Purposeful Memoir and Manifesto: Exploring the Past to Reinvent the Future

 “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – Chinua Achebe

It is a privilege to know your ancestry.

To know where your family comes from is to know where you come from.

To not know where you come from is to not know who you are.

Lost identity makes you vulnerable to systems of oppression.

Lost identity manifests into internalized oppression that becomes present in our bodies and in our manners of expression.

Oppressive narratives fill the void of self-representation.

Stigmas swallow your self-image.

We are being denied ourselves in the lack of representation in schools that only show the oppressors in their glory.

To know your history is to be undeniable.

We will not be denied anymore.

Photo by Gina Risso, courtesy of The Guardian UK.

The quote above is part of a wonderfully galvanizing “Manifesto for Tomorrow’s Activists,” created “by youth, for youth” at the first gathering of the International Congress of Youth Voices, convened this month in San Francisco by author Dave Eggers and organizer Amanda Uhle, with media sponsorship from The Guardian.

I am delighted to see these young people recognizing the importance of looking back at the past even as we work to build a present-day springboard to the future we desire.

This is the work of purposeful memoir: exploring our individual life histories as part of a collective process of understanding (cultural and natural) history in order to proceed with greater awareness and intention into a shared vision of a positive future.

“To know your history is to be undeniable.”

In my own life, the trail of my history leads me to the port of Ellis Island, New York, where my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents began the adventure of a new life in America. One branch of my family came in the late 19thcentury from Germany, with enough funds to buy property and establish a business that would support several generations. The rest of my ancestors came fleeing the pogroms, military draft and enforced poverty of Russia/Poland, arriving in New York with what they could carry and a fierce determination to educate their children and make a better life in this new world.

This is a common American story; millions of immigrants from Europe came through Ellis Island and either settled in New York or fanned out across the country in search of peace and prosperity.

But not until I undertook the work of purposeful memoir, with its deep dive into ancestry, did I fully understand the extent to which white privilege helped my European immigrant ancestors assimilate quickly and successfully into American society, becoming well-educated, propertied, at least moderately prosperous white citizens in just a single generation—with huge ramifications for how my own life would play out.

Although it is now becoming more commonplace to recognize and call out white privilege, in my childhood it was not discussed. The great Audre Lorde, who grew up only a few blocks from me and went to the same high school I did, Hunter College High School, but with a very different experience, observed in her powerful essay “The Uses of Anger” that mainstream society “wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of existence, like evening time or the common cold.”

The young activists who convened in San Francisco this summer are absolutely right to reject the mainstreaming of racism and to insist on education that gives all participants in history a voice. But we don’t have to wait for the school systems to get around to revising their textbooks and curricula. We can educate ourselves, beginning with our own purposeful memoirs, and let the ripples of our new, deeper understanding of self, society and world go out to inspire and galvanize others.

A recent, and sure-to-be-controversial memoir that does this deep work is Air Traffic, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gregory Pardlo. Pardlo recounts his African American family history, marred by racism and political injustice, with a view towards “reinventing America” that puts the promise of reconciliation at its core.

“I want us to forgive our history of slavery, and the crackpot invention of race we’ve used first to maintain that peculiar institution, and then late to designate an exploitable surplus population,” he says. “I admit it is idealistic….But I am committing this book to the dream of a new America” (206-7).

Reading this passage recently with students, I paired it with a poem by Wendell Berry, “Enemies,” where he proposes that in order to move freely and collaboratively into a shared future, we must both recognize and forgive each other our human fallibility, the potential we all have to become “monsters.”

“Forgiven,” Berry says, your enemies “go free of you, and you of them; they are to you as sunlight on a green branch.”

Part of the deep work of purposeful memoir is bringing ourselves into the sunlight of forgiveness—forgiving ourselves as well as others. I can’t say I have always achieved this, brooding Scorpio that I am, but it is a work in progress that I come back to each time I re-open the doors leading to episodes from my personal history, played out against the political and planetary landscapes of my lifetime.

As I said in a recent interview, whether or not you intend to write or publish a memoir, engaging in this kind of thoughtful interrogation of your history is important, indeed essential, for understanding the past in order to envision the kind of future you want to live into. My online course, award-winning writer’s guide, in-person workshops and one-on-one coaching are all aimed at providing inspiration and guidance for your journey.

As the young people of the International Congress of Youth Voices rightly recognized, we must revisit history in order to reimagine a better future. And frankly, there is no time to waste. Now is the time, and yoursis the story we’re waiting for.