A long time ago I remember watching American History X, a 1998 crime drama that followed the journey of a young man into, though, and out of the Neo Nazi movement. There was a particular scene in this film that stays with me even today. One of the main characters was a high school student sitting at the table with his father discussing his English homework. As he listed the books his class was covering, his father suddenly looked up from his plate and asked why great books are being exchanged for Black books. Let me say that again, he asked why GREAT books were being replaced by BLACK books. At the time, barely in high school myself, I simply brushed it off as an aspect of a character I was meant to dislike. The depth of what he said was completely lost on me.
Fast forward a few years later. Still in high school, I had left Canada behind and had made a new home in Jamaica. That year in English class, one of our required readings was a book called Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian Chinua Achebe. While I had a many years long relationship with stories from Africa in the form of folktales in children’s books and family histories from my late grandfather, this was different. This was the first time I had come into contact with a novel that not only told a story about Africa, but from Africa through the eyes of an African. My Jamaican English teacher, to whom I will always be grateful, shared with us a quotation from the late, great Mr. Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ It was then that I properly understood the weight of what I had just read. After reading the novel, I thought about the line from that film and I understood why Black stories mattered.
Every Black History Month we always hear the same stories: Dr. Martin Luther King and his marches, Malcolm X and his speeches, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, and slavery, slavery, and more slavery. Occasionally we would hear about peanut butter, stoplights, and gas masks. While knowing this information is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story of Africa and its descendants, the focus was always on Blackness in the context of our oppression. The narrative was obsessed with the quiet dignity with which our people endured the brutality and humiliation of the Western jackboot, as if this was the only Black history that mattered. In fact, Black History Month is often the only time of year that many people even have the mind to access Black history. With this narrative, far too many people think that this is where Black history starts and stops. Slavery and the civil rights movement did not make us Black. We are the sons and daughters of great rulers, humble farmers, skilled artisans, brave warriors, wise scribes, and brilliant architects stretching back to before chisel was first put to stone. Stories about these people and their lives matter.
When I say Black stories matter I mean that these stories need to be recorded and retold for what they are: the stories of us. These stories told by both our long gone ancestors and our contemporary artists and historians tell us who we have been and where we are going. They share our values through a lens that does not relegate us to the role of the poor unfortunates the rest of the world left behind. They do not leave us looking to the lands of our former colonizers for tales of bravery, nobility, resistance, and strength. These stories do not infantilize us and make us seem like a monolith of innocents surreptitiously corrupted by Western greed and imperial ambition. Instead, these tales strip the coloured glasses from our eyes and replaces them with a mirror that gives us a truer reflection of ourselves. We look into the eyes of our heroes and our tyrants, of our princes and our paupers, of our martyrs and our murderers, of our architects and our arsonists. Black stories matter because they break the one dimensional lens often used to describe us and allow us to claim our humanity in all its exquisite nuance.
In closing, Chinua Achebe was right. The time has come for us to tell our own stories, not because we need them to be in the mainstream, but because we need to do it for ourselves. We need to be able to tell our children about the adventures of Anansi the spider, the triumphs of Hannibal of Carthage, the power of Ogun’s hammer, or the struggle of Shaka Zulu’s childhood. These stories are the journey of our people wrapped in a package of perfumed words and thundering performances. They dance in the strings of the kora, the bow of the masenqo, and the beat of the drum. They live on in the words of every page we write and every frame of film we record. Black stories matter because we matter to ourselves and because our storytellers matter to us. We don’t need permission or support from anyone else for that to be true because real truth doesn’t care who accepts it or not, it simply is.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Image Credit: http://www.taneter.org/writing.html