All over the United States, national and local initiatives on truth and healing for racial injustice are emerging. These include the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement, the Tulsa Graves Investigation, and the Community Remembrance Projects on lynching supported by the Equal Justice Initiative, and numerous local efforts focused on truth-telling, reparations, memorialization, and institutional reform.
Many of these projects grapple with the question of race in our public memory. Public memory refers to the ongoing choices that a community or a nation makes to remember particular parts of its history, to highlight that history in a way that everyone in a community can experience, and to locate that history within a social, cultural, and political context. It is a mark of what we both choose to remember, and allow ourselves to forget, and is usually contained within public memorials and monuments, museums, speeches, and holidays. Public memory represents the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
The resurgent questioning of our collective national memory is an important opportunity for U.S. democracy, one that can advance the work of creating a pluralistic, inclusive society. In a moment of national conversation about the gaps and distortions in the nation’s public memory around race, communities are having difficult conversations about what to remember and how to do so. How these conversations take place may open up new possibilities for dialogue across difference and for building local narratives that encourage greater participation and belonging.
The role of history and memory in democratic development is part of a robust global practice of transitional justice, which emerged out of the need to develop new tools to help societies emerging out of political turmoil ensure accountability, restitution, reform, and non-reoccurrence of human rights abuses. The development of public memory projects—memorials, events, museums—are recognized as one critical tool to engage new generations about past and contemporary human rights abuses and to convene conversations across divides about contentious and painful parts of the past. The transitional justice field, drawing on diverse country experiences, may offer useful learning to inform ongoing debates in the United States.
Description of Project
The Race, Memory, and Democracy Project will create opportunities for communities, scholars, and practitioners to ask questions, exchange ideas, and explore alternative approaches to the ways in which public memory projects can serve as sites for democratic discourse. It will draw on both domestic experience as well as global practice on transitional justice, and explore the relationship public memory and democracy. The project will:
- Connect communities and public officials with each other to exchange challenges and share best practices on community engagement in public memory projects;
- Share learning from scholars and practitioners of transitional justice, including international experience with public memory projects in support of healing after the commission of human rights abuses;
- Expand the tools and approaches for community engagement around sites of memory and public space, including mediation and affirmative inquiry.