Short Memories: Thoughts on Complicity

We have short memories.

They are selective. One of the running jokes in my family is my mother’s ability to recall how she dressed me on a certain fall day twenty-nine years ago, but not what we discussed five minutes ago. It is funny, then – innocuous things remembered, or simply gone. We would worry about incipient Alzheimer’s, except that she has been this way as long as I’ve known her.

Family memory works similarly. There’s an old story about how we ended up here, in the US, in an indefinite exile that turned into a permanent one. My great-grandfather’s cousin, or brother, or friend, depending on the rendition, had revolutionary sympathies. He may or may not have been part of a pro-independence organization once known for its terroristic tactics.

He was a kid.

He was pushed up against a wall and shot by authorities trying to protect the population from itself. The rest of the family got on a boat. We have not forgotten being marked, by our religion and accent, name and complexion. The injustice of it all colored my youth. For nearly a century after my ancestral homeland achieved independence, I avoided visiting the former colonial power, convinced that it would be unpleasant for people like me, and shocked when it was quite the opposite.

We remember the wrong of 1900. We remember what it was like to be marked as Other, and killed for the difference. Then we act like it only happened to us. We remember being perversely special, exceptional in our oppression. We forget in an instant that our Otherness was passed to other groups. We gave it to them, gleefully, when we walked into City Halls and police forces, and then we held the difference that we bestowed over the heads of the perversely special. We can’t let it go.

We have short memories.

My father was one of too many children. He was poor. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a saint. My father remembers being spat upon as a child, because he was destitute, and because he was the wrong ethnicity. His particular family misery was never individual. Too many kids, too much drink, too much abuse, too much foreign.

My mother’s mother had children out of wedlock. Everyone knew it. At school, my mother had to “confess” why she and her siblings needed a turkey from a religious benevolent organization. Her father, in one of her fuzzy memories of him, told her that she was a mongrel. She lived in a public housing project whose brutalities nobody escaped. She worried about making us look respectable, moved us to an all-white neighborhood, and cried when I took a Black boy to my first school dance. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she was always convinced that we might be pregnant – that we would be marked, again, by our origins.

My father almost never drinks. He moved us to a neighborhood where the white people are his white people, so he wouldn’t be the only one. By then, though, they all identified us with the racially-mixed place I’d grown up, and with its people of color – so the kids would hiss “Blackawanna” when I walked past.

My mother frowns at women who have children with different fathers. She shops at the second-fanciest grocery store in town, to appear afloat but not pretentious. She volunteers, like a proper middle-class white lady from the suburbs. When told her that I had found information about her muddy family history, she was overjoyed. When I told her what it was, she pretended not to hear me. When the pastor of the Baptist church where her great-great grandfather had preached told her – gently – that the congregation and its preachers had always been Black, she smiled. “No, we’re white.”

They have short memories. Or long ones. I’m never sure.

I was home for Christmas. My mother was talking about one of the women at the shelter where she works – a Black woman pregnant with her ninth child. My father shook his head. “Those people would be much better off if they’d stop having so many children.” I stared. I called him out. His mother had been one of “those people,” a generation ago. He conceded, that time. But he still doesn’t see it – how we got to be white. How we yanked the ladder up behind us.

My brother, who is affable, works in a prison. He looks like a cop. He believes that the people in his jail put themselves there. He feels bad for them, but he thinks that the justice system works. I want to ask him about our great-great-grand-uncle, and if the system worked when he was shot against a wall because of his religion, and his accent, and his complexion, but I know that he wouldn’t see the connection.

We have long memories, but they only work backwards.

We have short memories. We walk through the streets unmolested, because we know that nobody will shoot us like they shot great-great-grand-uncle. We remember our ancestral injustice and carry it like a banner of protection. It isn’t a very roomy cloak, but we’ll be grateful for it when we see the ones without it being shot in the streets, or strangled. We remember our roots, then get too entangled in them to see out. We forget that our root ball connects to a tree, or a water source, or even the soil. It’s just us, underground, blind to what we’re perpetuating.

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