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Family History

Dorothy Wall

That visit in 1984, when my cousins taped our grandfather showing photos of his Louisiana plantation, his off-hand words,

Yeah, and I went down there in 1920 …. and there I am on horseback riding around the plantation, and here’s my little pickaninny friends, and there’s nigger Jim, and there I am at the…

And M. said, You wouldn’t dare call them that today, and granddad said, No, and did anyway, after which they set aside brutal history for dinner.

My other grandfather wouldn’t let his daughter marry a Jew, my aunt complained about the Mexican receptionist, why don’t they speak better English, and believe me, those aren’t the only stories I uncover in our stash of family letters.

Well, they’re all dead now, my cousin says, but not that dead, more like a curtain that drops after a finale, then the actors emerge grinning and bowing, still in costume, with their made-up faces stepping into today

like his recorded voice, still alive, just a little scratchy, my ear to the tape, listening closely, thinking perhaps I could leave a blank, why give the words second life, but I can’t erase the truth of what I come from, what came before and what still pains, the casual comments that dismiss 400 years of brutality and inhumanity, I need to listen, acknowledge, condemn these words I transcribe, from his mouth to my typing fingers this day in 2022 when we no longer say that but it’s never unsaid.

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Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: Poems (Blue Light Press) and the essay collection Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Cimarron Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension, and works as a writing coach in Oakland, California. Visit her at Read the author’s commentary on her piece.

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