Legal Rememory

“The future was a matter of keeping the past at bay.”
–Sethe, Beloved, Toni Morrison

Growing up, I always loved the month of February.  Though arguably the coldest winter month in the Midwest, I looked forward to it in elementary and high school because, being Black History Month, the curriculum in February fascinated me.  I loved learning about United States history, literature, and politics through the eyes of black Americans — “the other side of the story.”  A uniquely American perspective, black history is rich in its sadness, painful in its injustice, and powerful in its lessons.

Incidentally, in the last few weeks of my February classes, we began learning the fundamental cases regarding black history — Dred ScottPlessy, Brown, Loving.  I was sadly reminded that the United States, as a nation, is literally built upon racist institutions, ideologies, and practices.  From colonial tactics of genocide and slavery to mechanisms of legalized discrimination and prejudice, America has a history clearly defined by a racial hierarchy.

In the past week, we’ve made it to modern cases discussing affirmative action and diversity initiatives in education.  The class discussion has been extremely interesting and highly relevant.  Many of my fellow students have been eager to point out the pervasive and institutionalized history of racism in American in response to judicial opinions that claim “the Constitution is colorblind.”  While it would be a nice thought to view American society today with a veil of racial ignorance, to do so would be to conveniently erase hundreds of years of history.

I began this post with a quote from one of my favorite African-American novels.  I wanted to highlight a concept that has been important to me throughout the study of racial jurisprudence.  In her novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison coined the phrase “rememory” — which explicates the notion of active forgetfulness.  The painful memories associated with slavery often caused enslaved blacks to selectively remember their pasts.  Throughout the book, Morrison articulates the importance of facing your past for the purpose of moving forward in your future.

While reading these judicial opinions, it seems that some judges have tried to “keep the past at bay.”  Others put forth arguments in line with the idea that selective rememory is wholly damaging to the goals of progress, equality, and justice.  As for me, I’m with Ms. Morrison on this one — I think the United States must face the realities of its unfortunate past before racial equality can be substantively achieved, and well before a colorblind dialogue can be made a reality.  In short, I think we can learn from our mistakes.  What better way to figure our where we’re going than to reflect on where we’ve been…

“What is past is prologue.”
–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum