The Grace of Remembering

Author Cheryl Head pens an essay on the importance of remembering and the role Black papers play in shaping that narrative.


“Don’t forget to put in the book that I’ve forgiven those men who killed my father, and so did mama,” my mother says in a callback fifteen minutes after we’d done our daily check in. “God wanted me to forgive them,” she adds.

Forgiveness isn’t something I considered when I began writing my grandfather’s story. I was fueled by anger over George Floyd’s death, and intent on making the point that the epidemic of police violence against Black People isn’t a 21st century phenomenon.

There’s a whole lot to forgive when the story of Black America is framed in captivity, servitude, bias, inequity, and loss. Continued loss.  I thought it was more important to remember.

Robert Harrington was driving to work in his new 1929 automobile on an early weekday morning, in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was shot and killed by unnamed police officers. He “resisted arrest” a news article reported at the time.  In the Jim Crow south, that could mean simply questioning the intentions of the police.

According to my family’s stories, when word of grandpa’s shooting got to my grandmother, Anna Kate, she stormed into the police station distraught, furious, and cursing at the authorities. Black people didn’t complain about the police in those days without consequences. The Klan was embedded in police departments, and emboldened by codes that protected them. So, Anna Kate’s brothers rushed to Birmingham to rescue their pregnant sister, and hustled her away—my mother in tow—to the safety of their family home in Florida.

However, the Klan’s reach didn’t end at Alabama’s borders. In the Gas Plant district of Saint Petersburg, where my Anna Kate’s parents lived, armed whites were known to roam the streets in search of Negroes accused of any transgression of the strict rules of segregation. So, Anna Kate’s family closed ranks around her, rarely spoke of her husband’s murder, and when they did it was with frightened glances and hushed tones.  As for my grandfather’s family, I’m told his mother fled St. Pete in secret following his murder. Never to return. And to this day we don’t know where, or if, his body was buried.

My 95-year-old mother has lived through some of the darkest eras in our country’s race relations. And she survived. Maybe that accounts for her willingness to forgive. I’m in awe. But I know her life was made harder by the loss of her father. In a recent visit to her senior-living facility in St. Pete, she talked about her childhood.

“By the time I was eight or nine-years-old, I was a second mother to my sister,” she said to me. “I knew mama had to work. She did sewing and laundry for some of the white families, and I had to look out for my sister.  We went everywhere together, and I protected her.”

The memory of my grandfather might have been lost in the tiny acts of forgetting that comes with the passage of time, but my grandmother, mother, and aunt kept his memory alive. We heard stories about grandpa at Holidays, and birthdays, and family gatherings: “He liked to dress nice, and had a good job,” my mother would say. “He drew attention to himself because your grandmother could pass for white. He was a proud man, and always had the latest car.” My grandmother also had one cherished photograph of grandpa. Taken on their wedding day. While I wrote my novel I kept this photo by my side. It helped keep my own memories fresh.

During my book research, I was reminded of the amazing legacy of Black newspapers. In Birmingham alone, there were more than a dozen newspapers being published in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. With names like the Birmingham Truth, the Wide Awake and The Negro American, these newspapers played a vital role in Birmingham’s thriving Black communities and bridged the gaps of information, useful to these communities, available in the mainstream news. A few of these publications are archived in the collections of various universities, and not accessible online.  But I was able to immerse myself in the digital archives of The Birmingham Reporter.

The Reporter was published from 1907-1934, and included the year my grandfather lived in the city.  I gleaned through news articles, notices of births and deaths, the society, and sports pages, classified ads for car sales and piano lessons, and advertisements from funeral homes, department stores, barber shops and hotels.  These pages of daily existence provided a fuller picture of Black life in Jim Crow Alabama than I could have found in any book.  And Black newspapers feature prominently in my novel as my contemporary protagonist, a journalist, searches for answers about her Great-grandfather’s murder. 

Reading those decades-old headlines, I thought a lot about what has changed for Black people in America.  And what hasn’t.  Sadly, it’s only a matter of time before the next occurrence of police excessive force against a Black citizen becomes “breaking news”.

2022 marked the highest number of shooting fatalities by on-duty police officers in this country since tracking began in 2015, and nearly a quarter of those shot, and killed, last year were Black citizens. We also know, from the Tyre Nichols’ case, that fatal interactions between Black people and police personnel need not involve firearms. But, the Nichols’ case, with the swift action by the Memphis Police Chief, and the county District Attorney General to hold those involved in, and witness to, Nichols’ brutal beating, accountable seems like progress.  I hope it is.

What has changed is the catastrophic impact of these incidents is no longer ignored. There was no investigation of my grandfather’s homicide. But now there is outrage, protest, and an understanding that this violence not only impacts individual families, but also communities and societies.  People are watching, and counting, remembering, and there is an ardent consciousness of what’s at stake. I give credit to the Black Lives Matter movement for that awareness.

More than a year after writing the fictionalized story of my grandfather’s murder at the hands of police, I have found some peace. There was a catharsis in imagining the details of his life. I envisioned his passion for woodcarving, my grandparents’ daily activities, their time with my mother as a toddler, their connection to their neighbors, and community. I wrote about their moments of joy, fear, loss, and love.

By remembering, I elevated my grandfather’s life over his death. Maybe that will point me to a path where forgiveness lies ahead. 

Head is a writer, television producer, and broadcast executive. She is also the author of the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown mysteries, whose female PI protagonist is queer and Black. Head is an Anthony Award nominee, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a three-time Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award. Her books are included in the Detroit Public Library’s African American Booklist and in the Special Collections of the Library of Michigan. 

To purchase the book, Time’s Undoing click here.


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