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  • Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory by Marc Howard Ross
  • Hilary Green
Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory. by Marc Howard Ross (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) 320 pp. $39.95

Ross's decade-long exploration of slavery, memory, and forgetting began with the rediscovery of the slave quarters at Independence National [End Page 611] Historical Park (inhp), debates about interpreting President George Washington's enslaved laborers at the site's President House, and the creation of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (atac). These overlapping events prompted Ross to ask why the collective forgetting of northern enslavement in the public and commemorative landscape occurred. By answering this question from the perspective of political psychology, he corrects previous neglect, amplifies recent recovery efforts, and deepens scholarly understandings of the real consequences of the exclusion of this history from the cultural landscape.

The first three chapters define terminology, review the existing literature, and debunk assumptions. Ross methodically shows how the collective memory of northern enslavement could not be sustained in a landscape devoid of memory prompts. The extensive published history of northern enslavement did not stop the widespread collective forgetting. Ross surmises that although African Americans "did speak out, few whites had any interest in listening" (86). In his crucial third chapter, Ross reveals how the intentional forgetting had larger political implications for defining "who matters within a community, who should matter, and who can be ignored" (94). He carefully considers six plausible reasons for the collective forgetting of northern slavery—racism, destruction of sites connected to slavery, incentives to forget, shame and guilt, fear of discovery, and repression through reframing narratives. By breaking the active erasure, Ross explains that the rediscovery process brought new narratives, new visibility, and new connections necessary for overcoming the collective forgetting.

Beginning with Chapter 4, case studies reveal the recovery of "collective narratives that had all but disappeared" (120). Ross contrasts the recovery and reinterpretation efforts at the President's House and slave quarters at INHP. Invisibility ceased when a major conflict erupted over the 2002 redesign of the National Park Service (nps) that fully acknowledged the slavery and freedom paradox. The newly formed atac demanded the inclusion of the history of the nine enslaved people brought by Washington to Philadelphia. Others demanded the continued absence. The nps wavered, and meetings became fraught. Site excavation fueled the debates. The atac prevented the reburying of the archaeological findings by eulogizing the known enslaved laborers in a public funeral. Ultimately, the redesigned site included the history, the full text of which Ross reprints.

The inhp's "Freedom and Slavery in the Making a New Nation" exhibit also encouraged heated debate, a failed set of interpretive panels, and the hiring of a second firm for developing the final exhibit. Using personal ethnographic observations, Ross reveals that unlike some visitors, others still ignore the exhibit by walking purposefully to the Liberty Bell. These two case studies highlight both the challenges and possible lessons for other sites. In connecting individuals to specific sites, Ross contends that visible places, objects, and compelling narratives remain essential components for recovering memory.

The next two chapters reveal the role of rediscovered places, objects, and interpretive narratives in redressing African-American absence in the [End Page 612] commemorative landscape. The combination of historical markers, rituals, and other memory prompts allow for a sustained recollection of northern enslavement. Moreover, burial grounds "can foster connections to the hidden and forgotten past of enslaved and free Blacks that many never imagined" (209). Collectively, these rediscovered sites validate history and show the power of memory by centering previously silenced communities.

Although the book provides no definitive explanation for the collective forgetting of northern enslavement, Ross's final chapter outlines the necessary components for overcoming collective forgetting. Places, objects, and rituals remain vital for the development, retention, and transmission of recovered collective memories. Ross concludes that without these reminders, recovered memories will be difficult to sustain; however, he remains hopeful that the current recovery work will succeed.

This work is a valuable addition. Ross's approach will appeal to scholars and practitioners of public history interested in the forgetting and recovery of...


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pp. 611-613
Launched on MUSE
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