Memory & Intangibility



In a previous entry, For Carl, I described the nostalgic experience of being thrust into acute awareness of the timeless space that is my grandparent’s kitchen. I left feeling full, anchored, and whole. I have a habit of ruminating in thought and I have spent months in a cycle of thoughts about that day. Mostly, I am struggling with how to pinpoint exactly what I felt. A concept that I keep returning to is the connection between our experiences, the spaces in which we have an experience, and memories that are created as a result of those experiences in those spaces.

This thought originated from an odd experience I had back in 2014. I had been released from work early at my job and thought to pop by my Nana & Poppie’s house for a few hours, unannounced. I should explain that arriving unannounced is a common practice among all of my family. It’s a semi-open door policy. Sometimes we call but because of the norms we’ve created among ourselves, calling is not really necessary. As long as the person is home, and it’s a reasonable hour of the day, we’re pretty much always welcome.

I cruised down the alley to their house and noticed that my Nana’s oil black Buick was not in the driveway. She was out, probably running errands, and there was no telling when she would return. I was a bit disappointed but I shrugged my shoulders and decided I would continue driving. Besides, I had other options, like crashing at my ‘Granny’s’ home a few miles away. Suddenly I stopped, realizing that I actually couldn’t ‘pop over”. Granny had passed away the previous year and the property was no longer a space I was allowed access to. The doors and walls belonged to someone else and there was a slim chance that whoever lived there now would open them for me.

How do I effectively articulate what I experienced at that moment? How can I describe it in a way that can be considered conceptually and still resonate emotionally with others? Should I say, conflicted? Entitled? Rejected? I felt like my brain had glitched. Surely it is more complex than merely being locked out. I began to consider the reality that her home had shaped for me psychologically. Was the existence of this space so great that even after coming to terms with her of its owner, the home itself had continued to exist as an extension of me and my world. It had its own life in my memory. It’s own body. Its own voice. All of its bits and pieces had operated as an extension of her, yet was autonomous that in my mind the reality of my losing her had no connection to my reality of losing it. Even more baffling is the fact that it is still present in the world. It is just intangible for me.

“To lose access to space is to actually lose a bit of who, and how, we have become.”

We are shaped, in large part, by our experiences; The encounters that trigger joy, love, and security in us form our beliefs about the world and determine ultimately how we exist in it. But I have come to believe that the spaces in which we experience these encounters are equally as important as what is experienced in them. Moreover, our having access to those spaces remaining at a constant has the power to settle or unsettle the foundations upon which we build our entire identities.

This is not to say that change is to be wrestled with. I believe it should be embraced and even welcomed. But I believe it can also be true that to lose access to space is to actually lose a bit of who, and how, we have become. Contrary to however large and vibrant Granny’s home remains in my memories, in reality, my community and my world had become a bit smaller. Marginally, sure, when considered in relation to the world itself. But still significant enough to affect how freely I am able to move within the world.

I will add that my experience is not at all unique. Property loss can occur by natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Countless families have been displaced by circumstances beyond their control. But what then are we to make of the economic circumstances that lead to these experiences? Like the 2008 housing market crash? Or even the loss of a family member who’s home was also your home, but in their absence has become intangible to you? Yes, rationally we can answer that this is the importance of setting a Will in place for your loved ones. I agree it should be done. However, I’m not sure that the distance between what should be done and what can be done is always easily traveled.

Truthfully, this experience is a micro-level result of macro-level issues that historically have and continue to contribute to deficiencies in economic wealth for African Americans. Forbes magazine published an article quoting a statistic average wealth value per African American household is 6% of the average for white families. William Darity, Professor of Public Policy, African and African-American Studies and Economics at Duke University explained that “the major sources of wealth for most of the super-rich are inheritances and in life transfers. The big reason is racial differences in access to resources to transfer to the next generation”. Systems like redlining and profiling have historically determined how well African American communities would succeed economically, and consequently how financially secure future generations would be. To speak fully on these systems is to open a discussion that I cannot summarize in short. I will simply state that the tangibility of wealth is an obstacle that many African American communities continue to face today. What I experienced is only a fragment of what is felt when entire communities are displaced, erased, and replaced.

It’s not mind-boggling to consider that space can contribute so massively to our lives that we find difficulty separating our identities from them? They continue on in the world sharing little to no record of our relationship with them. And yet our memory of a space can continue to live vividly in us, even after it has ceased to exist. Research considers this notion to an extent; that our experiences and memories can tangibly alter our physical DNA if they are impactful enough. Further on it considers that consequently the DNA of our offspring is altered, carrying on the memories of previous generations, long after they have left the world.

So, is memory intangible? Or is there an element of it that actually is tangible?

And if so, how do I articulate this experience visually in my work?

– Kimberly R. Heard

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