[By Crystal Boson]
It is a safe assertion to claim that literature serves as a medium for memory, both personal and cultural. The narratives and the characters weave their tales, and pull the reader along with them through the jagged field of the past. While remembering and the telling of stories is often a literary medium through which healing, reconciliation, and cultural bonding is forged, in some cases, memory serves as a curse that binds and ruins communities and individuals.
In order to examine memory and remembering as a cultural curse, a proper context must be provided. A great deal of Black writing deals with elements of a painful past, whether be overtly dealing with the history of slavery, the pain and isolation associated with passing, and the physical isolation and apathy of an at-best indifferent urban landscape. Characters can detail memories of their personal demons, or of an idealized past, one presenting a loving Black community to serve as a foil against a present of crushing racism. In many cases, these memories, whether they be idealized or forcefully repressed, can often function as stumbling blocks that hinder the characters from fully combating the racism and society that they must daily come up against.
Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (1993) is a poignant example of how remembering serves to cripple people; Grant’s reality is literally shaped by a re-membering of the oppression that his parents and the community had suffered in the past. His present oppression, already crushing through several cultural woes, was compounded by the years of bitterness held by the community that trudged into the contemporary moment. Both Grant and Jefferson, tied too closely to their memories and reality of the years of degradation, lose hope and in some ways, bits of themselves.
Gaines is not the only author that presents remembering through such a lense. Other texts that present memory as painful, and very much a tool that can contribute to racial and cultural isolation rather than liberation include:
Gayl Jones’ Corregidora (1975)
Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928)
Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising (2009)
This is not to say that a majority of Black writing views memory as a cultural negative; next weeks blog post will detail the positive and decolonizing face of cultural memory
For a sympathetic black male reader, Grant and Jefferson are not crippled. They illuminate how males are vulnerable and obligated to one another.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.