There are two quotes about history that I love. Folklorist and historian Henry Glassie notes that “History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.”
And James Baldwin tells us “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
Each quote speaks to how histories–personal and communal–influence our self-narratives about identity and destiny. I grew up in a time when black history wasn't taught in U.S. public schools. The black part of the American story was taught as slavery, Civil War, MLK, the end. A nonstop litany of struggle and trauma boiled down to bullet points.
If that were all I ever learned about black history, THAT would have been the foundation of my story of who I was and who I could become.
My mother wasn’t having it. She made damn sure I knew other stories. Stories of Black explorers, soldiers, inventors, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and musicians sprinkled throughout America’s existence. Stories of the rich cultures of West Africa, East Africa, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Stories of the rich characters distributed throughout our own family tree.
No matter what my textbook might imply, she made sure I knew my story mattered.
She also made sure to flip the story of the American dream over and expose the wormy underbelly that was Jim Crow. The story of her father, one of many black GIs who fought fascism overseas and came back to America to be spit on. She showed me Emmett Till so I could understand why I wouldn’t be reciting the pledge of allegiance with my classmates. I’d stand to respect the teacher, but I would never say the words. No hand over a heart forever being broken.
By compensating for my textbook’s erasure of black people with her own stories of black heroes and ancestors, my mother made sure my story of myself was more fully drawn.
Today we see renewed efforts to erase black history. To erase black Americans’ ability to know our past and shape our future. Those efforts will fail. Our voices are too strong to be silenced, our stories too indelible to be erased.
One last thing. History can liberate us from the tyranny of the now. Go back far enough and you’ll see that present circumstances are not how things have always been. If the world WAS different, it can also BE different, and better.
History is proof of the possibility of change — stories that map our journey from what we were to what we will become.
What are the stories that map YOUR journey?