A number of years ago my mother gave me a booklet someone on her side of the family had written. The author, a genealogist, had traced her branch of the family tree back multiple generations. I was fascinated to learn our forebears had come to America from Scotland in the late 18th century, landing first in South Carolina and migrating west over time, finally settling in Texas. With the exception of a doctor who served as a medic during the civil war, every generation of this particular branch of our family tree were farmers. Though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been, I was dismayed to learn that several generations of them owned slaves.
As disturbing as this revelation was, I longed to know more, to hear directly from my ancestors and their unfortunate slaves, for their ghosts to rise up and talk to me in the form of letters or diaries so I could better learn who they were, how and what they thought and what their lives were like. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover any writings that would shed more light my family’s now tarnished history.
In a 2010 television interview, the late polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, inspired by Nadine Gordimer, said he tended to write as if for posthumous publication because it helped him to filter out all outside influences and be as honest as possible. Asked if he subscribed to his friend Martin Amis’ idea that writers must believe in some form of life after death because the printed words they leave behind constitute a form of immortality, Hitchens responded, “Litera scripta manet—the written word will remain. That’s true. But it won’t be that much comfort to me… it isn’t the same term as immortality at all.”
Hitchens’ answer was a defense of his vehement atheism. Sipping whiskey and bald from chemotherapy treatment for stage four cancer, he seemed determined to prove there are indeed atheists in the proverbial foxhole. Here I part ways with Hitchens’ absolute certainty that the survival of bodily death is not possible. I can’t say for sure that it is—no one can—only that I believe it’s possible. Still, Hitchens sentiment that the written word will remain is nonetheless profound. Our written words may not literally be consciousness as we currently understand it, but they most certainly encode it so it can be decoded at some future time by an interested, perhaps kindred spirit. Thoughtfully encoded, our ghosts do indeed live.
Taking a cue from Hitchens and Gordimer as I record these inklings, my imagination reaches out beyond my time here to posterity. I’m especially hopeful that one or more of my descendents, about whom I cannot help but feel, even if abstractly, some love and concern will one day read this: While this world is without a doubt a huge mess, and I fear for not only your survival but the survival of the entire human race, I am nonetheless cautiously optimistic. As I write I am imagining you reading this long after I’m gone, some one-hundred, two-hundred, even five-hundred years or more from now. I am reaching across this great divide, hoping to provide you with some honest insight, however modest, into our time and that this will be of some value to you. With that, allow me to begin to tell you as truthfully as I can about the world I inhabit.