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March 31, 2007

Lewis & Clark, York and Public Memory

What do we collectively remember from history?  Over the last couple of decades we have begun uncovering and highlighting bits and pieces of history that went unnoticed for decades or even centuries because they hadn't been reported on sufficiently at the time or because they differed from the collective understanding of who did what.  Mostly, of course, the collective understanding was that white men did everything of note. 

Hanging out in Portland yesterday, waiting for my sister to come out from a doctor's appointment, I read an interesting article in the Oregonian about an African-American law student at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Charles Neal, who happened upon the tale of York, the enslaved black man who explored the West with Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  The more Neal learned about York, the more the injustice of his fate and the absence of public memory of this man, stuck in his craw.  Especially irksome was the lack of any memorial of any kind about York at a school named after the two leaders of the expedition, one of whom, William Clark, was York's owner. 

The Corps of Discovery "relied on every member to contribute as equals" on the 2-year journey.  York tasted freedom and equality and after the expedition, York asked for his freedom.  Clark denied him and more.

"I did wish to do well by him. but he has got Such a nation about freedom," Clark wrote in his journal. He is "insolent and sulky, I gave him a trouncing the other day." Clark then hired York out to a harsher master who could whip York into submission.

Neal and a group of fellow students asked the college president to back a plan to commission a sculpture of York.  Money is currently being raised to do just that and it is likely to be followed by a center for the study of public memory, dedicated to York.

Public memory, such an interesting awareness.  Here's more:

Public memory emerged as an academic field about 20 years ago and several campuses now have centers devoted to its study. Oral historians began to ask not only about what people remembered, but also why they remembered what they did. From that came the desire to learn more about systematic efforts to build a public memory and national identity from a shared sense of the past.

"Every culture has a public memory," says Mitch Reyes, a Lewis & Clark professor who specializes in African American public memory. "You have to start asking yourself, 'Who gets to be remembered and who gets to do the remembering?' "

From a social perspective, clearly the folks who have wielded the power and the pen have been remembered.  From a political perspective, I think the right caught onto this idea and figured out how to influence public memory over the last several decades and the left is only starting to catch up.  From an economic perspective, the wealthy, monied and corporate interests figured this out so long ago, they've forgotten it was anything but established truth. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on March 31, 2007 at 04:08 PM in Miscellany | Permalink


Major League Baseball just held its first Civil Rights Game today. It's been xixty years, minus two weeks, since Jackie Robinson first walked onto a major league field to play ball. The Tuskeegee Airmen received some award this week from the federal government for daring to fly while black during WWII. I'm fifty years old, yet it's hard to imagine there was a time when black athletes weren't allowed to play in the same sports leagues as whites, or that we'd keep people out of combat roles because they were black.

And yet, it happened, and I suppose it could happen again. It might not be blacks who are victimized next time, but it's a lot more likely if we take the current state of affairs as the natural one. I think the stories York, Robinson, and the Tuskeegee airmen show that it's not the only state possible.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Mar 31, 2007 10:22:40 PM

For the last twenty-five years or so, since Reagan essentially, the right-wing has increasingly dominated the political public memory as far as I can see. They have had their communications policy people out talking and writing and "researching". In the process, they've rewritten our understanding of the Vietnam War, the function and value of government, and the idea of "politically correct" talk.

I went to college in a time, when we actually talked about racism and sexism and classism. Such talk has been suppressed and ridiculed in much of the public dialog - deliberately by people paid by right-wing think-tanks.

As a result, it has taken decades longer to begin to get stories like York's out into the public arena and each piece takes a lot of energy to make happen.

The right developed a set of institutions and systematically brought people into the government, into the media and to a lesser extent into academic institutions. They failed miserably in Hollywood but hey, they managed to get 150 Regent Law School grads into the federal government.

God, we are going to need thoughtful, resolute, progressive Democrats in positions of power for a generation to wipe the muck off our collective feet and to gain some control over the public memory.

Posted by: Lynn | Mar 31, 2007 11:02:27 PM

P.S. I just clicked through to your site (http://cujo359.blogspot.com/). Wow! Nice work and I appreciate your linking to both shoephone's and my posts.

And what an idea - the Gonzopedia! For other readers, this is a wiki-type site dedicated to exploring the firing of the eight (there will be more unearthed) and the exploration of the DoJ document dumping.


This is precisely the kind of efforts that are going to restore a public memory that reflects reality. Thank you. Thank you.

Posted by: Lynn | Mar 31, 2007 11:10:04 PM

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