History and memory are not the same thing.
This is not a complicated idea, yet disagreement about this fundamental truth gets us most of the way to understanding the swift and dark undertow in the currents of the national mood. There is an unruly sentiment abroad in the Republic that by choosing to lift up previously disregarded perspectives and parts of our past—a past that, as history, will forever remain unchanged—we are ignoring and abdicating our responsibility to celebrate our “real” history.
But history and memory are not the same thing.
When a statue is pulled down it does not change the history of our seditious Alexandrian forefathers who took up arms to preserve for-profit human bondage, but it does change who we say we are and what we are striving to be. When a high school is renamed it does not change the history of discrimination and diminution of opportunity by race that once stalked its halls, but it does change how today’s students see themselves and the type of future they can have.
These actions change what we as a community choose to remember. And memory is just as real—and powerful—as history.
Indeed, memory remains on the march long after history has been driven from the field, as we just saw in Fairfax County when John R. Lewis joined that proud American tradition of visiting stinging defeat upon Robert E. Lee, on Virginian soil no less. Our neighbors in Fairfax choose, quickly and decisively, the kind of memory that is needed to shape and sustain the community they have become and wish to remain.
In Alexandria, predictably, the powers that be formed a committee to discuss what we might want to remember, eventually, maybe, if that’s not too much trouble. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. And infuriating.
If only the high school had been named Affordable Infill Housing, we’d have it renamed tomorrow.
It is important to understand the full arc of what has happened in recent weeks. Community activism—in response to the Movement for Black Lives and the national reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more at the hands of the state—revived the decades-long effort to remove the name of avowed racist segregationist Thomas Chambliss Williams from our city’s only public high school. These activists put the challenge to the School Board to remove the name immediately and the Board responded, predictably, by agreeing that maybe something should be done about the name, just not by them, not now, and perhaps not at all.
Showing considerably more character and backbone than most members of this cautious Board, students responded by tastefully draping Titan-pride red and blue fabric over the segregationist’s name on the sign outside the school. This action was met with patently absurd charges of “defacing school property” and threatened consequences by the person responsible for maintaining good “school and community relations.”
In truth I have not yet retrieved my jaw from the floor where it fell when I read the audacious words of our high school principal—in a letter shared with the community—parroting the ACPS line that this behavior was out of bounds and that acceptable protest takes the form of a pre-approved agreement between the powerful and the aggrieved. What a ghastly thing to model for the righteous youth of 2020. If John Lewis had been similarly advised on his march to Montgomery, he’d still be standing in Selma on the western approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting for his paperwork to clear.
I can think of no greater tell that you believe in the permanent primacy of The Way Things Must Be Done than to suggest it is necessary to seek permission from those in power prior to disagreeing with them. That’s not protest, that’s performance. You’re essentially saying the kids can have a little civil disobedience, as a treat.
As I’ve sorted through my feelings of anger and frustration and bafflement at the words and actions of various ACPS leaders throughout this sordid debacle, what I keep returning to is that this is the hill they chose to die on. Not the wheezing, crumbling school buildings choking our system to death; not the vision-less, consultant-driven plan for mitigating an over-enrolled high school; not the dual public health crises of viral spread and systemic racism locking in permanent equity gaps; but this. The insistence on a long and deliberate process regarding the memory of an unreconstructed racist. A can kicked into slow orbit around the sun.
And even this obstinate disregard for the moment wasn’t enough! Worse still was when ACPS chose not to lead—and that mantle necessarily fell to the students in their charge—they sought to slap it from their hands as well.
Memory is an active and ongoing choice. The choices of a prior generation about what must be passed down—what stories we tell about ourselves and about our city—do not need to be our choices. It is the proper and healthy action of a community to continually revisit and renew our collective memory of who we are and who we wish to be.
We do this not only with excision and subtraction, but with the addition and inclusion of new memories as well. We can choose to remember those who shrank from this moment when the bright light found them. We can choose to remember the students with the courage to see justice when the adults around them saw only inconvenience. We must choose to remember our Black neighbors—Blois Hundley and countless others—on whom the shadow of this man’s name has too long fallen. And yes, members of this current School Board—several of whom seem to be in thrall to a constituency that lives primarily in the back pages of the local tabloid rag and nowhere else—we can and will choose to remember you too.
History and memory are not the same thing; in the end, only one of them is a dustbin.
– P.C. Publius
July 28, 2020