“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!” ~ Marcus Garvey.
My father loved to tell stories. Whether from pulpit or stage, in front of a crowd or a small group, his melodious voice would weave a tale that never failed to entertain, amuse or teach. Those of us who lived with him learned of his early life, his mother’s early life, his school days, or more recent adventures. There are those who found his stories unbelievable, but they always began with a kernel of truth, and like a poet he used his license to layer and color it, until it took on a life of its own. He often ended his stories with the phrase “…and it’s true, you know”, which has been immortalized on his gravestone. In later years, before dementia stole most of his stories, he would mix up and conflate stories, so that they became a little more interesting, a little less true. My mother, who didn’t recognize this forgetting, unreliable storyteller, would try to get him back on track. The rest of us were happy to let him put a new twist on old endings.
When my kids were young, it always surprised me that I had to tell them about my childhood in Jamaica, so different from theirs growing up in Miami. For some reason I imagined that kids are born with their parents’ memories already embedded, fully loaded. I forgot that I had been told my parents’ love story, how they met, their early impoverished years. My kids learnt more than the family history from their father. He made sure that they knew the history of black people in the world. He corrected many of the white-washed versions of colonization to make sure they understood that though they may be light-skinned, they are descended from a proud and noble race, from Africans whose stories have been eradicated just as so many of them were. He gave them African names to make sure they couldn’t hide. When they were supposed to be drawing the Mayflower, the arrival of Christopher Columbus on American soil for their Thanksgiving homework, he was making them add enslaved Africans to the ships. He made sure they knew what happened to the Native Americans standing on the shore. In addition to story books and coloring books, my kids grew up seeing books by Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and Malcolm X. We didn’t need to let them know the European side of their history, that was readily available. What they needed to be clear on was the part that was not easy to be found.
We are a race (the human race) of story tellers. Once we learned how to communicate, we started to weave our tales round campfires. Even before written language, cave paintings tell of great adventures. Some cultures have an oral tradition, stories that were too valuable to be written down would be committed to memory. But in order to keep them alive and passed down, they were told and memorized, generation after generation. The Griots in Africa are those people entrusted with the stories. I have an African American friend whose family has a similar tradition. At each family reunion, one of the ‘elders’ of the family, gathers the youngsters around and tells them of their family stories. The great-uncle who had to be hidden in a truck-bed in the dead of night and smuggled out of Alabama to Chicago because the KKK were headed for his house. The children who are told these stories may not understand their significance for many years, but they have been given a precious gift to pass on to the next generation.
We do our children a disservice when we don’t tell them not just our own stories, but the stories of those who don’t look like us. We do whole nations a disservice when we don’t try to understand their history, their challenges, their accomplishments. Those who were on the frontlines of civil rights battles may smooth over the truly distressing parts, so that new generations are ignorant of their past. Marcus Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. Recently, the movie Black Panther not only entertained masses of cinema-goers, it also opened a door to stories and possibilities, gave rise to a feeling of pride and ownership for people who have been damaged by centuries of lies, violence and suppression.
It is easier (and much less painful) to gloss over the painful battles of the past. Those of us who were around at the beginning of the AIDS crisis remember how hard it was to raise awareness, to make sure that young people who barely understood their own sexuality would practice safe sex so as to survive a disease that at the time was a death sentence. With the advances in treatment has come a muffling of the message, and we must once more teach the importance of prevention to youngsters who have not seen the devastation it can cause. Did you know that Florida has one of the highest rates of incidence of HIV? And that Miami leads the country? The war is not over by any means.
This Friday morning I hope you have memories of the stories of your childhood, and I hope you are retelling them with abandon! It is only when those in the generation above you have died that you realize that you must make sure the stories don’t die with them. We owe it to those who went before us, and those who follow, to keep sharing, and teaching, and entertaining. And yes, sometimes embellishing for effect! We must tell the half that has never been told, to enlighten and educate. Have a wonderful weekend, Family!