This post is an urging of people to record their stories.
For years I’ve been involved in a variety of historical projects, some involving collecting oral histories and helping to document some of them. Other projects have been histories of neighborhoods, of people, and of topics such as segregation, mob violence, and more. I’ve been invited to be involved in several projects memorializing history, such as historical markers, walking/driving tours, and talks. Much of it, though not all, involved difficult historical topics, and I have encountered many who simply don’t want to talk or write about the difficult histories of their lives.
Complicating these projects is me being white; how can I encourage people to talk about how they were affected by histories that they’d rather forget and not discussed. And often, I am at a loss to explain it, or even believe it, myself.
But I found the best reason from a proverb. I don’t recall reading it before. Recently, I was looking back on the history of Rosewood, Florida. In the last decades, that history, called the Rosewood Massacre, became widely known through interviews, writings, a CBS story by Ed Bradley, and a movie dramatizing the story. I too had heard about Rosewood along with others, but time passed and recently I looked back, trying to find out more about one of those who had survived the annihilation of the town, the murders, and the aftermath.
The context of the use of the proverb, on the website of the Real Rosewood Foundation, was about the fires set to destroy the buildings covering up evidence of “how many were actually killed, not reportedly killed.” My guess is that this was secondary to the total destruction of the African American community so that it could never be used as so again. But it was the Zimbabwean proverb that gave the best reason to record the difficult histories, that “until the Lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” It is so important that history isn’t recorded and written by only half the people affected. It doesn’t matter how the storyteller might be perceived or judged; what matters is that the story gets told.
In the case of Rosewood, there were survivors around when the story came to the attention of writers after about 50 years of the history forcibly forgotten, survivors who could talk about it. But it is just as important for descendants to document their families’ histories — the proud and the difficult. This too is not restricted to only distant history. Whenever I think back to those who graced me so generously with their stories, I remember being upset with myself for urging them to discuss difficult topics. But I’ve also been at a loss for words when asked why delve into difficult history, whatever the topic. Now, the next time I am asked why does it matter to rehash history, I will resurrect this proverb.