In 1979, Czech Author Milan Kundera wrote that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Kundera’s words accurately illustrate the conflict between popular memory and public history. As Boise embarks on a broad commemoration of its “first” 150 years, historian Lynn Lubamerskys recently suggested that the conflict Kundera described is not particular to Eastern Europe.
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At a recent lecture in downtown Boise, one member of the audience responded to Lubamersky’s challenge with a particularly delicate question: Why 150 years? So often, the work of commemoration is fraught with unacknowledged prejudice and uncomfortable questions. In this case, by artificially limiting Boise’s history to a span of 150 years we quietly assume that the only history of the Boise valley worth recording and celebrating is one of white settlement. Commemoration can be as much a tool for forgetting the past as a means of remembering it if we attempt to create a final version of the past and put contradictions to rest.
In East-Central Europe, commemorative events have historically been viewed as opportunities for social and political reform, explained Lubamersky, an assistant professor of history at Boise State University. In Soviet-era Eastern Europe, information that proved inconvenient to the political authorities was simply omitted, leaving blank lines or “white spaces.” For Lubamersky this term has come to denote the absences that exist in official historical records. In her recent talk, “Memory and History: Inclusion and Exclusion in Public Commemoration,” Lubamersky examined contested commemorations in East-Central Europe as a source of inspiration for Boise’s sesquicentennial celebration. The event, at the February Fettuccine Forum, served as a reminder that even as Boiseans celebrate the past 150 years through shared memories, presented in a diversity of venues and formats, the version of history we gather to commemorate is a contested one. Lubamersky astutely stated (to quiet applause) that historians ought to be more concerned with recording the truth than they are with pleasing the chambers of commerce.
Lubamersky explored the challenges of commemoration through the lens of Eastern-European history. While this model does not translate perfectly to an American city in Boise’s situation, Lubamersky’s presentation offered interesting approaches for marking new ground in the struggle against forgetting. Most communities in East-Central Europe, for example, prefer to take the task of commemoration into their own hands, rather than let the government control how the past will be remembered. Lubamersky cited Facebook, a collective space where anyone with a connection can have a voice, as an important tool for reclaiming commemoration in 2013. The Internet certainly allows for inclusivity and accessibility, but this same ease of access seems to be at odds with the sense of sacredness and weight that is rightly associated with commemorative activity. A commemoration is a ceremony for mourning, as well as celebration. Despite Lubamersky’s justifiable enthusiasm for new media, it seems inadequate that commemoration become a task as easy as searching Google Earth or only as participatory as joining a Facebook group.
By framing commemoration as an opportunity for societies to reassess and to grow, Lubamersky emphasized the necessity of thinking critically and challenging the status quo—reading between the lines in a search for the white spaces that often remain hidden in plain sight. She encouraged Boiseans to take ownership of their own history, emphasizing that everyone has both a right and a responsibility to add their experiences and opinions to the score. As more and more voices are accounted for, a more complete version of history takes shape—messy, multi-layered, and like most any true story worth telling, bittersweet. Most everyone has heard that history is written by the winners, and literature on the fallibility of memory and the role of bias in historical research abounds. While it may seem easy to identify prejudice in a community half a world away, Lubamersky presented the city of Boise with a far greater challenge: confronting the white spaces in our own history that shape both the present and the future.
A selection of images from Lubamersky’s slide presentation highlights lessons and moments from the past worth remembering as we reflect back, and look forward to the next 150 years.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.