“Before I Was Straightened Out”
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses &
livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but
in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has
a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that. . . .
Like water, I remember where I was before I was straightened out.
Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory”
Toni Morrison, in her beautiful meditation on the work of memory, de-
scribes being “straightened” out as a modality of (historical) forgetting.
Along with the capitalist development of the Mississippi River, Morrison
too has been straightened out by others’ desires.1 Still, as she powerfully
observes, water doesn’t obey the logic of capitalism. It flows and moves un-
predictably, roaming back to the forgotten place where the river used to be.
What this insight about water reveals is an understanding that the life
evicted does return and does so against restraint. In many ways wander-
ing facilitates this return, a kind of kinesthetic homecoming, by forging
modalities of embodiment for what critic M. Jacqui Alexander describes
as “errant spirits, teeming with yearning not easily satisfied in towering
buildings or in slabs of concrete.”2 This is life straightened out by the ver-
tical reach of economic desire—life that knows that concrete hides a river
somewhere. To wander is to renounce the limits imposed on one’s move-
ment, to live and act in excess of the moorings of someone else’s desire. To
make and unmake one’s own way.
Still, as Alexander theorizes, making one’s own way continues to be
associated with and constrained by the limits of secular citizenship. In
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