My mother and her only sibling, my aunt, are losing their memories. Though their short-term memory has all but disappeared, their shared memories of childhood still remain vivid. One of their neurologists described the brain’s storage of memory and the onset of dementia as a file cabinet, with the most recently filed folders disappearing first, and the ones stored long ago as the last to go.
But this current conversation is not the first time Americans and political leaders have attempted to talk honestly about slavery. In the 1930s, the federal government began an unprecedented and revolutionary discussion of slavery and its legacy by hiring unemployed writers to interview the last living generation of African Americans to have experienced slavery. The Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project sparked conversations between direct descendants of Confederate slaveholders and former slaves. This project, with its radical objective of recovering and reclaiming African Americans’ experiences with slavery and freedom, along with its failings and limitations, has much to tell us about why conversations about the past of slavery remain so difficult for Americans today.