Where It Happened: Documenting the American Places We’d Like to Forget

So also with a concrete boat ramp leading into a river right outside Natchez, Mississippi. A similar haunting effect is present in another shot commemorating a Plains Indians site, this one a few riders on horseback making their way toward the place where, in 1862, 38 Sioux Indians were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in the country’s history. When the sun is present, it is almost always for the purpose of casting shadows, like the multiple lines cast across the grass by a stand of trees at the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre near Eads, Colorado, where a gathering of peaceful Arapahoe Indians were murdered by a fanatical cavalry regiment. The black-and-white photos in this collection are generally dreamy and peaceful, shot mainly in ghostly tones, and suggesting the passage of time, not the menace of future violence. But the photo says: Stay away; this is still the white people’s place, Indians not wanted. ¤
Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and an associate professor of English at Chapman University. One of its pilings is tagged with graffiti: a pair of swastikas and the letters KKK. There are points both accidental and deliberate where the presentism of the past makes itself apparent. Only in extremely rare instances are these places deemed historically important enough to be commemorated, and only in harmony with contemporary politics that can identify clear moral contours. Does the land conspire to swallow them up, returning them to a place of forgetting? These discomfiting questions receive brilliant and memorable treatment in the new collection Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory in which the Indiana University history professor Alex Lichtenstein and his brother, the Brooklyn photographer Andrew Lichtenstein, travel about the country to document the state of nature at the United States’s places of shame and violence. While it was not the authors’ responsibility to cite every work of scholarship that covered this unusual territory, Foote’s absence seems noteworthy. Don’t expect a depressing read, however. Nelson and his mother Laura were lynched in 1911 on a now-vanished railroad bridge, North Canadian River Bridge, Okemah, Oklahoma. Maroon Fort, Franklin County, Florida, a former refuge for escaped slaves. A pair of photos shot on the unmarked terrain of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion demonstrate the amnesia of Southampton County, Virginia. Site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Eads, Colorado, where unarmed Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians were slaughtered by a volunteer militia. Are these places holy or unholy? We see the horses, but the riders’ faces remain curiously out of focus and obscured. Think of the secular holy ground of the World Trade Center site, the swan-white memorial over the wreck of the USS Arizona, the marble obelisks looming over any number of Revolutionary War battlefields. A field shrouded in kudzu in Martin County, Kentucky, stands for the 1960s War on Poverty, for example, and a man lurking outside an office building in Montgomery, Alabama, is caught waiting for a Confederate Heritage Rally. There is no way to know, notes Alex Lichtenstein, if the vandal even knew of the dark history of the spot. Site of King Philip’s Death, Miery Swamp, Bristol, Rhode Island, marking the end of the last attempt by Native Americans to drive British settlers out of southern New England. A drainage culvert off Oklahoma Highway 74 looks completely unremarkable, even ugly, but it takes on heightened significance when the reader’s eye flicks to the left side of the open book to see that it was the place where nuclear plant worker and whistleblower Karen Silkwood crashed her car and died the night in 1974 when she was carrying a damning file of documents to a reporter for The New York Times. The caption makes it clear that the agent is positioned to guard the visit of then–US Attorney General Eric Holder, who was there to lay a wreath. The most memorable include two Lakota women gazing at a federal officer wearing sunglasses and grim expression from across a flimsy wire fence outside the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The Lichtensteins made the excellent choice to put images on the right, which is the first impression to the reader. Approximate place where L. Just as some college classes are better than others, some of the commentary lands with genuine impact and some in strings of empty phrases that fail to engage the reader. By contrast, the viewer stares straight into the expressionless faces of an interracial couple at the annual celebration of Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas — the recollection of June 19, 1865, when freed slaves were given grand promises of land and liberty, which still remain largely unfulfilled. Which leads to the broader question posed to the American reader by this transcendent and haunting collection: what do we know of our own country? As the title implies, some are marked with a physical memorial, others are sites of periodic ceremonies, but most are completely bereft of anything tangible to set them apart from the rest of the national monoscape. Why would we want to recall the place in a remote canyon where a vigilante gang led by some of the most prominent citizens of Tucson descended on a camp of Apache Indians and slaughtered most of them, selling the rest into slavery? A dull scene that becomes sinister when the reader sees the caption to the left: “Slave Port.” This was where slaves, traded internally within the United States, were taken off Mississippi River steamboats on their way to a miserable life chopping cane in Louisiana. ¤
Photos courtesy of West Virginia University Press. Then comes the significance. The project owes a lot to the work of Kenneth Foote, the author of the landmark book on gruesome landmarks,   Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (disclosure: one of my graduate thesis advisors). Yet these, paradoxically, emerge as the most powerful photos in the collection. The danger with such photos — as anyone who loves landscape knows — is that the camera is often pointed at nothing, especially when the site offers no feature to engage the eye. Another minor quibble: The weakest photos in the collection are framed as a crystallization of a lengthy social process and not a specific event. The blood of the past still lies unquiet, making psychic spatters. The file disappeared, along with all trace that anything had happened in this ditch. These shots and others lack the chilling immediacy of a specific place and event. DECEMBER 18, 2017
WE DRIVE and walk every day over the places where somebody once wept or bled; the earth is a repository of invisible pain. The jabs the book delivers are to the conscience, not the amygdala. But what of those places that are too ethically ambiguous or nationally embarrassing to remember? The reader cannot help but see the outlines of human figures, watching silently. They may be effaced of their original character, they may be reused, they may be enshrined, or they may be obliterated from the earth. Living human figures start showing up with regularity in the last third of the book, mostly in the context of mourners or visitors to a site during an anniversary commemoration. Grouped between the three series of extraordinary photos are interstitial essays, written by history professors from institutions like the University of Central Florida, Northwestern University, Indiana University, and the University of Washington Tacoma. Foote developed a categorization of how the authorities — government or otherwise — deal with these uncomfortable sites. D. And the place where an African-American teenager and his mother were lynched on the shores of the Canadian River near Okemah, Oklahoma, is now bridged with a concrete slab. The structure of the Lichtensteins’ book — indeed, the very title — mimics this taxonomy of trauma.