One of the more frequent asymmetric aspects of our lives is the way that what is history to us is memory to someone else. And, if we are older, what is history to someone else will be memory for us. What makes this asymmetry interesting, and sometimes even troublesome, is the difference in emotional resonance that memory and history have. It is not that either history or memory is more infallible, but that history brings with it at least the chance of detachment while memory is inextricably bound to that which we have experienced or observed. I will leave aside, for this time, the question of subjectivity as it relates to history, because it is indeed an issue, but there is a different feel between history and memory and it is worthwhile to consider the two as separate. To the extent that one wishes to study history and research history and write history because of one’s own experiences, that is going to create an obvious bias that will hinder the efforts at being just in one’s historical perspective.
Quite often, the barrier between history and memory comes about because of time. For example, I participate frequently in discussions about music history, and in those discussions I hear much younger fans of the music charts comment on the differences between the charts in different eras. They speak of the chaotic period of the 1990’s, when Billboard was slow in recognizing airplay-only songs on the Hot 100, as being a historical period that would have driven them to despair had they watched the charts, but at that time I was a teenager who was an avid fan of the charts then as I am now. What is history for them, and rather bad and messy history at that, is memory for me. There are others still older than I am who would remember the shenanigans that landed Andy Gibb a shady #1 hit where it should have gone to Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, and who thus have within their memory an understanding of the sorts of tomfoolery that Billboard has engaged in throughout its history up to the present day.
This has importance in areas that are far more consequential than what song happens to be #1 and whether it deserves to be there on a given week. For example, I recently watched a video from a person who works as a living historian in a historical mansion that was once the manor home of a slave plantation, and this person spoke about the one-sided nature of the friendship between ladies and their enslaved maids. There is a difference, I suppose, between having a friend who is willing to listen to us speak about our fears and concerns and being a friend for others. In watching the video, I was struck by the way that the code switching and prejudging on the part of the actors playing the enslaved servants was itself a sign of their own lack of justice and friendliness in dealing with others. Is it not an act of injustice and unfriendliness to assume that other people are not willing to take one’s own fears and concerns seriously? Is not the decision not to be honest and forthright about one’s concerns and one’s wishes, one’s hopes and one’s fears, itself unjust? How can we judge others for their lack of genuine friendliness to us when we have not been open and friendly to them?
This is not merely a problem of historical memory, but rather a problem of contemporary relevance. All too frequently we sabotage any chance of a genuine personal relationship because of the way that our personal and collective memory has (wrongly) led us to assume that all ______ are the same. We have one or a few bad experiences, we hear some stories about the evil of the past, or what those we care about has suffered, and we extrapolate those experiences to others who had no part in whatever wrongdoing was involved. And we have the gall to call others unjust when we behave unjustly in this fashion ourselves. Ultimately, we can only be delivered from the problem of bitterness and the politics of resentment when memory becomes history, with the venom of the sting removed, something that we can look over with a sense of equity rather than personal hostility that finds inevitably misplaced targets. We cannot take others nearly seriously enough until we take ourselves less seriously enough to put the past behind us, to forgive what was done, and to be filled with a fervent longing not to inflict on others what has been inflicted on us.