Collective memory goes up for grabs wherever people suffer from dispossession and feel the call of pride. Memories are not born but made, remade, not natural but “constructed,” and like the memorials constructed to overcome memory, they are—and of necessity must be—contested.
Where, I’ve wondered for some time, is the national museum on slavery? The story of slavery and its sequels is not just a story for blacks, just as the Holocaust is not just a story for Jews. Not long ago, I asked Jürgen Habermas his view of the dispute over a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The original design by Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra envisioned a vast field of spiky stones, a field of thorns. After a demurral from Gerhard Schröder’s newly elected social democratic government, along with leaders of Germany’s Jews, the field was scaled back and a library of Holocaust archives added. Habermas, a center of moral clarity in Germany for some thirty-five years now, told me that he preferred the original, more drastic design. “It’s not for the Jews,” he said emphatically. “It’s meant to be a thorn in the flesh of the Germans.”...
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