The Family Circle: Thoughts on Kinship, Oral History, and Music

There is a vital magic that occurs when a family is reunited after a long separation and begin to talk about the old days, the old characters and songs, and how much and how little things have changed. It may start with a vague recollection from an aunt, to be joined by the charmingly inopportune and disjointed ad-libs of uncles, aunts and cousins, whose memories don’t necessarily agree, inevitably, clashing in narrative incongruity, only to just as inevitably coalesce in the middle of the kitchen or above the dinner table like a rusty horn section that can’t seem to find the right harmony at first, but always does; soon the present is behind us and the room is swirling with tongues of flame, myths unfurling in reverse, minds disembodied, our old and young and in-between voices nearly forgotten, blowing the roof away, with laughter flying up like music or embers into a night sky, that may as well have existed generations or eons ago.

In the presence of the power of The Word, and under the spell of a bit of wine or weed, the sensation of motion and the sense of apprehending multiple existential planes simultaneously is palpable. It seems like all times and spaces have converged in this one moment, and they have. Our aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings; our grandparents and great grandparents, old family friends, our music, and our food, and the places where we are from, and above all, the definitive, lattice of meaning and relationship that are our stories, provide for us a real, essential, link to the twisted root of information and collective memory at the center of our humanity.  A sun that casts it rays over the landscape of our shared kinship and its symbols, our shared Black existence, our shared American existence, and any mode of existence that can imagined, our story of stories, and the ghosts that inhabit it, simultaneously imbue us with life, and are themselves re-imbued and consecrated when we say them aloud. Whether we are sitting around the dinner table, or the t.v., or crowded in the kitchen talking over each other…It always feels good to be home.

Like a jazz rendition of a musical standard, the old family stories are not inviolable; they may adhere to a basic structural framework that we are familiar with, but retain their mutability and improvisational flair,  as does the colorful cast of dimly lit characters that populate them. They exist and function practically outside of linear, historical chronology; they live in the realm of myth, and the spirits that give these worlds life are every bit as unpredictable and flawed in their way, as the gods of Greece, or the deities of West Africa. In this way, our ancestors continue to serve their cultural functions, not as static idols but as living spirits whom we can call upon, and breathe life into anew. Each time we invoke them, we reassess them, and they are transfigured in the minds of those who hear the story, filtered once again by each of our unique worldviews.  The ancestral faces that precede off past the horizon in our mind’s eye can be viewed creatively and actually as iterations of each other and ourselves, like consecutive trumpet phrases that are playing around the edges of another unheard, and unsuspected musical structure, or endless overlapping systems of call and response that bounce of each other rhythmically like the reflections that recur infinitely in a pair of mirrors.  In the moment of root communication, when we tell our old stories, or make music together, or cook and eat together, their spirits are summoned once again to join and recombine with us, to improvise with us, and possess us, while allowing themselves to be possessed by us as well.

Their stories and ours are our standards, our great Black American songbook. And like all of the old standards, they are more than ends in themselves; they are tools, or vehicles that allow us to travel to places that are otherwise inaccessible, and to see ourselves in, and through the eyes of each other. Unlike the stories written down in books, or the music products recorded and frozen in place for posterity, our stories are plastic, their carbon-based repositories, fallible and mortal. Our legends are not expected or intended to elicit a narrow, predictable emotional response, nor be consistent each time they are encountered. We are only at the mercy of their constituent elements to the extent that we allow ourselves to be; instead, our histories are our own to mine and restructure. Our oral history is always fresh. It is always alive; it is a tool of insight that can be held up to the light like a gem, turned this way and that, and withstand every scrutiny, like a frozen Charlie Parker solo.

Our conceptions of the present, past and future, the symbolic, and the real, are less inscrutable and more alive, when all are viewed as useful, discreet blocks of intrinsically creative material whose fundamental purpose is to be resynthesized, re-experienced, awoken, and recombined. We can enter the story at any time, and it will function properly and beneficially as a cultural artifact. This ancient communal creative process is evidenced in the improvisational and culturally referential character of Jazz music, as well as early hip-hop culture (where perhaps the level of unfettered recombination, syncretism, and creative reappropriation was never more strident). It is found in our language, our art, and our fashion, and in the loving communication of families, kinship groups, and to a greater or a lesser extent, any group that gathers together, and sharing some  common bond of unspoken understanding, begins to speak The Word, creating and manifesting their own realities; and when it happens, it is bliss, death, rebirth, love, and everything else, as any great story, or song, should be.


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