Among people who are part of the Western Hemisphere’s African Diaspora there are certain images that trigger a gut response – the Door of No Return is one. Viewing a framed image of the ocean, many of us require no description or explanation. In some way we simply know, by instinct almost, that the image is a human memory of separation, departure, loss, immense suffering and sorrow. A raised fist at the Olympics or in Brazilian jewelry represents pride, achievement, and defiance. In the same way, Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project hopes that eventually its logo will be the symbol of ancestral arrival, the beginning of documented African Diaspora history in Europe and the Americas.
There is a theory that DNA transports memory of generational experiences. In a closing address at the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of SNCC’s founding, scholar and song writer Bernice Reagon said there is a difference between knowledge and memory, but they both play a role in personal and group experience. DNA, we are told, carries both dormant and dominant traits of all persons with whom we are biologically related through 33 generations.
If the theory of memory is accurate then what a remarkable occurrence. It also would demonstrate genetic response and adaption that have no obviously plausible explanation. Base on this theory, those of us descended from captive and enslaved Africans may carry a latent memory of the Middle Passage, slavery, resistance, and survival within us. What does that mean for those of us living now? This is not some predetermined destination, but certainly may affect current behaviors and interpretations. Is this why there exits such fear, outrage, and anger among so many of us in this nation? Is that why we seek self-respect and affirmation so intensely? Is that why many of us pacify pain through drugs, food, material accumulation, even violence?
Those who accept this theory of memory state that a mother who experienced famine during pregnancy is more likely to give birth to a child who is obsessed with food. Those whose parents lived during the Great Depression buy in bulk, staving off “hard times.” The children of Holocaust survivors exhibit tendencies that reflect their parent’s history. This is an anecdotal tale, but true: during the 1960s a teenage boy in North Viet Nam wore his hat cocked at an angle distinct from all the other village children. It was revealed later that his father, who wore his military hat in this manner, had been a since departed French African soldier brought to Indo-China to quell resistance. It is a genetic “deja vu.” And why not? We consciously factor the good, bad, and ugly into our daily lives when making decisions and choices; perhaps these same factors from our past are in play as well.
Based upon this theory of memory, we need to actively learn and acknowledge our history. It is important and valuable. It is not necessary to dwell upon past negative experiences, but we can benefit from knowing a past in which ancestors had the ability to overcome and survive. It is a method of healing and being aware. If we are going to move forward in this nation the following steps must be taken:
- Honor the past and ancestors
- Identify the strengths that make survival and community possible
- Know who you are
- Acknowledge all the symbolic doors of African American history – departure, arrival, freedom
- Examine your life
- Assume a level of responsibility for yourself and the environment
In doing these things deliberately and often we can cover a lot of ground and make life better. You carry much of the information and ability to do this within you, in your DNA. After all, we have walked through many doors.