"Memory is the Active Agent of Collective Social Progress": Randall Robinson on His New Novel Makeda

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"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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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, it’s a very difficult straits this family finds itself in. The father is an insurance agent who wishes his wife did not work. She has a college degree, but he thinks she ought to be at home. He’s struggling with his own sense of his own manhood. And these things are very difficult for him. And he has sort of seen all of his dreams through the eyes of the elder son, who has gotten into all of the major schools and is about to go off to school. The son that the grandmother shares these secrets with is the younger son, who’s a romantic, who can, as the grandmother says, see beyond the fence, who doesn’t become a counter, who doesn’t calculate the value of everything based on its material and quantitative bulk, but that he sees other values in other things, that he is her spirit child. And she tells this to him, and it makes his world and his life, and it gives him a capacity to love. And so it’s a love story between her and the grandson, between him and his wife, who is a Haitian named Jeanne, who recounts Haiti’s story, as well. But in the last analysis, it’s a love story of black people for themselves, as we rediscover ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: This young man you write about, Gray, your protagonist, doesn’t expect much of his older brother, outside of anything conventional. And yet, when they’re walking down the street one day in Richmond, Virginia, at the time of the first lunch counter sit-ins, it’s his older brother who says, "Let’s do it."

RANDALL ROBINSON: "Let’s do it."

AMY GOODMAN: And Gray says, "What are you talking about? Do what?" And he says, "Let’s go sit down at that lunch counter." And he’s the one who drags his little brother in. Talk about the effect of the civil rights movement on segregated Richmond, your home town, too.

RANDALL ROBINSON: My brother Max and I lived not terribly far from the capitol. It was unguarded in those days, and on Sundays we used to go down and bang on the door and run like hell. Or we used to go down to the White House of the Confederacy and throw rocks at it and run home, feeling better about what we had done. We had struck some kind of blow. I remember when I was at Norfolk State College in 1959, 1960, '61, went down to a lunch counter downtown. And our parents had said, "Don't do that." My aunt and uncle, with whom I stayed, "Don’t get involved." But everybody wanted it to work, but nobody wanted us to get involved. And I went down and did that. And I thought I grew a little in that day, at least an inch or two, because my back straightened. And that’s what Gray and his brother were doing down at the G.C. Murphy counter on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Gray, in this book, obviously, grows—in your book, grows, as well. He, at one point—he’s never quite sure, early on, how his grandmother has these vivid memories, but then he goes to West Africa, and he discovers particular descriptions of hers that were positively accurate.

RANDALL ROBINSON: She tells him this story when he’s 15, that her father sat her down, the priest. He used to have counseling sessions with his children, at least once a week. And he told her about the mysteries of the interplanetary system and the Sirius star system, the pattern of the rotation, the revolutions, the weight of the Sirius star, the weight of Emme Ya, the weight of Po Tolo, another rotating body around Sirius. How did the Dogon people in ancient Mali in the 1300s know all of this? It has been documented that they did. She told this to her grandson and had him draw a map based on her recall of what her father had described to her, and he kept this all these years. And then, when Western scientists finally identified some of these bodies her grandmother had told him about, he was agog that she was right. She had been there. She had seen it. The truth is that only in the 1990s did French astronomers finally identify the tiny "star of women," the Dogon people call it, Emme Ya, finally saw it with a Western telescope. They have known it for more than a thousand years. It’s an incredible story.

AMY GOODMAN: Makeda, how did you come up with the title, her name?

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, she’s—her name is an Ethiopian name. And you come to know why at the end of the book. Her last incarnation, one of her first, but her last toll, it is who she really is.

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