Memory in the Light of These Sources

“You can’t come in with your history book and bang people over the head… It’s going to be more dialogical than that.”

Dr. Heath W. Carter, Historian

Transcript for Memory in the Light of These Sources

Part of what makes the work of historians, I think, sort of dangerous or edgy in the current moment is that we’re finding stories that do challenge people’s memory. They challenge people’s self-understanding and they call people to understand the question of how we got here differently.

There’s no question that in the 1960s in Gary and across the country, there is a lot of tension and there’s a lot of—there’s disorder in the sense that, as I said, that the racial order is being challenged and the social order’s being challenged, norms are being challenged, new leadership is coming into power. There is a lot of change. But I think what as a historian what we want to do is to interrogate some of the personal narratives you’ll hear. Memory is an important source for us. We’re interested in what people remember, we’re interested in their experiences and their recollections of their family’s experiences, but we also recognize that memory is very tricky and sometimes people remember things very differently as it turns out from how they happened. And sometimes people remember things that didn’t happen.

I think what historians want to say is not that people as they tell stories about what happened in Gary are just straight-up lying. Not at all. In fact, I mean, these are stories that are important and in some sense, they are at the core of people’s identity and their story. And so it’s not through kind of some sort of willful deceit that people tell stories, but one of the nice things about the tools of our trade as historians is that we work with evidence, we work with documents, we work with images, and we can actually hold up memory in the light of these sources from the past and get a sense of, you know, what is here in this memory that’s right, and true, and actually corresponds to history, and what in it needs to be modified?

Historians are interpreting data; they’re not—we don’t have the final interpretation: the objective take. But we do have evidence that can help to constrain our interpretations. I think in the 21st century, as we continue to grapple with race and we continue to grapple with racial inequality and we continue to—I mean, I think that coming at these foundational questions about how we got here and being willing to engage in critical conversation about them—I think it’s an urgent task, and I think it’s a task that myself and many of my colleagues are really committed to. And we know that you can’t come in with your history book and bang people over the head with what we would want to say is the real story. It’s going to be more dialogical than that, you know, I think that historians have something really important to offer in terms of fashioning the narrative that we collectively can kind of come together around to understand who we are and how we got here.

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