As a society, how do we remember the past, and in what form? Does this remembrance change, and, if so, what does this tell us about our collective consciousness and cultural identity? As students at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, majoring in different fields and with different personal histories, we used these questions as the starting point for our class in Historical Memory. Over the course of the semester, we have examined the ways that Americans have commemorated the past. In this report, we will examine in detail several approaches to commemoration that you may find helpful in thinking about how to remember Greensboro’s history.
What is Collective Memory?
Collective memory is understood as a representation of the past shared by a group or community.1 People tend to communicate about collective memory by referring to individual memory – as if my recollection of my Thanksgiving dinner last month is comparable to the country’s memory of the first Thanksgiving four hundred and fifty years ago.2 In some ways, it is. A single person’s memories of her life and experiences give her a sense of where she has come from and who she is, and can guide her decisions about the future. Collective memories work much the same way – they foster and define group identities, telling a group of people where they have come from, who they are and how they should act in the present and future.3
The way that memories do that work, though, is the important distinction between my recollections and collective historical memory. I remember my uncle spilling the potatoes at Thanksgiving however I want – maybe that he dropped them, or maybe that my cousin pulled on his arm at just the wrong moment. Either way, though, I’ll remember what I personally witnessed and it will affect the way only I view my uncle in the future – as a klutz or a guy with a crazy kid.
Collective memory of the first Thanksgiving, though, is not an eyewitness memory for anybody any more....