Memory: Maya Angelou

In “Maya Angelou showed how to survive rape and racism – and still be joyful”, Tayari Jones reminded me why I stopped short of crying when a friend informed me that Maya Angelou had died: too much to remember that I did not want to remember.

The older I get, however, the more I tell myself: I can choose what to remember and what to forget. I can re/create myself as many times as I want. As I enter the second half- century of my life, I tell myself I have earned this right.

But today, I allowed myself to remember and cry just a little as I participated in Day 8 of the Black Feminist Breathing Chorus Meditation: Give Me a Song of Hope and a World Where I Can Sing It (honoring the work of Pauli Murray).

Memories of the slave trade come in the “slide of my feet against wood floors”.

Memories of my childhood come when honoring the life of Maya Angelou.

At a time when I had learned to eat my voice in order to stay alive, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gave me permission to speak about what had and was happening to me through the pen and page. It gave me courage to reclaim a voice I had lost during the Middle Passage and when I was six years old.

I came into possession of this book almost ten years after it was first published. I was not yet a teenager. It would be years before I would have the courage to read my poems out loud to audiences.

I would do this only after getting permission from Mary Webster, an amazing elder. She came to my house to read my poems, to testify that I was not alone as a “survivor”, to pray with me that I would always have the courage and support needed to speak a truth that would help heal others.

Unfortunately, once I began to share my work publicly I would discover that the number of girls and women who had survived sexual abuse and rape were more than I was prepared to imagine. And, this was just in the community of women I knew.

Maya Angelou gave me the courage to scream out loud. Since then, I’ve learned to turn my screams into a keening that transform into songs of hope for a world where young girls and women don’t have to be afraid of anything, even the things they can’t see in the dark.

I have not been afraid for some time, at least not that kind of afraid that physically paralyzed me at various times, or made me afraid to be with other people. But, I am afraid in other ways.

Today, May 30. 2014. Headline: “Malaysian teenager gang-raped by 38 men”. In my rather understated way, I can only say: By far one of the most disturbing of the day. So disturbing that typing this, which forces me to think about what might have happened and what will happen to this young woman, makes me want to disassociate, something I never did as a child.

But I won’t. Maya Angelou made it possible and necessary to remain present to confront my own fear and anger when reading or hearing these stories, to be present for the young girl or woman without judgment or pity. And, she made it a life-long mandate to not remain silent about the stories that most move me to anger and action.

Memory comes whenever it wants to, which is of course never on my schedule, and at rather prosaic moments that make their ways into poems. For example: A discussion of Boko Haram leads to a remembering or re-experiencing of the African Transatlantic Slave Trade and young girls being stolen and sold in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The older I get, more of my elders and mentors die. Even with the right to choose what I want to remember and forget, I know that I don’t want to forget some things, especially the painful things.

I want only to be able to choose how I interpret and make meaning of what happened to me.

Thanks to Maya Angelou, from the beginning, even before I knew that letting my voice free would mean choosing a life-long war on injustice, I chose to be joyful, whole. I chose to Love. I chose to heal.

And, I chose to teach others to do the same.

In doing so, I am following the path that Maya Angelou and others hacked clear with a machete, not even a sharpened one at that, with their own bodies, their own souls.

The other reason I stopped short of crying: There are not enough tears I could ever cry to express my gratitude.

Memory Keeping: Contemplating Digital Entry

It will seem strange, perhaps, to some of you that I would talk about Facebook here after not posting anything for months.

But what better space for a Memory Keeper to contemplate what it means to remember and create memories in the age of digital and social media?

After much resistance to joining Facebook, I was finally persuaded by members of the birthing community to “just do it”. So, I made a promise several months ago to my postpartum doula sisters that I would join by the end of May. No need to tell you when: Facebook records all.

After two days of learning how to begin, and then beginning and seeking advice from friends, I find myself overwhelmed by the amount of information I encounter every time I access my page. There is so much happening in the world! And I can’t possibly find it all by myself.

I find myself greatly pleased with reconnecting to people I have not spoken with for months and years, even learning about personal triumphs and challenges. While my initial desire is to send a sympathy or birthday card after reading an announcement, I have stopped to ask myself: what am I doing with all those cards I’ve archived for years?

I’m also connecting to others I’ve never met through the community I am rediscovering.

