The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone

By Iyunolu Folayan Osagie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
National Identity: The Dramatic Return
of Memory in Sierra Leone

The literature on collective memory suggests that a society’s selection and ascription of significance to a historical event is not an arbitrary process.1 In public discourse, memory is constructed and deployed to achieve a number of strategic ends. How a particular society understands its past is significant to how that society constructs its present values. The past is “a social construction shaped by the concerns and needs of the present.”2 In other words, because the past helps us interpret our present-day reality, we are careful to select material that will in fact serve the purpose of interpreting the present. Past events are commemorated “only when the contemporary society is motivated to define them as such.”3

Many collective memory scholars believe that the nature and interpretation of present-day reality significantly determine the direction that reconstruction of the past takes. To be sure, both the past and the future exist in present time because our activation of “the events that constitute the referents of the past and future” are based on our interpretation of the present.4 The past is not “final and irrevocable” as so often believed; rather, it is “as hypothetical as the future.” So, whether the past is mythical or implied, its validity lies in the position it occupies in society’s shared consciousness or collective memory; a past action must have occurred for the present to be what it is.5

By extension, the Amistad events are believable because they happened in fact and led to the establishment of the mission in Kaw Mende, Sierra Leone. The Mende mission was the result of abolitionists’ desire both to continue the work of Christianizing the Amistad Africans and to initiate

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