Memory Talks

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Memory talks is a term used symbolically by the writers of three books: Red Dust Path, Goodbye to Berlin, and Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom to describe their numerous journeys and hardships in various areas of life. The expression "memory speaks" lets us understand how the writer employs the force of recollection to provide a detailed account of William and Ellen's unfolding experiences as they deliberately plan their escape from slavery in America. They use the memory talk to remind us what they go through on their train journey from Macon to Savannah, then to South and North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Later, an account of their lives in West London, England. On a similar note, Christopher Isherwood narrates his life in England, German and the United States. Jackie Kay follows suite in her book, Red Dust Road.

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: William and Ellen Craft

Through the power of remembrance, Ellen and her husband, William Craft provides us with a story of their struggle to escape slavery in Macon, in the United States. The couple gained popularity after a bold and well-organized plan of escape in December 1848. Ellen was a daughter of an African-American who looked white and was able to dress in a pair of trousers, short hair and a top hat like any other slave owner. Her mode of dressing was meant to avoid arrest from slave catchers. In the company of her husband who was darker and a typical slave, who could often pretend as her attendant.

The two explains how they traveled on a train from Macon to Savannah. From there they used a steamship operating between Savannah and Charleston, in South Carolina. They proceeded to Wilmington, a town in North Carolina. Further, they moved to Fredericksburg, based in Virginia through the rail. Their daring journey continued to Washington DC on a steamship, and later Baltimore, Maryland. After few days, they continued and crossed over to Pennsylvania where they rested and thought that the objective of the great escape for freedom had been accomplished.

By use of the power of recollection, the crafts tell us how they quickly relocated to Boston, which had an organized and established freed black society which was based on Beacon Hill and a well-arranged, protective abolitionist action. William, a veteran carpenter, opened booming furniture enterprise. The couple hoped to celebrate a wedding presided over by a Christian church and raise children who were free from racial discrimination. Also, they actively participated in anti-slavery campaigns through public lectures with another escaping slave, William Wells Brown in New England where they won hearts of many with their romantic story of escape.

Their efforts were given a bad blow by the congressional ruling which ratified the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. This Bill outlawed citizens of Free States from aiding escaping slaves like William and Ellen. Besides, the Act handsomely rewarded law enforcement officers who assisted slave owners to recapture them, confiscate their belongings and send them back to their masters. Barely after the enactment of the new bill, through reminiscence, the Crafts inform the reader how bounty hunters named John Knight and Willis Hughes, followed them from Macon to take them back to slavery either by consent or force. However, the true Bostonians both white and black protested against their recapture; they protected them and hid them to prevent them from returning to slave work. Knight and Hughes soon left for Georgia after defeat. Still, the Crafts were anxious even in the northern states. Later in December 1850, the coupled relocated to Liverpool, England, a more tolerant and protective country to slaves.

The power of Memory talk is still evident as the narration tells us how the couple enrolled at the Ockham school in Surrey for three-year studies before settling down in West London to raise a bustling family of five of five children: Ellen, Alfred, Brougham, William, and Charles Phillips. They lived as public personalities and joined the abolitionist movement, and lectured in the United Kingdom. Besides, it is in the U.K where they published their autobiography, “Running a thousand miles for freedom” in 1860. Scholars attribute the presence of Ellen with William at public speaking events as collaborative efforts against slavery. These were testimonies advanced by abolitionist friends about Ellen’s boldness in their collaborative memoir.

The power of the “memory talk” takes us back to the massive demonstration they organized in 1851 against American slavery practices at the London Great Exhibition, one of the most influential and memorable events of the 19th century. They marched through the American stand side by side with their white American colleagues in support of abolitionist efforts to showcase the Irony of finding more racial inclusiveness in England, a nation that prohibited slavery and slave trade from overseas colonies in 1838. England was more liberal than the so-called democratic United States.

The couple stayed in England for 19 years, developed intellectually, raised a great family, and illustrious careers. They worked as teachers, operating a boarding house and creating, mercantile and commercial agreements in West Africa.

In 1870, the couple returned to the United States, reunited with former colleagues in Boston and then went back to Georgia. They settled in Savannah, Bryan County, mobilized resources from northern publishers and antislavery allies to buy 1,800 acres of land. They build the Woodville Co-operative Farm school in 1873, for educational and employment opportunities for newly freed slaves. The school closed down in 1876 for an alleged scandal that William used monies meant for charity services in the school for personal reasons. He lost the case intended to clean his name in 1878 together with his friends. Immediately after closing the school due to lack of finances, William struggled to sustain the farm in the face of accumulated debts, poor cotton prices, and rampant legal violence against blacks. In 1890, the Crafts relocated to Charleston to stay with their daughter’s family. Ellen and William died in 1891 and 1900 respectively.

The significance of Memory talk is evident all over the script from one paragraph to another, enabling the readers to follow the events quickly.

