Summary of Memories of Childhood
Memories of Childhood is a profound collection of autobiographical episodes in which the Native American author Zitkala-Sa and the Tamil author Bama share their profound childhood experiences of discrimination. Zitkala-Sa recalls being separated from her mother in order to attend a school run by white Americans. The school authorities forced her to cut her long, lustrous hair, which in her culture signified bravery and well-being. She vividly recalls the anguish and desolation that engulfed her at the time. On her first day at Carlisle Indian School, she felt like a bird in captivity yearning for flight, but her hopes were in vain.
In another autobiographical episode, Bama describes how she learned about the social injustice and untouchability imposed on her community. She discovered the ugly form of discrimination that was pervasive in society through one of her childhood experiences. However, the humorous occurrence she witnessed that day proved to be an eye-opener, and her perspective on the world began to shift.
The Cutting of My Long Hair
Zitkala – Sa recounts her first day at a residential school in Zitkala – Sa. Winter is present when she first enrols in school. On her first day, the breakfast bell rang loudly and she was surrounded by a constant cacophony of sounds. She found the noises irritating, and her soul yearned for freedom, but in vain. She was stripped of her blanket and compelled to join a line of girls heading to the dining room. A woman with pale skin followed the line. Girls were required to wear stiff shoes and snug dresses. The smaller girls had shingled hair and wore sleeved aprons. The narrator felt that the girls were inappropriately attired, but they did not care.
As they entered the dining room, three young boys entered through the door on the opposite wall. The narrator observed a small bell being rung, followed by the three boys pulling chairs from under the dining table. The narrator imitated them before discovering that the remaining individuals were still standing. When the second bell rang, she began to stand, and everyone else pulled their chairs out from under the table. The narrator turned to face a man who was speaking as they sat at the table. She lowered her eyes, however, when she felt the gaze of a pale-faced woman upon her. Everyone at the table had their heads bowed over their plates. After the third bell, everyone picked up their knives and forks to begin eating. The narrator had the urge to cry but refrained.
Adding insult to injury, the narrator’s friend Judewin informed her of a plan to cut their long, thick hair. The narrator’s mother had taught her that only unskilled warriors captured by the enemy were subjected to hair shingles. In the narrator’s culture, mourners sported short hair and cowards sported shingled hair. The narrator resisted when Judewin informed her that they were required to have haircuts because the school’s administration was powerful. When no one was looking, the narrator escaped the room and entered a room with three beds. She hid beneath the bed. She shuddered whenever she heard footsteps approaching. Everyone was searching for her, including her friend Judewin.
Finally, when she was discovered hiding under the bed, the narrator recalls being dragged out against her fierce opposition. She was carried downstairs and secured to a chair with a rope. She cried until she felt one of her thick braids being cut by the scissors. After that, her spirit diminished. The narrator recalls being subjected to numerous humiliations after being separated from her mother. She wept for her mother as her hair was cut, but no one listened because she resembled one of the many small animals a herder drives.
We Too are Human Beings
Bama recounts her childhood in her native country. She recalls an occurrence that occurred when she was three years old. At that time, people did not openly discuss untouchability. Daily, the narrator would walk home from school. The narrator enjoyed her walk so much that she covered a distance that could have been covered in ten minutes in thirty minutes. On her way home from school, she delighted in observing every small establishment and event. There were stores, street vendors, political rallies, and so forth. The sight of these objects hypnotised the narrator.
The narrator was returning from school as usual one day. As she approached her street, she noticed that a threshing floor had been set up and that the landlord was overseeing the work of his men. The individuals who worked on the threshing floor were members of the narrator’s community. The narrator was enjoying the view of these activities when she noticed a community elder carrying a humorously small package. The man carefully held the package’s strings without touching them. She assumed the package contained vadai or green banana bhajji. She reasoned that the food could fall out of the package if it was carried in that manner. The entire act appeared ridiculous to her. The man approached the landlord and presented him with the package in his cupped hands. The landlord then removed it from the man’s grasp and began consuming the vadais.
The narrator returned home and told her brother the humorous story. However, her brother did not find the story amusing and informed her that the landlord and others like him were considered upper-caste individuals. Since touching members of Bama’s community could contaminate the upper caste, the elderly man was required to carry the package by its strings. This news infuriated the narrator, who no longer found the incident amusing. The food was initially wrapped in a banana leaf and then in paper. She could not believe that food wrapped in two layers could appear repulsive. She was so enraged that she desired to personally touch those vadais.
The narrator wondered whether the wealth of these upper-caste individuals was responsible for their behaviour. She believed that members of her community should never run errands for those of higher caste. They should simply perform their duties and collect their salaries.
When the narrator’s older brother, a university student, returned home for the holidays, he frequently borrowed books from the library in the nearby village. One day, he was walking along the banks of an irrigation tank when a landlord’s employee approached him from behind and inquired about him. To determine the man’s caste, he inquired about his name and street address. Because they were born into this community of untouchables, the narrator’s brother explained, they lacked dignity and respect. The only way to combat this was through education. In this way, they would be acknowledged, and people would develop meaningful relationships with them.
The words her brother spoke that day had a profound effect on the mind of the narrator. She diligently studied and achieved first place in her class. As a result, she made many new friends.
Themes of Memories of Childhood
Discrimination and prejudice: Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama share their experiences of discrimination based on their race and caste respectively. They were treated unfairly by those in positions of power and authority, and had to endure various forms of humiliation and oppression. The authors highlight the destructive impact of discrimination and the need for societal change to create a more just and equitable world.
Loss of cultural identity: Zitkala-Sa’s story is particularly poignant as she was forced to cut her hair, which was an important symbol of her cultural identity. The experience left her feeling disconnected from her heritage and traditions. Similarly, Bama’s community was subject to restrictions on their cultural practices due to the caste system. Both authors shed light on the damaging effects of cultural erasure and the importance of preserving one’s cultural identity.
Power dynamics: The authors examine the power dynamics at play in their respective societies. In Zitkala-Sa’s case, the school authorities had absolute power over the children in their care, and used this power to enforce their own beliefs and practices on the students. Similarly, the caste system in Bama’s community perpetuated a rigid hierarchy that gave certain individuals more power and privilege than others. The authors highlight the importance of questioning and challenging systems of power and oppression.
Childhood innocence: Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama were children when they experienced discrimination and prejudice. Their stories highlight the loss of childhood innocence that can result from being exposed to such harsh realities. The authors remind us of the vulnerability of children and the need to protect them from harm.
Education: Zitkala-Sa’s story is also a commentary on the education system in America at the time, which sought to assimilate Native American children into white American culture. The education system was used as a tool of oppression, and the authors highlight the need for education to be inclusive and respectful of diverse cultures and identities.
Conclusion of Childhood Memories
Memories of Childhood demonstrates how exposure to discrimination at a young age can leave mental scars. Children from marginalised communities lose out on the opportunity to have a happy childhood. On her first day of school, when the boys were allowed to sit down before the girls, Zitkala – Sa was subjected to discrimination based on her gender. She experienced a more severe form of discrimination – racial – when her hair was cut by school officials despite her cultural beliefs. This was an assault on her identity and cultural values. The second author, Bama, faces caste-based discrimination. As a young child, she was appalled to learn that people could be so inhumane to others simply because they believed themselves to be superior.