When Lions Have Historians

By: Matthew Wesley Williams
February 03, 2014

Memory shapes imagination. The way we remember stories of past struggles against oppression frames our imagination about how we may confront similar forces. Incomplete stories generate insufficient strategies.

History, James Loewen observes, is the only subject that professors assume students know less of the further they advance in school. Historians know that part of their job is to help students unlearn the fairy tales most of them have absorbed as history.

During Black History month, we often hear fairy tales that some historians have helped to correct:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. neither organized nor “led” the operation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. With Joanne Robinson, E.D. Nixon and others as key organizers, he became a spokesperson and brilliantly advanced the development of a theological basis for ending Jim Crow.

Memory shapes imagination. The way we remember stories of past struggles against oppression frames our imagination about how we may confront similar forces. Incomplete stories generate insufficient strategies.

That’s why the writers of history matter.

An African proverb states, “When lions have historians, the hunters will cease to be heroes.” Womanist and feminist historians* have helped to reclaim the central role that black women and womanhood played in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Their work expands our memory and imagination about what a leader is, does, and for whom she labors.

I recently received inquiries from schools seeking scholars of color for positions in historical studies. We need more women whose scholarship shapes the stories we tell. Inquiries from search committees and recent publications from female historians stir my anticipation of the work of emerging scholars like Tamara Lewis, AnneMarie Mingo, Carolyn Roberts, Tejai Beulah, Cori Tucker-Price, and Melanie Jones. Their work is a matter of life and death. Lions can no longer afford to make heroes of hunters.



* A Few Resources for Further Reading:

Barbara Ransby.

- Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

- Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson. Yale University Press, 2013

Bettye Collier-Thomas.

- Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. NYU Press, 2001.

- Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion. Knopf, 2010.

Danielle McGuire. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Vintage, 2010.

Farrah Jasmine Griffin. Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II. Basic Civitas, 2013.

Jeanne Theoharris. The Rebellious Life of Mrs.Rosa Parks. Beacon Press, 2013.

Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. University of Tennessee Press, 2008.

Rosetta Ross. Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights. Fortress Press, 2002.

Tags: Diverse Solutions, Thinking Out Loud, Shaping the Future


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