Black History an Oral Tradition

We come from a tradition of oral history. Even after coming to America, we continued that oral history and call-and-response in spirituals and gospels. We used Biblical stories to assist runaways and send messages of hope to our brothers and sisters in bonds. Somewhere along the way, we as a people stopped telling stories of our past to our children and left it up to schools to teach our children about their heritage.

After slavery, our survival as a people depended on keeping our history alive. The church served as the meeting place to disseminate community, historical, and current events. Why was the church seminal to civil rights? During slavery, it was considered slave-owners duty as “good” Christians to allow slaves to worship. Slaves did not attend church with masters. Attending church was the only time slaves were allowed to congregate. The church has always been central to our tradition of passing down oral history. Spirituals such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot were used as code for a runaway slave to find safe shelter. Spirituals like Wade in the Water and  Go Down Moses along with sermons about Moses and the Israelites exodus from Egypt could indicate an upcoming rebellion or help for a runaway. We have always used song and dance and symbolism as a means of resistance.

Like Morse code, we turn biblical passages and songs into code language. The master thought we were “shucking and jiving” for his entertainment, oh but every movement had meaning. That is where #Blackgirlmagic and #blackpower comes from. Without saying a word, we know what a look conveys. The way we move, dance, sing, and stand in the face of adversity is born from this ability to turn instruments of oppression and prejudice into survival skills and new art forms. It birthed the blues, gave voice to jazz, unleashed rock-n-roll, and found a new home in hip-hop. When we were told we were not equal or smart enough or pretty enough, that same energy said continue to silence naysayers. When we are called #lessclassicallybeautiful, we need to hear James Brown’s Say it Loud Black & Proud and Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted & Black. I love the Donnie Hathaway’s version. For whatever reason people fear our blackness, even when we are oppressed, still we rise. That is a powerful legacy.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. – James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice & Sing

Growing up, I recall families gathering around the table to tell their children about injustice and how a different system operated that was not fair and did not allow us to fully enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As a young girl, whenever my Granny pressed my hair, she would tell me about some of her experiences growing up in Jim Crow South and her migration north. Even though my Granny was born in the 1920s, she was married by the plantation owner were she sharecropped and she jumped the broom – no marriage license. Nothing in the census or on for me trace. Mr. Brown told her to jump the broom and she was a married woman. For those unaware, “jumping the broom” was how slaves indicated they were married, even though technically since considered property they could not marry. In the 1940s, years after slavery, my Granny jumped the broom on a plantation where she was a sharecropper. These stories always saddened me because Granny always spoke in hushed tones when she spoke of the past as if the people from Mississippi could hear her in Chicago. My boldness to speak out scared her like something could happen to me. In her day, something would have happened to silence me.

My father always bought books about famous black inventors, engineers, pioneers, artists, and other heroes not taught in school. My siblings and I were required to read the books and give my parents a book report. My dad made sure to drive us around the city, taking us to museums, especially if there was a black exhibit. My dad always said, “Where you live is not who you are.” He reminded us that we came from a long line of preachers, teachers, and educators – that was our legacy not the inner city. He never failed to tell us that inequality exists, but we were to do our best and take a stand because “if you don’t stand for something then you’ll fall for anything.” Whenever a black movie or documentary came on television, our entire family watched. When Alex Haley’s Roots came on, we were faithful viewers. If PBS was our “window to the world,” then a library card was our passport. My parents made sure that we availed ourselves of the public library.


Books my dad would bring home for us to read and report on.

Fast forward to 2016 and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. Some folks are in an uproar over Queen Bey’s “pro-black” imagery. Beyonce’s Formation is a modern version of James Brown’s Say it Loud Black & Proud. I like the retort of Bob Schooley who pointed out the hypocrisy that while some rockers proudly display the confederate flag which symbolizes racial strife that caused a civil war, Beyonce’s performance is objectionable. I was not concerned about the white dissenters of Beyoncé’s performance. I was more disheartened by black people judging Beyoncé’s blackness. Here we go becoming a house divided. “Can’t we all just get along?” I may not belong to your church’s denomination, but that does not mean that we do not worship the same God. Yet, with my people, despite the fact that we have roots in Africa, we must prove that we “woke” or “conscious.” Africans do not identify with blacks or claim superiority. Light skin versus dark skin, natural hair versus relaxed hair. The long term effects of slavery have done a number on us and we are headed for self destruction!

Instead of attacking Beyoncé, we should use this as a teachable moment and reminder that we are responsible for educating our children about our culture and heritage. Public education has failed us on so many levels. We need to go back to “each one teach one” and passing down oral tradition. You can start by introducing young ones to books about our culture that go beyond MLK, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Yes, they are heroes of our culture, but there is so much more that we have done as a people. Do they know about Matthew Henson, the North Pole explorer? Do they know about inventors, doctors, and scientists? The point is to get generations (grandparents, aunts, uncles, children) in a room together and start the conversation. Elders need to tell the younger generation about what they endured in their youth and why activism matters. If we do not tell them, who will? “My people perish for the lack of knowledge.” Knowledge is power. Below are some movies that can also get the conversation started. Don’t forget your local library carries DVDs as well as books.

Posse – A nod to black cowboys.

Night Catches Us – Gladiator and Kerri Washington devotees will enjoy this Black Panthers inspired movie.

Lightning in a Bottle – a walk down memory lane featuring the legends of Blues music that gave birth to rock-n-roll.

Something the Lord Made – Vivien Thomas story

Black Panthers – documentary premieres February 16, 2016. Check local PBS station for times.

Ronda Lee, JD

Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She's a blogger for the Huffington Post and you can follow her musings on her blog, Ronda-isms- Good Bad & Ugly. She has launched her own snack mix, Auntie Ronda's Snack Mix. Her goal is to get her books published.

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