Seven years ago, my brother Andrew began traveling around the United States, seeking out historic sites that were already memorialized—that is, clearly marked. But he soon discovered that some of the most interesting places of memory had no sign, no marker, no candlelit vigil. They remained unmarked. Andrew is a photographer; I’m a historian. We see the world through different lenses. But we both understood that just as people make their own history, they also make their own memory-practices. Some of the most powerful photographs in the book that our collaboration produced—Marked, Unmarked, Remembered—capture the collective efforts of individuals and communities to refuse to let memory rest or disappear.
Such active forms of commemoration come in many guises. It might be a contemplative moment of a former internee visiting a Japanese American internment camp from World War Two. Or the insistence of West Virginia coal miners that their community, and not the coal company responsible for the deaths of their fellow miners, should commemorate their fallen comrades. Another example is the impromptu memorial to Mike Brown thrown up like a revolutionary barricade on the streets of Ferguson.
The photographs here of the annual prayer for those who perished in the Middle Passage; of Juneteenth, the celebration of Texas slave emancipation in Galveston; and of Jesse Washington’s descendants’ demand for recognition on the 2016 centenary of his horrific lynching in Waco, Texas, all represent instances of the active, forceful, and insistent practice of remembering that marks, in these instances, the African American past. They serve as a reminder that memory is not just an internal process, but one that takes place in the world, and thus may provide hope and possibility while acknowledging a painful history. Erected with a purpose in mind, monuments and memorials remain mute and inert until imbued with meaning by human beings.