See Me, Hear Me: The Power of Voice

Recently, a segment on 60 Minutes reminded me of the power of seeing someone tell their story. It profiled a new technology that captured, on camera, Holocaust survivors describing their experiences. With this technology, years from now, decades from now, people can ask questions of these individuals, and they will appear to be answering in real time. Zoom-like with a Star Trek/Jetsons overlay.

Many comparisons are made between the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of slavery. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of the right and the wrong of those comparisons, there is one undeniable factor: There is power in these firsthand stories shared visually by Holocaust survivors, not their descendants, or researchers, or ancillary observers, but by them. We feel their pain and understand the inhumanity of their captors. Their eyes and their body language reveal so much. We get it, quickly and viscerally, quite different from reading the written word on a sterile page.

For African Americans, we have no living survivors of slavery. The written word is all we have. The closest we come to that first-person level of expression about slavery is in a book and the companion audiotapes called Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. I have encouraged many, especially my white colleagues working for racial equity, to read this book. One, Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation (recently renamed If, a Foundation for Radical Possibility), did and took an extra step to bring herself closer to their actual voices. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of Remembering Slavery.

 

Remembering Slavery

African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation

Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller

1996, The New Press

Discussed by Margaret O’Bryon

When Tamara asked me to reflect on Remembering Slavery, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to put my experience with the book into words. For those unfamiliar with the book, it grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the New Deal. At the heart of the project were 2,300 interviews undertaken between 1936 and 1938 aimed at capturing the lived experience of slavery, remembered and recounted by women and men born into slavery. The people interviewed were in their 80s, 90s, and some over 100 years old. Tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs were produced through the slave narrative project. The full collection, as well as narrative about the interview process, is housed at the Library of Congress.

I began by reading the first-person accounts of former slaves and studying the photographs that accompanied them. I ended my experience spending hours listening to the voices of former slaves interviewed for this project. It was their voices recounting their personal experiences that I have carried with me — Fountain Hughes (who was 101 years old when he was interviewed), Laura Smalley, and Harriett Smith, just to name a few. Through the troves of interviews and photographs, living descendants — many of whom believed they had lost their relatives to history — discovered grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.

The experiences shared through the stories were gruesome, brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing in unimaginable ways. The physical, mental, and emotional scars were indelible. And yet, in the midst of many recollections came descriptive moments of kinship and community.

Remembering Slavery is a testament to the undeniable power of voice, visual images, and storytelling. What I heard was the raw, harsh reality of the personal experience of slavery. What I experienced at a deep emotional level became the reality that my humanity was all tied up in these stories.

It is a grave injustice to all that the stories gathered during the slave narrative project and the information they impart about the reality of slavery at a deeply personal and human level are not taught and shared as large and critical pieces of American history. Had that been the case in my own life, I wonder how the insights gained from this knowledge would have affected my studies, my work and my relationships.

Slavery profoundly shaped our country, the American experience, and continues to do so. I know this to be true through the stories of those who survived it and of those for whom the brutal legacy of slavery continues to shape their lives, their American experience.

 

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

James Baldwin, ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’

 

Margaret has fully committed to understanding the many dimensions of race and racism in America, recognizing that a complete understanding must start with slavery. She doesn’t cringe from ‘the bad and the ugly’ (there’s no ‘good’).

Protests have emerged across the country about teaching history comprehensively, starting with the full story of slavery. Many are voicing their desire to keep history the way it has always been taught and others remain disturbingly silent. To address the racial disparities in our country, we must start with slavery and its continuing ramifications on America. We must use our voices whenever these topics emerge — speak up at public hearings, march for historical accuracy — and  use our positions/our platforms to elevate the need for and value of understanding the unvarnished truth.

It seems fitting to close with this quote from the Talmud:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

But neither are you free to abandon it.

 

All I know about race and racism, I learned in ______________. Hmmm… I never learned this.

