As History students we are meant to remember the events and the people, but the things we are meant to remember often appear to be what other people have forgotten.
For my dissertation I am planning on writing about the legacy of Frederick Douglass, someone who I think deserves to be remembered. However, on doing research for this topic I have realised that he is not always remembered when he should be.
This really made me think about what we remember as a population and what we forget. Last semester in my Cultural history module we discussed the idea of collective memory and how that shapes the way a group of people remember something. In some cases they remember it in favourable terms when maybe it shouldn’t be and in others they merge dates and events to make sense of things. However, what we never really discuss is what we forget.
There is obvious limitations to this, but by looking at what has been forgotten by the popular consciousness we can learn some interesting things.
When thinking about something forgotten we have to ask ourselves- why was this forgotten? In some cases it is impossible to really explain- like why when I talk about a leading ex-slave American abolitionist do most people look at me blankley?
Yet Frederick Douglass lived through this battle himself. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery many younger generations of African Americans who were not born into slavery decided that they wanted to move away from the image of slavery. They didn’t want to associate with the idea that their race had been connected to such a degrading position and by doing this they were feeding into the white supremacy of the time that tried to forget that race and slavery had a vital role in the American Civil War.
Frederick Douglass fought against this as he knew that slavery needed to be remembered as it was a sign of how far African Americans had come and yet also an encouragement of how far they still had to go. Slavery has never been and will never be forgotten, especially as in reality it is still happening today, even if not on such a public scale, but other events in history have been forgotten.
I am not saying that big chunks of our history have been completely lost and forgotten by everyone but Historians, but there is a sense that we only remember certain things. I remember reading a few years ago that a ridiculous amount of United Kingdom citizens did not know that there was an English Civil War.
On my fridge we have a magnet that says ‘always make new mistakes’ and ever since we got it I thought that it is the biggest thing we can learn from history. We are lucky enough to have a history full of information to learn from and yet at times we seem to have an amnesia to the past.