Memory is the Active Agent of Collective Social Progress: Randall Robinson on His New Novel Makeda
“Makeda,” the new novel by TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, is set at the dawn of the civil rights era. The book follows a young man coming of age in segregated Richmond, Virginia, who discovers his roots in Africa through his blind grandmother. “Sometimes when we think of slavery, we calculate the economic consequence of it,” Robinson says. “But we have not calculated the psychosocial consequence of it, unless we factor in the loss of memory, which was occasioned by a deliberate and systematic program imposed by those who controlled us.” [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Randall Robinson on his newest book, his second novel. It’s called Makeda, again, set at the dawn of the civil rights era, follows a young man coming of age in segregated Richmond, Virginia. Through his blind grandmother, who shares with him her visions, he discovers his roots in Africa. Randall Robinson, talk about what inspired this book and, oh, maybe how autobiographical it is.
RANDALL ROBINSON: When I was a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, we were called Negroes. No one I knew knew why we were called that. No one knew the provenance of that word. It had no connection to what we might have been before we were blocked from view by that lethal, opaque space of slavery. And so, we didn’t know anything about ourselves, except we had been called this, but not by ourselves. And it turns out that it’s much like the case of the sardine. There’s no such thing as a sardine as a fish living free in the ocean. It only becomes one when it is captured and put in a can. And we were only called Negroes when we were labeled during slavery as that as a way of severing us from any memory of what we had been. And so we lost our mothers, our fathers, our families, our religions, our languages, our cultures, our memories of what we had been. And so, we thought we had no history before slavery. And this name, this new name, this new label, helped to facilitate that loss of memory. Now, memory is the active agent of all collective social progress. If you can’t remember yourself, you’re suffering from serious debilitation.
This novel is the story of an extraordinary woman who is a poor, blind waitress in Richmond, Virginia, who remembers past lives. And so, she remembers Timbuktu in the late 1300s, when her father was a priest who underwent cataract surgery at the University at Timbuktu. She remembers her days in ancient Egypt, when the two Egypts were united thousands of years before. She remembers lives in West Africa. She remembers all of this, and she tells it to her grandson, who wants to be a writer. And they have a special relationship. And she swears him to secrecy that he tell no one that she has these memories, or people will think she’s a bit fruity, as she says. But she remembers these lives in extraordinary detail. And he is inspired by it. He gains his confidence from it. And this is, of course, to symbolize the enormous consequence. Sometimes when we think of slavery, we calculate the economic consequence of it. But we have not calculated the psychosocial consequence of it, unless we factor in the loss of memory, which was occasioned by a deliberate and systematic program imposed from those—by those who controlled us.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the novel is set at the dawn of the civil rights era. There’s a—the rest of the family is there, the older brother who is favored by the young boy’s father and mother, who’s expected to be the one that’s going to achieve for the family. Talk about the impact on him and the rest of the family of these memories of the grandmother.
Makeda by Randall Robinson
Makeda Gee Florida Harris March is a proud matriarch, the anchor and emotional bellwether who holds together a hard-working African American family living in 1950’s Richmond, Virginia. Lost in shadow is Makeda’s grandson Gray, who begins escaping into the magical world of Makeda’s tiny parlor.
Makeda, a woman blind since birth but who has always dreamed in color, begins to confide in Gray the things she “sees” and remembers from her dream state, and a story emerges that is layered with historical accuracy beyond the scope of Makeda’s limited education. Gradually, Gray begins to make a connection between his grandmother.
Part coming-of-age story, part spiritual journey, and part love story, Makeda is a universal tale of family, heritage, and the ties that bind. Randall Robinson plumbs the hearts of Makeda and Gray and summons our collective blood memories, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey of the soul that will linger long after the last page has been turned.