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14 1 EDITING AND THE ART OF FORGETFULNESS IN SOCIAL SCIENCE Any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences. —Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past “But, Mr. Wright, there are so many of us who are not like Bigger!” —Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” Aunt Maggie was the family griot. The sister of my paternal grandmother, she was born in 1905, the youngest of eleven children. By the middle 1990s, she was the last surviving sibling of her generation. I barely knew her myself , but I know that she was a woman of accomplishment. Trained at Bennett College and holder of a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University, she served as the dean of women at Tuskegee University in the mid-1960s. Perhaps because of her own achievements she seemed to be obsessed with being the right kind of individual, hailing from the right kind of family. Anyone less than exemplary, or publicly noted for being so, was a stain on the family’s past, present, and future. Unfortunately, her two sons were merely good husbands and fathers and solidly middle class to upper middle class. And even though they cared for her, she still did her best to cut them down to size. At six feet, seven inches, my brother Brian is a rather large person, and perhaps thinking that Aunt Maggie could not reduce him, he went to visit her in late 2001. My brother is deeply invested in learning the family history. As much as possible, he wanted to get his stories from as close to the original Editing and the Art of Forgetfulness / 15 source as possible. Guided by this passion, Brian traveled to Detroit to visit Aunt Maggie. He folded himself into a small chair next to her bedside and began talking with her about family history—hoping that he had arrived on a good day, when her memory was sharp and when she felt like talking. Brian knew much of the recent family history, but he wanted those memories that belonged to Aunt Maggie. After some general questions about Maggie’s descendants, Brian asked about Maggie’s ancestors. Because Aunt Maggie hailed from Asheville, North Carolina, and was born near the turn of the century, my brother reasoned that she could likely recall members of the family who were born into slavery and perhaps lived parts of their lives as slaves. Aunt Maggie, who had been sharing her memories with my brother willingly , in fine detail, and, remarkably, in good cheer, suddenly snapped: “We don’t talk about that in this family.” She added that there were stories he didn’t need to know, that she did not intend to share, and that would accompany her to the grave. She then turned away, stared off into some unseen place, and with her body language and stony silence marked the end of the conversation. A few months later, Aunt Maggie died. True to her word, with her death many stories about the slaves in our family’s past and their histories of social degradation, violence, and, importantly, survival disappeared forever. With her silence, my grand-aunt was participating in a long-standing practice of editing her memory, an artful forgetting for the sake of affirming her family’s social position. Hers was a logic that middle- and upper-class blacks consistently relied on in the early years of the civil rights movement to preserve their status in black and white America. By narrating a history that was only about good breeding, middle- and upper-class blacks could preserve their respectability in black America during an era of profound social , economic, and political change. They could also retain their positions as the interpreters of blackness for the white community.1 This sort of thinking drove Richard Wright mad, and he wrote against what he felt to be the black bourgeois desire to forget. As he makes clear in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright maintained great disaffection for the black middle class’s penchant to edit out certain stories of the larger black experience: I knew from long and painful experience that the Negro middle and professional classes were the people of my own race who were more than others ashamed of Bigger and what he meant. Having narrowly escaped the Bigger Thomas reaction pattern themselves—indeed, still retaining 16 / Editing and the Art of Forgetfulness traces of it within the confines of their own timid personalities—they would not relish...


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