Thursday, October 4, 2007

Rest in Peace

Alice Walker had to defend herself from fierce attacks after she wrote "The Color Purple." Mostly these came from folks who didn't like the fact that she was writing about a black man (she just called him "Mr.") abusing a black woman. I think it probably was difficult work to do, since it would very likely be used as fuel for racism.

But she explained, in her book of essays, "Living by the Word" that she carefully portrayed Mr.'s father as "light skinned" in both the book and the movie. Her point was that Mr.'s father was the son of a slave and a slave owner - a son of both the oppressed and the oppressor. All of this came from deep in Alice's soul where she battled for years to accept her own white great-great-grandfather, who had raped a girl of 11 and she bore him a son, her great grandfather.

Here are Alice's words in the essay:

We are the African and the trader. We are the Indian and the settler. We are the slaver and the enslaved. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We are the women and we are the men. We are the children. The ancestors, black and white, who suffered during slavery - and I've come to believe they all did: you need only check your own soul to imagine how - grieve, I believe, when a black man oppresses women, and when a black woman or man mistreats a child. They've paid those dues. Surely they bought our gentleness toward each other with their pain.

And here's a poem she wrote about it all:

for two who
slipped away
my "part" Cherokee
(Grandmama Lula)
on my mother's side
about whom
only one
is known:
her hair was so long
she could sit on it:

And my white (Anglo-Irish)
on my father's side
(Walker, perhaps?)
whose only remembered act
is that he raped
a child;
my great-great-grandmother,
who bore his son,
my great-grandfather,
when she was eleven.

Rest in peace.
The meaning of your lives
is still

Rest in peace.
In me
the meaning of your lives
is still

Rest in peace, in me.
The meaning of your lives
is still

Rest. In me
the meaning of your lives
is still

Rest. In peace
in me
the meaning of our lives
is still


All of this speaks powerfully to me as I try to reconcile myself from the other side of this divide. I come from a family of means who have been in the thick of all that is wrong with our imperialist, warmongering, theocratic and racist culture. I want to find a way to say to my grandfather:

Rest. In peace
in me
the meaing of our lives
is still unfolding.

I want to find a way to heal that part of him that is also part of me.


  1. Hey NL,

    I know you're writing primarily for your own reasons, not looking for outside encouragement. But sometimes it's nice to know that you're not merely toiling away in the shadows, so I thought I'd leave a comment to let you know that I appreciate your writing greatly and try to keep up with it wherever I may find your insight and musings.

  2. Thanks so much ejmw - for visiting and for your kind words. While it has definitely been good for me to have a place to put my thoughts, its always great to know that I have connected with others in doing so.

  3. Ejmw - a pleasure to cross your path!

    NL - don't know if you will share your journey into finding a way to heal the Grandfather within - perhaps not the specifics, but the process?

    I keep thinking of patterns - patterns of genetic material passed along; patterns of speech and thinking and behaving also passed along; traditions and rituals, sometimes losing connection with the origins, becoming forms without function, also passed along. Are we variations on a familial pattern? Human snowflakes, each unique, yet each made of the same material, subject to the same laws of nature?

    Is forgiveness a necessary component of healing?

  4. On your deeper questions tampopo, I'll have to think some more. But I can share with you how Walker helped me find a way to some healing with my grandfather.

    She said, as the poem makes clear, that the only thing she knew about her great-great grandfather was that he had raped an 11 year old. As she felt him "knocking" to gain entrance to her soul, she resisted for a long time. Finally, she couldn't do that anymore. So her solution was to "vision" other parts of him and try to make him a more complete person than that one aspect of him. So, she imagined that he might have been a fiddle player and other things.

    Since I had known my grandfather (he died when I was in junior high), I could actually know some things about him from my memory. For example, he LOVED to laugh and sing. I used to always be a bit confused when I saw him arguing over business issues with his sons - he'd be laughing during the conversation. He had a big base voice and his laughter carried.

    And he was always singing - wherever he went. Just belting out joyful tunes all the time.

    So I think of those parts of him. He was more than his shortcomings...aren't we all?

  5. I guess I have some more to say on this than I wrote above. That was the beginning of the process. But also, as Walker is saying, I know that my grandfather paid a price in his soul for his oppression of others. I'm not sure of the specifics of that...but I know its true. I'd like him to be able to rest in peace as the meaning of his life unfolds now in me. What I do with my life is also a part of him, just like his life is a part of me. So, I hope to do all I can, not out of a sense of guilt, but for him and for me.

    As Walker says:

    They've paid those dues. Surely they bought our gentleness toward each other with their pain.


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