In some form or another we are reminded of history every day. Family photos hanging around the house, treasured heirlooms gently placed on the mantle or, in many cases, the old family Bible with a chronology of births and deaths. As we grow older we often learn that a great deal of our personal family histories are a collection of facts, perceptions and a few wives’ tales, but they are nonetheless an important component in the building of our confidence and belief structure. What an unimaginable setback it would be to learn that the wedding ring grandma wore and passed down to her daughter’s daughter was in fact, just an old ring that was never grandma’s ring at all.
From this perspective, we see the tremendous burden and power bestowed upon the writers of history, and, for our purposes, American history. America is a nation that, from its inception, epitomized the best and worst of diversity. Who would put ink to paper and describe the tension of “discovering” a new land already inhabited, or capture the moral failing of an economy, birthed on slave labor? Who indeed, would even make such a request? We see this conundrum played out through numerous novels, poems and stories written by authors such as Margaret Mitchell whose romantic story “Gone With the Wind” paints a picture of diversity in the class system of the Civil War-torn South; or Harper Lee’s tale of race relations, “To Kill a Mockingbird;” or even more profoundly in Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” where he asks why men obey laws without just – or even when they believe those laws are wrong. Is the issue with writing history selectively from a certain perspective or the lack of additional, more diverse perspectives?
The telling of African American history is one wrought with complication. It is at best, fragmented, so misunderstood, and, at worst, misrepresented, so without validity. I liken black history to the personal story a close friend once shared about his childhood. He was born in East Asia but was adopted and raised by a loving family in St Louis. As an adult, he attempted to discover his true identity and that of his biological family and soon after learned there was little to no chance of finding this information. The children’s home he was adopted from had no records because he came to them anonymously after being abandoned on the side of the road. Someone had made a decision to share nothing about his journey to that point or about the family that left him behind and in doing so, locked him out of any history with his country of origin. The sense of connection I felt to him was never more pronounced.
No one individual assumes responsibility for writing all of Black history, but every individual should feel responsible for the accuracy of their own personal history. Collectively, our individual truths will reflect imperfections of a comparatively young society, still striving to get the story right.
Rhonda Powell is the director of Macomb Community Action and a member of Macomb County’s One Macomb which works to facilitate and support collaborative and community-based activities which celebrate cultural diversity and inclusion in Macomb County.