Academic journal article American Studies International

Slavery and the Contest for National Heritage in the United States and the Netherlands

Academic journal article American Studies International

Slavery and the Contest for National Heritage in the United States and the Netherlands

Article excerpt

In the past few years, important history projects on slavery in the United States and the Netherlands have focused public attention on what is for each society a difficult and painful past. This article, by two scholars, one American and one Dutch, seeks to explore the reactions to the public presentation of the history of slavery in each country. For people who value human dignity, a discussion of their participation in human slavery is never easy, and is very much unlike the grand and heroic history typical of national celebrations. Reactions in both societies have been intense, for the history of slavery confronts traditionally positive self-perceptions, forcing a concentration on issues that contradict the sense of national heritage in fundamental ways.

For Americans, a people who see their history as a freedom story and themselves as defenders of freedom, the integration of slavery into their national narrative is embarrassing and can be guilt-producing and disillusioning. It can also provoke defensiveness, anger and confrontation. For the Dutch, who share the American people's love of freedom and cherish their own nation's history of religious and cultural tolerance, the Netherlands' role in slaveholding and slave trading was so irreconcilable with their sense of national identity that it was long erased from public consciousness. The inevitable return of this repressed past in recent years has been painful for both the descendants of slaves and descendants of those who directly or indirectly profited from the Dutch slave trade, giving rise to feelings of shame and remorse, resentment and anxiety. In both countries the history of slavery and its memory has recently spawned public debate and sobering reflection. In the United States, because of slavery's connection to the Civil War, still the bloodiest war in American history, the debate has grown more contentious, with the South less able to escape its role as central focus. The northern states have followed a path similar to that of the Dutch, attempting to avoid their responsibility, seeking to erase the memory of slavery from its historical memory. On neither side of the Atlantic has this been possible, however. In both the United States and in the Netherlands, slavery and the slave trade have played a powerful role in shaping national history and in each nation its unsettling memory has become difficult to ignore.

In the last decade or so, American academic historians have started to consider what many history buffs, museum professionals, business entrepreneurs, and even city council members have known for generations--history sells. The popular wisdom too often heard at past scholarly meetings in the U.S., that people hate history, has been stood on its head. Not only do people not hate history, they flock to places where they can learn more about the past, especially if they feel connected to the past they are learning about. They come to historical sites and history museums by the millions. They tune into history TV, and they go to historical movies to get in touch with their heritage and to find historical context for their lives. This is, of course, good news for professional historians who are dedicated to the teaching of good history in schools and in public places, but there is a strong word of caution to be added. Visitors most often come to historic sites with preconceptions of the history they will encounter there. Some historic places carry particular significance for them beyond the history found there, as sites of heritage. While history may offer points of interest and even fascination, heritage is intensely personal, connecting individuals to the past through their particular community or their ancestors in ways that help to define their own lives in contemporary society. As any historic site interpreter or any museum curator knows only too well, while the broad public is generally fascinated with history, there are some aspects of history, some interpretations of the past, that are sure to raise public hackles. …

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