Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Williams College
Christina Simko Webpage
ABSTRACT | American Collective Identity at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
In April 2018, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened its National Memorial for Peace and Justice in downtown Montgomery. Located only a mile from the first White House of the Confederacy, the memorial honors the victims of lynching while also seeking to elevate this long-suppressed past within a national narrative that traces continuities from slavery to mass incarceration. Amidst the current resurgence of white nationalism in the United States, a nation where previous efforts to address difficult pasts have frequently been stymied by contestation, the EJI opening appeared anomalous. Though it was widely publicized in both local and national media, the memorial attracted little resistance. What enabled the project to proceed so smoothly, even in such a fragmented political environment? Through a close reading of EJI founder Bryan Stevenson’s public speechmaking, as well as the memorial itself, I argue that the memorial’s success is in part a product of EJI’s subtle attention to two fundamental narrative tropes that, together, co-constitute American national identity: (1) the “city on a hill” trope, where the United States is understood as a moral exemplar on an international stage, and (2) the “victimhood” trope, where national suffering is understood as a defining feature of collective life. The analysis thus speaks to the challenges of creating consensual narratives about the national past in a time of political polarization.