what does it mean to be a family historian?

It’s more than collecting photographs, writings, objects, and heirlooms, though those physical manifestations of memory and legacy are very important to the preservation of a people. But it extends beyond to how you use those objects and things to tell the stories of your family.

What will you say, who will you include, what will you leave out, what will you blur and downplay, what will you place as the centerpiece?

How you frame those photos and extract from them matters just as much, if not more than, the fact that you have those objects in the first place. In Through a Lens Darkly (watch it, it’s on Netflix), the filmmaker was intentional about including the stories of two family members who were essentially sidelined because their identities didn’t match the overall values of the family. While the family didn’t completely try to erase them, they marginalized them enough to where they became almost invisible. You had to dig and inquire to find out anything about them. They were a shame and a stain to the otherwise proud and just legacy of their family.

This is one way in which families as an entity can be extremely oppressive – there is a power dynamic at play in which certain members, acting as individuals or as a group, can make decisions about who is worthy of being included and remembered. They have the power to determine who will be seen and known by future generations. That’s the thing about death – life moves on without you and your capacity to shape the future is swiftly extinguished. So the still living must decide for you and those decisions won’t always be in your favor. You could be entirely written out – that is a very real possibility, based on the value and legacy you contributed to your relatives while you still lived.

So when I think about this process of familial erasure, I often think of my auntie Etaba. She died over a decade ago; since then, I’ve lost two other loved ones, my other auntie and my uncle. And the differences in how these three people are remembered, how they were mourned when they first died, how they continue to be memorialized in people’s minds and imaginations are so stark. The differences are stark.

what my mama always knew about the dealings of grown men

When I was younger, a child, a preteen and into my teenage years, my mom would warn me about men – grown, adult men. She’d instruct me to never open the door for a man in her absence, even if we knew him, even if he was a neighbor, a friend, or an acquaintance. She even ran down the list of possible pleas they might make to get me to open the door: “your mom sent me,” “I have a package/delivery for you,” “could you help me study?” Never oblige, under any circumstance, she’d demand sternly. And I remember promising to follow her strict orders but laughing it off and thinking “there goes her paranoia again.” In fact, what I deemed to be her paranoia was often a source of laughter or embarrassment for me. I figured her to be overly careful, suspicious of dangers I couldn’t see or make sense of, unrealistic about people and situations.

Now, at 26, I get it. I get her, and her ‘paranoia,’ and her insistence that men, regardless of their marital status, relationship to us, or personality, are not to be trusted around young girls. She recognized the imbalance of power that exists between an adult man and a small girl. She foresaw the very real possibility of abuse, molestation, and the snatching of innocence. Especially in a culture like ours where our people are deafeningly silent on rape and sexual abuse. In a culture like ours where even if instances of rape and sex abuse are openly reported or acknowledged, it’s the girl child/woman that bears the brunt of blame. You probably seduced him. Why did you dress like that around him? Stop your lies, ekele _____ is a respectable man, he would never do such a thing. And just like that, the girl child/woman is handed her slut, fast, shame card and the male in question goes completely unquestioned and unconfronted. Our people protect our men like the fiber of the society depends on that protection. We make all kinds of excuses for them as if they are fragile china ready to break at any moment if we don’t coddle them. And worst of all, sometimes/often/too often it is women who maintain, perpetuate, and protect patriarchy to no ends.

I don’t know what my mom witnessed/experienced/knew about the secret, dark, inhumane things that happen between grown men and girl children in the unfortunate event that they’re left alone. She’s never talked to me about specific instances or examples for reference. But she didn’t have to. She knew, and for that knowledge, I’m grateful, even though it didn’t entirely prevent the possibility. But that’s for another time.

Disclaimer: I know not all men are pervs. Also, it’s not just/always girls who are victims and it’s not men who are just/always predators.