My mother is the family griot. She holds the memories of our family from way back, and enjoys sharing them, sometimes for the sake of the stories themselves, at other times for the irony and teachings they hold.
In certain West African cultures the griot is a highly respected hereditary position; the person who holds the community’s historical narratives, oral traditions, and genealogies. No one ever conferred the title upon my mother, except me. After I learned of this position within African communities, I immediately recognized her role within ours.
But I was puzzled by Mom’s deep fascination to know the stories of our family. When we gathered at my grandparents’ South Carolina home, Mom would eagerly ask her father to tell the stories of times past, of the old ones, of siblings who died less than a year of being born, of grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. She was also intentional about visiting with other elder relatives to find out how they were doing and, it seemed from her inquisitiveness, to collect some new memory.
Memories which sometimes frightened me. They were of a world, a time, people and suffering I could not relate to in all my modern, educated, New York City-fied ways. I was glad I didn’t live during the old times they remembered, and wondered at the relevance to now. Wouldn’t it be easier to just move on, glad for today?
Over time I began to recognize what these memories had to tell me about myself. How they form the resilient woven cloth of who I am. How much there is to be learned in the wisdom they hold. How finely they are woven into the fabric of our nation.