The Water Bearer, Lorna Simpson

When I was very small before anyone could tell me anything I knew something was amiss. And that whatever it was, was very bad. Caution is not spoken; it is expressed in a narrow-eyed look, a tensing of the shoulders as the head lifts slightly higher. I was born attuned to danger.

Later when I was old enough to question with more than my eyes my elders: parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles´ replies provided me a scope of the horror. Sometimes the response began with a sigh, “In the end, we are all just human.” Or they would gently take hold of me, look me dead in the eye, and say with a firmness that was almost convincing, “What matters is now.” Or they would slowly shake their head as if to hold off the bad juju their thoughts invited, “That was before you were born, what are you worried about it for?” Slowly, I began to understand their refusal to share memories was a form of protection, it was how they tried to keep me safe.

It was clear memory was something better left alone. Only of use if it helped you remember a beloved family member or a particularly happy event but even then it was doled out sparingly. If too much was said no one was sure what would come flooding out.

In school US history was a series of disjointed stories about African slavery and Native American tragedy, stories cloaked in helplessness. Strangely there was no perpetrator; just a litany of terrible things that happened and the white people who saved them. And then the triumphant Civil Rights Movement! A movement that occurred in my parents' lifetime. When I asked my family about their personal experiences I was met with silence. No one wanted to talk about it. And yet those experiences are documented in a myriad of ways: personal letters and journals, newspaper articles, legal documents, eyewitness accounts, essays.

There is a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon between personal memory and social memory, somewhere in that gap is us and a shared reality we all struggle to come to terms with.

Memory was a no man´s land that had to be carefully negotiated. I learned how to tip toe around memory by accentuating the good if saying anything at all. I silenced myself because my family stories seemed to confirm the racist stereotypes about Black men. I did not want to bring shame to my family, I did not want to add to that debilitating propaganda.

This is how I unwittingly learned to adopt my elders’ attitudes about memory. Once something has happened I have a hard time holding on to it. I am always doing, seeing, reading, writing, or creating something. Holding on feels like a hindrance. Memories prevent me from seeing something new, they keep me from experiencing what is happening now. In writing my memoir I’ve had an opportunity to live with my memories, to understand how they inform me, color the way I see the world, shape who I am. As I struggled to go beyond the accessible, triumphant memories towards a more complete vision of my past I began to see my family´s reluctance to share their personal memories in a different light. They were protecting me but also themselves from the pain those memories still held.

Digging deeper into my more difficult memories required a personal reckoning. I had to be willing to sit with emotions I´d long since buried, to get reacquainted with a self I´d abandoned. I had to forgive myself for turning my back on my trauma. Only then could I walk through it, shape it into words, and speak it into a memory that could become part of my story.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

Our memories express a truth that extends beyond our personal and into our collective experience. We are the physical embodiment of the spirit, ideas, and energy of the world. Not only that but our interaction is what makes the world what it is. When we share our personal experiences we are providing a clearer picture of the world in which we live. We are reshaping the world by changing how we interact with it.

I am writing a memoir. My book is a dialogue between personal memory and collective memory. Their interaction creates the very notion of who we are as individuals but also who we are as a community, a society, a world. I want us to have a clearer picture of how we shape the world and how the world in turn shapes us.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

Personal memory marks specific, formative moments that trace the arch of our life, it is our story. As such it should be treated with care. While I placed great importance on how public memory impacted our lives, I began to see that I had a casual almost flippant relationship with my own personal memory. I discovered how I´d distorted my personal memories to conform to a story I´d crafted about myself. A story that had erased some important but difficult truths of my own and my family’s experience. In writing my memoir I began to understand how essential those truths were to documenting injustice and oppression beyond the abstract to how this reality shaped us and in turn how we shaped the world.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

My brother Malik and I grew up in a difficult family. My father George is an alcoholic who battled multiple addictions. Addiction unless the person is in the last harrowing stages of its grip is largely invisible. But the neglect, hostility, anger, and depression that comes with it is not. Our family looked great, we had a nice house and lived in a nice neighborhood. Malik and I went to good schools, we had all of the things we could ever want or need. George and our mother Ella had successfully made their way out of the terrible circumstances of being Black and poor. Because we looked so attractive and lived so comfortably, the temptation to ignore or downplay the difficult moments and truly horrible things I´d witnessed or experienced was powerful. Much like my elders, I was eager to move on relieved in many ways that it was over. I chose to walk away thinking that was sufficient. And yet I kept tripping over myself, caught up in my own anger bumping into walls of resistance and pain I didn’t know were there. I began to give myself a hard time. Having become so completely unmoored from my family experiences, I believed my struggles were a product of my own failings. Memory and image got fused into a false narrative. If we lived so well things could not have been as bad as I´d thought they were, I concluded. That is when the self-doubt began.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

I didn’t believe my own story. How many times have we downplayed, ignored, or dismissed our memory because it did not conform to what society says is reality? We don’t believe some things we experienced because they don´t match our vision of ourselves, our loved ones, our world. We distrust our memory because it doesn’t match someone else’s vision of ourselves, our loved ones, our world.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

