Reclaiming memory as a Black father and son in the face of cultural and racial traumas
Trauma has a way of coloring memory.
This essay contains discussions of racialized state violence and suicide attempts
by Donnie Moreland
I have difficulty recalling specific details of my childhood. Trauma has a way of coloring memory. Strangely, the events I sometimes beg to forget are the ones I can see with a clarity the remainder of my youth is never afforded. As though the markers of age are wound to wound, the spaces between smothered in fog.
Of late, the memories, which play out like restored film reels, have been of my Old Man. In particular, of his absence, or what I would discover to be his attempts at exodus. I can see myself, no older than seven, hiding from him. He had just been in a car accident. His face had been lacerated by shattered glass, then stitched. I sat at the top of my Grandfather’s basement stairwell, believing he was unaware of my presence.
But a father knows when their child is watching them and I remember his face turning in my direction. He could see me. I was summoned and I cowered down the wooden steps to where he sat and eventually my face had sunken into his chest — my tears on his shirt. Only later would I learn that this accident may not have been so accidental. Having survived three suicide attempts myself, that face, those eyes we share, piercing into me, reads so much more devastatingly. So much more destructively.
I’ve spent much of my twenties asking the question, “Why would he want to leave me?” When in November of 2018, I discovered I’d no longer be only a son, but also a father much like he, the question became, “What would it mean to lose him?” And when my daughter was born on his birthday, June 25th, 2019 at 6:01 am, the question morphed once again. Less about loss and more about reclamation — What would I tell her about him?
I assume that’s how it works, the burden of the child. To reshape their faces, make them digestible. Make their footsteps a little lighter. Their voices, a little softer. All of us do it, will do it — for our sons and daughters. Washing off the mud of our father’s feet, so that our children can know a them we never did, never will. But what of us? What of me and my daughter? Will she wash the mud off my boots for her own.
It’s an impossible question. It’s a question in future tense but it’s the future tense that terrifies me. As I’m sure it did my father. The biological father which failed him and the step-father who’d become his hero. The future tense is the fear of every father, but for Black fathers, that fear of memory is weighed with another debt — the uncertainty of our expiration. The public consumption of our body’s demise and the ownership of our last words which often belong to the ears of our opponents, our killers.
The greatest crime is that, even in its modernity, it’s tradition. The memories of our names determined, in part, by the terrors amid long since sunken slave transports, which makes this less a question about fatherhood and more a question of remembrance. How do we remember, create memory of our own volition when hands, not of our kin, have made and continue to make determinations of how our names will shape when “‘making generations?”
Memories in Black: On Cultural Trauma and Ethnic Remembrance
I’m obsessed with memory. More, how we, as Black folk, remember. How is it possible — recollection — when our existence has been fraught with the evidence of erasure? Both of the historic and the personal. From the time the first of our ancestors were forced aboard the likes of the monstrous Jesus of Lubeck, the Aurore, the Duc du Maine, the Desire, the Isabella and their sister vessels, transmuting their ethnic identities as forcefully as any physical proponent of the Atlantic voyage, we’ve somehow managed to sustain pieces of our collective memory. But often they are the scraps left behind by the import of colonial violence.
It is inescapable — the impressions of cultural trauma. Issues of self image, interpersonal and familial engagements become difficult to ascertain as simply interpersonal conflict or something imprinted upon with the tags of plantation warfare. It’s easy to suggest that one’s relationship to alcohol, or more one’s prospective predisposition to alcoholism, extends as far as their grandfather’s relationship with the bottle.
However, when one discovers that excessive alcohol use has been a type of generational coping mechanism in response to racial abuse(s), such as discrimination, proximity to hate crimes, or racially-oriented fatigue, there is enough of an incremental adjustment to the color of their relationship with the substance that what was assumed self, and familial, knowledge is now accompanied by a type of anxious scepticism.
We see the same with memory. It’s one thing to reconcile why you were subject to parental abuse, let’s say by your father, and this abuse is independent any historical meaning. But when this abuse is discovered to be a generational exercise in expressions of ethnic frustrations, the memory of that trauma becomes clustered and the query of who this person abusing you was, or is, is thrown out of the context of the specifically interpersonal and into the culturally historical.
It makes the challenge of healing a giant of an emotional obstacle, if it weren’t already a demanding task. What comes of these revelations is, again, a type of anxious scepticism related to self and memory, especially concerning how you’ll be remembered in conjunction with racial abuse, even with your own Blackness — especially when it feels out of your control to fully govern.
Out of Focus
I think of Eric Garner. I think of his six children. I think of his last words being owned, not by him, nor his children, but by the public, his murderers. The memory of him curated, even by me, as I use his name the same as so many have, in relation not of the man but of his proximity to Blackness, trauma, state-sanctioned violence, and public death. Everything which, as I think of my own daughter as I am sure my father thought with me, I hope dearly that she won’t ever have to quarrel with, negotiating the memory of me.
And while Garner’s very public execution exists as an extreme of our proximal relationship to cultural trauma and memory, each of us — Black fathers for my purposes here — is touched by a specific history of specific violence which means my daughter will know me in proximity to some type of ethnically-oriented violence. That I cannot change. But, hopefully I can help her to master her memories, especially if something were to ever occur one day which would make that our last day in each other’s eyes.
I must admit, I am without a solution for my own life’s proposition, but I know I must keep asking. It’s one thing to question who your father was and to own the answers. It’s a much greater weight to bear when they, and their memory, are taken from you, lost to mouths not your own, as they’ve always seemed to be, and their name is covered in a veil for their own children to question who they were, if not what the country made them.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.