The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner’s famous line comes from a harrowing tale about two women in Mississippi. One is a Black nursemaid, Nancy, who is to be hanged for the murder of a baby girl. The other is her white employer, Temple, the child’s mother, who ekes out the semblance of respectable married life. Neither can escape the vengeful reappearance of deeds done many years earlier.
Since the killing of George Floyd, a black American man, under the knee of a white police officer, the past has been reemerging with extra ferocity. In the US and Europe, people have been pulling down statues of slavers and racists, renaming institutions and streets, and trying in countless other ways to change how the past is represented in the now.
In some cases, these actions seem so obvious it’s hard to believe they weren’t taken long ago. For more than a century, Mississippi, Faulkner’s home, has had a flag containing the Confederate battle standard, adopted by white supremacist legislators a generation after the Civil War. It’s coming down only now.
In other cases, the gestures may be heartfelt, but they come off as awkward. When King Philippe of Belgium sent his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past” to the Congo, which his country colonized brutally under the reign of one of his ancestors, he still couldn’t bring himself simply to apologize.
Nor could Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, which also has a history of trading slaves -- because some people “may find that painful,” as he said in parliament. He neglected to mention that many other people find the very omission of such an apology painful.
And then there are reactions like Donald Trump’s. The entire debate about statues and symbols is “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values,” the US president said against the background of Mount Rushmore and its granite faces depicting four of his predecessors, including two who owned slaves. Trump’s approach -- selective denial -- is deceitful and insensitive. It’s also cynical because his intent is to divide and mobilize a backlash.
The noble way is to confront the past honestly, as Faulkner’s Temple does eventually. This path, however, inevitably leads to frustration and anguish. Sometimes the past indicts us without mercy. Other times it’s excruciatingly ambiguous.
As Rutte asked in parliament, can you “hold people who are alive today responsible for the past?” In one sense, doing so seems unfair, indeed impossible. But in another sense, it also seems unfair not to. After all, many American blacks still suffer the aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow, and many whites indulge in their inherited privilege.
This moral ambiguity is why debates about reparations can never be satisfactorily settled, and not only when it comes to indemnifying the descendants of slaves in the US Poles, Greeks and others regularly demand that Germany pay reparations for Nazi atrocities. Similar tensions exist between Japan and its former victims in Asia. But unless reparations are paid by the actual perpetrators directly to their victims, they can be counterproductive. Whoever ends up paying may feel absolved of all future responsibility. And both sides may inadvertently demean the original crime by haggling over its “price.”
The most moving expression of Faulkner’s simple and powerful message -- that the past is condemned to keep living inside us -- is this essay by Caroline Randall Williams. Genetically, she is more than half “white;” sociologically, she is “black.” Like many Americans of color, she’s the descendant of the victims and the perpetrators -- of black female slaves and the white owners who raped them for generations. As she writes, “My body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
Reexamining our public monuments is actually the easier part of dealing with the past. Ruthless honesty, combined with respect for ambiguity, must start here. I often stand in the heart of Berlin, gazing at the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an undulating sea of concrete slabs. Then I turn around and look at the statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe across the street, lost in eternal contemplation. Germany’s lowest and highest, both in the same place, both at once.
The harder part is living with a past that never dies. We cannot edit or rewrite it. So we must understand it and accept its exhortation. “This country can only be loved with a broken heart,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on the anniversary of the end of World War II. Maybe that’s also true of the US and other countries -- and of us as individuals. Maybe we can only love ourselves with a broken heart.
Faulkner’s Temple eventually understands that it was ultimately she who was responsible for her daughter’s killing. She goes to plead for Nancy’s life, but is too late to save her. Perhaps in our own way, we can -- each of us -- do better.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.