Saved by memory

A new Brazilian film shows the role memory plays in African spirituality and dreams of liberation.

Still from the film Solmatalua, 2022, Brazil. Directed by Rodrigo Ribeiro-Andrade. Courtesy Gata Maior Filmes.

A central tenet of African spirituality is that memory saves. To be remembered is to be alive and to be forgotten is to die. This idea is foundational to ancestral veneration and animates the very life of a community. In fact, in African spirituality, it is memory that makes ancestors because ancestors are those whom the living remember. Those who are not remembered slowly drift into the realm of nonbeing, the realm of nothingness, the final death. Death is therefore kept at bay through memory. Here, memory is metaphysical rather than just social or political. Here, memory is spirituality because it is rooted in the deep structures of life. Suppressing memory generates individual and social death and forecloses futures.

Seen in this way, the struggle over memory in many parts of the world today, from Africa, Europe, and the US, is a life and death struggle. It is a struggle about who is to be kept alive and who is to be left to die. It is a struggle about the possibility of generating new life. It is a struggle about whose story is to be memorialized and which future is possible based on these stories. We should be therefore attentive to what we are caused to remember and what we are caused to forget, because it is memory that saves.

It is this crucial memory work that the Brazilian filmmaker Rodrigo Ribeiro-Andrade captures in his recent film Solmatalua (2022). Solmatalua is about the memory of freedom, of honor and dignity for Black people in Brazil, a place where such memory has been suppressed. The film is also a protest, a refusal to forget, a refusal of the foreclosure of salutary futures for Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized peoples in Brazil. It is amid the denial of life for Black people in Brazil that the narrator declares that “memory comes and saves.”

The film, a collage of fast moving scenes reminiscent of a dreamworld, harbors what may be described as “dangerous memory”—memory of when the narrator/protagonist was free and honorable, of “Africa of my loves,” of how the first free state in the Americas, Palmares, was created in Brazil by Black people. The film remembers how “Resisting slavery, they headed to the current state of Algoa,” where they created a “free, egalitarian, and alternative society where Blacks, indigenous and poor white people lived in great respect.” It remembers the fierce anti-slavery and anticolonial revolutionary Zumbi dos Palmares (1655-1695), whose memory seems to be fading in Brazil. It protests the suppressing of memory at sites of unfulfilled dreams, such as the favelas where houses seem stacked on top of each other as enslaved people were stacked on top of each other in ships that transported them to the New World.

Solmatalua roots memory of resistance and the creation of an alternative society in African diaspora spirituality. When the film opens, we meet a Yoruba priest by the side of an ocean, invoking spiritual presence: “I salute the beginnings of existence. I salute the creator,” the priest says. This recognition of spiritual presence is reprised a few times, in a film of under 20 minutes, seemingly suggesting that the work of memory is also spiritual work. Or is it to underscore the metaphysical nature of memory in Black spirituality?

In any case, it is when the spirit is invoked that memory is activated. It is when memory is activated that the work of healing begins. The work of healing begins when memory returns to the sites of humiliation and dignity, and invokes those who have struggled and continue to struggle to create alternative, healing communities. It is memory that gives hope that a different world is possible, a world where all people are treated with respect and dignity.

Further Reading

The Managers of Brazil

In the wake of the insurrection in Brazil, an Afrobrazilian reflects personally on the entanglement of race and class in the country, and on what needs to be done to unravel it.