When I was a kid, I read my dad’s copy of Alex Haley’s Roots and it changed forever, my perspective on slavery. Then a few years ago, I watched the made-for-TV series, and had my mind blown again. And over the years, there have been dozens of films and dramas and books depicting the horrors of slavery, one of the most recent being 12 Years A Slave, and as I have watched or read these narratives, I have cried and wailed and mourned for all the lives that were damaged and destroyed on account of the slave trade, and what has became one of the most tragic seasons in the series that is human history.
Then, last week, in addressing the way we celebrate Black History Month, my pastor talked about the bigger picture. He reminded us that our history extends further than slavery, and if we retrace the paths of our ancestors, we will find the footprints didn’t start at the beginning of the middle passage. Rather we have a history that is recorded in the Bible, a history that predates ancient Egypt, a history that includes us at the very beginning of time, a history that is being revealed and pieced together with every new archaeological dig and proven with every genetic study, and celebrated in some way in museums all over the world.
Black people are more than children of people who were enslaved. Our ancestors were architects of some of the most notable and controversial structures in ancient times, they were inventors and philosophers and medical pioneers, writers and engineers and builders, kings and queens and soldiers. Throughout the ages, black people have been getting up everyday and doing important things with their lives.
One of my favorite books is George Orwell’s 1984. The book, written in the 1940s, eerily prophesied a time when history would not be absolute but would be controlled by the person who had the power. In a chilling example of life imitating art, the quote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” has indeed become real for us. Because we have not physically been present at every point in history, we have learned to rely on the transcripts to inform us about happened.
But who has been keeping these transcripts? How has this affected my view of history? And of the present? Do I know what really happened with my ancestors? How do I know if what I read in books is true?
If you’ve missed a meeting, there are only two ways you can get the scoop on what happened; you can ask someone who was there or you can rely on the official minutes. And anyone who’s ever belonged to a committee of any sort, knows that when the minutes are read, sometimes there are errors that have to be corrected before the transcript is officially accepted. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake but sometimes, it’s because the recorder had another agenda and wanted to write what (s)he wanted the history to be, not what actually was. And if nobody pays careful attention and opposes the reading and subsequent acceptance of the minutes, that person’s opinion of what should have been is accepted as the official record of what was.
What happened in 1984, was a more intentional version of rewritten history. But that’s fiction. What matters most is what happens with our history. How much do you know of your own roots? How much do you know of your family’s background – the things that happened to your parents and their parents and their parents before that?
When we don’t know where we’re coming from, when we don’t know the circumstances that caused our parents and grandparents to make the decisions that they did, when we don’t know the history that has caused us to be where we are, then we don’t understand why sometimes we do some of the things we learned from being raised by them, we don’t know who we are, and where we need to go.
When all we know of our past is what is written somewhere, when the oral historians who could dispute or verify the records are gone without having convinced us of the truth, all we know is what we read.
When our history is being archived in temporary form, like an open-source site on the internet, our history can be rewritten with a few swift keystrokes. And like Sandra Bullock’s character on The Net, when what we remember or what we say does not align with what should be, our version of history can be erased or replaced at the whim of whoever has administrative access.
I don’t have all the answers but maybe right now, it’s just important not to forget the questions.
A few years ago, I visited a museum in New York and gazed at some artifacts, artifacts that they said represented my own Jamaican history. Where did the historian visit to collect artifacts? I felt misrepresented, that the narrative did not capture the reality I knew personally because Jamaican history transcends Bob Marley, reggae music and Rastafarian culture. But from the items on display in the museum, one might expect all Jamaicans to be weed-smoking, dreadlocked, Rastafarians wearing red, green and gold fabric slippers and singing “Chant Down Babylon” as loud as they could. What about Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley, Edna Manley, Claude McKay, Louise Bennett, Madge Sinclair? Notable Jamaicans who did not, at any point in their lives, sport dreadlocks. I was mad but it made me think of the importance of knowing for yourself where you are coming from, so what someone says about you does not become your definition.
I wrote this poem around that time, a period when I contemplated how much of my past, how much of the things that are not just in me but are me, how much of myself I am ignorant of.
This is my ode to my history. I hope you like it.
Magnifying my importance,
I hold the records of those who lived before me
Not realizing I am nothing if they are nothing.
I see their life and death,
Their blood painting their memoirs on walls.
I call it art.
Who am I to drink coffee and turn the pages on their unending story,
To dance on the cobblestones that bridge their history?
How do I translate the words that call my father’s heart?
Centuries overwhelm me.
And to exaggerate my importance, I categorize.
Indian man. White man. Black man. Man. Woman.
Woman, who birthed me.
Gave me names she couldn’t call me by outside.
Whispered dreams I couldn’t recall in the daylight.
Watered the ground with tears I couldn’t understand
Chanted prayers that lit up the night.
Who am I to forget my parents’ stories,
To read about them in books written with unsympathetic hands,
To gawk at their religion, stand in line to view their shrines,
Their pathways to God shrouded in glassy museums,
Who am I to learn about my mother from someone who didn’t know her.
How do I not know her when I touched her,
Came from her,
Carry her inside my very blood.
Who am I to forget?
Who am I that I never knew?
I see his face inside my own,
And I shrink from the crescendo that rises in me. Call him names.
Every name except Father.
Who am I if I am not his daughter,
Building bridges with the paper that records their story.
Bridges that, I think, will lead to glory.
Do you know your history? Do you feel connected with the past or do you feel like you are separate, charting your own way?