Why History?

During the past several weeks, board members of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project have found themselves frequently in conversations with people who suggest that we sustain a more formal educational component, something beyond this blog. One comment was that the United States in particular does not value history or anything in the past. Our people were described as more comfortable in the present or headed into the future, almost running away from or discarding the past as something to be avoided. It has been our intent from the start to spread the history of Africans in the Americas in a way that refreshes our culture, but we too realize that much more is sorely needed.

Beyond Martin King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Barack Obama, our children – of all races – know surprisingly little. Our national educational system puts history in the back seat, stressing math and language competency as standard requirements. Currently, there are college students who, with the exception of a general survey of history and a state-mandated civics course, have never been exposed to world knowledge or in-depth national history studies. For many, this knowledge has gone missing.

In the words of Reverend Dr. Randi Walker, Professor of Church History at the Pacific School of Religion:

The stories we tell about the past shape us and move us into the future in particular ways. Looking into the rear-view mirror from time to time allows wisdom to catch up to us – memories of what we want to keep or recover from our traditions and memories of what we do not want to happen ever again. Looking back helps us to remember what happens when communities, in arrogance and pride, mistake their own purposes for God’s. More importantly, it helps us to renew our hope as we remember grace-filled times when God’s divine surprise changed the course of things.

As a reference point to our important historical narrative, readers of this blog might refer to the adinkra symbol, Sankofa, modified especially for this Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. For explanation, please see Logo Design, posted September 29, 2011.  Sankofa affirms our staunch commitment to the study of African American history and its connection to the larger African Diaspora.  As Sankofa reminds us, we are looking with pride to our past while facing the hopeful future we will create from this knowledge.  Significantly, we are continually identifying existing educational programs and extending the study of African American history and the Diaspora in new ways.

A good example is Brown University’s Choices for the 21st Century Education Program developed by the Watson Institute for international Studies. It has units addressing genocide, Brazil, foreign aid, India and Pakistan, and the ecological environment we are bound to. More importantly, the Brown program continually reviews and updates materials as knowledge increases and historical evidence expands. The program’s stated mission is to develop “curricula on current and historical international issues [offering] workshops, institutes and in-service programs for high school teachers. Course materials place special emphasis on the importance of educating students in their participatory role as citizens.”

In 2008 the Institute published A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England. Using primary sources and quotes from the colonial era through the rebellion for independence from Britain, a wide range of facts, data, and commentary is meant to assist any student interested in learning about slavery and the trade from the perspective of New England.

As we come across projects such as this one, we will inform our readers and encourage educational institutions as well as individuals to use them to learn more about our past.

The challenge we believe is how to make it interesting, relevant and challenging for people of any age. How do we relate the past to this present and our future? That is one understanding of Sankofa in which we have a great cultural investment.

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