What Memory Does

What Memory Does

“When memory hurts, it fails to forgive or forget. Where memory hurts, it fails, blocked out by pain, becoming an arena of amnesia; and when memory fails, it hurts” (Okediji, p111).

I have been carrying around Okediji’s quote for over a month now. When I read it, I immediately thought of Karen Fields:

As researchers, we bind ourselves to skepticism about memory and to definite methodological mistrust of rememberers who are our informants. We are fully attentive to the fact that memory fails.

But memory also succeeds. It succeeds enormously and profoundly; for it is fundamental to human life, not to say synonymous with it. A large capacity for memory is an integral component of the complex brain that sets Homo sapiens apart. And, without it, the social life that is characteristic of our species would be inconceivable. Thus Nietzsche spoke of memory in terms of ability from which much if not all else is constructed. So although nothing is more certain than that memory fails, equally, nothing is more certain than that memory succeeds (150).

Memory hurts: it fails to forgive or forget. Despite this, memory succeeds because we need it to do so. It is how we make sense of our place(s) in the world. Yet pain can create amnesia, physically and psychologically.

My question: Is there ever a time when memory hurts and we find a place to forgive without forgetting? Is there ever a time when something overrides the pain and makes this possible? If so, what?

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I contemplate this. African American experiences have created memories that hurt. Yet, many of our ancestors or elders have found ways to forgive things other people may not have forgiven. Have they forgotten the past? Or have they made choices to select what to remember?

After thinking about memory hurting and failing for a while, I saw this story in the Chicago Tribune: “Navy veteran finishing college killed in robbery”. I invite you to watch the video and listen to what his mother says.

From the article:
“He brought me a water lily in a vase last weekend,” she [Katherine Burns, mother] said.

“I can’t heal if I harbor bad feelings and I just have to be at peace, because we all got to pass, we all got a date,” she said, “But it just shouldn’t have been that way, and the poor family (of the gunman) is going to suffer too.”

In the video, Ms. Burns said (to paraphrase) that her son was in good spirits the last time she saw him, and that she believed that certain people are put in certain spots, he was in the right spot. At the time he was going to see one of his sons. She also said: “all his debts had been paid. He owed us no more”.

The water lily: I could not help crying: The juxtaposition of how her son died to his last act of love towards here and the beauty of the water lily. Ms. Burns made me think of how, perhaps, Africans chose to remember the “water lily” even when cotton bled their fingers.

I don’t know what this hurt feels like. I can only imagine that the memory of her son’s death hurts. Memory hurts. However, her words are one of love, healing, forgiveness; an understand that adding anger to suffering results in more suffering. The sound of her voice and her words seem to come from a deep place of knowing that this beautiful child of hers – up to the last moments of his life – had lived fully and had done what he was supposed to do.

Does the hurt return? Does it get lost in the “arena of amnesia”? How many arenas of amnesia are there in African American communities? In Black communities worldwide?

Derek Walcott: “…In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the new world…”

How and at what point and in what place do we enter this arena to find the “true history”?

Work(s) Cited
Fields, Karen. (1994). What one cannot remember mistakenly. In Eds. Genevieve Fabre & Robert O’Meally. History and memory in African-American culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Okediji, Moyo. 2003. The Shattered Gourd: Yoruba Forms in Twentieth-Century American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Walcott, Derek. 1998. “The Muse of History”. In What the Twilight Says: Essays. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 36-64.

Mindfully [Delayed] Re-Entry

Yesterday I returned my attention to writing my dissertation. Part II: Critical analysis of Part I, the creative component. I had hoped to begin sooner, but realized that it would not be possible after teaching fall, spring, and summer semesters. All of me needed time to breathe, pay attention; time to become mindful again of why I am doing this work in the first place (because it is very easy to forget and become discouraged), and to understand what I had learned from myself and my students that would change how I approached this last phase of the work.

I also began training as a doula, so I also had to think about what I was learning from the children/ancestors waiting to be born. As we know, children and the elderly work in and on their own time. So, doula training and tending to mothers and families has taught me to be patient, wait, re-assess, ask the “right” question, pay attention to what really needs to be done, and to know for whom I am present and why.

So, instead of buckling down to write the first weeks of August, I spent three weeks talking to other Yoruba practitioners-scholars, artists, and friends to help me burrow through the unmanaged ideas in my head and notes in my journal, attending to a mom-to-be, and watching programs about physics, the universe, time, and space. All while attempting to not be obsessed with my research.

Although I am behind on my own schedule, I am unconcerned. It would have done me no good to begin writing when I was unclear about what I wanted to say or how to integrate all that had happened between the year I wrote the first component and now.

I remind myself that writing the dissertation is not like writing the book for publication. It is very much like being pregnant, just a longer gestation period. As a creative writer, I know it could take one year to “perfect” a few poems, longer for a prose manuscript. So, writing the dissertation is like writing several intensely beautiful final drafts. I am, in fact, still developing my theories and practices. I draw conclusions with the information I have at the moment. However, if I am mindful of what and how I write, it will also be the beginning of the book, more developed, better written, than what might be expected. I will have an amazing “child” who will grow to be an adult one day.

I expect a lot of myself. Hence, writing and preparing to write teaches me to let go of those expectations every now and then. Like this blog. I had hoped to do it monthly; however, I’ve decided that quarterly or bi-monthly is better, or simply whenever I feel inspired or something is relevant to share. I also wanted to focus on texts I was reading. I can still do that; however, I remind myself what I tell my students: we enter history and make meaning of events through our personal experiences.

So, I have to pay attention to the real life and real people around me to write. The people in my life are not theories or statistics – although on any given day they have probably already gotten to the praxis of any subject sooner than I can.

Seeing what and who is around me is the way I remain mindful of my research question: what worldview (or worldviews) help Black people make meaning of the past, present and future? Wade Nobles writes that one’s worldview “… determines the nature of reality, i.e. how a culture understands the nature of reality” (in Conyers, p32).

Put another way: How can what I do – am doing – challenge what we have come to accept as “reality”? How can our responses help us develop tools to change that reality so we may all live fully at peace with ourselves and each other?

Work(s) Cited
Conyers, James. 2011. African American Consciousness: Past and Present. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.