The indigestible narratives of the American past

Plan Author

  • Emma Thacker, 2014

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Tell about the South: the South in the American Literary Imagination
  • Course: Modernity & Postmodernity in Cultural History
  • Tutorial: Exploration of William Faulkner’s Light in August
  • Tutorial: Slave Narratives and Contemporary Representations of Slavery

Plan Description

Representing the Past: Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Jules Chametsky, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Robert Lowell’s poem ‘For the Union Dead’ commemorates the death of Union soldiers in the Civil War in the unveiling of the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common. As historian Edward T. Linenthal notes, Lowell refers to this monument as a “fishbone in the city’s throat” because the ideals it commemorates remain unrealized. “Every nation,” writes Linenthal, “has its own set of indigestible narratives, its “fishbone” stories.”  These “indigestible narratives” are the enduring legacies of history and memory that remain stuck in the conscience of a nation. In the United States, many of our “fishbone” stories are connected to race and particularly tied to the practice and legacy of slavery.

This Plan of Concentration is a response to Linenthal’s contention that there is a “historical and moral importance of engaging in America’s indigestible stories.”How is an American history patterned with racism and racial inequalities remembered? How do memories take place on collective and national levels and how do they evolve in the lives of individuals? What is lost by relying on selective memory to create an understanding of the American past? I draw on the disciplines of both history and literature to explore these questions. The production of historical memory and the “history of memory” are at the core of this Plan. The discipline of history draws on a wide range of sources and material to construct a complex and rich understanding of the past. The discipline of Literature creates an imagined context through which to explore and enrich themes of historical memory.


“The news media has not always portrayed King as the uncontested and undebatably effective national leader of the civil rights movement. Before the March the news media did not regard King as a firmly established leader, and the media often questioned his experience andtactics. In general, King was a highly controversial figure, as evidenced by 1960s Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News magazines, all of which dissected his every word and action and vacillated frequently when regarding his political beliefs. The months preceding the 1963 March, for example, illuminate mixed portrayals of King by the media. The summer of 1963 is the historical moment when Birmingham, Alabama became the center of the Civil Rights Movement, and Bull Connor, former Public Commissioner of the City of Birmingham, became the face of white supremacist opposition to the movement”

”Toni Morrison speaks against silencing the African American community, and speaks, furthermore, against others imagining the lives of African Americans. Morrison, as a black female writer and thinker, is an example of a voice of agency in a group of people, long marginalized, oppressed and unheard. Her novels imagine the struggles of the black community, thereby giving voice to an underrepresented history of racial tension. Although the history of the United States is a history inseparably intertwined with the system of slavery, the suppression of the memory of slavery is stronger than the will to recognize and rectify the problems left in its wake.”


The inspiration for this Plan was my professors and my love of American history. I took a Toni Morrison tutorial, where I read most of her novels and talked about them with Gloria. Through the process of Plan I learned how to be diligent.