Photo: Copyright © Benjamin Stangland, Getty Images.
When I decided to write this piece on Our History, I regarded it as an opportunity. It’s through the lens of it that I stay informed about the world we live in. However, once the excitement died down, I was faced with the conundrum of “Whose history?”
It’s been quite some time since my days as an undergrad history major. After a few years’ worth of experience, I realize that history has multiple layers that we pass through without even knowing it. Each day we add another layer to it in the long story of our lives. In the end, we will be judged by what’s left behind and the role we played in others’ trajectories.
Peeling back the layers of time helps to understand the building blocks compiled and assembled to create what we see, and influences how we live. It becomes evident on whose shoulders bore the weight of our existence. It answers the question of to whom and what we are knowingly and unknowingly indebted to.
The greatest defense of the present actually lies in the offense of the past. If we desire, we can dispel any untruth. We have to willingly take an honest look at what we know and don’t know.
What would a little black child’s retort be to the person/s that insists they have no history? We can consider Arturo Schomburg’s pursuit to prove racist naysayers wrong in the earliest part of the 20th century. He did this by amassing one of the greatest repositories of black life, which resulted in the founding of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Imagine what it would be like if we grew up knowing there was a black Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, or there were three black popes, Victor, Miltiades, and Gelasius? That England had a black queen, Charlotte? That black history in America did not begin with slavery; instead, enslavement is a blip on the map of a much larger narrative? With that knowledge and awareness, things might be different.
Do we ever consider when we’re in the presence of another that we’re actually witnessing and experiencing part of their history? Their behavior and approach is predicated on experiences that we’re not privy to. That’s why we can never judge a person’s response to a situation unless we’ve taken the time to look beyond what we see. It begs to ask, “What happened to this person and shaped who they are today?” Sometimes our only role is that of provocateur, to present an opportunity to expose oneself. Something that may seem mundane can be the trigger to someone’s fear and discomfort as well as enlightenment.
In grad school I took a course in negotiation. The professor was actually one of the participants who sat at the table for the contentious negotiations between Columbia University and West Harlem in its pursuit of the university’s expansion uptown. She remarked on the collision of cultures fanning the flame of misunderstanding often resulting in chaos, withdrawal, and varying degrees of stalemate. Columbia’s institutionalized approach ignored the communal history of pain that makes up the village of Harlem. They were ignorant of the multiple pockets that showed up as factious groups all wanting to be heard and acknowledged.
If Columbia University took a moment to consider the history of the inhabitants of Harlem, the negotiations surely would have gone differently. Conversely, if the people of the community stepped back for a moment and banded together based on their commonality, they could of created one strong voice that would be heard loud and clearly. Instead, numerous factions stepped forward each with their own brand of pain. If they consolidated they could have had more leverage at the table and could have gotten much more than they did.
The professor, an African American woman, knows firsthand what she is talking about. She’s very familiar with the shared pain of the community as well as the institutional nature of the university. However, the unwillingness to consider each other’s ‘history’ only impeded the process.
It’s counter-productive to look at the world through myopic eyes. By presenting our history as such takes away the ability to engage in critical thought about the world we live in. With that, there will always be a tool of negotiation missing. History as a whole is more palatable if we can envision our place in it and the role it plays in everyday life. If we don’t present the what, how can we expect to ask why, or feign interests in how things end up as they do?
The best history class I ever had was in high school where the teacher included the students in the narrative. There were no textbooks; we took notes. We had to discuss and analyze what was said addressing the three dimensional complexity of its participants. What that taught me is we live and interact as a result of the past. If we explore we can break the code of what keeps us locked in a repetitive cycle, and navigate a new pathway to Our History.
Earl Davis is the Executive Director of Project Brownstone. He lives in New York City.