It is too easy to say “Black Lives Matter”. Memorial Drive, the last address of her mother, and the location of her murder, takes us past that slogan to an analysis of oppression. And it is a testament of what I call “Meta Africa”, that terrain of the human spirit forged in the person of the enslaved African, trapped in bondage and segregation. The aim of slavery was the erasure of our origins, of our true names and language, of our memories. Trethewey’s masterpiece suggests that the greatest act of defiance a black person can do is to remember.
Trethewey engages, as she writes, with the significance of what she is doing. “Perhaps that’s the trick the mind plays in grappling to make meaning of events of the past,” she ponders, “to find a narrative thread, to read – looking back – the signs we did not pay attention to in the moment”.
The central question comes from a dream where her mother appears, a gaping hole in her forehead, asking “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” This family’s wound will not heal. But the author’s deference to the signs she perceives (or indeed creates) brings a sort of redemption.
In the closing pages we read the transcript of their last phone conversation. The district attorney’s office had put a recording device on Gwendolyn’s phone to gather evidence for another prosecution. Joel’s rambling, self-pitying conversation is interrupted when Natasha — away at university — calls to let her mother know when she can be picked up at the start of the summer break. This verbatim section, although slightly overextended, still adds to the sense of the shadows closing in. Had the police been more assertive — the officer who was supposed to be watching Gwendolyn’s apartment left his post — she might have survived. Trethewey too is dogged by her own feelings of survivor’s guilt. With this fine book she has at least made amends.