This has been fascinating: quotes, photos, music, books, projects – new ways of thinking and dreaming. I can comment or not. I can like or not. I can share without comments. I can ignore. Or, I can spend 5 minutes meditating on a beautiful photograph posted by Karma called “Fire on the Mountain”.

Choices: I always like having choices.

Despite all of this, however, yesterday I realized in a moment of quiet on the bus that all this connecting and information access was not what fascinated me most about my new venture.

What fascinates me most – at this moment – begins, quite literally, with my “birth”. The announcement of my Facebook “birth” coupled with friend requests has marked the start of my FB life. I’ve been welcomed by friends who know the labor it took for me to get here.

Everything appearing above “Joined Facebook” will document my thoughts/life and the thoughts/lives of my friends by date, time, month, and year. I can delete or hide what I don’t want. A fluid, ever-changing time cloud capsule.

True, we many not be posting our deepest thoughts that we once wrote in a journal or told to a good friend over a glass of wine – or maybe we are – but we are posting what we think is important at any time, any moment – now – this time in our lives and to the lives of others.

You can meditate on a lot at a stoplight.

By the time the light turned green, I felt the need to be very selective and careful. As a Memory Keeper, I am awed by my freedom to choose. So often, what I remember is not always up to me. As a Reiki Master and Healing Facilitator, I have learned that what the body remembers is everything and nothing, neither which is made available to us when we desire. But now at the tips of my fingers, everything is available to me when I want it.

Now that I have a choice about what to remember, when, and with whom, how do I choose? How much time do I spend deciding what is worth remembering this moment in time, and for whom am I choosing? How much time do I dedicate to seeing what my friends are choosing to remember? How do I want to remember it? How do I want others to remember it? Audio, visual, literary, performance? What role does my remembering and memory play in social justice? Breaking silences? Creating empowering spaces? Learning to laugh? Choosing to love?

These are not questions I’ve ever had to ask or answer – this life or past life. Memory has always settled where it chose, where there was a wound or space. It has always come “…in the slide of me foot against wood floors…” [link to poem].

What I do know is that this life, I get to choose, even, the groups of people with whom I want to remember. I get to choose my memory and how I want to remember.

I don’t need to remind myself that my ancestors did not have this choice, nor did other Memory Keepers. We were loaded on ships: strangers. We exited those ships: enslaved, struggling to hold on to memory to remain Human, Spiritual Beings. We would learn to forget to live. And, we would create new technologies to re-member and reclaim what we were forced to forget.

I know: As an orisa devotee and egungun priest I don’t always have this choice when spirit is involved, when my destiny meets me along the road I’ve taken or tried to avoid.

But, in this new realm and venture, I am reminded that memory and remembering come with responsibility and respect. M. Jacqui Alexander. I return to her question: “How are you putting your privilege to the service of what you believe? How are you using it to achieve your destiny?”

In this age, it seems, I am much freer to think and choose what to say out loud and what to give to others. Already, I have learned so much about what is out there. Unlike my ancestors, I don’t have to feel alone in what I do.

But like them and chess players, I have to think before I move/post. I’m a slow mover, procrastinator even. Deciding what is important for me is a lengthy process. Hence, my Facebook page may remain noticeably empty for periods of time while I learn from others, make sense of everything, and contemplate what bears repeating and generating energy in the world. By me.


It has been eight months since my last post. Not surprising. This month, I defend my dissertation. The last eight months have been “in utero”, if you will. Me, the dissertation, memory, the ancestor.

What is it like to be “in labor”? To prepare to deliver this memory narrative as scheduled, as planned?

For one thing, I cannot think of this process separate from the work I have been learning to do as a birth and postpartum doula. And because of this, I can say that I feel loved and supported by my different communities.

I can also say that I won’t know what I really feel until I begin the actual process. I can only plan and have everything I think I need available to me. But until I arrive in the room, open my mouth, and meet everyone’s eyes, I won’t know what I feel.

What has been keeping me grounded? Thinking about other births and memories. As I begin to transition from student to … don’t know what this is yet on the personal and spiritual levels although it is defined professionally…

As I begin to transition, births of all types have started to occupy me. Specifically, after reading Otero and Falola’s Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in the Latina/o and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas (2013), I’ve been considering the role of the great African mothers in assisting African women as they traveled the Middle Passage and when they arrived on different shores.

How did Yemoja help African women birth new ancestors and remember the old ones? How did they help them re-member and access ancestral memory to heal from the violence against their bodies – land, their physical bodies, the bodies of their families?

