Self-Revision as Praxis

Woman with a baby sitting outside of building from which they had been evicted, in Harlem, New York, ca 1954 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

The ax forgets, but the tree remembers.

– African proverb

“Forgetting is the true death.”

– Mama Koko Zauditu Selassie, In Our Mothers’ Gardens (2021)

“Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting.  One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience.” (Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), 25)

Sweeping national histories in the new world and the old landscape creates black women’s invisibility; caught in the gap between being and belonging, we are ever in a state of arriving. In this state of never-quite-crossing, black women throughout the diaspora develop an acute awareness of the negative controlling narratives that litter national landscapes. Self-revision, a survival tactic, is an integral feature of our navigation toolkit with which we traverse these landscapes replete with memory mines. What happens, however, when there are memory mines that threaten to decimate the narratives of the personal histories we create? What occurs when self-revision becomes a praxis in our lives—in both the world(s) where we remain unseen, as well as in spaces that are often considered “safe”? The relief that comes with simply being continues to elude us.

In 1974, Hope Morgan left Jamaica to make a new life in Toronto, Canada. In writing a memoir of my mother I mine her life for details; I follow some of the threads that began to fray in the fabric of her created self as her cognitive filters gave way to Alzheimer’s Disease 25 years later, when she was in her late 40s. Writing personal histories of those whom we know intimately presents a number of difficulties. One example presents a question of ethics: should I cross the boundaries of sharing information that Hope worked hard to forget? The principal issue with which I grapple in writing my mother’s story, however, is reconciling the ways in which a praxis of self-revision is my legacy. How do I work against the blueprint she bequeathed to create one that will bring me a different end than it did my mother? Today, developing this disease at a rate of 2/3 more than any other demographic in North America black women make up the greatest demographic of those with Alzheimer’s Disease, more than any other demographic in North America. It is rampant in our communities. And yet, not one film in the mainstream shows a black woman subject, nor depicts the impacts of the disease on our families.

I am my mother’s daughter.

As I pour over the church records of baptisms, I feel a single bead of sweat trickle down my spine. It could easily be Spanish Town’s hot sun, but sitting in the church meeting area, I know it’s more. I’ve looked through the church’s baptismal records twice already and I don’t see my mother’s name. Was she really baptized? Am I at the right church? Where is she? The unfamiliar stories she shared as her cognition devolved put everything I think I know about Mommy on precarious grounds; I question everything. I can’t find her name and I’m beginning to feel desperate. “Let me go through the records one more time,” I tell myself. Finally, I see, “Gloria Morgan.” I was looking for Hope, the name that everyone in Jamaica called her, not Gloria–even though both are the names on her birth certificate. She was baptized shortly before her immigration to Canada. In many Christian denominations changing one’s name accompanies the rite of baptism. Pre-immersion Hope was a reputedly troubled girl. However, by the time she made her exodus from Jamaica and found deliverance in Canada, she was an altogether new woman: Gloria.

The immigrant story is one of many things: excitement and anxiety about what lays ahead; sadness and a sort of longing for what one leaves behind. One’s decision to move to another country permanently, too, is about self-re-vision, re-seeing one’s self. Coupled with her baptism, Mommy’s emigration from the home of her childhood engendered a resolve to be(come). Still, the praxis of creating a new self becomes Sisyphean when one encounters the same characters from whom she seeks to re-imagine herself; they carry memories of her–often the same ones she thought she’d left behind. The Seventh-Day Adventist community in Toronto, Canada certainly connected with the people from “back home.” For Gloria, it must have felt like her selves were colliding. That, or that Hope bore a stain that Gloria simply could not wash away.

Gloria’s successful revision of her personal narrative to one of respectability was a 180 degree change from the trajectory of her life. Maude, her mother, gave her up as a baby because she lacked the means to manage her children on her own. All four went to total strangers because their father was philandering and incapable. And, remaining resolute in their initial disapproval of their coupling, baby Hope’s paternal family would not take in any of “that woman’s” children, despite having the means. So, Hope did not know her biological mother nor her father—not until she was 16 years old. While they let her in, she still carried the birthmark of a biological mother whom her father’s family deemed less than, and a father who remained a disappointment. When Gloria landed in Canada for her fresh start, newly baptized, Jesus was her father, the church her mother. The children she bore in the new land were cocooned in Gloria’s new narrative. Thus, my childhood, remarkably, was unremarkable.

My mother taught me to spell my name w-o-m-a-n.

As a little girl, my most beloved memories entail sitting and listening to the ways that my mother would be: when she was with my aunts in the kitchen, chatting and laughing about things that I was too young to understand; when she was sitting at her sewing machine, conversing with the characters in one of her stories on the tv; when she would give anyone who had slighted her the benefit of the doubt for just so long before she would make it very clear that she would not be taken for a fool. In all her ordinary black womanness, she was extraordinary.

Now that she is gone, I am ever conscious of her when I see me: laughing with my mouth closed and the sound that it makes in my throat; giving a long kiss teeth in response to another trying to take me for a fool; placing just one hand akimbo to admonish my child about something or another; standing in the mirror to put on my moisturizer–a dab on forefinger to my forehead, to my left cheek, to my right cheek, to my chin, to the tip of my nose; then, starting with my cheeks, using both hands to rub the moisturizer in down to my chin; letting my right hand take over to rub in my chin, circling to my jawline; the way I bite my lips as I cover all the area above and below my lips and under my chin down to my neck, leaving off to return to my nose, where my fingers spread the moisturizer out to my nostrils, beneath my eyes and up to my temples. Now, a return to both hands on my face: left, right, left, right across my forehead and down the bridge of my nose. Memories live in quotidian moments.

As I go through her story in which she experienced many challenges, two things become apparent: first, revising one’s self is praxis – one that requires many moments with one’s self-forging, and revising. For my mother, I imagine these moments entailed checking herself over to tuck in memories where a thread may hang out of place. Secondly, in landscapes replete with negative controlling images of black women, the praxis of revising one’s self–ultimately to one’s detriment–cannot be divorced from race and gender.

The landscape black women/daughters tread is full of memory mines. As her cognitive filters eroded, threads of memory that she had successfully snipped and/or tucked away over the years began to unravel–quickly. Because there was no pattern for where the memories lay, there was no preparing for the mines. Talking with my mother, she would be with me in the room, and in the blink of an eye she would be back in Jamaica in her childhood bedroom, and I, no longer her third child, would be a friend of her mother.

As a black woman, now, traversing at times treacherous landscapes, I realize how much she was up against, how valiantly she fought to keep it together, and how lonely she must have felt returning daily to a house where the daughters she raised on her own had little to no compassion because we had yet to “grow come see.” Being my mother’s daughter does not name a struggle, but it’s from this fact that my struggle grows. The rules of respectability contributed to my mother’s ruination. With her praxis of self-revision, she safeguarded me, devastatingly, to the point of self-sacrifice. Today, respectability informs my own praxis of self-revision. It was a source of anxiety for my mother, and so it is with me. One goal in doing this work is to create a moratorium on respectability to the detriment of one’s self; without it, I worry that this legacy will lead me to one day be talking with my son in a moment, and then in the next be talking to my own mother again.

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Sherry Johnson

Dr. Sherry Johnson tells stories that engage memory and Black writing between Canada and the United States. She is a writer, research, and scholar of literature, particularly at the intersection of Black women's lives and their writing, African American visual culture, and film studies. Currently an associate professor and Director of the graduate program in English at Grand Valley State University, she teaches courses in African American literature, Multicultural American literature, neo-slave narratives, and critical approaches to literary study. Her work appears in the American Studies Journal, African American Review, Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, MELUS and other publications.