The Withers Collection teamed with the Memphis Branch of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History and the Afro American Historical & Genealogical Society – Memphis Chapter to recall the “400 years of trials and to celebrate the triumphs of African Americans” during “Talk About It Tuesday.”
Held at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery at 333 Beale St., the event featured a three-person panel: Dr. Andre Johnson, professor of Rhetoric at the University of Memphis; Teresa Mays, president of the Afro American Genealogical Society; and John Ashworth, executive director of the Memphis Lynching Sites Project (LSP).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the topic may have made for the most provocative conversation in the series to date.
“Africans were over here before 1619. Black people had been here,” Johnson said. “History is being rewritten to remove any reference at all to enslaved Africans in this country. It is being called ‘involuntary servitude.’ Slavery is being written out of our history books. The early presidents owned slaves, and not just a few. They owned lots of slaves.”
Ashworth laid the issue of revisionist history at the feet of elected officials.
“Who controls the curricula of public schools? It is elected officials. They have to sign off on what is being taught,” he said. “So we have to put people in office who won’t allow black history in our schools to be rewritten.
“Tennessee is a very red state. And so we must control our own narrative by talking about our history,” Ashworth added. “Black History Month must be 12 months a year, 365. Black history is an oral tradition. We must talk about it in our barbershops, beauty shops and our churches. We tell our own story. That’s how we control our own narrative.”
Mays agreed, but acknowledged that talk of slavery is still painful for many.
“You have some of our people saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that old stuff.’ There is shame attached to the past,” Mays said. “But history is just what it is. We must learn to embrace the past out of respect for those who came before us.”
Ashworth talked about the dual issues of “post-traumatic slave syndrome among blacks” and “cognitive dissonance among whites.”
“The Lynching Project is dealing right now with the case of a family that refuses to place a headstone on the grave of a loved one because he was lynched. There is real trauma there. There is shame surrounding the event. Post-traumatic slave syndrome is a real thing.”
Historian and moderator, Dr. Cynthia Sadler, asked the panel about reparations and any justification for a renewed conversation on the issue.
“Many black people lost land ownership because the government failed to protect their right to own land at a time when land was being stolen from us,” Anderson said. “There was no protection by the state. Reparations should be discussed.”
Ashworth contended that enslaved and free men of color saved the United States in those early, major conflicts, an argument in favor of reparations.
“In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed. After that, the Revolutionary War. George Washington did not want free or enslaved men in his army. Three hundred blacks joined the British who promised them their freedom. Five thousand joined the Continental Army because they were running out of manpower resources. We came in and saved the war effort.
The same thing happened with the Civil War. The North was running out of men. The U. S. Colored Troops fought for their freedom. Lincoln, himself, said that without the U.S. Colored Troops, there may have been a very different outcome. Yet, there is no history of us seeking retribution. We were always moving toward the beloved country.”
Johnson blamed “toxic religion” for the racist climate that persists in this country.
“Jefferson rewrote the Declaration of Independence seven times. The document was written only with white men in mind. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ That was not for us. There was too much money in slave labor. There was an embedded belief that God wanted it that way.
“And so white conservative Christianity said, ‘no problem.’ A theology and religion was created around slavery,” Johnson added. “For white Christians, racism wasn’t a sin. Only in the last 50 or 60 years was it a sin. That’s new.”
In the process of raising history awareness, the goal is to also raise funds and donations that can contribute to future exhibits from the archive of more than 1.8 million images of the late renowned photographer Dr. Ernest C. Withers.
Talk It About Tuesday was held in conjunction with the monthly Neely Agency Mixer (NAM): Networking for a Cause Professional Mixer. NAM is crafted for networking with some of Memphis’ finest executives, entrepreneurs, public sector and entertainment industry professionals and enjoying great thought-provoking discussions.
Panel discussions for “Talk About It Tuesday” are held the fourth Tuesday of each month, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.