Keeping Black history will always be necessary, but it takes a toll
To forget the past is to forget ourselves.
I imagine that I would be a historian, a social librarian of sorts, whenever Black liberation is realized, and I imagine that my role wouldn’t look much different from the work I am already doing: Helping to keep Black histories. For as long as I’ve been aware of my Blackness as a threat to whiteness and white supremacy, I’ve felt compelled to study and share the stories of how we got here and imagine stories that might help us escape, even if that escape is only in our own minds.
I didn’t realize I was a historian until one of my grad school mentors told me I was. While writing my thesis about gendered and racialized subjects in supernatural horror narratives, I fancied myself a Black feminist media critic and horror aficionado, but I had not considered how integral my historical explorations were to my analysis. I eventually understood that this history, and my insistence on highlighting it, showed through far more than anything I had to say about what happened on screen in these horror tales. This realization fundamentally changed how I conceived of my work from that point forward.
In hindsight, it feels almost absurd to me that I didn’t see it this way from the beginning. How juvenile of me to think that I could write about ghosts and hauntings, especially gendered and racialized ones, without placing their histories at the forefront of my analysis. Ghosts, hauntings, and tales of horror are always more about history than anything else.
When the remake of Stephen King’s IT was released in 2017, I was eager to see it, but my excitement was almost completely deflated once I observed how the new filmmakers had significantly changed the role of Mike Hanlon, the only Black main character. In King’s original story, Mike is the researcher and historian who pieces together the story of the ancient child-eating entity—in disguise as Pennywise the dancing clown—who haunts the town of Derry, Maine. In the 2017 version, this role is instead given to one of the white children and Mike is written into the margins.
I wrote about my frustrations: “I wish this remake of IT had used Mike Hanlon’s character to contemplate Black people’s connection with a sort of social librarianship as the descendants of those who were once enslaved and forbidden from learning to read. We are charged with keeping the memories that others beg us to forget. We keep these ghosts because we have to, not because we want to.”
In the recently released final trailer for IT: Chapter Two, adult Mike says, “Something happens to you when you leave this town. The further away, the hazier it all gets. But me—I never left. I remember all of it.” Twenty seven years after the children first encounter IT/Pennywise, Mike is the one who gathers his childhood friends back in Derry to fight the killer clown again.
Knowing what I know now, about Blackness and Black people’s relationship to time and history, it makes sense that the Black kid in this story would grow up to become the librarian, that he would refuse the allure of the luxury of forgetting. I feel that same weight of responsibility to social librarianship that Mike does, albeit remembering resistance against a different kind of shape-shifting monster: white supremacy. Many of us feel this weight and what we don’t acknowledge enough is how it takes a toll and exacts a price to be the keepers of memories, just as it does for Mike Hanlon.
I’ve had people accuse me of doing this work so I can become famous, of only searching for “internet clout” and access to certain popular social justice circles. What those people don’t see is the fact that personal traumas have prevented me from being able to write anything in weeks, and the guilt I have for not writing, not remembering, compounds how shitty everything already feels. Lately, I’m beyond grateful to receive a writer’s pitch or submission that isn’t about individual or collective trauma, but those are so few and far between that ruminating on the trauma of just being Black in this world is simply what I’ve come to expect, because that is what so much of our history is marked by thanks to white supremacy.
Today is hard. This week has been hard. Tomorrow will be hard. This entire fucking existence is hard. I need to say more about how reading about all this shit, so I can write about all this shit, and edit the work that others write about all this shit—and how trying to escape reality for a few moments only to get mercilessly sucked back in—takes its toll, even though what I do feels so necessary. What I feel is something beyond fatigue, something else entirely, and it’s heavy as fuck. But this thing in me that won’t let me stop doing this work feels even heavier.
I break my own heart writing about Black life and Black death. I write about Black history, white supremacy, and white violence, even though they so often hurt to think about. I study these things because I don’t want them to ever be forgotten. To forget the past is to forget ourselves. Even in a future where Black liberation is a reality, we cannot afford to forget about the things and the people who got us there.
Remembering is how we honor our dead, but it is also how we subvert white supremacy’s inevitable revisionism. When Black liberation comes, even as we realize brighter futures, someone will have to remember all the hard things. We have to know the names of the ghosts who haunt us.