Red Dust Road: Jackie Kay

Red Dust Road is another book where the significance of memory talk flows from top to bottom. The writer is among the few who can get away with the use of exclamation marks while narrating her story. Her narrative is brought forth in the Red Dust Road, her description, like a flash at the end of a sentence: she is described as partially naïve and partly Wry, working to be forcefully enthusiastic and shyly self-effacing instantaneously.

The story begins at the Nicon Hilton Hotel, based in Abuja, Nigeria. The main character, Jackie Kay meets a man who is her biological father for the first time. The man confesses to being a born again Christian. He is heartbroken, as Jackie fails to acknowledge and accept to be a Christian for him to declare publicly that she is his daughter. The power of memory talk is revealed again as she narrates that she is the product of the sinful nature of her father’s past. After the disagreement, they do not meet again.

She is forty years old, and the foster parents have never opened up about her roots. She was born to a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in 1961 and then adopted soon afterward. Red Dust Road presents to us, the narration to the audience on Jackie Kay’s 20- year struggle to locate her roots, her biological parents and the acknowledgment of her existence.

In her story, Kay takes us back to 1960s Glaswegian childhood with her mother Helen and father John, happy communist foster parents. They cross over to Russia by train and raise her in the company of loving friends. The foster mother gives a glimpse of details concerning her birth parents and reflects what she is not aware of: they were lovebirds, but his father was engaged to another woman. It was not easy for them to give her away, they were genuinely heartbroken to give her away for adoption. These events are presented as shared memories and are interspersed with other recollections gathered from different periods, primarily of Kay searching and finally meeting the folks behind the stories of her adopted mother.

According to the orator in the novel, there are two categories of adopted people: first, a group which never search, do not intend to, have no interest, under the pretext of not wanting to hurt the feeling of stand-in parents. The second group is one who is curious; they want to know their lineage, and who believe that by tracing their origin, they will understand themselves better. According to the narrative, Kay wishes that she could belong to the former. However, no veteran writer is ever incurious.

As she was expectant waiting for the birth of her son, there is a fire in her heart to trace the people of her lineage. Nevertheless, the people she encounters are far from what the foster mother used to tell. As she comes to realize, her birth mother is a weak person, damaged with a mental health disorder, and has become a Mormon. She realizes that her mother married another black man, and she has sisters with the same complexion as hers.

Although racial prejudice is not the primary theme of the book, it runs through several parts of the text. However, capturing racism in the narrative makes sense especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when whites could imagine that black kids could not speak English; a time when one could be injured by goons and passers-by support them, notwithstanding bullying in both junior schools and university for being colored. It is a compelling narration of every person of color brought up in England, confronted with confessions of discrimination and not belonging from white colleagues. Memory talk robustly gives us a different dimension of Kay’s perspective as her different color inspires her to locate her biological parents and give herself a different definition from what others hold.

The writer holds that the foster parents probably knew Jackie Kay’s parents since African students were closely united. The author tells us that her story is very identical to Kay’s because she was born to a Scottish mother and an African student. Besides, she says that it was rampant happenings that several African students sponsored to study abroad started relationships with local girls and the results were children of color. Some married like the writers, while others did not. Even Barrack Obama is a classic example born to an African man and a white woman in 1961 in the United States.

The memory talk is beautiful; it gives life to a history. It elaborates the events as if they were happening in the real setting. Like for instance, the novelist tells us how they could enjoy their stories especially for being from two different and opposing origins. It appears as if it is life when she says that their exclusive photos are just there in the family albums. The beautifully assembled stories and their lineage is overwhelming. For the write it is amazing but for Kay is a different issue. She wanted to get her story, but it was closed. At a certain point in the plot, she recounts that dishonesty is not natural to her and this memoir advances what confronts her. This writing is about the secrets and their impacts in her broken history, in her biological mother’s poor mental health and her father’s venture into evangelism. Nevertheless, there are those who are open in their lives- starting with her foster parents, her colleagues, and the people she meets both in Nigeria and England who assist her on the Red Dust Road, to locate her African village, her relatives from Africa and fill the void in the missing part of her story.

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin

In his text, Isherwood employed a style sort of practical approach by integrating fiction and fact establishing an honest writing for the narrator. The phrase “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” is in his writing to represent the belief that a narrator’s work is just to record and nothing else. This achievement by Isherwood provides his audience with an unsurpassed picture of Berlin, a city in the decaying process, during the reign of Adolf Hitler. In this context, Isherwood uses the Memory talk like a news correspondent. Isherwood is an outsider watching the war (Holocaust) in which he is not taking part but shows glimpses of the victims of that war.

