Reclaim. Remember. Repeat.
Updated: May 12
If you don’t use it, you lose it. I was reminded of this truth one cloudy summer afternoon as I stumbled, forgetting the name of my beloved 2nd great-grandmother while reciting our mutual matrilineal line for my granddaughters, Tiana and Zaniyah. They were 11 and seven at the time.
I remember the incident like it was yesterday. We were in the early months of COVID-19 three years ago. The girls and I were quarantined together for three weeks as their parents worked in their various jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Being cooped up together like that, helping them navigate the mysteries of distance learning and long lulls in the day opened plenty of new bonding opportunities for the three of us.
I felt as if had drifted on a cozy cloud of nostalgia back in time, reminiscent of the days when families relaxed together in their living rooms, dens or at the kitchen table. My birth family often filled idle spaces with just sitting around together, playing card games, discussing current event or swapping jokes and stories.
Even when we watched television, we managed to come together, often after intense battles over which program to watch on the three channels available on the one black-and-white television stationed against a wall of the living room.
My four siblings and I may have vied over programming, but the evening news and my parents' favorite weekly prime-time shows such as Gunsmoke, were non-negotiable. In the end, no matter who won, we were together in the same room with our attention and conversations united around the same things.
Many Screens, Separate Worlds
Nowadays, members of the same household can be found in the same room but they're far from being on the same page. Heads buried in the screens of their handheld devices, individuals, from the youngest to the oldest, scroll through the endless stream of content and offerings. Studies have shown that the scrolling and clicking actually triggers the release of chemicals like dopamine in the body. In other words, the entertainment and virtual experience found on platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook are addictive by design.
When these changes in our communication and social habits are considered against the backdrop of the other shifts in recent decades such as the decline of the extended family, and church and other communal networks, it's easy to see how intergenerational storytelling as a folk art has shriveled.
The impact of this loss on the African American oral tradition hit me like a ton of cowrie shells as I sat savoring those kitchen table moments with my granddaughters. I could not recall the last I spent such leisurely time with them.
Inevitably, my lack of audience and practice showed when my attempt to create a memorable griot moment with them flopped. The purpose of the activity was to teach them about genetics, and our common genealogy through our matrilineal line. But after having spent years of research and inquiry to find and reclaim the name and identity of our enslaved foremother, I forgot her name in an instant.
Bridging the Past, Present and Future
The oral tradition, dating back to the griots of West Africa, where my family and many of African descent around the globe trace our ancestry, thrives on repetition. It had been ages since I spoke of my ancestors beyond my parents.
The Black oral tradition not only preserved stories, songs, folk remedies and wisdom but also entire genealogies. The oral tradition and diverse talents of African griots enabled Black people to maintain vital links to our humanity and cultural identity -- through hundreds of years of chattel slavery and de facto slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean. Our links to the past have provided the bridges we need to make sense of our present and fuel our hopes for freedom and a more just future for coming generations.
No Time for Ancestral Amnesia
Telling Black stories is healing. It inspires hope and strength, and builds cultural awareness, while providing a fuller, albeit often painful, picture of history. But as one African proverb says, "The truth may make your eyes red but it won't kill you."
Still, Black people continue to be the only group of people told to forget our past. Not only is this racist and moronic, it is bitterly ironic as we have only begun to remember and reclaim our stories.
Millions have been lost forever, buried in unmarked graves in segregated slave cemeteries and drowned with the ancestors at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Our history continues to be denied, dismissed and distorted as the wagons of White supremacy circle around efforts to preserve plantation-era ideas and other lost causes.
The bans on Black books and history projects that illuminate the Black experience such as the 1619 Project are the tip of latest backlash of fear as the growth of the White population slows and the number of Black and Brown people rapidly swell.
Black storytelling is more critical than ever not only to the spiritual, mental an physical healing and strengthening of Black people but also to a country that has yet to fully acknowledge and come to terms with what many historians call its "original sin."
For Black Baby Boomers, taking our place in the elder circle as griots, writers, poets, storytellers, and artists, this means finding new and innovative ways to pass on the cultural lifelines that were handed to us. Like the Sankofa, the bird in African mythology that can fly forward while reaching back to retrieve what was forgotten, we must never forget the past. We have a sacred duty to reclaim, remember and keep repeating our stories, even if we sound like broken records.
Janet, the daughter of Thelma; the daughter Louise; the daughter of Mamie; the daughter of Annie, who was born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia in 1858.