Culture and Identity
Many Rivers to Cross w/ Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
African American culture and identity, in the 21st century, can no longer be defined solely by communities, borders and the gatekeepers. Today, our young have chosen self-determination in defining their identity and will now inform us of who and what they are. Cultural property is the stuff we elders purposely carry to inform others who we are. This begs the question; are the youths and the elders on the same page when it comes to culture and identity?
I’ve been having this battle of perspective with myself during the whole of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “Many Rivers To Cross” PBS series. The further I went into the 5 part series, the more I felt that there was a sense of irrelevance about it. I could dismiss much of the narrative because I knew most of it. Heard it before, read about it; now tell me something new. I wondered what vibe were our youths picking up or whether they were even tuning in to the series. If they were hearing this stuff for the first time, from Gates and company, were they buying it? Were they trusting it?
Were our youth comparing it with what they were taught in school? Were they comparing it with what their parents and friends told them? Did their families and educational system inform them of the content they were seeing in this television series? Was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with our permission, grabbing our youths by the scruff and screaming “LOOK, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR PEOPLE!”?
The PBS series spoke of my people in the third person. They and them. The slaves were…, the Negroes did…, blacks were…, Always in the third person as if we, the viewers, were not connected to them in any way or fashion. Perhaps it is a condition of journalism; to distance or disassociate the reporter from the subject in an attempt at neutrality, non-partiality, or the non-bias telling of our story. Why can’t we say that these people were our Ancestors and speak on their behalf as if they were in the room with us? My Ancestors who were slaves…., my people who were called Negroes did…, we blacks were…; let’s take ownership of our culture, identity, and our Ancestors. Especially if we are doing the reporting.
As I wrestle with this, I’m forced to ask myself if I did all that I could to inform our youth as to what happened to our people. Was I leaving it up to the schools to inform our daughters and sons? Was I deferring to radio, television and the movies to inform our children? Did I leave Henry Louis Gates in charge of telling my people’s story to our children? Am I complicit in any misinformation or misdirection?
The weight of culture and identity continues to be heavy upon our shoulders. Stripped from us during American Slavery, we have struggled rebuilding the spirit and sense of ourselves ever since. Books, recordings and movies have been defining us for centuries; treating us as objects, curiosities, subjects of despair; and we let it happen.
It is time to flip the script. As we celebrate Kwanzaa, I’m reminded of the second of seven principles. KUJICHAGULIA — Self Determination, to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
“Many Rivers To Cross” has left me with the urgency to delve deeper into the timeline of my Ancestors and to tell their stories against the backdrop of what really happened to them in this country. I’ll grade the series a ‘C’.
Peace & Blessings,
“Guided by the Ancestors”
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