I was afraid of the masks as a child. I was afraid of the percussions, uncertain of this grass turned golden brown and unnerved by the bright colors surrounding me. I didn’t see beauty. I was afraid because the only experience I had with Congo was tied up with abuse.
It’s been 20 some years since I’ve seen an authentic Congo mask in person. It’s been 20 some years since I’ve seen male and female dancers perform ballet and ceremonial dances. I have not eaten our food nor have I tasted our drink. I have not worn my hair in the style of school girls since I was a school girl. I wonder why my mother abandoned then mocked everything Congolese? I remember that everything African about us was stripped but I can’t remember why and it’s funny that I’d remember this when I’d forgotten for so long that she did in fact embrace this.
As a family we spoke Spanish as did she when with her mother and father. I realize I know so very little about my mother’s childhood. I don’t have many stories to tell about her growing up other than that they traveled a lot between the US, Spain and Mexico. Her mother was abusive, her father guilty for his silence. I have an idea of her life and how bad it was living with my grandmother (half African, half German) but I don’t know anything about her schooling or how friends from school. How is it possible to grow up and not know the mother you live with? She spent most of her time abusing me but one would think she would share something about high school, about boyfriends, about her religion, things she enjoyed, something!! I want to go dig her up and tell her, hang on, you OWE me a few stories. You can’t just lie dead and leave me with no answers. Who are you?!!!
Her maggot covered face would be the same beautiful face I knew to spew insanity and confusion.
When my grandfather and his brothers and sister came here in the early 30’s they left everything, as many do, to save their lives. They risked a lot to get here. When they finally did, the vast majority of them died before a new life could even get started. I wish he had spoken more. I wish he told me a little more about the blood in my veins. In midlife people start to look for something to ground them, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We need an identifying mark of who we are. For the first time ever I regret not having children because I understand that what is passed down is not just recent history but past history, too.
I worried I’d have to tell my children about the horrors of the last 6 generations. I worried the amount of blood on their hands was too thick to ever explain. It’s as if I thought all I had to pass down was bad, but that’s not true. I have a culture. There’s a culture and bond with that culture I could have passed down. I could have passed down art, music, respect for human life and animal life. My blood is not tainted because several generations decided to misuse their free will. My own blood is not bad because my mother chose to harm me and her mother harmed her while my grandfather sat quietly and did nothing. He is not innocent. He has blood on his hands, too. But he brought something different to the table, he brought a reminder that we come from beauty.
If my grandfather was Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Egyptian or Jewish I’d feel the same way. I’d still say he brought something to hold on to that has a rich culture of beauty and elegance; something to ground a middle-aged woman looking for herself.