In African spiritual systems, people often uphold the memories of their ancestors and honor their achievements through storytelling and prayer. In doing so, they gain a deeper understanding of their history and grow empowered to carry on their forefathers’ and foremothers’ work the best way they can.
While we find remnants of those traditions in our celebration of Black History Month, many people of African descent living in the United States struggle to maintain a connection to the African continent, due mainly to the American education system’s focus on chattel slavery and the events thereafter. However, the tide is changing, especially as a growing number of African Americans take matters into their own hands in seeking ancestral knowledge that goes back further than 1492.
That mission continued on the evening of February 18th during a lecture and panel discussion at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in Shaw. The Thurgood Marshall Center Trust (TMCT) sponsored the gathering, touted as “The Importance of Knowing YOUR Black History” which included a presentation by Joe Paul, a speaker and life coach who took the audience back to a time before the transatlantic slave trade when African kingdoms amassed millions and billions of dollars and controlled their natural resources.
Later that evening, an intergenerational panel of advocates, historians, and community leaders talked about their experiences as students of black history, what they considered the means of forging a connection with African and Caribbean immigrants, the rising consciousness among mainstream hip-hop and R&B artists, and best methods of countering the education system’s negligence of black history.
The panel, led by AllEyesOnDC founder and host Sam P.K. Collins, included Chuck Hicks, also known as Mr. Black History, retired D.C. government employee Taji Anderson, childhood education advocate Tyisha Jones, and political juggernaut Gabriel Acevedo. Each panelist provided a unique perspective that counted as part of what one would consider the perfect formula in educating the youth and preparing them for an increasingly globalized society.
Hicks and Anderson, the two elders on the panel, recounted their efforts to raise the public consciousness and partner with black people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Both panelists said they successfully carried out this goal by finding commonalities with their “foreign” brethren. Later in the evening, Jones stressed the importance of institution building within the African-American community that can combat the public school’s efforts to wipe out black history.
While Gabriel shared Jones’ sentiments, he noted that involvement in local politics can prove effective in changing the system as well, at least for the time being. Anderson, who’s related to Marian Wright Edelman other historic black figures, said education started in the home, imploring audience members to teach their loved ones about their black history whenever possible. Earlier in the discussion, she credited a failure to do so with the rise in youth delinquency in the inner city.
As the night went on, the conversation shifted to the events that transpired earlier in the month, including Beyoncé’s halftime performance at Super Bowl 50 during which she and her background dancers dressed like members of the Black Panther Party. While Acevedo commended Beyonce’s efforts, he quickly reminded guests that Civil Rights-era singer and activist Nina Simone and her contemporaries have used their music as a tool in fighting against systemic oppression. Jones also weighed in, noting that for better or worse people of African descent have always used music to connect with one another.
Though there may have been some disagreement about how we should go about studying and preserving black history, audience members and panelists alike coalesced around the need for self-determination. The TMCT discussion, along with other events, showed that black people value black lives and black history, so much so that they’re willing to go to great lengths to protect it for generations to come.