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In Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, the character Gavin Stevens famously declares that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Stevens's judgment on the power of history seemed profound when I first read it, back in college. It's still true today, but now it's become a platitude, a staple of presidential speeches and Woody Allen movies that raises more questions than it answers. "What past?" we have to ask. Better yet, "Whose past?" And what makes the southern past more living or more present than everyone else's? Is life in the South like a real-life version of Bill Murray's popular comedy, Groundhog Day, in which Jamestown, Pickett's charge, and Freedom Summer keep happening over and over? No, no, thankfully, that's impossible. But William Faulkner knew something about how some southerners can't seem to get the past out of their heads. It keeps playing in a loop, like a nasty [End Page 1] earworm, whining a constant jingle of resentment and regret that keeps driving its victims to reenact old battles in new uniforms.
Historians like to think that uncovering the past is part of the process of healing from it, and changing the earworm's tune. If the undying past is all in our heads, then it's not so much a product of what happened, but what we remember about it. Or rather, which version of the past we remember, for controlling memory is a major part of shaping the present and the future. But controlling or steering public memories is a lot harder than rewriting the history books, because memory is such a crucial part of who we are. It's like the horror of amnesia: who would you be if you couldn't remember anything? And as any detective will tell you, memories are notoriously tricky. One witness sees a tall suspect, another sees a short one. One swears he saw a knife, another is sure it was a gun. And so on.
The consequences spread far beyond courtrooms and tv dramas. Once when I was ten or so, my father told me about Reconstruction. It wasn't a lesson from the books; it was raw personal memory, surely passed from his own father, who was born when a sprinkling of federal troops still "occupied" South Carolina. Grandfather must have heard a lot about it from his own family, so Dad's memories of Reconstruction were almost as vivid—and certainly as subjective—as if he had been there himself. "That was when white men couldn't vote!" he hissed at me, eyes blazing with undimmed outrage. His passion took me aback, because Dad almost never got upset, especially about history or politics. His feelings were new to me that day; I did not sense hate, but fury and humiliation at his forebears' disgrace.
My father's memory was mistaken. No racial test ever took the ballot from white southerners. President Andrew Johnson pardoned ordinary Confederates and affirmed their political rights within six weeks of Appomattox. He excluded Confederate leaders, and so did the Fourteenth Amendment three years later, but these barriers soon fell. Only black southerners ever suffered racial disfranchisement, first before Emancipation and again before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Now the day would come, I'm glad to say, when my father proudly voted for black political candidates himself, but the pain and outrage he "remembered" from South Carolina's experience of "Negro rule" were just as real as if the freed-men and carpetbaggers had personally stripped away his own rights. And Dad's feelings were certainly not unusual. For much...