Thursday, August 25, 2011

landscape politics

If you, like me, are an avid fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates, you've probably followed his on-going debate with Matt Yglesias on whether or not the Civil War was "tragic". To summarize a complex and nuanced argument in one sentence, Coates argues the Civil War was not tragic because it is the last, blood-soaked, but ultimately triumphant chapter of a book that had been tragic up to that point: the story of African-American slavery in the U.S.

Coates' recent post features a quote from Mark Twain making a related point about the French Revolution (a.k.a "The Terror"). In his view, the real terror was the way the common people lived under the yoke of the aristocracy. Why should we mourn the vanished power of the usual reign, indeed?

As an archaeologist of landscapes, what struck me were Coates' ending lines:

This really sums up the dilemma for me. For the Civil War we have official cemeteries where presidents lay flowers. For our Long War we have nameless burial sites which people who want to build office parks routinely stumble over. For our Long War we have the Atlantic Ocean.

I've written before about the importance of archaeological landscapes to contemporary people, a well as the importance of protecting sacred places to African-American communities. Coates' article brings into stark relief how significant our choices of landscape and site preservation can be to our presentation and interpretation of our national history, and our commemoration of what is important to our national, community, and individual identities.

Cemeteries without markers and the Long Passage are neither impossible to commemorate, nor to popularize. Cathedrals can be built over the resting places of nameless martyrs. Tombs of the unknown can take pride of place in the national cemetery. The anonymity of the slaves is not the problem, the problem lies in their invisibility to most white Americans. As archaeologists, more of us need to prioritize the creation of archaeological landscapes that make every community's past visible, in all of its terrible beauty.

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