Tell a Better Story

We have a special reading today from Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation who was inspired to write for the “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” program led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

By Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation

I start my first lectures in my history class by asking the students to define history. The first student usually offers a riff on Santayana—those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Usually the second one, however, is is that “History is told by the winners.” 

For centuries the record of the past has been composed by those who have the education and the time to write. Not only that, those persons in power have provided the means, money, and permission to tell the story. From this vantage point of wealth, leisure, and power, the stories inevitably leave out facts and people that did not reflect well on the powerful. 

I learned early in my training as an historian that while the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding out about everyday people. Traces of the past hold up remarkably well to the passage of time. Thanks to grocery lists scratched onto broken pieces of pottery, thoughts and memories sketched into journals, and letters lovingly wrapped with string and stored in hope chests we can knit together portraits of the past. Since history is fundamentally the story we tell about the past, access to these traces help us fill in the gaps in official histories, or the histories written by the powerful.

While the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding out about everyday people.

In the 20th century historians started looking specifically for traces of people on the margins or in the gaps of official histories. Women’s history, Black history, Hispanic history, and even histories about Children are now common conversations among scholars. Telling the stories of people overlooked in textbook histories helps us understand the past more completely. Though there is bound to be uncomfortable parts of these stories, bits of information we might not want to know or that challenge the stories were told growing up, histories focused on people at the margins make for a better story.

Black history month is one of those cultural moments each year when the stories of Black Americans are highlighted because these stories have been rarely told in textbooks. The story of Black Americans has not been a part of the dominant historical story taught in our schools and textbooks. Thankfully, though, Black historians have painstakingly compiled the data and Black communities have maintained rich stories about Black life in America. With Black History Month, all of us can hear whispers from the past thanks to these historians and story-tellers as it reaches the general—and white—public. 

Black historians are crafting compelling stories of black life in America based on their own questions and using the rich trace of Black life. These better stories are helping us all to understand the breadth of our past as a nation. And yes, these histories make us as white folks uncomfortable. They challenge what we have been taught, since what we learned came from those who benefited from that telling of history. 

We are all learning things like the racist origins of rich and poor neighborhoods through the economic practices ofredlining (Color of Law by Richard Rothstein https://wwnorton.com/books/The-Color-of-Law/). We are learning that racist policies have driven and formed racist ideas (Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi https://www.ibramxkendi.com/stamped-from-the-beginning). We are learning about the horrific and violent lynchings that terrorized Black people from south to north (Equal Justice Initiative, https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/). And we are realizing that the stories we learned about the Lost Cause of the Confederacy were crafted by white supremacists after Federal Troops left the south at the end of Reconstruction (The Myth of the Lost Cause, Edward H. Bonekemper https://www.regnery.com/9781621574545/the-myth-of-the-lost-cause/).

And even then, we must realize that the better story of our shared past is more than racist policies, violent segregation, and mass incarceration.

Black History includes the beautiful and useful quilts made in Gee’s Bend Alabama. In this small Black community in the middle of the Alabama River, families passed down the craft of quilt-making in ways that few other communities could in the mobile times of the 20th century. The result is a stunning collection of utilitarian art that embodies the story of the people who sewed and used the quilts out of the cloth gathered from work clothes, remnants, and even feed sacks. https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

Black History includes the rich period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. From 1910 to the 1930’s, Harlem was the locus of Black art, literature, and music. Notable writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston among many others gathered there to share their stories and ambitions. Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington added the sounds of Jazz to the nightlife of Harlem at clubs like the Savoy. Artists, playwrites, and actors all shared their creative productions with the community. And much like the rest of America, the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression signaled the decline of the Harlem economy, but the cultural works of the community remain apart of American culture to this day. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance

A clearly American innovation in music, Jazz was the product of cultural interactions in the diverse city of New Orleans. Black musicians merged together ragtime, march, and the blues with improv solos and “trading fours” that mimicked the call and response of Black preachers, to make a distinct form of music. Rock and Hip-hop today have taken a number of cues from Jazz. It has also become a global music since Black artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker performed all over Europe since they faced discrimination in America. https://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/education/what-jazz

Jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and Gee’s Bend Quilts are just a small snap-shot of the rich historical contributions of Black Americans to our culture. These snap-shots fill in the gaps of our text book histories so that we all learn a better story about our past. And yes, economic, physical, and emotional terrorism are interwoven into these stories. Yet, telling the better story means we tell the whole story about all the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.