By Peter d'Errico
Exactly what is the “duty of memory”? Do we have a duty to remember anything? We know the adage from George Santayana, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what if we want to repeat the past? What if the past is celebrated, not mourned and commemorated?
There’s an awful lot of American flag-waving at Indian Powwows, despite the bloody, anti-Indian history associated with that flag. Does this mean Indians have no memories? Does it mean they celebrate their Holocaust? This is a phenomenon discovered by some who have worked with colonialism: Frantz Fanon, for example, studying Africa, noted that colonized people strive to emulate the culture and ideas of their oppressors.
It seems that the first “duty of memory” is to remember. And how do we remember? By searching out the past, looking for evidence, facing facts, poking through facades, ignoring excuses, refusing lies.
Last year, President Obama ordered the creation of an “Atrocity Prevention Board,” saying, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” He also said, “America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.” He added, “history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort.”
One wonders whether America might do better to start with cleaning its own house, starting with its memory of its history. The U.S. cannot claim clean hands on the issue of mass atrocities and genocide. It cannot claim immunity from the charge of systematic slaughter. In Fanon’s words, these historical events leave behind “germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land [and] from our minds….”
Only when we have removed the rot of historical denial and replaced it with the fresh air of historical memory are we able to say we have carried out the “duty of memory.” Only then may we say we are ready to prevent atrocity and genocide.
For more on the subject, see Why Do Indians "Live in Past"? and Colorado Rejects "Genocide" Label.