High school is a blur. Most of my memories recount naughty moments with my peers: hookie parties, paying a single fee although we watched all the films in the movie theater, and eating burgers, White Castle burgers for breakfast. This was in my native New York City, the borough of Queens to be exact. I have little recollection of classes, teachers or the academic content I was taught especially in history or social studies.
I never considered myself to be a history lover. But in August of 2017, I relocated to Virginia. My grandparents had left Brooklyn years prior and moved to the Commonwealth after purchasing their first home. Grandma Dot was born in Virginia. The city of Richmond is where she established her roots and then her wings. It is the hallowed ground on which her life began and sadly ended. Virginia then, not only holds the heart of my family’s and its matriarch’s history, but I’ve learned and continue to realize that it is also the heart of America’s history.
As a Virginian, it is impossible to not develop an appreciation of the Commonwealth’s rich while tainted history. I in fact have developed a love, a new knowledge of U.S. History and more importantly a deeper revelation of the vital role Black people play(ed) in shaping America, its race relations and the ongoing journey towards racial reconciliation and equality. By default, I have become a student of the Commonwealth’s classroom.
As I’ve sat in the audience of local events, sponsored workshops and scholarly panels in the Hampton Roads area, I am embarrassed by the little I truly know about American history. None of the information sounds familiar. There have been so many wow and aha moments that expose my ignorance and naivete; and if I am such, how many more “Americans” are uninformed like me? How many of them resemble my skin tone and how many more don’t?
It was around this time of year (August 2018) when I attended the first Black Cultural Preservation Summit on Fort Monroe. It was then that I began the journey to find the “I” in history. That initial introduction led me to attend the African American Cultural Genealogy Conference, “Connecting to the Past,” held at the Newport News Public Library in February 2019. Scholar and author of The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA, Dr. Natalie S. Robertson delivered a riveting presentation on African captives, the middle passage and how—despite slavery—a free and prosperous communty was birthed and continues to thrive in Alabama.
As the year progressed, my inner child remained curious and I sought out opportunities to continue to learn and become more aware that Black History is American History. In the sweltering heat of July 2019, I participated in two history driven workshops. The Civil War in the Hampton Roads workshop was hosted by the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University Center and spearheaded by Dr. William White. As part of the experential learning experience, I sojourned along with others to Richmond and toured the site of its early gallows and Burial Ground for Negros. I stood where slave rebellion leader Gabriel Prosser was buried after being executed for planning an uprising on August 30th in the year 1800. It was chilling yet capitivating. It was I, stepping into history.
2019 commemorates the 400 year anniversary of the landing of the first Africans in Virginia at Point Comfort now known as Fort Monroe in Hampton. Like many who attended events during the commemorative weekend of August 23-25th, I have visited the site landmarked on Fort Monroe, have heard stories and listened to lectures. I live in Hampton, so I can’t help but think that maybe the circumstances surrounding my own settlement here is symbolic.
Earlier in July—during my hot history summer—I participated in an institute for teachers that was led by the brilliant Dr. Colita Nichols Fairfax, co-chairman of the City of Hampton’s 2019 Commemorative Commission. I hung on to the words of the ever “woke” NSU dean, professor and Director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, as she spoke about 1619 and the making of America. I found her commitment to tell the truth of Black History in America without apology or compromise to be revolutionary.
What I have learned from the culmination of these experiences is that black pride does not disavow whiteness, but it does give voice, vision, and a sense of victory to people of color seeking to identify with the “I” in history. In an age of identity politics, the adage “if you know where you come from you will know where you are going” resounds like a mighty explosion. But it can’t be empty cannons of cultural overtones, there must be depth of purpose. Not just history as we have known it, but an accurate and objective interpretation of the events that occurred. Who we are and becoming as African-Americans is a need to know necessity that all Americans need to know.
If there is not a targeted effort to retell history with intricate accuracy, then there will be generations of young black girls and boys who will grow into older black men and women whose knowledge of Black History is limited to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Underground Railroad. Even more harmful is the masses of non people of color who will believe the same.
I’m proud to be a part of history that is helping to change the narrative.