Some time ago, I discovered a trove of boxes stashed away in my late parents’ attic, and, ever since, I’ve been working my way through this archive of family photos, letters, scrapbooks, and other ephemera, which extends back almost 150 years. Two of the most precious things I’ve found are photos of my paternal great-grandfather and my maternal great-grandmother, both born into slavery. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with lots of stories passed down about both of them, but I had never seen either of their faces before. The sudden apparition of their oddly familiar features has been so startling, so jolting, so magical that I often feel as though I’m hallucinating. It is almost as if their images had coiled upward from the scrapbook, like smoke, and entered my body.
Their presence has bloomed within me, but also beyond me, like a gentle aura. There is something dark and inexplicable yet entirely illuminating in the eeriness of this encounter with ghosts. It is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle you thought you’d finished, but suddenly there are thousands of extra pieces, and you realize it’s an assemblage with no borders and an endless number of combinations. I try to read their lives from the fragments, the tea leaves of their long-gone presence.
I have always thought of reality as a present tense. But in this family archive, reality has leached all over the geography of time. I feel porous, unsettled in the coherence of an identity I had thought of as my own. It brings felt meaning to the koan that the novelist and Zen master Ruth Ozeki frequently cites as her meditative inspiration: “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”
This intimate encounter with images of my family’s past has overlapped with my visit to a museum exhibit featuring 150 black dolls from the collection of Connecticut lawyer Deborah Neff. The dolls were handmade by African-American women, most of them enslaved, and intended as toys for both their black and white charges. The show is on display at La Maison Rouge, a small museum in Paris, through May 20. Beautifully curated by the French filmmaker Nora Philippe and the American art historian Deborah Willis, these gathered dolls are a quiet army, the careful craft of women who left little other trace, whose names and lives were otherwise erased.
The dolls were fashioned from whatever materials lay at hand—scraps of sackcloth, gingham and silk, bits of leather and wool, coconut shell, hardwood, seeds and beads—but it’s the scripture of their faces that I found most arresting. Their wordless witness invites a kind of guessing game about who their makers were and for whom they were intended. I pore over the smallest stitches and details of style and color, as though I could decipher a grammar in each placement of a ribbon; I search for meaning in their button eyes.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that it is the face-to-face encounter that inspires one to serve and to give to others, for it “involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced in face of the other….”
In my meditations on those photos of my great-grandparents, imagining what my face looked like before my parents were born has merged with the mute inscrutability of those collected black dolls’ faces into a field of unconfined mythmaking. Thinking mythologically is comforting, I suppose: It signifies something beyond quotidian concerns and invites a sense of belonging to a grand narrative or idealized creation story. In supplying archetypes that are foundational and originary, myths connect the generationally disconnected, providing a sense of continuity from the past to the present, and then on to a promised—or even destined—future.
At the same time, the yearning for creation stories can be born of discontent, displacement, and despair. Mythmaking can sometimes risk generating a too-romantic sense of nostalgia for times-that-never-were and for the purities of blood-and-soil belonging. (The tension between these two visions—utopia and the exile therefrom—are on full display in the furious online debates about cinematic representations of home, loss, and heroism in Black Panther. Indeed, the central challenge of Afrofuturism, the sci-fi/fantasy genre of which Black Panther is a prime example, is how best to imagine a future in which children of the African diaspora survive, make the temporal crossing safely, and endure.)
The word “utopia” literally compresses into its etymology a good place that is also a nonexistent place. Therefore, when I search the photos in my family archive or the dolls in the museum for signs of who I ought to be, I have to remind myself that I am not only trying to reconstruct the precise facts of particular lives. Like Wakanda, the idyllic setting of Black Panther, these objects are imaginative spaces, fields of psychic desire. Their insistent traces offer a resistance to ultimate effacement as well as room to dream theories of the possible.
In this sense, these complex visual effigies have taken up residence within me like marvelous secret agents of love, sadness, healing, and heroism. Their shapes have insinuated themselves as armatures for carrying on, brave imaginaries for the mind and heart. They are surely available as well to be mined for all sorts of direct connections within unbudging political frames, but, while the dolls are singular in form, I experience each unique depiction as expressively unbounded. Thus they have become ethical reference points in the seeping disfigurements of trauma, rage, cruelty, and death. They speak figuratively. The echo of their voices is an epiphany of repair, an assurance to lost children of their place in worlds to come.