When Lions Have Historians….

I just read an article on Tavis Smiley’s blog that raises an excellent question: Are Whites Entitled to Write Black History?

On the surface, some think the race of the person writing the historical event should not matter. For argument’s sake, let’s take race out of it. I suggest that we let scholars in Vietnam write American History. Oh…now that changes things doesn’t it? Certainly, the interpretation of why certain events took place would change. Or maybe we should allow the British to take charge of telling the American story. (I hear patriotic folks passing out all over the country.) So, why is this question of which race is able to interpret black history better such a controversial question? Why does this matter in 2011?

The proverb referenced in Alan Katz’ post says it best: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The fact of the matter is, the truth is uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was an adult searching for little know black history fact online and in books, that I realized how much black history was not taught in school. Although the American History classes I attended covered slavery, emancipation, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, it did not cover much else where black history was concerned. During Black History month, we learned about a few other notables such as: George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, sojourner Truth, Madame C.J. Walker; and by the time I was in high school Malcolm X was added to the “notables” list.

Why does this matter in 2011? Well, unfortunately, the same limited information is still being taught in most schools. In some places Black History Month has become Multi-Cultural Awareness month. My 14-year-old only discovered the Triangle Trade Route this summer when she and I were discussing black history.

The fact of the matter is: Black History is not pretty, romantic or full of happy endings. There is a lot of pain, and horror woven into telling the stories of black people. The things blacks suffered 300 years ago, still have an impact on black communities today. However, there are a multitude of victories, and successes achieved by black men and women that have yet to be told. A white person writing black history will deliver a different perspective compared to a black person who has lived with the generational impact of this history.

Give me your thoughts. Who do you think should tell history of black people and why?


14 thoughts on “When Lions Have Historians….

  1. I think we have to cover the difficulty of deciding what is constituted as Black history. The history of the evolution of African tribes over time should be just as much Black history as Nelson Mandela’s biography or neither. An African person would not consider American slavery, discrimination, and civil rights to be their own history.
    Then after all of that is resolved, we decide who gets to be involved in telling it…and the truth is, anybody directly or indirectly involved could have history to share. All races present.

    1. Thomas, I am speaking of Black History from the American perspective (I believe Katz is speaking from the same point of view). We would need to include the history of the regions of Africa from which the slaves originated, just as a matter of fact. I agree with you, that all races have a side of the story to tell, but do you think blacks should be the primary “owners” (for lack of a better word) of the recording and reporting of black history?

  2. I think that both races should be involed in telling the history…because both races were involved in the history…as with any story the thoughts and feelings involved are going to be different and biased based on the person telling the story… but that is life…. we should not forget our history no matter what race we are…but we should also be able to embrace the good and bad of that history and learn from it
    we are progressing slowly but surely we will get there

    what we were and what we will become depends on us embracing history and learning from it…..

    africa–> slave–> N****R–> Negro–> Black–> African American–Black–> people……..one day no one will be known by race but by their names

    Great write Nike

    1. Hope, you raise a good point, like Thomas. More than one culture has impacted the history of black people in Africa and in America. Everyone has a side of the story to tell; this is true. Who gets to tell which portion? I think Katz made a great point towards the end of his blog (a point supported in the video of Henry Lewis Gates Jr.): there are not enough black people willing to tell their own story. Do you think blacks are forgetting their history by not telling/writing their history?

      1. I think we are telling our story… we just don’t have to many forums to braodcast them…. but we tell them to our children, grandchildren…etc….. what i would love to see is more black people get involved in publishing, writing, filming and producing those stories that were told to us by our ancestors…many times they were first hand accounts…and as new generations are born…those accounts are dying…

  3. I think that both races should be involved also, because there are always 2 sides to every story. Hoowever; I think that black people should take the initiative to make sure that the history of their people is heard mostly from black people.

    1. Emmanuel, how do we go about getting black people to “take ownership” over the writing and telling of black history? (and this is not to say that white people should be excluded completely from the telling of black history)

  4. You know as much as African Americans would love to say let us tell it, the truth is it is history for white America too. Yes it is how their ancestors wronged a people, yes it tells how they do not have the market on inventions that revolutionize the whole world but it is part of their histories too.

    1. Zion, as pointed out in some of the responses Katz received, there is a segment that will say, black people should be the recorders and reporters of black history. But the fact is, there are not enough black people recording/discovering/researching and sharing the black perspective. Can whites tell the story of black folk? Absolutely! But there is a certain passion that is brought to the telling of a history when there is a cultural connection. I could certainly tell the story of the Holocaust and include all the important facts, but there is a Jewish man or woman at there who could tell the story from a perspective that creates a clearer picture simply because they have an emotional/bloodline connection to the story being told.

  5. Hope, you speak truth! I have noticed that the further we move away from historical events (the civil rights movement is a great example), we seem to forget the impact of these events. We really do need take the stories of our grand parents and great parents and record them for future generations.

  6. I can’t ‘like’ comments on this thread, but I’m agreeing so far. It would be nice if everyone was passionate about telling their own story from their own perspective…then we’d have quite a bit to share from all areas of the story.

  7. When you look at the word “history” (and I am pointing this out ONLY because I’m taking some linguistics classes this semester and am deeply interested in etymology), it is derived from a base word that means “to see” or “to know.” I believe that there will never be a truly unbiased retelling of what some “see” or “know” because human perspective does not allow for objectivity. This being said, I still have some qualms about how the history of a group of people is told (or isn’t told) when the story is coming from the mouth of those subjected them. Some truths are glossed over, others ignored altogether, and inaccuracies are told so frequently that they become a part of the story.

    1. Jessica, I like how you broke down the word! Another word to examine, is the word used in Katz’ title: ENTITLED – to give a title to, designate, to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something. To authorize, privilege, or qualify.

      I guess a good follow-up question: Do blacks believe THEY are qualified to write their own history?

  8. Reblogged this on Nikewrites Blog and commented:

    Today is Throwback Thursday. It’s also the 19th of February. February is Black History month in the United States. So, I’m sharing this post, which led to a great conversation about who gets to tell the story of black people. With the events of police killings of black citizens that felt very much like events from 1964, a fresh conversation has been opened about race relations in the U.S. Once again, this article feels relevant. Who should tell the story of black people, not just in the U.S., but worldwide?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!
    Happy Thursday!

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