompanying political demands. For white people, the historic beneficiaries of racial violence, we too are remembered in public.
Being remembered honestly is the fear behind the conservative push to eradicate the history of racial terror in the United States. For the board of trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones is a living memorial: She is a journalist who will tell us what happened, who holds up memory, and urges us not to look away. The conservative backlash against her signature work, The New York Times' long-form 1619 Project, reminds us of the power of her presence in a Southern institution, marred by the politics of intentioned forgetfulness.
One of the most stunning and lasting sections of the 1619 Project is a photo essay by photographer Dannielle Bowman and writer Anne C. Bailey. One picture shows an empty lot, cracked and stained with age, abutting a plain brick building. Power lines hover at the top of the frame. Here at the corner of Pine and Fifth Streets in Macon, Ga., the slave trader John Jossey organized the sale of enslaved people. Like many former sites of the slave trade, the place is unmarked. In Bowman's photographs, this place, and the people whose lives were torn apart here, are remembered.
What do we choose to remember? How do we remember it in public? James Baldwin, reflecting on the Atlantic slave trade writes, “the crime is not the most important thing here. What makes our situation so serious is that we have spent so many generations pretending that it did not happen.” In North Carolina, as in many states, we are deep in a battle for public memory.
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