The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.

Step by Step

I am writing this morning with a small black cat purring on my lap.  Yesterday was the new moon, and on each new moon I read my journal from the past 28 or 29 days back to the last new moon. I notice how busy I have been, leading worship again, and with the life of my congregation in full force.

This past Sunday, I preached about Sandra Bland, #BlackLivesMatter, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.  The title of the sermon was “Changing Lanes Without Signaling.” (Text of my sermons can be found on our church website a few days after the services.) I love that my congregation welcomes these tough issues and appreciates that I bring them sermons exploring the painful realities of our world. I feel truly lucky to be serving as their minister.

There have been a few more houses we’ve looked at in our search for greener housing, but nothing that resonated, until recently we began exploring a different kind of option. Our realtor knew someone who was planning to sell their house, but it was not yet on the market. He thought of us because the owner had done many green upgrades, including solar panels, and a permaculture garden. We’ve had a chance to look at the house and yard, and like it a lot. But it will need many other kinds of renovations, including an addition of a bedroom, in order to work for all of our needs.

So we are exploring the world of renovation-land. Asking ourselves, could we live in the midst of noise and workers and a good bit of chaos for several months? And more seriously, could we get all the needed permits, and afford the work that would be done? Right now we are waiting on some estimates from a green-savvy general contractor we are getting to know. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Margy has been doing some small jobs on our own house: this week she is repairing some loose bricks on a corner of our entry steps, trying to get it finished before the weather turns too cold. I love my butch partner! I love how we are caring for each other, and staying tuned in to each other during this challenging journey. It draws us even closer together.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Changing Lanes Without Signaling

"Ta-Nehisi Coates" by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, is a powerfully devastating window into the experience of living in a black body in America, a body that is constantly vulnerable to assault, to capture, to torture, to destruction, to death.

I am a white woman who has long been involved in the white anti-racist struggle–I say this, not with any attempt at boasting, but merely to point out the map that my reality has followed over the last more than thirty years of my life. But even so, Coates’ words painted a picture of soul-shattering fear that struck me to the core.

I grew up with a general feeling of safety. I belonged to a working class family in Michigan, living in suburban Detroit for the most part, raised to believe that “all people are the children of God,” but also living in all-white communities where racial violence was something that appeared only on our television screen. A liberal white world aspiring to be “colorblind,” in the “Dream” that Coates describes as the place where white America lives as if asleep, unaware that it is built on the violence against black bodies.

I was asleep like that, but in my young adulthood I began to wake up to the horrific realities that America was built upon–the theft of the land and destruction of Indigenous people, the slavery and destruction of Black people. The first window into those realities came through my own awakening to the violence that was perpetrated on female bodies. That violence was hidden under the mantle of (white) safety. I did not actually experience sexual violence in my own body, only the constant threat and fear of it. Don’t go out at night, don’t talk to strangers, don’t dress to draw attention to your body, and so on. But here was the irony–a woman could “feel” safe if she stayed “asleep.” It was only upon waking that the fear undergirding my life became visible.

Once I woke up to that illusion, other illusions began to break through as well, and racism became visible and anti-racism became important to me. But so much remained hidden. Layer upon layer, I kept being surprised again and again at the horror of it, the extent of it, the insidious forms it takes, the interlocking systems that perpetuate it. I got it that we are all implicated, that no one can escape the systems in which whiteness benefits those who are understood to be white, and devastates those understood to be not white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates broke open for me a new and deeper layer of the reality of racism–his words, along with the revelations of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which have kept before the public eye the many recent killings of black people by police. Last week, I watched videos of the police officer’s traffic stop of Sandra Bland. Pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, three days later, she was dead in her jail cell. Something about her story–her innocent journey to start a new job, her bright spirit–brought it all home. No black person is safe anywhere.

This week, as I passed the flashing lights of a police vehicle behind a pulled-over car, I felt an unfamiliar shudder in my gut. A tiny glimpse into the terror. When I read Coates describing the terror he felt when he was stopped in his car by police, these images and videos came to mind, and I understood his fear for his life, his shaky relief when he was let go. A few months later, his friend was killed by the same police force.

The thing is, Coates continues to live with this original and constant fear in his body, just as my body still holds that original feeling of safety, even though I realize its illusory nature. I have to choose to stay awake, to remember. I can take a break, not think about it for a while.

It is not easy to stay awake. Mab Segrest talks of choosing white anti-racism as becoming a “Race Traitor.” There is a loneliness in it, a separation from the mainstream American dream, a separation from family and friends. Most often, I feel more resonance with my friends who are people of color, but I will never really belong to that world either. So staying awake is often lonely and sad. I usually don’t have a clue how to create change, or make things any better. But I believe that if we stay asleep we will never find transformation. We have to wake up to reality, bear its pain, before any change can happen. So thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for being willing to be so open about the reality in which you live, in which we all live.