Black History Month in the U.S. While I think it's laudable that we have an official reminder to explore the stories of African Americans, it troubles me that we still need a reminder to do so. African American history is a vital part of American history.
What Black History Month really makes me consider is how important it is to tell the untold stories. For so long African American history was relegated to a few minutes in school about slavery and the civil rights movement. By dedicating a month to it we're reminded that we can't so easily disregard the contributions, struggles and lives of millions of people. Each one of those people had a story that was kept from the mainstream for far too long.
When we tell the stories of the unvoiced we change the world. This has to be done carefully and respectfully, of course. It can be a kind of cultural imperialism when someone tells a tale from another culture as if it were their own. But we are all human with similar experiences, so these stories belong to all of us though many come with a context that must be respected. I've written about this here if you're interested in exploring it further. What I'm writing about in this post is how important it is to tell the stories that have been hidden, from the personal to the global.
We each have stories in our lives that we've kept under cover. Stories of love lost, of joy or pain, of unexpected success, of some experience we've thought we should keep secret because it makes us different. When we are brave enough to tell our hidden personal stories we are given the opportunity to realize that we're not so unusual, not so alone and not so disconnected. Others with relatable experiences will respond to that story. They may not say, "That happened to me," but the teller will feel the shift in the air as the audience realizes that this could be their story, too.
Likewise, when we tell previously hidden global stories, we build bridges between cultures and experiences. When we tell the stories of the enslaved and the all-too human slavers, the stories of exodus and homecoming, the stories of genocide and rebuilding, we remind ourselves and our listeners that these experiences are cross-cultural. By shining light on the previously shameful we make those experiences easier to bear, because they become shared experiences.
Don't wait for a sanctioned holiday to explore the hidden tales. Tell one of your hidden stories to a friend. Learn a hidden story from another culture. We build bridges between people and cultures when we share our experiences and listen to each other with open hearts regardless of the time of year.
When I was in fifth grade the television epic Roots swept the nation. I am Caucasian and attended a largely African American grade school. I watched Roots with great excitement, caught up in the tragedy and triumphs of one family. I wept with shame that slavery played such a prominent role in my country's history, yet as an American Jew, I knew my ancestors hadn't set foot in America when Africans were legally enslaved here. I didn't feel personally responsible for what happened, I knew only that I was responsible for how I treated people now.
One of my classmates confronted me unexpectedly, an African American boy who needed to lash out at a white person for the pain inflicted upon his ancestors. When he told me I was a bad person because white people were slavers, I replied that I was Jew, my grandparents came to this country in the early part of the 20th century so they couldn't have owned slaves here, and besides, Jews know a thing or two about slavery.
He sputtered into quiet, then asked me, "What does being Jewish have to do with slavery?" I told him about Passover. He listened. Then he told me about his great-grandmother who had been a slave. We became friends. I had a tiny glimpse into what it means to be African American in his family, where the memory of slavery is still a stain, a scar, a badge of honor. I had a tiny glimpse into what it means to be black in America. I am still grateful for the lesson and remember it far beyond Black History Month.
I don't know where is now. I don't know if he remembers me and the friendship that grew out of anger and stories. I don't think that matters. What does matter is what he taught me and the friendship that was there when we both needed it. I hope he's happy.
(c)2011 Laura S. Packer