History and identity

Published 9:25 pm Wednesday, February 12, 2020

By QuaWanna Bannarbie

American poet, author and civil rights activist, Dr. Maya Angelou, is known for inspiring us with her words. She was a lover of history as much as she was of literature.

During a 1997 interview with the Academy of Achievement, where Dr. Angelou was deemed “America’s Renaissance Woman,” she made the statement, “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment. I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I’m at, then I go forward to the next place.”

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I did not know the full context of her statement until now, but I remembered hearing her emphasize the importance of acknowledging the path that brought you to the path you are now on. I thought of those words this week as I came across a piece of merchandise for sale. The front of the shirt declared “I AM BLACK HISTORY.” In that slogan and Maya Angelou’s statement, I understood that present being is a reflection of our past.

I was so inspired by this truth that I almost purchased the shirt. Instead, I wrote the lines that the affirmation inspired me to write. “You cannot know where you are going without acknowledging where you have been. You will not know who you are without honoring the footsteps you are walking in.” That is a rhymed reminder that our genealogy and our history are all wrapped inside our identity.

One of the blessings of Black History Month is how much we discover from the historical news that floods our media channels, our conversations and even our worship services in honor of what began when historian Carter G. Woodson promoted Negro History Week in 1926. Just today, I learned of “The Millionaire Girl,” Sarah Rector, who became the richest black girl in America in 1913 when oil was discovered on her land in Taft, Okla. I read about her in a Facebook post. You really do not realize how much you do not know until you begin to know. The vast ignorance about the Sarah Rectors that remain hidden figures is exactly what supports the continued relevance of Black History Month nearly 100 years after its expansion to a month-long celebration.

History is like influential DNA. History carries factual and inspiring instructions for the development of our ideas, intellect and wisdom for the reproduction of more of that same inspiration today. I relate the relevance for Black History Month to the necessity for the lists of genealogies in the Bible. When I was younger and did not know any better, I would skip the list of names that finally got to the person I really wanted to read about in 1 Chronicles 2. I did not see the significance of knowing all the sons, wives and brothers of Judah just to discover that King David was his descendant. But when I read the book of Matthew and learned that Jesus was a descendant of King David and understood the kingship in His lineage, I recognized why the Bible gives room for history — because we have to acknowledge the path that brought us the Messiah.

You gather a respect for your present when you can acknowledge the path that brought you here. The truth is that there is some difficulty in that acknowledgement when so much of black history is untold, lost or hidden. When your history is unknown, then the identity of who you are can be lost also. We have to seek it out, not just in February and not just about black history, but about who we are designed to be.

I exist because others came before me. It has been said that I am a vision of what my ancestors dreamed. Who I am is possible because of who they were in my past. Their history is the DNA of my magnificent identity. I delight in learning more of who God is and who His descendants are to find more of me.

QuaWanna Bannarbie is an adjunct professor of nonprofit leadership and management with Indiana Wesleyan University, National and Global. Her children attend Suffolk Public Schools. Connect with her via iamquawanna@thebiggerme.net or via Twitter @QNikki_Notes.