Strategies of Remembrance and Redress: The Evolution of African American Memory Politics since the 1980s

Solicited by the OAH–Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians Collaborative Committee

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Museums; Public History and Memory


This panel explores the politics of, and contestation over, memory as part of the African American freedom struggle since the 1980s, raising the question of what kinds of memory politics black activists have deployed to advance the struggle for racial equality and justice. From debates over how African Americans should respond to the successful redress movement for Japanese Americans to questions of how black history and racial violence should be remembered and represented in major memory sites, the papers on the panel all consider the strategic politics of redress and remembrance. Jun Abe (Tohoku University) explores African Americans’ attitudes towards the Japanese American redress movement of the 1980s. While Japanese Americans sought the support of other racial groups in their successful bid for reparations for WWII internment, African Americans who had long sought reparations for themselves were ambivalent about what Japanese American redress meant for their own efforts, and whether the movement could be used to advance the black struggle. Akiko Ochiai (Doshisha University) suggests a larger framework for understanding the current state of America’s racial memory politics by contrasting approaches that focus on integration (or including black history more fully in American history) to those that seek to desegregate national memory by challenging and trying to reconcile the memory divide between blacks and whites about America’s racial history. Finally, Fumiko Sakashita (Ritsumeikan University) compares the memorialization of the lynching of Emmett Till at different commemorative sites in Mississippi to that of the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching monument and new museum in Alabama to showcase the diverse ways in which sometimes contradictory memories of the same event are negotiated on the landscape. 

Papers Presented

Rethinking Redress: African American Perspectives on the Japanese American Reparations Movement

This presentation examines how African Americans perceived the Japanese American redress movement during the 1980s. Many studies have emphasized the solidarity among minorities as one of the significant factors that aided the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (CLA), providing a national apology and restitution of $20,000 to each surviving citizen and resident alien of Japanese ancestry who had been interned during World War II. Japanese American redress activists sought support from outside the Japanese American community to show members of Congress that the redress was an issue for not only Japanese Americans but all Americans. However, remaining unexamined across historical studies of the redress movement is the multiplicity and dynamics of individual minority groups. There is a gap in the history of the Japanese American redress movement studies. While studies have emphasized the solidarity between Japanese Americans and other minorities, much less work has been done on other minorities’ specific perspectives on the redress movement. To begin to fill this gap, this presentation focuses on African American attitudes toward the redress movement. As this presentation shows, one African American scholar’s reaction to the CLA was, “Why them and not me?” This presentation will argue that the African American community’s attitude in general was ambivalent. Further, considering the history of the African American reparations movement, the presentation will show that African American activists have struggled to make strategic use of the Japanese American redress movement.

Presented By
Jun Abe, Graduate School of International Cultural Studies, Tohoku University, Japan

Integration/Desegregation of Racial Memories in the Post–Civil Rights Movement Era

Although more than a half century has passed since the official end of racial segregation, racist residue still haunt American society, obstructing not only its understanding of its past but also its pursuit of a more democratic and pluralistic society. While memory making of the civil rights movement and other African American history is much more visible in public space than before, white supremacists refuse to relinquish the memories that glorify a segregated era. Dell Upton, Renee Romano, and others have expressed concerns over this “dual commemoration.” During the civil rights movement, the terms integration and desegregation were used interchangeably, even synonymously. However, from a contemporary perspective, while integration can be taken to refer to the inclusion of African Americans and the centrality of race in American history, real desegregation would require an innovative reconciliation of those frustratingly paralleled memories, showing a more nuanced history of race as well as contestation over its memorization. In this presentation, I will illuminate the discrepancy between integration and desegregation from the viewpoint of memory studies, with reference to the “New Integration” of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and to controversies about memorialization of the Lost Cause. Finally, I will explore possibilities of desegregation with recent efforts to historicize the racialized past.

Presented By
Akiko Ochiai, Doshisha University, Japan

Memorialization of Lynching in the South: Emmett Till, the Legacy Museum, and the Lynching Monument

In recent decades the South has attempted to confront its atrocious past through memorialization of lynching and its victims. This presentation considers such commemorative efforts by paying particular attention to two locations: Mississippi, where the widespread memorialization of Emmett Till has taken place in the 2000s and 2010s, and Montgomery, Alabama, where the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement and Mass Incarceration and the National Monument for Peace and Justice were opened in 2018. Since the renaming of a local highway as the Emmett Till Memorial Highway in 2005, Mississippi has witnessed an unprecedented “memory boom” to remember the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. This presentation explores how diverse and sometimes-contradictory memories of the incident—from the establishment of museums and history markers to the creation of several driving tours—are juxtaposed, contested and negotiated in the rural landscape of Mississippi. While these memory projects in Mississippi focus on one particular case, Montgomery’s new museum and monument, established by a local nonprofit organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), aims to remember lynching victims collectively. By closely looking at the museum’s “Community Remembrance Project” exhibit and the layout and design of the lynching monument, this presentation illuminates how the EJI’s acts of remembrance not only reveal the magnitude of the past atrocities but also offer a space for collective mourning. This paper further scrutinizes limitations embedded in the EJI’s memory projects. Analysis of and comparison between the cases of Mississippi and Alabama will clarify the politics of memorializing racial terror in the South.

Presented By
Fumiko Sakashita, Ritsumeikan University

Session Participants

Chair: Renee Romano, Oberlin College

Presenter: Jun Abe, Graduate School of International Cultural Studies, Tohoku University, Japan

Commentator: George Derek Musgrove, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Presenter: Akiko Ochiai, Doshisha University, Japan

Presenter: Fumiko Sakashita, Ritsumeikan University