A Responsibility to Tell
Historians have long identified the essential role of storytelling in the African and African American experience. The griot, responsible for preserving the legacies and memories of a people for future generations, held an esteemed position in the community. This special Black History Month edition of Black Issues continues in that tradition, particularly as we focus on the “yet to be told” stories of our history.
Telling the untold story is the goal of several public officials and scholars who are leading projects to build major African American museums in their respective cities. Assistant Editor Kendra Hamilton chronicles their efforts in our cover story. Longtime African American leaders Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder have been in the news for years for their museum-building battles. In the past few months, both Lewis and Wilder witnessed milestones in their quests. Lewis’ 15-year struggle passed a significant hurdle in December with the passage of a bill to construct a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. And Wilder’s controversial plans were finally set in motion with a groundbreaking in December for the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va.
Yet, as Kendra reports, championing an African American museum is not just a “Black thing.” Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. is spearheading efforts to construct the International African American Museum in his city, a beacon of Southern nostalgia. Riley has made it his personal mission to incorporate the experiences of African Americans and Africans in Charleston into the city’s tourist culture. It is a story that Riley says Charleston had “not only an opportunity but a responsibility to help tell.”
Speaking of stories yet to be told, the Cold War period is providing new and provocative ground for many contemporary scholars. In the past year, Black Issues’ editorial staff has received a number of books and releases announcing new scholarship on the period and its influence on African Americans. Most of us know the plight of Paul Robeson, the gifted singer and actor, whose activism led to isolation, censorship and blacklisting during the McCarthy era. But as Assistant Editor Crystal Keels reports in “To Be Black and Red,” Robeson’s experience was by no means an anomaly. There were others, those who identified with the Left and those who did not, whose lives were invaded and altered by the United States’ anti-communist anxiety.
While we often glorify the civil rights movement, we do not often recognize the early Cold War period as its precursor. The result is that figures like Robeson often go unnoticed and misunderstood. As professor and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Roger Wilkins says, “They are not remembered for the fullness of who they were, and what their gifts were, what their contributions to our society were. That’s a great tragedy.”
Not sharing and preserving the legacies and memories of a people is indeed a tragedy. Like the griot, it is our responsibility to tell.
Robin V. Smiles
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