As many of us—myself included—are enjoying a nice late-Spring long weekend, I thought it worthwhile to think about what Memorial Day might mean for historians, whose daily business it is to forge memories. I would like to suggest that historians, particularly US historians, view this day as our yearly day of reckoning. Indeed, as David Blight showed in his masterful analysis of the trajectory of Civil War memory in America, Race and Reunion, Memorial Day has its origins in Decoration Day, when the legacy of the Civil War was still highly contested. It later also became a sight for consolidating these competing legacies, as White Americans forged a new compact on the back of non-White Americans. American historians, as we well know, were highly complicit in this project.
In the last few decades historians and theoreticians of nationalism have explored the many ways in which temporality underscores the project of nation building. While Benedict Anderson, for instance, stressed how nationalism mirrors religion in its particular emphasis on the future—its eschatology if you will—Eric Hobsbawm put more emphasis on the role of historical myth making.(1) Indeed, according to Hobsbawm, nations always rely on contrived memories and have harnessed compromised forms of history writing to sinister ends.
Furthermore, as historians of memory have shown, nationalist projects of constructing memories are not only categorically skewed, but they also hinge on the no less important act of forgetting. Such blends of well-honed memory and forgetting are usually designed to achieve the national consolidation of a newly contrived group at the expense of another, differently contrived, group of “others.” In the case of American history, as historians such as Blight and more recently Ari Kelman have made clear, American projects of remembering the past have figured prominently in the political project of constructing the American polity in a white image.(2) In the case of the post-Civil War era, the atrocities of racial oppression and slavery and the displacement and genocide of Natives were swept under the rug to usher in a rejuvenated and romanticized national identity.
Thus, Memorial Day proves as good a day as any to ask ourselves if we have done enough to illuminate the past in ways that do justice to people in the past, but perhaps no less so to those who live in the present. For memories of the past have very real consequences for us in the present. As Blight has argued, the transition from a more contested memory of the Civil War to a more abstract notion of heroism ascribed to Union and Confederate soldiers alike facilitated the end of the pursuit of justice for freed people. Likewise, contemporary notions of the past have the capacity to perpetuate or disrupt injustice.
As US historians, however, we face quite a predicament. How do we write and teach US history in ways that are not complicit in the American nationalist program? Does not the very premise that the “taxonomy” of history fields conforms primarily to the framework of nation-states reify the idea of the state as a “natural” or “primordial” entity? Is not the conviction that so many historians in America must first and foremost teach US history surveys part of the nationalist project itself? Can we really hope to defuse the violence of American nationalism from within?
In The History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently called into question our priorities as historians. Do we write for our own edification within a well-established comfort zone, or do we seek to participate in more meaningful and approachable discussions of the past? As less students seem interested in traditional historical frameworks should we not entice them with a more passionate call for history as action in the world by revamping both our scholarship, but perhaps no less so our curriculum? Is it really more important for students in the US to be familiar with the “nuts and bolts” of US history before they learn about the global history of slave rebellions or a comparative study of same sex relationships?
I for one know what course I would have taken as an undergraduate had I such choices in front of me.
 Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983).
 I’m referring to Kelman’s Bancroft prize winning book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (2013).