At the end of the dissertation, a document that some may argue is about death and dying, I am asked to understand birth and rebirth. But, the truth is that death and dying are the other side of birth and rebirth.

In the Yoruba worldview, the womb is the gateway, the liminal space in which the ancestor – if she has chosen to return – enters to re-enter the world.

In the end, the end of one memory is the beginning of a new one. What this is I don’t know.

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.

The Implications of Remembering

In an interview with Patricia Saunders, author M. NourbeSe Philip says: “What if the Ancestors intended some other purpose for us to have been brought to this part of the world, entirely different from the European lust for profit. It seems to me that just asking that question puts us in a different position and releases a tremendous amount of energy. In honoring our own dead… by focusing on ourselves and what the experience of slavery has meant and can’t mean, even just embracing all that, somehow helps to contain the experience so that we can benefit from the memory rather than being crushed by it” (Small Axe 26, June 2008, pp. 63-79).

In the introduction to this issue of the journal, David Scott writes about what is “sedimented into the [black] body” (p. xvi), referring to Paul Connerton’s habit-memory in which the past is – to quote from Toni Morrison – (a) “rememory” (Beloved 1987, p. 47), that is re-experienced and seen as if it is present.

Since reading this edition of the journal, I have thought often of the implications of “just embracing all that”, all that the body remembers about being Black in the world. Of course, this has only produced more questions. These include:

How would Black communities create spaces in which this process could be safely engaged beyond performance of historical events? What kind of healing is possible when we allow what the body re-members to emerge? Would we have to create new healing modalities to understand and accommodate the range of Black experiences connected to slavery? Would the concept of “collective memories” be helpful or hindering? Or would we need a way to organize types of memories? What is it necessary for us to forget in order for some memories to exist?

Of course, there are always these questions: what constitutes a memory? A rememory? A sediment?

Works Cited
Connerton, Paul. (1989). How societies remember. England: Cambridge University Press.
Morrison, Toni. (1987). Beloved. New York: Knopf.
Small Axe 26, June 2008.

When the Past Becomes [the] Present

Nine years before I completed the 30th year at my job, a year synonymous with retirement for some, I resigned my position and entered a doctoral program in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

Why would I leave a stable job and move my family to a city and state we had never visited to study and research full time about Black history, embodied memories, Middle Passage, healing, and past lives; topics without theories; liminal spaces with little hope of becoming more real outside of personal experience?

Because over twenty years after my first encounter with spiritual phenomena related to the ancestors and the Middle Passage, my life continues to be transformed by what I experienced.

Since that first encounter, I have discovered that I am not alone: others have had similar “memories”, “rememories”, and “re-experiencings”. We have all agreed on one thing: Our lives have been changed and healed in ways we would never have intentionally chosen for ourselves.

Notes of an Ariran documents my past and current encounters with memory through my experiences and research. It is an attempt to articulate more fully, through community sharing, the ways in which these encounters have helped heal me, my family, and the communities I serve.

I am hyper-conscious of what it means to remember and forget: I am the descendent of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and of people whose histories were/are forcibly and/or selectively dis-remembered.

For me, then, memory and re-membering are not simply academic subjects or spiritual phenomena. They are precious “things” because I still have the gift of both.

This work is dedicated to my ancestors who speak through me, and to my living family members who speak through the ancestors because neither this time nor this space have meaning for them.

Starting at the middle

“In the workings of memory, there is an endless reiteration and enactment of this condition of loss and displacement… The Middle Passage, the great event of breach, engenders this discontinuity” (Saidiya Hartman, 1997, Lose Your Mother).

My journey begins with and in the Middle Passage. Stephanie Smallwood (2007) suggests that there is nothing “middle” about this experience for Africans. Middle implies a beginning and ending, something linear, or progressive. Instead, the Middle Passage was the beginning of a permanent removal from home for most Africans (Morgan, 2004).

For millions, it would be the end of their lives. Their bodies would be thrown overboard after dying painfully horrible and isolated deaths.

For those who survived the Passage, it was the death of an old life, and the beginning of a life full of violence, re-membering, forgetting, and recreating that would effect them and their descendents as long as they lived and died.

I am a descendent of slaves and freed people, Africans and West Indians.

I enter this narrative in the Middle.

Morgan, Jennifer. 2004. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Hartman. 1997. Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smallwood, Stephanie. (2007). Saltwater slavery: A middle passage from Africa to American diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.