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Creating Common Memory to Build Common Ground

Tracey McKee – May 12, 2022

I was reading through some of the posts on the Brownicity blog the other day, and I came across a quote in Erin Phelps’ November ’21 post that really resonated with me. In the post, Erin shared about reconnecting to her indigenous roots here in North Carolina. This reconnection to her ancestors’ community has fulfilled her and made her feel more alive. She encourages us to consider the idea of community and, specifically, how common memory plays a vital role in creating community. Erin referenced Georges Erasmus, an indigenous leader of the Dene people in Canada: 

Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created. 

Common memory. Sharing in the same past. I read that a couple of times. The words resonated with me. Might this idea provide some insight into how we address the racial tensions in our country? If we were to think of our nation as one big community, could we say that we have a common memory?   

As so many of us are learning, the US history we were taught in school was not a full account of our country’s past. We now know that the troubling parts of our history were either glossed over or sugarcoated. This practice of minimizing regrettable historic periods has cheated us of a common, national memory. Underplaying the toll Native Americans paid when their land was taken from them, portraying enslaved people as often happy and content with their circumstances, and diminishing how violent the fight for civil rights was are examples of how our history was massaged. The cost of downplaying our inimical history is that whole groups of people in our country have been left with a historical account that misrepresents their experience, and it has left the rest of us ignorant. We have been given a tangled, woven mess. It is no wonder we feel disunited. We are not standing on the same understanding; we have no common memory.  

Source: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/business-network-concept-human-resources-group-of-businesspeople-gm1209663120-350123199

How do we overcome this? We must choose to learn and seek the truth so that we can amend the history we think we know. Having an unbiased account would go so far in helping us to begin to close the caverns of misunderstanding that separate us. If we took time to learn how historically bad policies and short-sighted laws affected our citizens and recognized that scars remain from those policies and regulations, might our perceptions be molded to see our country and its people more clearly? I think so. A truthful, accurate history, or common memory, can guide us to form better opinions, make better decisions, and create better policies in the future. And most important, it helps us to reweave our bonds with one another because we can acknowledge the regrettable chapters of our past. We can respect the people who carry the aftermath of those chapters to this day. But it won’t happen if we don’t make an effort. 

It doesn’t have to be hard. I love to read, so I have been reading books that usher me into other times and places – times and places told from points of view different from mine. For you, it could be traveling to see monuments, libraries, or exhibits that offer more complete insight into our country’s history. Or, maybe you are a movie buff or TV person. There are so many great shows and movies that offer us a glimpse into other cultures and histories. And, of course, talking with people who are not like us is always a great way to build common memory. As they help us add to our understanding, we affirm their experience. And imagine what it could mean for our country if we discovered and held onto more common ground.



Tracey is a blog contributor for Brownicity. Her background includes training and organizational development, employee relations, and corporate recruiting in Charlotte’s banking industry.  A wife and mother of two daughters, Tracey began her racial healing journey when she participated in What Lies Between Us in 2018.  She was moved to participate in the workshop as her concern grew about the number of police shootings where unarmed black men were killed.  Colin Kaepernick’s  kneeling during the singing of the national anthem solidified her desire to learn and do more about ending racism.