The Importance of Story and Memory

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July 2, 2012 By C. Matthew Hawkins

“If people see the way I dress they might think, ‘Oh, you’re a thug,’ but look at my report card. I’ve got nothing but As and Bs since the second grade.”

Siraji Hassan is part of a new American story, one where many people have multiple cultural identities in an increasingly globalized world. Hassan’s family are Somali-Bantu refugees, but he has been living in the United States since he was eight years old. He is now 16.

Siraji blends in with his American-born peers at Taylor-Allderdice High School, but he is also aware of the things that set him apart: his experiences as a refugee due to the militia conflicts in East Africa; his ability to fluently speak five languages; and his religion, Islam, which is his way of life. “I don’t try to stand out from anyone else in school,” he said.

Living in Northview Heights, a public housing community where there is often the danger of violence, Siraji spends most of his time indoors, taking care of five younger siblings. Having spent half of his life growing up in the United States, he is as comfortable with American culture as he is with traditional Somalian culture, but his mother is finding it difficult to pass their cultural heritage on to his younger brothers and sisters.

“She worries that they don’t speak Somalian, that they will only speak English,” he said, “She says if, ‘If they forget how to speak Somalian how are they going to be able to communicate with me?’ But I tell her that they aren’t doing it on purpose, this is all they know.”

Passing on linguistic traditions is part of preserving memory; and memory, for Siraji, is important. “When you don’t remember, then you forget who you are and you start to do bad things and get into trouble,” he said. He recounts the experiences of friends who joined gangs and turned to drugs. For Siraji, knowing your story is essential in order to know your identity and find your way in life.

When Siraji talks about memory and story he is referring to two things: remembering the story of how his family survived as refugees, and were eventually selected to come to America, and remembering the story of how they had to adapt to their new home.

“I learned to speak English very quickly, by watching the lips of my classmates and imitating what they were doing,” he said. Part of remembering is recollection of a promise that he and other young Somalian refugees made to their families when they left for the United States, “We did not come to this country for things to stay the same — we came here to do better and to make our relatives proud of us. You ask any Somalian student and he will tell you that he made a promise to his family to get an education here.”

So deeply engrained is the memory of that promise, said Siraji, that Somali-Bantu students in American high schools are in competition with each other to graduate. “It’s the cultural norm,” he said, “90% of Somalian students graduate from high school.”

Siraji’s uncles perform Hip Hop, which is now part of the Somalian-Bantu-American cultural hybrid that they have created. Siraji proudly sports one of the promotional T-shirts that his uncles designed. But he has also created an African dance group in high school. Both types of performances reflect his bi-cultural identity.

Siraji believes that it is important for the Somali-Bantu community, which is geographically spread over different parts of Pittsburgh, to have a way to get together for more occasions than just weddings and soccer games. “We should build a community center,” he said.

In the Garfield section of Pittsburgh, in August, the Somali-Bantu community will hold a celebration for Somali independence, and for the freedoms and opportunities they enjoy in America. This, once again, reflects the two sides of their story — one that spans across continents and oceans.

Siraji sees the prospect of a community center as something that would enable them to pass on their culture and traditions to younger generations — it is all part of remembering.

C. Matthew Hawkins blogs on “post-blackness”: and is the author of two e-books: Black Racial Identity and Schooling and All Night Conversations About Religion and Spirituality. Both books are available exclusively from Amazon.

About the writer

C. Matthew Hawkins teaches and conducts research in Applied History, Education and Society, and Social Work Community Practice Skills at the University of Pittsburgh and Carlow University in the United States. Much of his writing focuses on the experiences of African immigrants in the Americas as well as the many ways there are of “being black” in America. He is the author of a blog on “post-blackness”: and is the author of two e-books: Black Racial Identity and Schoolingand All Night Conversations About Spirituality and Religion.

In Black Racial Identity and Schooling, Hawkins discusses the difference between the educational experiences of the African Diaspora in the United States. In All Night Conversations about Spirituality and Religion, he draws on literary, philosophical and theological texts to explore spirituality in a highly readable and conversational tone. Both books are available from Amazon.

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