I've always loved history. I mean contemporary history. Learning about the people and events that changed and shaped our nation has always been fascinating to me and I appreciate the professionals who work tirelessly to provide this information to students and the public at large.
The recent events involving actions of police brutality and excessive force have added fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement and intellectual discussions around race relations in the United States. Some offer rebuttals of All Lives Matter or denounce all arguments of black lives matter, calling it a terrorist group or meaningless.
What I have come to understand is that these responses are really not reactions to the specific recent shootings of unarmed black men. They are responses to a history of abuse from law enforcement toward black and/or poor citizens of this country. I know this because the power of storytelling is strong enough for me to believe it. It is more powerful than any textbook account I have ever read.
"Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City," is a collection of essays and first-hand accounts that examine and expose race relations in Baltimore shortly before and shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Developed and produced by a progressive group of historians, college professors, and editors and writers, the book reopens old wounds of civic disorder that wracked our nations cities (Gillette, Foreword). The mission of the work was not to bestow guilt or shame on any particular group; it is to acknowledge civic memory from the citizens who remember what is most important to them and to the emotional fabric of their own families and neighbors (Price, Epilogue).
History as we learn it in an academic setting is mainly constructed from public memory. This is problematic because public memory is overly embellished by commemoration. It is grandly constructed; sought to foster patriotism, social order, and public discipline. It seeks social control (Price, Epilogue). Public memory is always in a state of flux; it is negotiated and contested, often a extension of the conflicts out of which it arises (Price, Epilogue).
When we consider personal accounts and stories handed down from generation to generation, we hear the voices of those from the past, especially those who have been marginalized. Hearing a story from a 70 year old white, Catholic man's upbringing in Baltimore offers a kind of insight that hits home for many. Listening to his accounts of living in a racially segregated neighborhood and only interacting with blacks when they delivered milk to his home; and how his parents gave strict orders to bypass the black streets when walking to a destination; or how he didn't understand why black students were upset about MLK's assassination are anecdotes that create tension for anyone listening. It sticks and offers a contextual perspective that historians or economists cannot achieve.
We know about race relations. We know about slavery and segregation and the muddied waters of everything post Civil Rights Movement. But when we tell our stories, it takes us deeply in to the realm of community emotions and into the truths of what people care most deeply about (Price, Epilogue).
For young people, being vocal is simple, and actually encouraged. We take to social media, letting the world know our opinions, feelings, thoughts. Our stories can go viral in seconds. But what about the stories that came before us? The ones that were told in secrecy and stayed within familial, close communities. Listen to these. Ask your elders difficult questions. Their answers will provide the sense of understanding and truth our society is missing.