Christy Coleman’s more than 30-year career in history has taught the CEO of the American Civil War Museum a fundamental truth about how the past gets interpreted:
“White people want to feel good about their history, and that means everyone else has to forget about theirs,” she said. “Well, I’m not in that business.”
Coleman, one of three panelists Wednesday morning at the Valuing Black Lives Summit, stressed to a crowd of about 100 people gathered at Virginia Union University the importance of telling the full history of America, especially in places that don’t want to hear it. The three-day event was organized by the Community Healing Network, a group that says it is dedicated to confronting the myth of black inferiority across the African diaspora.
This year’s conference, which continues Thursday at VUU, commemorates the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English North America 400 years ago, and seeks to provide local African Americans with tools to promote wellness by addressing the racism propagated against them, organizer Mosi Kitwana said.
Coleman, African Lisbon Tour founder Midodji Gaglo and President of the Ghana Association of Richmond C. Nana Derby shared how attempts to suppress the narratives of those of African descent have manifested in their work and how they address it.
Coleman said that as one of the greatest culprits in promoting the narrative of the Lost Cause, Richmond is responsible for three harmful lies: that the American Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery; that slavery was good for black people; and that black people of the era were actively involved in preserving the Confederacy and the institution of slavery.
In order to tell the history correctly, Coleman said the museum has made a concentrated effort to portray multiple perspectives, from those of enslaved Africans, Union soldiers, and Confederate soldiers, but also from indigenous people and Mexicans. While museums are improving, black people need to continue to ensure their stories are told truthfully, Coleman said.
Gaglo, who operates a walking tour out of Lisbon, Portugal, said he has also worked to expose the truth in a country where the 15th century is taught as an age of discovery without mentioning its involvement in founding the global slave trade and engaging in human trafficking.
Derby discussed the myth of Africa as a monolith through both positive and negative stereotypes. She quoted from academic writings demonstrating how authors were instructed to write about Africa as a doomed continent, plagued by hunger and violence and waiting for Western benevolence. But Derby also analyzed how a positive interpretation of Africa, like the fictional country of Wakanda in “Black Panther” as a place of leadership, independence and technology, still traffics in the notion that the identities of all people of African descent are the same, and restricts the history of their struggle.
“We cannot be identified in single stories,” Derby said. “We cannot be identified as one country or as a homogeneous group.”
Instead, Derby said cultural differences among African countries and ethnic groups — from languages to diets to customs — should be celebrated. However, she said there is a common foundation on which African cultures build their ways of life, referred to as pan-Africanism. The formation of the pan-African identity has been created through interconnected painful experiences, such as imperialism or apartheid, but existed before colonialism through shared symbols, systems and a belief in the power of the spirits of one’s ancestors.
Participants also engaged in a Ghanian ritual with shells from the country, standing up and reciting an oath of affirmation, led by Tawede Cheryl Grills. The ritual closed a loop started in Ghana on a trip with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where the legislators used the same shells to commit to supporting black life with Grills.
“We have nothing better, more revolutionary, more rewarding to do with our lives than to struggle to bring into being a new world, a world in which we, our children and our people can live, love and create freely, and stand and walk in the warm sun,” Gills, and the participants, said together as part of the oath. “We are an African people.”
Kitwana said Wednesday’s panel, which came on the heels of participants touring Richmond’s Slave Trail on Tuesday, was meant to promote reflection and taking a collective approach to healing after the participants’ experience of physically engaging with their history. While the anniversary makes 2019 a year to focus on the history of enslaved people and their legacy, it’s an ongoing challenge to dispel the conflicts that suppressing black narratives have created across the African diaspora and within each person, he said.
“The work that we do is ... to arm African Americans with tools that we can use to promote healing, to promote deep discussion, to promote addressing even conflicts that we have within ourselves that need to be resolved for us to move forward as well, whole human beings,” Kitwana said. “It’s not just a point of the commemoration, but also how do we move towards wellness, and reaching our full potential — being the best that we can possibly be.”