We celebrate African American History Month through storytelling, which aids in displacing prejudices, stereotypes and myths of inferiority. Because it matters how we tell the story of Africans in America.
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” Zora Neale Hurston, a world-renowned author and anthropologist, warned.
The month-long observance allows griots, poets and musicians to testify of this collective experience. It holds memories for safekeeping that are safe for this community to inhabit and aids in their social well-being.
We are encouraged to celebrate their accomplishments and to note this community’s courage, contributions and resilience. Against all odds, African Americans lived to tell their side of the story.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal,” the late Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said.
It is 28 days marked by the celebration of African Americans and a day-to-day reminder of their culture and history. Since both were nearly stripped from their ancestors during enslavement, it is an affirmation of their unique story and contributions to American life and society.
You may be asking why these stories bear repeating. It is due in part to centuries of racist imagery and stories told through a plethora of mediums about African Americans and specifically their bodies, based on the sociopolitical construct of race and its progeny.
Stories were first told by philosophers, scientists and pseudo-intellectuals to justify their enslavement and to support their bodies’ hyper-surveillance. Later, stories were printed in newspapers to explain extrajudicial lynchings and the laws told a different story when it came to African Americans, proof of systemic inequality and injustice.
Today, stories are told to explain why African Americans represent a disproportionate amount of traffic-stop deaths. Now, ask yourself why you already know the story.
Americans still cannot agree on how our shared story should begin. Whether in 1492 with Christopher Columbus or in 1619 with 20 to 30 enslaved Africans, the history of African Americans in this country questions its self-legitimizing grand narrative aided by the pseudoscientific propaganda of race and blatant hypocrisy.
Most stories start at the beginning, and this is how it started for Africans in America. But we don’t talk about slavery in this country.
“There are two reasons that we don’t talk about slavery: The first is it’s a subject that makes us have to face the ugliness of our history against the beauty of American history,” says Michael Simanga, adjunct professor of African American studies at Georgia State University. “It forces us to then commit to structural changes that the country has not yet gotten ready to address, changes having to do with discriminatory practices — an unequal education system, unequal employment, unequal housing and how we teach our history without including all Americans.”
I am always confused by those who are offended by African American history, the celebration of triumph and the countless examples of resilience in the face of inhumane treatment and deplorable conditions. I think it strange that some Americans try to separate it from our shared history.
This would only leave the memory of the oppressors and their families then. What story are you invested in if you only want to hear their side? Besides, it’s their party and they can celebrate that American slavery didn’t break their ancestors’ spirits if they want to.
Wanting to highlight the contributions of African Americans, Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926. In 1941, Melville Herskovits published The Myth of the Negro Past, which set out to debunk the racist belief that African Americans had no history.
Today, there are those who would attempt to control who tells the story as if the arbiters of history. It’s not new and might have roots in the bigoted challenge to assimilate or “go back to your country.”
But “being American is more than a pride we inherit — it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it,” Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in American history, writes in The Hill We Climb.
This might be how we get on the same page, and it certainly tells the story of how so many African Americans continue to make history.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for African American / Black History Month. The previous articles in the series are:
How the Double V Campaign Brought Social Antagonism and Racial Transformation | Fredrick Douglass Dixon