Forgetting the Anacostia River: The Removal of Black and Brown Lives from Washington, DC's Memory

Authors: Suzanne Nimoh*, Department of Geography and the Environment
Topics: Urban Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: settler colonization, Washington DC, nation-making, memorialization, collective memory, racialization
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Roosevelt 3, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The United States capital of Washington, DC is characterized by architectural memorialization, which guides visitors’ memories towards an imagined past and present. In this paper I argue material culture in Washington, DC creates an imagined national history which elides violent realities within the District. In particular I show how memorialization in DC forgets Black and Indigenous existence through erasing legacies of racial violence. I do so by attending to the National Mall and the Anacostia River, the latter being a life source for generations of Black and Indigenous residents. The River also demarcates racial segregation in DC, with Black residents who live east of the river experiencing environmental racism whilst their communities are gentrified. Grounding my analysis in Southeast, DC and the monuments of the Mall, I ask, what parallels exist between the colonization of the Potomac Region and the erasure of Indigenous and Black residents in Southeast, DC? And, how has the manipulation of the built and natural environment of DC affected local and national memory? To answer these questions I combine ethnography and oral history analysis with an examination of local public records. I center my discussion on DC oral history collective “Anacostia Unmapped” to show how longtime residents remember and retell the history of the city, in contrast to nationalist memories. My findings offer a comparison of toxic nation-making as experienced by Indigenous and Black communities along the Anacostia River, and the expressions of this selective national memory in the present day.

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