Down the Memory Hole
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
George Orwell, 1984
I thought about the Memory Hole reading about the move to erase Southern American history by removing statues of Generals who fought for their homeland in the Civil War. I am a Southern liberal white man who hates racism and knows that my people’s history is replete with examples of ideologies that are based on principles that I abhor. Yet what I most abhor is the belief that by whitewashing history we are purifying our thoughts as a way to a better more just future.
Sure notorious thinkers like the alt-right’s Richard Spencer agree with me for all the wrong reasons but complex issues lead to incongruous bedfellows. I was born in the Washington, D.C area in Northern Virginia’s Arlington Hospital within shouting distance of Robert E. Lee’s home. I grew up in Falls Church attending segregated schools until the fifth grade when a whites-only option was available as each grade was split into two classes. The school was integrated the classes were not. By the sixth grade for the first time I attended class with Black students. My family supported George Wallace so naturally during our class mock debates I played Wallace. My family revered men like Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Lester Maddox and yes George Wallace. There is no doubt that my father whose family moved from North Carolina to the DC area was not a progressive on race issues. The word nigger was not an uncomfortable one growing up. Calling brazil nuts ‘nigger toes’ and ending eeny meeny miny mo with ‘catch a nigger by his toe’ was a completely normal thing to me as a child
I am not ashamed of my family’s history just as I am not ashamed of America’s history. What’s worse owning slaves at a time when that was a normal thing to do; being racist at a time that was accepted or supporting Donald Trump? I consider them all abhorrent yet these flaws in our history and present are facts. Sometimes facts make us uncomfortable. Sometimes they make us angry. Yet we cannot as Americans disallow the diversity of our nation’s history while claiming to support diversity.
We evolved as a people; the branch of history bent towards justice yet how do we learn from the bend if we erase from where the branch grew? If our roots are spoiled yet we grew and blossomed and survived as a country do we tear out the roots? Do we tear down the Washington Monument, an iconic image of our national pride, because it honors a slave owner?
I am not ashamed of my family’s history, I love my family. I am not ashamed of my nation’s history, I love my country. Yet I can fight for justice and have my own mind while I am aware of history in all its ugliness and beauty. I was given a two year reprimand by the Transportation Security Administration for writing an open letter to management about the treatment of Black officers during the agency’s early days at BWI airport. I don’t apologize for taking that stand and I won’t demand that that part of its history be erased. History shows us if we have set a course for progress even against strong headwinds. If we look back into a void of erased memories; if we look back to see a sanitized past we are not purifying our heritage we are spoiling it. Those wishing to erase our history are too weak to fight the new battles for justice. They are fighting the wrong battle and history will judge them accordingly. We can honor those who led us in the past; acknowledging the flaws like racism, slavery and ignorance while accepting that they were honorable men of their time. Let history and those statues stand.