He deeply enters into the life of prostitutes staying almost incognito in untidily, proper and working class estates of the city and transforming his experience of the demimonde picture of what the resulting image of before-Hitler German in Goodbye to Berlin. Since Isherwood entirely wrote what he experienced, Goodbye to Berlin is an invaluable social book, which advances an insight on how he handles the theme of war. This paper provides a reflection of the social and private effects of war, Hitler’s movement, Nazism on the subjects of Berlin.

In the book, as narrations of the methods in which private and public concern meet, are politically engaged. The narrator provides a growing possibility of Nazism in the plot, and lastly to impose on the characters as unconcerned on the political process, especially the landlady Fraulein Schroeder and the cabaret singer Sally Bowles. This view proves to be true for all characters, from the minor to major. All of them are affected in various ways by this tense political atmosphere in the city of Berlin.

The loosely linked sequence of events in the text brings unity, among the characters, as a consequence of organizational principles. From what he saw, one can balance, social sexual, economic, political, and cultural polarities in its various parts and between its different characters. Under such dichotomies as Jew and Gentile, heterosexual and gay, poor and wealthy, Nazi and communist is an everyday reality of the dead spirit that brings all participants in the book together; even social integration is made impossible. Besides, Isherwood gives us a mental picture of another source of the unit as the developing and continuing presence of the narrator. Through memory talk, Isherwood is unable to associate meaningfully with any of the polarized characters, despite his immense sympathy for every one of them, reflects the sad state of Berlin. Besides, his failure, to find love is reflective of the social decay that ails the city, and that ends in the spiritual death mirrored by Hitler’s victory.

In the continued deterioration of the political climate, Isherwood’s picture blurs. There is an increasing feeling of dying human conscience and suffocation as folks discover themselves detained with hopelessness, coupled with the approaching horror of Nazism. However, not all players experienced a sudden change of these events. Some were partially affected for some reasons.

Fraulein Schroeder, the first character met in the narrative is the landlady at her mid-fifties. Through memory talk and mental pictures, the author portrays this colorful woman as shapeless though alert with snooping eyes and beautiful brown hair. Besides, she is characterized as a spire on her lodging customers. This story further gives us a reflection of how she has been impacted economically and socially by changes experienced in Berlin. The narrator paints a picture that several years before the war broke out, she used to be financially well off.

Like many residents of Berlin, Fraulein Schroeder is financially hurt. According to the picture we get from the writer, she has not enough money to go for leisure; she is unable to rent a safe house, sleeps on a broken bed, and does all the cleaning by herself all the day. Besides, she is socially affected as she no longer has the clients who used to lodge with her and give lots of gifts. The picture presented here is that the war destroyed the lives of many and made them weak. The ones who were rich became poor for instance; Fraulein is considered among the poor majority unlike the situation before the war started. Nevertheless, she is open minded and accepts the changes as many others do. Besides, the events leading to the war changed their lives completely others, for instance, Frl Cost, once a servant girl entered into prostitution because the earnings from the former job were meager and could not meet her needs. Another character, Frl. Mayr, who once boasted as a proud Bavarian expanded her patriotism and joined Nazi, a belief by many Germans that joining the Nazi was the best show of support to the new government.

Another character in the story is represented by Bernstein, a wealthy family who the narrator used to teach their daughter Hippi, at home. The young girl is not affected by looming war. She is painted as not worried about the future. She holds similar views as many Germans in Berlin about the war. To her, the issue of the war is neither clear nor real. Nonetheless, the parents are well versed with the political climate but are unconcerned since they do not realize the threat it brings to the entire city. Through memory talk or recollection, the Bernstein are shown as selfish through their materialistic reaction towards violence. Herr Berstein is a perfect representation of this arrogance as he orders the wife to use the train on her way shopping instead of using his car. He claims that in case the rioters start throwing stones and she gets injured; it will be cheaper than if the vehicle is vandalized.

Among the many characters in the novel, Sally Bowles, an aspiring actor from an affluent English family is the most famous and fascinating character in Goodbye to Berlin. She is so much into acting even though she has little talent as the writer mirrors her. She is not much affected by the incoming new rule of Hitler. Many of her problems emanate from financial issues and men. She entirely depends on men for financial aid in exchange for company. However, none of such relationships could last for long. She is much depressed when she finds out that she is pregnant and chooses to procure a legal abortion. In general, she was not affected much by the war.

In conclusion, “Goodbye to Berlin” is the most realistic and indelible image of the cold and the then declining city that previously shone brightly and invitingly during the night. This novel remains the most precious piece of art which extended an inspiration into how Isherwood managed the theme of war because he perfectly recorded an account of the events that took place in Berlin. Illustrating Berlin in all its poverty, desperation, loneliness, and filth, the story paints a picture of city at the brink of collapse


Craft, W., 1999. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. LSU Press.

Isherwood, C., 2012. Goodbye to Berlin (Vol. 1237). New Directions Publishing.

Kay, J., 2011. Red Dust Road: An autobiographical journey. Atlas and Company.

December 15, 2022

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