Watchmen, an homage to Black memory (loss)
In my family, we believe dreams are portals and reservoirs of Black memory.
*This essay contains spoilers from Watchmen*
“You shouldn’t have swallowed your grandfather’s pills Angela. Do you know how Nostalgia works? How they make it? You know, they insert these little chips into your brain and they harvest your memories. And then they put them in a little pill and you pop one and you get to experience that shit all over again.”- Officer Blake
In HBO’s Watchmen, officer Angela Abar begins piecing together her family history after a visit to the Greenwood Cultural Center, a place dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. Afterwards she learns that her grandfather, Will Reeves became an orphan and went missing during the massacre, which is said to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. She also learns that he is eligible for Redfordations, reparations offered to the Victims of Racial Violence Act as an apology for the trauma inflicted on them during the massacre.
Questions mount for Angela once Tulsa’s police chief, Judd Crawford is killed and her grandfather Will confesses to the crime. She takes Will’s Nostalgia in order to access his memories and find out why he killed her chief but when she overdoses, officer Blake attempts to interrogate her. Angela is thrown into Will’s memories, learning more than she’s ever known about his life, her parents’ lives and the state of Tulsa during and before the uprising. And when she’s transferred to Lady Trieu’s headquarters, Will’s memories are pulled out of her bloodstream.
I found myself fascinated by the idea of literally ingesting a grandparent’s memories and not being able to distinguish between which ones are theirs and which are mine. In my family, we believe that dreams are messages. They guide us and help us make decisions about the trajectory of our lives. But more than that, we believe dreams are portals and reservoirs of Black memory.
And Black memory is not always abundant. Black folks are more likely to develop dementia and alzheimers, and we are less likely to seek and/or receive adequate medical care if we are diagnosed. Black patients rightfully mistrust medical institutions due to medical malpractice, experimentation and sterilization on Black bodies.
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In the last decade, epigenetics scientists have observed that a parent’s experiences can change the genes of a child, hypothesizing that memories can also be inherited. Black folks have always known that the love stories and pain of those who came before us are written into our DNA long before we are born. And that we try to re-negotiate those memories and contexts as we grow. Science is just now playing catch up.
Before I learned that my great great grandmother had four of her children in an “insane asylum”, I wrote a story about a mother of four who was committed to a ward each time she’d reach her second trimester. She wasn’t allowed to leave until after she’d successfully given birth. I saw this woman in my dreams, shuffling in and out of the ward with the same expression on her face no matter how much time had passed. At the time, I thought I was worldbuilding. Then I spoke with my grandmother at a casino and she told me the story about her grandmother.
With its Black ass magic of non-linear storytelling, Watchmen forces us to encounter what Black folks face everyday: racial terror, surveillance, separation, isolation, assimilation and testing. And though that terror sometimes changes its face, the weaponization of memory (and time) is always present.
When baby elephants are trained in the circus, a rope is tied around their necks and the other end of the rope is tied to a pole. For a while the elephants try to break free of the rope, tossing, tugging and running against it, but after a while, they stop resisting. And whether the rope is present or not, the memory of what they’ve been trained not to do is so ingrained in their spirits that they pass these restrictions on to their children. Who then pass the memory to their children and so on.
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After Angela takes the pills, she has difficulty parsing through which memories are hers and which are Will’s. I don’t think it matters. And I’d argue that Angela experiences a kind of double remembering in the process. The pills tell her a story that her blood has always known: Things don’t just happen to us. They happen to the folks we’re connected with too.
As the first Black police officer in his precinct in the 1930’s, Will takes a colorblind approach to his job, thinking his badge will help him right wrongs in the community. However, once he arrests a white man for arson and tries booking him for a crime after watching him set fire to a Jewish bakery, Will is assaulted by three white police officers in his precinct for not staying in his place.
At age 7, when Angela’s parents are killed in Vietnam and she’s asked to identify the killer, she asks the arresting officer if she can watch whatever punishment he’ll receive. Her desire to be a police officer grows and the anger she feels from subsequent losses mirrors that of her grandfather once he’s almost beaten to death. But it isn’t until Angela begins to learn about the lies happening in her own police community that she waves a big “fuck you” to patriotism, choosing the possibility of Will’s memories instead.
So when Will tells Angela that he came back so that he could meet her and show her where she came from, I believe him. I believe him because as a family historian, our stories are rarely separate or objective. They bleed and burrow and change like we all do.