Historical Recollection and Political Inspiration on MLK Day

A couple of years ago on the the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., I quoted my friend and Wesleyan alumna Saidiya Hartman (’84, Hon. ’19) on the importance of remembering for the work of political imagination: “In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery.” We don’t have to accept the triumph of amnesia. “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.” Today, we can choose recollection.

Memory always takes place in context; it is never neutral. Prof. Hartman writes:

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line…To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present.

In the past year, Prof. Hartman published the 25th anniversary edition of her pathbreaking Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th Century America. In her new preface to the book, she notes that even in slavery “everyday practices cultivated an imagination of the otherwise and elsewhere, cartographies of the fantastic utterly antagonistic to slavery…the enslaved articulated a vision of freedom that far exceeded that of the liberal imagination.” Of course, recollection and imagination were not enough to change the world. “What awaited us were centuries of struggle animated by visions that exceeded the wreckage of our lives, by the avid belief in what might be.”

Recollection and imagination and struggle in hopes of transforming the present. This, too, can be a way to mark this holiday and those who fought to transform their lives. To what end does one conjure the memory of Dr. King, one might ask, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?

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