I saw you in my memories the other day. They were of my father and the stories he told me as a child, oral histories and old tales shipped express from his life in Ghana. I remember the Ashanti queens, such strong and powerful leaders, and the warriors with bodies coated in gold. I remember the witches, the healers, skin so dark and feet so quick that they looked like shadows; you could never touch them, they could never be caught.
It’s funny, how it all turns to dust. And suddenly, my stories are all pale and blonde and you are the shadow teller, my new narrator tucking me in. The best way to write someone out of a story is to not tell them that you’re doing it. So, you raised me on Ariel, Belle, and Cinderella; taught me to look through a broken mirror and not notice the glass in my eyes; fed me sand and told me it was butter. And as I followed you, let you guide me, my hand in yours, I realized that the dark-ugly wasn’t me, but you, and the world you’d given me was a cold tower where you’d locked me away. The best way to write someone out of a story is to never include them in the first place.
I’m coming into my own agency. I am out beyond your tower and rinsing my eyes to see for the first time in years. I’m remembering my mother and her mother and summers spent in Georgia, down the street from a peach-packing factory. Endless Sundays in hot churches, sweaty dresses sticking to pews, enough fans flapping to lift you higher than revelations. I’m claiming the history of my mother’s family, of generations not spent in Cameroon, resilience in oppression, digging roots in your dirt. The broken hair brush and the hot comb (with the burn scars) and the two-step. I’m learning that history is alive and your story isn’t mine. Once upon a time, I wished for milk and honey, and now I dream of gold-coated skies, my grandmother’s hands and endless Sundays.
But I can still feel myself within your design. I’m building a home inside your castle, putting my words inside your pages. You want me to claim my ancestors’ bondage, to glimpse the reflection of myself in your image and carry the shards of your mirror. To remember my grandmother but not Old Lady, the face I’ve only touched once, who speaks a language unburied, not given by masters, lives on land cultivated without blood and chains. I’m beyond your tower but locked in a shining city on a hill, and you’re omnipresent but visible, whispering in my ear as I walk down the street. I feel you in my classrooms, in my home, in my bed, delicately placing your hand back in mine. Sometimes, I still crave the sand; still flinch and shudder at my Black skin against white walls; see your shadow in the ghosts that go bump in my mind. Once upon a time, you haunted me and now, you still do.
I wonder if you even know yourself. Do you see yourself? Do you know I see you?
You’re my high school required reading: thirty-five dead white men and Chinua Achebe; the twenty-eight girls in my elementary school class and the zero who looked like me. You’re the head turns the moment the teacher mentions race. You’re the bathroom tile, throat burning, head spinning, tears I cried without understanding why. You’re the institution. You’re the seat at the table. I wonder if your throat burns too, from all the voices you’ve swallowed. You talk with words you don’t understand and tell stories that don’t belong to you, spilling them recklessly out of your mouth until it’s truth. But truth is not a singular object you can stitch together from torn histories. You do not own it; it belongs to many.
So, I’ll speak on what I know and tell it like it is. I remember my father’s stories and I remember when I decided they were lies. I remember my mother’s weary, knowing sigh every time she found me crying, rubbing my back like her mother had done, and all the generations before her. I remember I used to stutter when I spoke, until I realized I had something worth saying. Old Lady taught me that some stories don’t need to be spoken to be heard, but some need to be translated to be understood. My grandmother gave me endless Sundays and showed me it takes many hands to make revelations. The best way to write a new story is to start with a memory. Once upon a time, you gave me sand, and I built a garden.