Memory Serves You Wrong

Michael Onsando
18 March ,2014

Take back

your memories.

 – Witness #115

There is something about remembering that is completely anti-establishment. Memories are fragile things, and because we continue to experience things collectively as individuals, they are also very subjective.

It’s easy to say “I remember…” and be saying something that is completely false.

This has been on my mind as I think of our collective memories. Our histories, and who these histories allow to exist.

To narrow this down more people have been talking about how they wish Moi was still in power. That life was better then. That, although he was a dictator, the citizens could afford to live under him. The memories of the financial have crippled the other memories. Or, to ask more directly, what do we remember?

In Silence is a Woman, Wambui Mwangi writes:

To ‘re-member’ is to make a member again, to bring that member back into the community of imagination, re-awakening past trajectories and giving new momentum along new paths of the present.

The problem with bringing something back to the realm of the imagination is that it causes all sorts of distortion within the realm as it already exists. This is to say that remembering, and reminding others, reawakens what would have rather been left to sleep.

Last week on twitter Ory Okolloh was informed that, because of her constant questioning, she must be lacking in patriotism. And that’s just the example that came to mind. Very often people who bring things to light are defined as people who lack love for the country. (I am reminded that countries are fictions).

People who dare to remember, and remind, are challenging the power as it sits and are making things uncomfortable. In ‘the problem of perception’ Sara Ahmed writes:

When you perceive a problem your perception becomes the problem.  What I learn as well from being a feminist killjoy is how noticing a pattern in how things tend to fall is understood as making your own life more difficult than it needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: just stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased.

The worst thing about this is that it creates roles. Suddenly, we sit  smugly in our roles waiting for the people who are meant to oppose to oppose. And, if this opposition doesn’t happen we demand the roles they have been cast in be played. Tweets like “Where are the feminists now?” show up. As if, somehow, it is only the feminists who must speak out against these things. And, in knowing who must say what, their saying becomes ineffectual. They are trees falling in the forests, surrounded by people who lack the capacity to see, hear or feel.

A friend once asked me, “Why do you always talk about death?” I didn’t know how to respond. I could easily have said that I am constantly aware of how disposable our lives are. I could have said that I don’t write about death.

The word death sounds incidental. I write about killing, which is very purpose filled. There are a number of answers I could have given him. Instead, I stayed silent, and pretended not to have heard the question. I did this because I knew the conversation, I knew my role in it. And I knew his. Silence was my way of refusing him the delight of playing this particular game.

The thing with having these roles is that they then make any kind of work ineffectual. When shouting against something ,it is no longer the something that is heard, but the someone. It is more of, ‘Who are you?’ as opposed to ‘What are you saying?’

This kind of thinking is why male allies repeating what feminists have been saying for years get heard. Or why it is such a big deal when a white person stands up against racism.

The work of remembering needs to be done collectively. In order for this to happen, certain voices need to be listened to. The catch is, these same voices will reawaken demons that we rather hoped were asleep.

“I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.”

Prof Saidiya Hartman

The present is very much a product of the histories that created it. Whether we chose to remember them or not. If one chooses to forget that they had their arm amputated when they were 7, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. In ignoring the memories of oppressed people, we are in effect subjecting them to a more profound form of oppression. The form that doesn’t allow  their histories and their memories.

If you read the history books, it will look like black people suddenly appeared out of nowhere at some point. Many will only speak of black people after they were ‘discovered.’ After this, the legitimization struggles will happen and black men will start to appear (black women come in much later).

What do we chose to remember?

Scratch that.

What are we allowed to remember?

An obvious falsehood is that the world was all white for a while. Even Europe was never, ever, completely white. Lake Victoria had several names and, I can assure you, none of them had anything to do with the Queen.

There is no way to think about what happened in the past without thinking about the future.

In thinking about what we are allowed to remember, we are thinking about what we will allow others to remember. About the kind of world we will leave behind. In remembering and articulating our memories (whether by tweet, by blogpost, essay or just in conversation), we are storing these memories in the collective memory bank that they may be called upon where necessary. We are allowing people to reawaken and reimagine today in its totality. We are  pointing out that these things happen, these things have been happening for a very long time. We are helping create a future where these things might not happen. After all, an injustice can never be corrected.

A deed can never be undone. The only thing that can happen is we can learn from it. And, if we are not learning, then what are we doing?

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