Author and professor Rae Paris visited sites of racial trauma around the U.S. for her new book: The Forgetting Tree.
The book explores the pain, resistance, and healing which stem from a complete recounting and remembering of these places and the people behind them.
Ben: Let's start with the title of the book and the title of the title poem: what is the forgetting tree?
Rae: The forgetting tree is the name of the marker at a site in an old Portuguese fort in Benin, which is a place where enslaved people were sold and traded. The epigraph to the title poem uses the description of that marker which describes the ritual of turning enslaved people around the tree a certain number of times in order to forget their homes. So that's the first part of the title, the forgetting tree.
The second part, rememory, comes from Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, which is based on the story of Margaret Garner. She was an enslaved woman who escaped and then was captured but when she was captured rather than having her children return to slavery she killed two-year-old daughter and harmed her other children. In the novel, Beloved, the character of Sethe, who is based on Margaret Garner, has killed her daughter and the story begins with her daughter has long been dead. I think I want to read the description, is that okay? Because it is so important. Sethe describes her memory, or her rememory, as this:
"If a house burns down it's gone but the picture of it stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I died, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw, is still right out there in the place where it happened."
So that notion of remembering as something that is inside of you, but is also something that exists outside of yourself, and that you can share in somebody else's memory: go to a place and feel the thing that happened there, is deeply embedded in this book. The tree of forgetting, that notion of remembering as ritual, is also a big part of this.
Ben: In the book, you're going to plantations and going back to these spaces and looking at the way we remember those places, and how they are remembered, where did that idea for you come from?
Rae: I'm not sure there was any one particular moment, it's always been a part of what I do. I also think it comes from being a child of people who left the South, being a part of that first generation and growing up around particular silences. On hearing some stories about where my parents grew up, but not many. Being drawn to those silences, which drew me to these places, and got me thinking about what's remembered, who remembers, and how we remember.
Ben: There is a lot of emphases put on naming. Remembering both white supremacists and white supremacy but also the people impacted by it, naming those people and naming those spaces. Why is that important?
Rae: I guess it goes back, for me, to think about remembering as ritual, but also remembering as resistance. When there is a forgetting of these names it's an erasure of an entire history and people. So when I saw these names, or we say these names, of people who police have killed or who have died some other violent way from white supremacy we're remembering their entire stories; we're remembering families, we're remembering places they've lived, we're remembering all of these things that go along with their names. And similarly, with the naming of white supremacists, I think too often those names are forgotten. There's a rationale where if you say those names you give them more power but I think it's important to name the people who did violence, I think that's part of the story.
Ben: What are the impacts of forgetting that violence?
Rae: Forgetting the trauma and forgetting violence creates more violence. Forgetting violence is itself a kind of violence, particularly when that forgetting is being done by people who have more power. I think it creates more violence. We see this in the way that this country only exists because of land stolen from indigenous people, from anti-blackness, from exploited labor. There is a real desire to forget all of that and when we do we end up with people incarcerated, with the conditions that we have in schools, and so there is a real impact to this kind of forgetting.
Ben: How does remembering change over the course of the book?
Rae: I think there's a lot of heaviness in the book, but even when I'm describing things that are difficult there are still moments of light within that because in describing these things there is a particular kind of release and some other space that's created. I think towards the end it does move to this place where it's remembering and does feel more complete in the ways that remembering is also healing. Particularly in "the Tree of Return," which focuses on the neighborhood I grew up in and just the joy of black girlhood, and community and neighborhood. Even as these other conditions exist we still create these spaces of power and resistance, and again, just joy.
Ben: Is there any of this you want to read?
Rae: Sure. I think I will read the title poem, "The Forgetting Tree," which is dedicated to Trayvon Martin. It's a long poem so I'm going to read from the middle of the poem.
Because New Smyrna Beach is 91% white.
Because I'm only forty minutes from where he shot you.
Because on your day I ate fried scallops, drank wine, tucked your name under my greasy napkin, explained to my job how productive I was this year. This year, every day you were dead.
Because I didn't want to know how close you were until after February 26th.
Because New Orleans, New York, Blacksburg, L.A., Detroit, Oakland.
Because Sanford is just another city, and Florida just another state sitting on a giant sinkhole.
Because I'll drive two hours to Fort Pierce just to kneel on Zora's grave.
Because old death is easier than new death.
Because your year old death hangs fresh with other deaths I know, old and new: my father, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis. Two died violent, one didn't. All died Black. I could go on and on.
The Forgetting Tree was released on Monday, December 4th.
Rae Paris is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington.