Alexandra Fuller’s family is not like mine; it is most likely not like yours either. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness details her family’s life in Africa during the end of imperialism in the 1960s and 70s. Fuller’s prose is hilarious, as the personalities of her larger-than-life parents jump off the page. But there are poignant moments too. She offers an honest look at the horrific effects of imperial policy on the African people.
As business owners, her parents were often on the periphery of the wars for independence, not directly impacted. The Fullers also owned fish and banana farms in Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. They were afforded opportunities because of their race and ethnicity. They participated in a system that exploited African workers. It is instructive to note that the Fullers lived in Zimbabwe when it was called Rhodesia, after the Anglo-Saxon explorer who “discovered” the area. In the minds of the British Empire, the land didn’t exist before their arrival. So the African people really didn’t count either.
Alexandra Fuller’s grace is that she can bring such atrocities into the light, yet still manage to maintain her love for her parents. She does not find them innocent nor excuse their actions. But she does consider their worldview. For instance, her mother became an accomplished horse rider. Certainly, she had this opportunity because she was white; but it is also true that she also worked very hard, falling off and getting back on again, until she began winning awards. These trials had a profound impact on her: “For as long as I can remember, I have seen the world from between the ears of a horse. That’s my view. Straight ahead, don’t look down. Don’t look back.”
So perhaps Alexandra Fuller’s family is like yours and mine after all. So many of us are carried by the social movements of our time; whether for good or evil, we plunge forward, looking straight ahead, convincing ourselves that the task at hand is our only concern. I am thankful, then, for voices like Fuller’s, which insist that we do look back. Even if it is painful.
My family has never lived in Africa, but we have benefited from white privilege. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is a town whose wealth was originally made in tobacco at the expense of slave labor. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Raleigh thrived because of the Research Triangle Park; however, the legacy of exploitation, injustice, and violence remains…
For we are all part of societies and, especially in a global economy, our actions and lifestyles do impact others. If we allow our history to sit under the tree of forgetfulness, we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes, our injustices, our cruelties, perhaps without even realizing it. May it not be so. May we be able to look critically at our loved ones, and at ourselves. May we not forget.