MAY 29, 2020


There’s a great quote by Georges Erasmus on the importance of a shared understanding of history:
“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

Erasmus is an indigenous Canadian who served as the co-chair for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s. That commission was the start of a slow and intentional reconciliation between the Aboriginal people and the Canadian government, which shows the power of common memory, something I do not believe Americans have ever truly had. When I think about the lack of a 'common memory' in the United States I think about the fact that I’ve never heard the audible ‘thunk' of a driver locking their car doors as I walk by. This is the experience of being black in America, but it is not mine.

A common memory must be created.

People take to the streets when 'law and order' has failed them and the emotion and hurt which has been repressed for so long explodes to the surface — and yet the lack of a common memory means that those without the ‘memory' of persecution and intolerance are likely to dismiss the systemic hurt of others. Our memories are different, and so we become callous.
A common memory must be created.

Mark Charles, a Native American activist and pastor says “we have a white population that remembers a mythological history of opportunity and exceptionalism and we have communities of color that have the lived experience of stolen land, segregation, and families separated at our borders.” This distinction between two communities means that one can easily dismiss the pain of the other, ignore the neighbor who pleas for justice, for fairness, and for help.

A common memory must be created.

Dismissiveness is particularly painful when it comes to people of faith. Christians must realize that faith alone does not always remove systemic evil, it in fact often creates it. Christians were a beautiful partner to the abolitionist movement but they were also a horrible contributor to ‘divine providence’, stripping Native Americans of not only their land but of their culture and identity.

A common memory must be created.

We must see beyond our own memory and into the 'memory' of others. George Yancey, a sociologist, says that “Unless we can get at the soul of our nation, we will remain mired in the garbage of racism." We must see how our memory can lie to us, can make us rationalize away violence and hatred, sweeping it under the rug. Christians have played powerful roles through American history, but that role has not always been righteous.

The question is simple: What memory will we share, and what role will we choose to play now?