In Agnes Gomillion’s The Record Keeper, an authoritarian global government has been established in the wake of World War III. Young Arika Cobane has been studying for years to become one of the elite, but when a new and rebellious student arrives, she begins to question the morality of the government and her place within it. In this essay, Gomillion explores her own political awakening and how it led to the conception of her excellent new novel.
At 7, I understood that each of us are patchwork, composites of our past. My best friend Liana, for example, had her mother’s thick hair and her father’s moon face. And once, when we visited her grandmother, I saw parts of my friend in the faces of old family photos. An ear here, an eye there. A dozen pieces that, all patched together, made Liana. At the time, it wasn’t odd to me that I called Liana’s grandmother, who was old and white, my grandmother—my Yaya. At the time, I had no idea I was Black.
Ten years later, at 17, I became aware. The question of affirmative action arose in my senior history class, and my hand shot up. I was staunchly in favor. My parents, after all, had benefitted from affirmative action. Without it, my whole upper middle-class life might not have materialized.
A blond girl, Marianne, disagreed with me. “Lazy people who aren’t as smart as me shouldn’t be given my place in college just because they’re black.” When several students agreed with her, I was shocked, and the debate commenced. Opposition mounted. I stopped raising my hand and stood to combat the entire class, including the teacher, who tore apart my ideas. I knew nothing of systemic racism or white privilege—my high school didn’t teach that. I couldn’t unpack misleading statistics that, on their face, indicated Black people were—in fact—lazy and unintelligent.
I had nothing but the gut belief that my mother was not inferior to theirs. And my cousins were not stupid. My father deserved his medical degree and I, myself, deserved my life. If there was something broken in America, I knew it wasn’t us—only my education hadn’t prepared me to prove it.
When the bell rang, everyone left for second period as I sat, eyes wide open. My peers, I saw, with their myriad of differences, were the same in the only way that mattered. They were white, I realized. And, finally, I understood that I was Black.
After that, everything bisected, and I was suddenly excluded, the opposite of everything I admired. My textbooks were mostly white. My church—including Jesus—was white. My teachers, celebrities I idolized, Disney princesses, the heroes I read about—all white. The best parts of my world belonged to the white race, and according to known history, it had always been that way.
Around this time, I began to wonder about my people’s patchwork. What was I, a black girl, made of? I thought of the pictures at my actual Yaya’s house, and considered history—surveying what I knew. Before and after Martin Luther King, I concluded, there was little to be proud of.
It was a lie that took 15 years to dispel. I was jogging and listening to The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin when the truth finally hit me.
“Take no one’s word for anything,” Baldwin said. “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember . . . [y]ou come from sturdy peasant stock, men who . . . in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
The words struck with such force, I stopped in the street to cry. I’d been lied to. Duped by my biased education. To heal, I had to seek, for myself, from whence I came. From that moment, I questioned everything—especially what I’d been taught about American history. It was the beginning of a very long journey.
Arika’s journey through The Record Keeper parallels my own path to freedom. When she realizes her view of herself and her people are largely influenced by her education, she starts to question her education and the structures of government that dictate it. Soon, she awakens to the biases that underpin her thinking, and armed with the truth, she begins to resist.
In my view, every American must take this same trek if we’re to realize racial reconciliation. Just like each of us, our country is also composed of its past. In order to realize the ideal—a more perfect union—the government itself must journey, excavate, illuminate and atone for its misdeeds. I wrote The Record Keeper, in large part, to encourage readers to take up this quest.