When Lions Become Historians: The Power of Preservation
There is a power inherent in preserving your own history. Often those who reframe history do so at the benefit of the dominant culture. As the adage goes, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” However, when you are the keeper of your family, culture, or community’s stories, then nobody can reframe them.
This two-part bulletin is dedicated to our historians who make sure the “lions’” stories aren’t relegated to the B-side of life.
This year, I celebrated Juneteenth with a trip to Tulsa Oklahoma for the first time. I’ve always known Tulsa to be the home of Black Wall Street and the largest race massacre in history. However, on the weekend of June 19th, I realized how little I knew about the tenacity of the current residents.
The Black people who call Tulsa home are resilient and committed to restoring the legacy of Black Wall Street. I saw this when countless vendors and community members lined the streets of downtown Tulsa for a street fair. On the surface, it looked standard. On one side of the street, food vendors sold everything from fried fish to jerk chicken. While just a few feet away, tables lined with locally made products, like body oils and jewelry, were sold. The local vendors sold their products and often threw in a little history lesson for good measure.
The lions are speaking…
“This space where you’re standing was once full of stores, law offices, and barbershops. Every business down here not only kept money in our community, but they employed folks that would later open up their own shop.” The tall, thin, brother with deep brown skin and broad shoulders smiled deeply as he passed me some history along with my change and oil. “Keep the change, brother. Consider it payment for your insight,” I smiled and walked off to another vendor.
After my next purchase, I left with chicken and a history lesson about the “Greenwood Gallery.” If you ever go to their website, you will see the words “we honor the past and look toward to the future with the tools of art and creativity.” As soon as you walk through the doors of the gallery, you feel the truth of these words. You’ll enter a small room where a documentary about the Black women business owners who were killed during the massacre is being screened.
I stepped inside the room and sat next to a Black woman who was unpacking some of the larger points of the film to the five-year-old Black girl accompanying her. “They owned their own hair salons; they didn’t just work there. A lot of Black women didn’t do that back then.” The little girl looked at the screen without making a sound. The full context of what the woman was saying was lost on the girl. It wasn’t lost on me. I sat there taking in the love and reverence preserved in this community 100 years after the massacre.
Those who preserve our history are also protecting our legacy and shaping the future. That five-year-old Black girl didn’t just watch a historical documentary, she learned about her past and was empowered to create a future without boundaries. This is the power of our storytellers and historians. They pay homage to details that are likely forgotten – the names, the faces, the personal stories, and familial connections. They gather these miniature pieces of information and connect them until the foundation for our legacy is affirmed and with a roar, the lions are now heard.