I recently read Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Glaude elegantly described what he called the “value gap”:
When I say that the value gap is rooted, in part, in our national refusal to remember, I am not invoking some politically correct notion of history that simply includes previously excluded groups. How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.
As I completed my paper for this year’s Delta Symposium, Glaude’s book informed how I analyzed the creation of Decatur’s Authorized Heritage Discourse and the city’s historic preservation program. Glaude’s value gap is the most apt way to view Decatur and its relationship to African Americans, their history, and their historic resources.
It’s not that Decatur hates African Americans in an old-school white supremacist fashion. Rather, Decaturites (city officials and many residents) simply don’t place as high a value on African Americans and their history as they do whites and the historic places with deep attachment among the city’s white residents. It shows in their policies towards affordable housing, taxation, community engagement, education, and, yes, historic preservation.
If anything, historic preservation best illustrates Decatur’s value gap and the city’s white-knuckled grasp on Post-Jim Crow white supremacy. This point was driven home to me two weeks ago when I received a phone call from an angry Decatur resident.
The caller is a 67-year-old man who was raised in the Allen Wilson Terrace apartments and who was among the last students to cycle through the city’s equalization schools. He had just visited the redeveloped Beacon complex for the first time since the schools were demolished and new history exhibits were installed. “It’s really incomplete because a lot of it has been left out,” he said as he explained why he reached out to me.
He, like others who have written and called me since I began writing about Decatur’s racialized heritage narrative, was deeply upset by how African American history was being distorted and silenced in the city.
John Keys, a white former Decatur resident and former historic preservation commission member, offered his opinion on why Decatur devalues African American history. He explained how the city carefully crafts its municipal message to protect its image.
According to Keys, manipulating history is part of that process: “They don’t really care about the gentrification of this community, obliteration of its history, or in getting involved in anything that smacks of ‘conflict’–which means they don’t want to take on ‘controversial issues’,” he wrote to me in July 2013.
I asked Keys about this in an interview the following year. “I don’t hear a whole lot of discussion about that and you know, at the Decatur Arts Festival and the Book Festival and the beer festival and the wine festival, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to talk about those things,” Keys said as we discussed African American history in Decatur and the lack of preservation of black history sites. “And there’s certainly not at the city commission meetings. They don’t encourage that sort of thing.”
Once a city more than 50% African American and with many African American historic places, now Decatur has few African Americans left and nearly none intact African American historic sites. Decatur is a living laboratory where the medium (disruptive and damaging change through gentrification and demographic inversion) truly is the message. It’s where observers can see how the past, its stories, and its sites oftentimes are sorted out in ways that complement demographic changes in the community.
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein