The shaping of sacred stories

Members of the Marshall-Riley Living Learning Community walking out of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. JULIAN E.J. SORAPURU/FOGHORN

Julian E.J. Sorapuru is a sophomore media studies major.

For one month out of the year, we are encouraged to celebrate blackness. We go over all the classic stories: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, or Harriet Tubman leading enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad. These are the narratives we hear year after year, and they’re great stories; it’s why we tell them. But these stories alone do not do Black History Month or the black experience in America justice.

The fact is, these are convenient narratives. The ones which are palatable for a mass audience and are meant to show how far black people have come in this country.

Last month I had the opportunity to go on a 10-day tour of the South for the second year running by way of USF’s Marshall-Riley Living Learning Community, a program for black students that is meant to promote community while teaching us our history and how to engage with the local black community.

On this trip through Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, I was exposed to a more nuanced black narrative. One that is not a straight-line trajectory toward justice and equality as many popular narratives would have us believe. But one that contains many complications and surprises; it is one that showed me how important historical framing is to present-day perceptions.

I reconsidered how slavery is framed after meeting the descendents of some 272 slaves who were sold by Georgetown University in Maringouin, Louisiana; seeing the conditions of Africatown, AL, which is the site where the last slave ship carrying captive Africans arrived in the U.S.; and visiting the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, where hundreds of enslaved people lived and died without ever knowing what freedom felt like.

We are taught that the worst thing about the institution of American slavery was its physical brutality, but what is failed to be taught to us are the lasting physcological impacts of slavery on Americans. White supremacist attitudes justified slavery by promoting the idea of black inferiority. Both of these ideas have been internalized and continued in American culture and show themselves through realities, such as the promotion of Eurocentric values, colorism in the black community, and the persistence of centuries-old stereotypes. Furthermore, the legacy of restrictions put on enslaved people’s ability to learn to read and write has skewed the value and quality of education in many black communities today.

I reconsidered the framing of lynchings when I visited the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, housed in Money, Mississippi, in a warehouse where 14-year-old Till was tortured to death, and when I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, the only national lynching memorial in the U.S.

Many Americans are unaware of the lynchings of black people, which happened with frightening frequency during the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s. In the rare cases that Americans are taught about lynchings, this heinous history is rarely connected to its present-day implications. The ability of a group of white people to kill a black person for minor transgressions — or, often, false accusations — devalued black bodies, instilled a fear for their lives at all times in black people, and led to a distrust of authority figures as a result of the extrajudicial nature of these mob killings. All these implications generally still ring true today, especially given the number of black people who have been murdered by police officers in recent years without justice being served.

I reconsidered the framing around Martin Luther King Jr., when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, which is located at the site of the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated in 1968.

King is commonly framed as a larger-than-life figure whose integrationist, non-violent politics on race were exactly what this country needed to move out of the shadow of Jim Crow. But my visit to the Lorraine Motel revealed to me that King was only human. Standing only feet away from where the man lost his life showed me how heavy the burden of being a symbol for an entire race of people was on King. First-person narratives showed me how anxious and aware of his own mortality he was towards the end of his life. And excellent historical contextualization showed me that King’s activism had shifted by the end of his life to become more anti-capitalist and focused on the struggles of poor people, not just black people.

I reconsidered the framing that America has transcended racial biases and its legacy of institutional racism when I visited Greenwood, Mississippi.

Often, we hear minority success stories; people who look like us and are meant to show that the only thing that can hold us back in present-day America is our own ambition. Greenwood exposes this narrative to be a post-racial pipe dream. In Greenwood, the neighborhoods are still segregated almost the exact same way they were 70 years ago. Of course, they are not legally, explicitly segregated, but social and economic barriers prevent upward mobility as is still the case in many small, Southern towns throughout the United States. Greenwood’s problems, and their persistence, are intergenerational. 

Certainly, black people have come far in this country against all odds, but this cannot be the only story told during Black History Month. We must tell and uplift our inconvenient stories as well if we are to truly understand and mend the outcomes of this country’s ugly past. For one cannot truly solve a problem without the knowledge of where it stems from.

This struggle is, and always has been, about power. Not power over others, but the power to shape our own stories and in doing so, determine our own destinies. 

History is not so simple and set in stone as we’ve been led to believe. What is included and what is excluded from our recounting of history depends on who is telling it and what their agenda is.
So, learn your full history, shape your story, and spread the word. No one can take that away from you.


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