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Symbolic accretion and commemoration

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Controversy has erupted in Selma, Alabama, over recent efforts to commemorate the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry officer and founding member of the original Ku Klux Klan. More generally, the controversy in Selma is emblematic of an enduring regional pattern in which contests over the future are couched in terms of the past. Relative to other media, monuments appear to be trustworthy and lasting. Despite this appearance of historical consensus and stability, the city's public spaces are the product of and conduit for ongoing politics. The current conflict pits memorial activists associated with the Civil Rights Movement against neo-Confederates. Interpreted in the context of Selma's increasing promotion of Civil Rights heritage and the recent election of the city's first African American mayor, the Forrest affair highlights the utility of the concept of symbolic accretion for understanding the complexities of commemorating antagonistic histories in the same place. Symbolic accretion describes the appending of commemorative elements onto already existing memorials. The situation in Selma suggests two different types of symbolic accretion, allied and antithetical. More generally, the act of commemoration itself may be understood as a process of accretion in that heretofore anonymous spaces are formally recognized via the grafting of memorial elements.

Keywords: commemoration; memory; place; race; symbolic accretion

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, Indiana University at Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN 46202‐5140, USA

Publication date: September 1, 2004

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