“The great force of history is that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” – James Baldwin
Of the six definitions of violence returned from a dictionary.com search, the one which describes the process of forgetting surprisingly well is the sixth. Violence is defined as “damage through distortion or unwarranted alteration.” Distortion of the way history really happened, and unwarranted alteration of the way black bodies are cast in the public eye: this is the violence of forgetting, a type of violence which cannot be played on the news, and is not, by definition, documented in textbooks. In this paper, using Saidiya Hartman’s novel “Lose Your Mother” and Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”, I argue that one of the principle reasons black Americans have suffered as they have in America is due to the insidious ramifications of forgetting their own histories. Yet, one way to remedy all the pain and suffering that forgetting has caused the disenfranchised black American community is to rediscover, represent, and remember the past the way it truly happened.
To begin, I want to focus on the epilogue of Octavia Butler’s Kindred because I believe it provides an ideological framework that encapsulates that forgetting one’s own history is a harmful process. In the epilogue, Dana takes a trip to Maryland to recover the past she had left behind, to find out what happened in her absence, and to gain some sort of closure after the abrupt way she had left the past. Yet, as Kevin puts it quite bluntly, “You’ve looked… and you’ve found no records. You’ll probably never know.” (Kindred, 264) This quote, and really the whole epilogue, creates a feeling of incompleteness for the reader. I posit that this empty feeling of ‘never-knowing’ is a tool used by Butler to create tension for a reader, who would traditionally expect an epilogue to tie up loose ends and provide the main character with closure. Yet, there is no possibility for Dana to gain any sort of closure about her history because the majority of the people, and the events from her trips back in time, were distorted, altered, and forgotten by history. Dana’s history, just like her left arm, is gone. Indeed, Kevin’s blunt words to Dana at the end of the novel work to illustrate the reality which Dana, and millions of other black Americans, are forced to live with: they will probably never know the histories of their ancestors.
Saidiya Hartman’s “Lose Your Mother” has this element of ‘never-knowing’, as well. In her novel, Hartman writes of her unsatisfied attitude towards the missing pieces of her history, and the incomplete ends to the stories, which no one wanted, or was able to tell. Just as Dana searched for answers in Maryland, Hartman searched for answers about her past in the anecdotal evidence from her family, in her visit to Ghana – her hoped-for return to Africa – and in her multiple experiences at the coastal slave castles. Yet, I gathered that Hartman was never satisfied with what she found, because what she found were holes where the answers she was looking for should have been. Confronting the holes in her history in the following passage, I posit that Hartman’s use of repetitive questions provides an excellent rhetorical tool which illustrates the holes she feels inside of her and with respect to her history: always asking questions, never receiving answers:
“What is it we choose to remember about the past and what is it we will to forget? Did my great-grandmother believe that forgetting provided the possibility of a new life? Was nothing to be gained by focusing on the past? Were the words she refused to share what I should remember? Was the experience of slavery best represented by all the stories I would never know? Were gaps and silences and empty rooms the substance of my history? If ruin was my sole inheritance and the only certainty the impossibility of recovering the stories of the enslaved, did this make my history tantamount to mourning? Or worse, was it a melancholia I would never be able to overcome?” (Hartman, 15-16)
Note the words and phrases that Hartman uses in this powerful series of questions: “nothing to be gained,” “gaps and silences and empty rooms,” “ruin was my sole inheritance,” “history tantamount to mourning,” etc. These are not the types of words spoken by someone who is at peace with their history. No, these are the words spoken by someone who is tormented by a lack of knowledge; these are words spoken by someone who is suffering from a deliberate and normalized forgetting that has taken place throughout her entire culture. There is no solid, full, or accurate account of history that explains the complexities of her ancestors, or their cultures, or their struggles. Their history has been air-brushed, distorted, and forgotten. Indeed, similar to the way Kindred’s epilogue created tension between what a reader expects and what they receive, Hartman uses these questions as a way of conveying the dissatisfying lack of knowledge. Since the traditional purpose of a question is to be answered, stringing together question after question, and never providing an answer is an effective tool to convey the way in which black Americans are constantly left questioning their identities, yet never given any answer.
Both Butler and Hartman use this uncomfortable tool of ‘never-knowing’ in their pieces to illuminate the holes and gaps in their records, which have been filled with inaccurate, altered, and often times missing histories. Yet, this ‘never-knowing’ only seems to affect persons on an individual level, so how can this concept be responsible for the suffering of black Americans as a whole? The answer, I posit, lies in how black Americans construct themselves, how they view themselves and their culture, and how they develop an identity within a country that has, since its creation, tried to alter the public opinion of the entire black American race.
James Baldwin’s observation of history’s role in our lives bears truth: ‘history is literally present in all that we do.’ Yet, if the history that we draw our identities from, our past and our culture from, is missing, then a very important aspect of our present identity is missing, too. Truly, race is one of the most integral aspects of one’s identity. Excluding race from someone’s own definition of themselves and their identity is nearly impossible, since the race you are is a representation of the history of your people. The struggle of your race becomes your struggle, and the victories of the race become your victories. The crimes committed by your race make you a criminal, and the triumphs of your race make you a hero. In sum, the identity of your race, the way your race is viewed, is the way you are viewed, and is your identity.
But how will having an accurate, informed, detailed record of history remedy years of oppression and being cast aside in the public eye? How will remembering the past rectify the violence of forgetting? In other words, why is it important to remember history? To address these questions, one of Hartman’s quotes can serve as a powerful answer: “To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?” (Hartman, 170) In other words, people search for answers about their past to better contextualize and understand their present. They look at what their culture represented in the past to define who they are and what, as individuals, they represent in the present. The power of understanding the past, and being able to understand the different manifestations of strength in that past, is to learn from these manifestations, and to manifest that strength in oneself.
However, just as equally as remembering empowers, forgetting disempowers. Forgetting, incorrectly representing, distorting, and altering the past are all strong powers which reproduce cycles of violence that permeate into the future. Incorrect lessons propagated by false history textbooks written by insidious dominating forces tell the disempowered who they are, and often, telling someone about who they are, and who their people were is much more powerful than telling them how they must act. And the majority of recorded American history taught to the masses has taught black Americans who they are, and who their slave ancestors were: docile, and submissive people, unperturbed at being silenced and disempowered. Lessons like these only further promote the ideologies within black communities that they, too, should be docile and submissive, because these are the stories they’ve heard, and the representations they’ve witnessed.
Writing a new story, writing history how it actually happened, is vital for black Americans because it will show them that who they are, is strong defenders of their freedom, and smart scientists and inventors and authors, and citizens who played a major role in the development of one of the largest economies in the world. Yet, history cannot be written by missing facts. Rather, history is written by those with the knowledge and the power to keep records and circulate the information they find important. Historians are record keepers, and heir power is the ability to remember and forget. How people understand themselves comes from how well historians accurately present the past. This is why remembering the past is important: because it defines the future.
In conclusion, both Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” and Saidiya Hartman’s “Lose Your Mother” provide a compelling framework of how the past is constructed, using the tool of ‘never-knowing’ to unsettle readers and illustrate to them the power of the missing information forgotten by an inaccurate record of history. The violence for forgetting is an invisible, insidious violence which only serves to take power from those without, and give power to those with. Yet, by discovering the truth of the past, cultures can take power back, begin a road to recovery, and transform not only the present, but the future.
BUTLER, OCTAVIA E. KINDRED. HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING, 2018.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose Your Mother: a Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
“James Baldwin on History.” American Historical Association, 2 Aug. 2016, blog.historians.org/2016/08/james-baldwin/.