Total Recall: Restoring the Public Memory of Enslaved African-Americans and the American System of Slavery Through Rectificatory Justice and Reparations

38 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2011 Last revised: 9 Mar 2012

Date Written: Summer 2011


As a matter of public memory, America should not forget the history of slavery, those involved, or its consequences. Yet, considerable social and political pressures suppress and restrain our public remembrance and foster our neglect of this fundamental feature of American history and identity. The failure to recognize the essential role of slavery in the construction and development of American cities, states, and of the nation as whole reflects a common dismissal of the significance of the contributions those enslaved Americans made. While historians, economists, and a small body of specialists continue to examine slavery, its participants, and its consequences, as a matter of public history, slavery is of marginal importance at best. Apart from the work of specialists, public discussions are far too rare. Most primary and secondary educational institutions have an incredibly thin coverage of the subject, and college students need not consider it at all outside of a very small number of disciplines. Collective memory studies indicate that individuals remember events as groups. This speaks to the way that black and white Americans have different collective memories of slavery, and it will discuss why these differ. Because of these differences in our memories, America needs to have a total recall of slavery. This can be accomplished through the development of a shared public memory of slavery and of the blacks who were enslaved. A robust public examination of slavery would help to correct this void in America's memory. This Article examines the relationship between public memory, rectificatory justice, and the discourse on reparations. It details a proposal that will develop a collective memory about slavery that establishes a common history of slavery in America. The proposal strives to correct the fractured narrative and ignorance that predominates our shared understandings of slavery as an institution, the contributions and lives of those it affected, and its significance to our national identity. Specifically, this Article promotes the creation, development, and support of monuments, memorials, museums, research grants, and educational programs to commemorate, honor, recognize, and humanize the roughly twenty generations of enslaved Africans and their contributions to the American society. These efforts will reframe our national identity, restore the honor of millions of forgotten forebears, and set the correct framework for all future generations of Americans. Although the individuals and their immediate families who suffered the offense have all died, the memory of the grievous indignities inflicted upon them remains and calls out for correction. To restore the honor and the dignity denied them in life, this Article contends that the commemoration, examination, and celebration of their lives and contributions represents a necessary, if not sufficient, means of redress and reparation for the federal government's role in creating and maintaining America's racialized system of slavery.

Keywords: Slavery in America, National Identity, Memories, Rectificatory Justice, Discourse on Reparations, Honor, Dignity, Federal Government

JEL Classification: I2, J1, J7, K1, K4, N, N3, N4

Suggested Citation

Waterhouse, Carlton Mark, Total Recall: Restoring the Public Memory of Enslaved African-Americans and the American System of Slavery Through Rectificatory Justice and Reparations (Summer 2011). Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 14, p. 703, 2011, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Research Paper No. 2012-04, Available at SSRN:

Carlton Mark Waterhouse (Contact Author)

Howard University School of Law ( email )

2900 Van Ness Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
United States

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