I always sat in the middle of the most classrooms off to the side whenever I picked my seat in college courses. I remember sitting in that same formation in my World Literature class. There weren’t a lot of people there, but I remember there was one other Black person who happened to be in the class and who sat next to me.
We shared the looks in our direction when we got to the brief bit of history that Black Americans get when we show up as slaves in a piece of canonized literature. I thought that would be the end of Black history for that particular class, as it usually is, but I was surprised when we somehow ended up on the topic of everyone knowing their history except Black people.
The rest of the class had never heard of that before. The other people in the class asked the only two Black people in the room the question, “why doesn’t anyone know anything about Black history?”
“Well, most Black people don’t know their own history beyond a few generations because when they were taken from Africa during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, they were mixed up and dispersed to places all up and down North and South America,” I responded. “Their names were beaten out of them and were replaced with the names of their slave masters. I’m only searching for the history of my oppressor when I search online for my last name.”
It was true. I watched as the professor, who was in her late sixties, let her jaw visibly drop. She had never heard that before, and I had been repeating it since I learned about it from my parents and grandparents when I was a kid. I never learned it in any school, and couldn’t confirm it until I read a little bit of and watched the film series, Roots.
Slavery in US history was often a paragraph that teachers rushed through because they were uncomfortable. No one else in my classes, except for some inquisitive people, knew anything about Black people, their culture, or their history.
I took the time to learn my own history because only knowing a life of sadness can bring you down. I learned quickly as the minority that the majority writes history. They write their participation down as a celebrated win and conveniently forget the other side of the story. I wanted to make sure I heard from all the sides.
Black history in the US always started with US history, and that story began with our enslavement, not at the actual beginning of our story. That’s not how we started out, of course. We didn’t start out as slaves.
Twitter this week was trending with “new” uncovered information pointing out historical evidence that the famed musician, Beethoven, was a deaf Black man. I had heard this before and referenced it in one of the many banned and forgotten books you see defiantly arranged in the back of the library. I often read about the stories you don’t ever get to hear in school unless you dig on your own, and I knew very few people who did the same.
In college, I stumbled upon Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and my eyes were widened with the buried history no student ever hears unless they take the class that I took. I was accidentally exposed to so much untold history that it continued to make me question everything.
I realized through exploring historical literature from people from all walks of life that there are so many sides to a story. None of them are completely right because each account is told with an inherent bias. No one news source can give you the full picture, and no one person can tell you what happened. You have to take information with a grain of salt and gather it from as many sources as you can to get a clearer view. If you really want to find out how much you don’t know, begin learning and questioning everything—and then don’t ever stop.