An article, “Happy Slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks”  by Rex Springston came out about two years ago. I just read it on the heels of an email from a college friend. She reminded me of what we learned in the 4th and 7th grades and then in high school about Virginia’s history and about enslaved people.

Page from 7th grade textbook, Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Pure fantasy. It presented enslaved people as well-treated servants, and the Confederacy was glorious with “handsome” (the language used in the fourth-grade textbook) General Robert E. Lee fighting for a noble cause. It was a fairy tale bound within the hard frame of actual history textbooks. Fake history.

As Confederate statues have come down, there have been many cries that history is being destroyed. The current U.S. president said: “We have a heritage. We have a history, and we should learn from the history.”

Well, that’s the problem. The history of America, particularly its racial history, never has been taught fully and comprehensively. Many have learned a version of history through the lens of white leaders with a specific, racialized agenda, but typically not from unbiased historians committed to the truth.

When I first entered an integrated school in the 6th grade, my mother told me: “White people don’t always tell the truth.” I knew she was talking about adults. Her message surprised me. I had been taught to always respect adults, and thought that included expecting their truthfulness. This was the first clue my educational experience was changing.

Every day, when I left school, I came home to a community that challenged and corrected what I had been taught in history. They shared a different story of slavery, one that revealed the atrocities of subjugation, and a different story of the Civil War. Not about the battles per se, but about what was at its core. My education was augmented by information about slave uprisings and about black people fighting for their humanity, not docile and lazy, but hard-working, freedom fighters. And the history I learned from my family and neighbors was the truth.

For my white classmates, also learning from those textbooks, was the content ever questioned? I suspect there were few white households in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, in which the story of slavery was even discussed back then, much less refuted. It—the stated and printed history—just was. In the 1950s, when these textbooks were developed, Virginia was leading the fight against integration. The notion of black people being happy with their current condition was mythology in 1850 and remained so in 1950. A distortion of history was taught in public schools, with textbooks developed and approved by the government-established Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission. Why would the content be questioned? It wasn’t until the late ‘60s that just a small reference to Harriet Tubman was added to appease vocal outrage from civil rights advocates. And it wasn’t until 1972 that the Virginia Department of Education announced that the three textbooks that had then shaped thousands of students’ knowledge of Virginia’s history for over two decades would be “decommissioned”… not denounced as they should have been.

So, what’s the big deal now? The new history textbooks are correct, right? Maybe, but what about those who learned from the old texts? Just consider this. If you were in the 7th grade in 1972, today, you are 60 years old, perhaps still in a leadership position, probably a senior leadership position … a judge, state legislator, college professor maybe. Think about how many people these folks have mentored over their careers. What policies have they shaped or influenced? Are these some of the folks calling for Confederate statues to remain because history is being erased? Having those books as their texts, living in racially homogeneous communities, never learning about black people, this is a part of what shaped them. Philosophically, who are they? What are their values and beliefs?

And this isn’t just a Virginia story.

“I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”  — James Baldwin

In America, we place enormous trust in our education system to prepare our children to succeed. Can you successfully negotiate America—a country developed in large part by black labor—without understanding black history and culture and the fundamentals of a racial hierarchy that goes back 400 years? Until now, the answer has been yes.

jeopardy image
2014 episode of TV show Jeopardy; college contestants make African American History the last category
As an increasing number of Americans are calling for racial justice, there must be education. To right a wrong, you must first understand it. Today, there are courses and degrees in Black Studies in many colleges across the country, and some schools focus on black history in February. However, the history of black people and of race and racism is rarely taught as a required course at any stage in a person’s education, K-12, college, professional degree program, or post-graduate. It is episodic. Until this is taught as a required course or a series of classes, many white people will continue to get their history of race and racism and of black people from the news or from off-hand remarks made by their peers.

We must do better. Learning about black history and culture, along with race and racism, cannot be ad hoc or haphazard. It must be structured, intentional, and incorporated throughout the educational experience. Moving America to racial equity will require the inclusion of an examination of racialized America in mainstream American education. Reveal, reflect, recalibrate. It can be done, and we should do it. Now.