Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Family Silence

A few weeks ago I was in Alaska and someone in the audience asked a question that comes up a lot.  "How has this experience impacted your family...are they proud..has it brought them joy....?"  I tried to briefly explain how every step we take to honor Booker Wright comes with the a deepening knowledge of what was lost. So, it's been painful.  The audience was satisfied.

If they only knew.

Sometimes the tiniest details can bring out the strongest reactions in my family. Person A will say that Person B did XYZ.  Person B's cousin will wonder why Person B never mentioned doing XYZ to them.  The cousin feels hurt, left out, and they question why Person B kept this from them.  Even if XYZ is a small detail, it makes the cousin question other things about Person B.  The cousin doesn't know how to feel about the relationship they once had.  Was it all a lie?  They can't get to the bottom of it because Person B is dead.  An unanswerable question has been planted in the cousin's mind and the only way to get rid of it is to forget.

The cousin becomes a lot less talkative.  They stop returning my calls and may even discourage others in the family from talking to me.  Person A will start to feel guilty about stirring up pain and will also pull away from me or, at a minimum, show extreme caution the next time .

Every time I get on the phone with someone in my family they act like anything they say might appear in my book.  The fact is, they're right.  I'm collecting all of these stories for a reason.  So, part of me understands their discomfort.  Part of me has a hard time with it, though.  I'm trying to get as close to the truth as possible.  There are so many things about Booker that I will never know.  But I want to get the details that I can correct.  I don't want to be wrong.

Multiple this by 20 details, one hundred conversations, countless moments and lots of dead ancestors with skeletons in their closets.

One of the topics that comes up again and again when I talk to audiences about my grandfather's story is the idea of family silence within communities of color.  So many adults simply don't know their family stories, oftentimes because those stories are ones of humiliation and pain.  Aside from details here and there, a knowledge of a place of birth, a marriage, a death, so many of us don't know the ins and out, the stuff that glistens from the nooks and crannies.  We don't know and we don't think to ask.  We live with each other day in and day out unconcerned about what came before us.  Until someone comes knocking and unearths it all.

People change their stories.  Loved ones hide from me.  I don't always know why.

I do know that losing someone you love is indescribably painful.  Finding out later that they weren't who you thought they were is something else altogether.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing that. I've also wondered how the book, the research, blog, and movie, affected your family, but I wondered more about your immediate family.
    I've seen the silence in the communities of color myself as my Mexican grandparents have shared so little of their history with me. They became white washed as they got older and kept precious few of their culture and history on display, except for the food and some language. As I've gotten older I've realized I knew almost nothing of where they or their families came from. Over the last ten years though I have been asking them to share this with me and I have learned much, it has given me a heritage I didn't know I had and some family members I knew little or not at all. I am lucky they are both still here to pass this on.