Malik did not want us to lose sight of the truth so he became our witness. For years, in an effort to keep his memories alive he would pepper our conversations with “Remember the time that Dad…..” Most of the time I didn’t remember and was indeed shocked by the selfishness and callousness of George´s actions. He could put George on trial at any given moment, the evidence, his memories at the ready to be deployed. Were it not for Malik´s memories I may have totally lost sight of how perilous our childhood was. While I was grateful it felt overwhelming, I was not sure I had room to hold all of it and remain sane. But I understood how important it was. Throughout our lives, George had refused to take any responsibility for his actions. This only added salt to the wounds he´d inflicted. Justice looked like him finally owning his behavior. If we could get him to see how horrible he´d been we could be released from the spell those memories continued to cast over us. Justice looked like George coming to his senses, weeping in sorrow for his transgressions begging Malik and me for forgiveness. Those memories were our guarantee that one day this would happen.

The moment Malik decided to end his personal crusade for justice came during one Thanksgiving dinner where he exploded in a fit of anger as George for the umpteenth time downplayed our difficult childhood and adolescence. Malik began reciting a laundry list of some of George´s most egregious behavior in front of his in-laws. That step too far was enough for Malik to see how his attempt to seek justice had turned into punishment. At that dinner, he succeeded in humiliating George. Malik did not want to harm him, he simply wanted acknowledgment. He wanted George to admit what he had done. In many ways, Geroge´s refusal to take any responsibility for his actions is not so different from the US´s eagerness to ignore or downplay its history of genocide and enslavement. And yet markedly different.

While George´s behavior caused us great pain and suffering it no longer had any direct bearing on our lives. I may have wanted the satisfaction of his acknowledgment but I didn’t need it to move on. Malik and I made peace with what happened. We spent years talking about it. We were our own witnesses. We made a decision to let those memories go when it became clear that holding on to them was doing more harm than good. Paradoxically George became more forthright about his past behavior. Even venturing to express his pride in how well we’d grown up despite everything he’d done. I cannot tell you how healing it was to hear George finally acknowledge that he was responsible for our difficult growing up.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

I am troubled by our society’s refusal to remember. That dismissive, willful ignorance of the past continues to endanger many lives in the present. The refusal leads many of us to distrust who we are and what we know. It leads us to question our reality. Our distrust leads to silence, self-censorship that contributes to the distortion and confusion. What I want for all of us is the acknowledgment I finally got. With it, the years of nagging self-doubt, seething anger melted away. At that moment we were set free. The healing that acknowledgment brings is the only thing that allows us to move forward.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

This summer when the world was already crippled by a pandemic it was jolted awake by the brutal public murder of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd's tragic death while shocking was not surprising. It seems every few years yet another wave of police sanctioned murders of Black people brings us on the brink of a reckoning we always manage to avoid.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

Our world is unjust. It’s institutions, laws, and beliefs shaped by White supremacy. It is organized and operates on the notion that White people, specifically rich, white men are superior. The world is divided into caste systems that have many of us languishing at lower positions in that hierarchy while the most vulnerable struggle at the bottom. We have been lied to, told not to trust what we know, what we remember. Our experiences are actively dismissed when not outright ignored. We are accused of exaggerating the horrors we´ve faced and continue to face.

Our private memories, our personal experience of this system conflicts with the official version of our collective memory aka history with a capital “H”. Capital “H” history is a select set of stories that justify rather than illuminate what happened and what continues to happen. Western history is one long story confirming the greatness of straight white men and the superiority of whiteness. It is a myth. Mythology isn´t history, it is fantasy. These stories are someone’s idea of what happened. The oft-quoted, “History is written by the victors,” is nothing more than an admission of this fact. In excluding our personal memories, our collective memory is inaccurate and incomplete. We have no hope of moving towards justice when we cannot account for what has happened and how it impacts what is happening.

Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

This capital “H” history has limited the scope of our reality. Leaving us to struggle to find a place, either by editing our story to fit someone else´s vision or liberating ourselves from that limited vision. Fitting in by necessity means choosing to disregard parts of ourselves. Liberation is the process of connecting our story to public memory by investigating, excavating, and sharing it. Public memory is the mirror that allows us to see and be seen. Our stories are what our shared reality is made of. We are history, that is to say, our lives, our experiences are the substance of our collective story. The power and healing come in the form of public acknowledgment.

I want a history that reflects our lived experience. I want a history born out of our memories. Our stories are the record of the crimes that have been committed. I want a history that holds the perpetrators accountable for their actions. I want a public memory that allows people to be wholly, fully themselves. Until those crimes have been acknowledged injustice will continue to prevail.

“Memories come down on and me once again

Caught without an umbrella”

Our stories shape the world. Don´t let your memories drown you, let them wash over you. Use those memories to remake yourself and reimagine the world.

I am a Bronx born, Anchorage, Alaska raised activist, writer, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Spain. Here for all things travel and migration related.