Tradition and Memory

After reading the articles “Equal in Paris?” and “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters,” I am thinking a lot about how Americans create and remember “traditions” in comparison to the rest of the world. In the first article, we see a number of Parisian traditions which are overtly racist and antisemitic, yet remain a part of the culture simply because they have a historical connotation, as Paris is an “ancient” kind of city and these “traditions” have become a part of that ancient history. The U.S. is not “ancient” like France, yet we still perpetuate racist “traditions,” claiming they are a part of our history, such as people flying the Confederate flag. There is the presence of a dual history in America: one that white America accepts and one that it does not, and this dual history is exactly what I think Baldwin wants to combat in The Fire Next Time. In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin claims that white people are “trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (CE, 294). So, when I think about the path towards achieving racial equality, the first step must be the true teaching of history.

In “Equal in Paris?” we see a denial of history in a modern day setting when Williams describes drinking in a room with his friends, yet being surrounded by racist decor and imagery. Whoever decorated that apartment most likely saw these decorations as nothing more than historic artifacts, but this is exactly the problem. Denying the racism of historical artifacts does not make any sense because it leads to the denial of racism in our present day. In “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters,” Edmonds brings up how many white people have qualms with the message of the BLM movement because they believe America is a “post-racial society.” But again, this is simply not the case. We cannot deem our society a post-racial one simply by denying the racism of our history and then hold that history sacred in the form of “tradition.” Like the racist decorations in the Paris apartment, America perpetuates symbols of racism like the Confederate flag; it perpetuates a history that is not even American in order to create some sense of white complacency. I do not think Baldwin would have been surprised by the Capitol Riot and the various racist symbols flaunted during it, such as the Confederate flag and the constructed gallows, because the whole event was a result of white America denying half of its history; the rioters denied the loss of Trump, and thus created a false narrative which sent them down a path to making that false narrative a reality.

These false narratives that are popping up more and more are exactly what we need to combat in our schools. We cannot let one side of history overshadow another, and further claim that the racism of that history must be forgotten in order to uphold American tradition. In my Political Theory course, when discussing John Stuart Mill, we discussed whether or not tradition should be upheld at all in society. Mill argues that upholding tradition leads to the preservation and perpetuating of false truths that will ultimately undermine a society if it leaves these false truths unquestioned. I completely agree with him on this point (even though he hypocritically speaks against this point later) and believe that in order for our society to be grounded in actual truth, we must question most of our traditions. Why do southern schools still refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression”? Why do some treat the Confederate flag as an American symbol if it represents a history that is purely anti-American? Why are black authors excluded from the American literary tradition in high school classrooms? These are the kinds of questions we must ask ourselves and others in order to learn and accept the true history of our country. If we reject upholding tradition for tradition’s sake, then maybe white America can finally be “released” from the history it does not understand as Baldwin hoped would one day happen when writing to his nephew James.

2 thoughts on “Tradition and Memory”

  1. I agree, this post is really thought-provoking. But, to give a perspective on your question, I think that getting rid of the “traditions” and never mentioning them would go against Rae’Vonne’s point of “the true teaching of history.” They still happened, these museums, statues, etc. were still built to honor these ideals and these people. Never speaking about that would be a disservice because it obscures history. I think it’s important to speak about them through a critical lens. I don’t personally care for the statues but erasing them completely from the history books brings up the worry that it could end up being an “out of sight, out of mind” issue in the near future (among many others).

  2. I found your discussion on tradition and its preservation interesting. I agree that traditions need to be questioned. However, I wonder if we can preserve certain traditions by addressing the harm that they have caused? Like addressing the negative aspects of confederacy wherever a confederate flag is shown, in museums, in books etc. Do you think such an approach could change things? or is it important to get rid of the tradition and not mention it completely?

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