Black history: Finding our deeper truths

Sofiya Ballin, curator of the project, "Black History, What I Wish I Knew."

Sofiya Ballin is an Inquirer staff writer

I learned the most about black history in whispered tones while my mother braided my hair, after school when my father listened to talk radio, as my grandmother grated coconut, and at the dinner table set with shades of brown and opinion.

In those moments I learned of the rise and destruction of Black Wall Street, the inhumanity of the Tuskegee Experiment, the tales of Angola's Queen Nzinga, the triumph of Queen Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons, and the Haitian revolution.

I learned that black history crossed continents and spanned languages, creating dialects that sang. It left its traces in music, from the bachata to rock-and-roll. It birthed Moses a thousand times. And it is a history I share, where a knowing nod or smile can instantly connect me with the only other black person in the room.

That wasn't always the history I learned in school. At my almost all-black private school in New York, black history was pervasive in our everyday lessons. But then we moved to Pennsylvania, where I attended a predominantly white high school. There, we were taught that slavery ended but never the many ways oppression and resistance continued.And our genesis was always in bondage.

In high school, I saw the detrimental consequences of black students believing what their textbooks told them about themselves. That they, like the treatment of black history, were an elective.

And though my parents gave me an inkling and black history itself revealed it, what I didn't at first understand was that the knowledge I did have would be deemed a threat. I wasn't taught that I would be asked to hold the other half of the story between my teeth, so others could swaddle themselves in guiltless comfort and ignorance.

I saw this same approach in the way newspapers reported on Black History Month. The assignments felt obligatory, arbitrary, and self-satisfactory.

I told myself next year would be different.

For this year, I wanted to find out what people weren't taught about black history in school, how they later learned these lessons, and the impact they had. I asked a range of people with ties to Philadelphia to share their reflections, from Joan Myers Brown, the founder of Philadanco, to lead MC of the Roots, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Many picked up on crucial parts of their history outside of the classroom or from a teacher who went beyond the curriculum.

Anyabwile Love, a professor of Africana studies, wrote: "It wasn't until my junior year of high school that my English teacher, Ms. Montgomery, introduced us to the depths of black history. . . . She assigned W.E.B. DuBois' Souls of Black Folk and Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. She discussed Toni Morrison's Beloved with us. . . . What I learned from her over 20 years ago continues to inform my research and pedagogy as a professor and father."

The Philadelphia author Lorene Cary said: "I was not taught how much energy and intelligence one expends throughout a blessedly long and fortunate lifetime to resist the lie of black inferiority. . . . I was not taught how men who had just fought for liberty could classify black people as less than human in the U.S. Constitution."

Cory Wade, a model, musician, and activist, after finding out about gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, said: "It makes me think: If they fought through what they fought through, there is no excuse for me ever to let fear stop me from trying."

As I gathered submissions for this project, I was reminded of two things. The first was a Congolese word I learned in an African Civilizations course taught by Love at Temple University. The word is Mbongi, which has several meanings, including "a house without rooms" or "a learning place." In class, it was "a classroom without walls."

The second reminder was a song I've known since childhood, "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley, where he sang:

If you know your history,

Then you would know where you're coming from

Then you wouldn't have to ask me

Who the heck do I think I am.

These two concepts drive this project, which you can read daily through February on The Inquirer's Metro front, Page 2 of the Daily News, and online at philly.com/blackhistoryuntold.

I've learned that to know and love yourself is revolutionary. But to know and love yourself, and be black, is radical.

This is Mbongi.

Enjoy.

sballin@phillynews.com