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.

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