There’s an African proverb that states, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Who Writes History?
The stories I had been taught growing up and the narratives sold by the history books were one-sided.
As I sat in my ethnic studies class in my junior year of college, I started to realize how the stories I had been taught growing up and the narratives sold by the history books were one-sided. As an art and communication major, I hadn’t taken many history classes, so this was all new to me.
Our class talked about the legacies of minority groups and how often “winners write history”. This is not an uncommon statement, but as I saw how minority groups are often on the losing side of history, I became more aware of how frequently the dominant culture erases us. An example of this is evident in how battles are named and remembered. In U.S. history, we recount “The Mexican-American War”; the title ascribes ownership to the winner, claiming the land as owned by America. Rarely do we call it “The U.S. Invasion of Mexico”, which conveys a different narrative about how that land was forcibly taken by President Polk and described as “conscienceless land-grabbing” by his own administration.
This moment struck me again when I entered into Ellis Island during our #RubyWooPilgrimage18. The Ruby Woo Pilgrimage, named for a shade of red lipstick, began in 2017. It is a four-day journey that brings together Christian women from all backgrounds to learn about the struggle for women’s rights in the U.S. This year focused on the intersection of voting rights for women and immigration. Blatantly, the displays at Ellis Island heralded “The Peopling of America”, proceeding to talk about conquest and colonization. They struck me as having a passive indifference to the struggles Native Americans faced.
As I read the signs closer, I was saddened at the erasure of the people and their stories, and how the simple line — “Half a million enslaved people were brought to the United States” — was supposed to sum up their legends and folklore, their beauty and pain, and their existence on this earth before political boundaries were set and colonization erased their being.
When the dominant history narrative we repeat is dictated by whiteness and colonization, we lose our collective memory. Our struggles become divided and pitted against each other, rather than empowering us to build each other up. But this is not just the story of South African and Native Americans. This is my story, too.
Forming a Collective Memory
While most people connect England with the dominant colonization of India, there were several other countries at play. The British didn’t arrive until 1858. The Portuguese were the first to colonize India, followed by several private entities, such as the East India Company and the Dutch India Company.
Slavery was a transatlantic trade, and as it grew and slaves were in higher demand, many Indians were kidnapped and sold in ports in South Africa. They were sent to several countries including Senegal, Guiana, Trinidad, and Tobago. As I learned my own history, I found myself in the stories of others. Deceptive trade agreements like those made with Native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, and colonization are a shared pain and journey.
As an adoptee who is South Asian, I find that embracing and learning my history is always complex.
Our emphasis on the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage primarily speaks to the experience of African Americans and whites. I remember last year leaving #RubyWoo and wondering where I was in the story. As an adoptee who is South Asian, I find that embracing and learning my history is always complex. Mine is a history that is scattered between continents and nations, peoples and journeys. It has been broken through slavery and adoption; it has been retold by colonization and assimilation; some of it will never be known. But it is mine nonetheless. I’m grateful that our land holds a deeper memory than we do. It does not forget, as those who write history do. Its memory is not selective or incomplete.
In the book “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America”, Vivek Bald offered a narrative of my people in the United States. Through his stories, I saw myself in the spaces we travelled on the pilgrimage, from Harlem to New Jersey to the segregated South. South Asians arrived to the U.S. following the demand for “Oriental goods”. We weren’t always the model minority.
It’s as if discrimination has become the “rite of passage” for families coming to America.
In chapter 5, Bald wrote about the immigrant struggle — underpaid, overworked, poor housing conditions, and scarcity of resources. He wrote of the impact of anti-immigration laws, the challenges of negotiation between cultural distinction, and assimilation and religious persecution. The echoes of the past are reflected in the experiences of the immigrant families I know now. Separation at the border, fear-based legislation toward minority religious groups, and a limited narrative that paints our land as one of scarcity, rather than opportunity, reflect the stories we see in history. It’s as if discrimination has become the “rite of passage” for families coming to America. It makes me wonder, what would it look like if we really were a land of opportunity for all who entered? It’s not hard to find myself in their will for survival and sacrifice for their families.
Bald also wrote about the vibrancy of community, of sharing meals, celebrations, traditions, faith, and ceremony. He wrote of how Bengali Harlem flowed into the stories of their Caribbean neighbors. He described how Harlem “fostered new forms of identification and new formations of community. The neighborhood’s varied inhabitants shared similar pasts and similar circumstances … the neighborhood also brought people together across differences. It … brought members of different groups in contact with one another at the level of the personal, familial, and everyday.”
In this history, I hear the echoes of many other activists in our country who fought for their rights. I hear Dolores Huerta and the chants of the Braceros. I see the resilience and hope of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells. I think of Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs. These stories begin to shape a different history, a collective memory that teaches us the importance of remembering our struggles so we can have empathy and solidarity with each other.
A Reimagined History
Collective memory is about choosing to enter in, instead of perpetuating the history that erases each other. Nurturing our collective memory helps us reimagine and restore. When we re-imagine a world where our stories are not erased, it allows us to give room to the fullness of our history and identities. It allows us to embrace complexity and fight the stereotypes and inaccuracies that have been placed on us by Western history.
Collective memory erases the lie of competition, reminding us the power of hospitality.
We are able to restore dignity in each other by recognizing the mutual pain and affirming the experiences we have had. When we collectively remember what has been erased, we make room for celebrating the joys, culture, and traditions of each community. Collective memory builds resilience in our souls, reminding us that we are still here and that we matter. Collective memory erases the lie of competition, reminding us the power of hospitality.
Minneapolis artist and activist Ricardo Levins Morales stated, “Identity is a stepping stone to solidarity, and solidarity is how you bring down an empire.” I look at the description of the community Bald described and see how that community fought the segregation and capitalism of their day. Their community resisted the empire of the social stigmas placed upon them.
When I look for myself in these stories, I need to remember that I’m here, too, and while my story may feel complex, it is my role to continue to tell my story. I want there to be stories of adoptees in our collective memory, embracing the complexity and fighting the empire of categorization that Western identity puts on us. Bengali Harlem reflects me — an intermixing of communities and history and culture. I can be both, Indian and American. I can speak Spanish and English (neither of which are my native tongue). These things do not reduce or erase my cultural identity. Rather, they are distinctions that bring richness. I do not need to choose. So as I find myself in pieces of each of the stories of others, I will allow these to become stepping stones on the path of solidarity. Let’s let our histories build our solidarity.
By Ruthie Johnson
Illustrations by Wesley Ching
Ruthie Johnson is a Florida girl in a Midwest world. Her life has been full of the unexpected — her writing is about her unexpected journey, racial justice, and faith. Currently, Ruthie does consulting work with the YWCA Minneapolis. She has a masters in intercultural communication and is an identity scholar. In her spare time, you can find her painting, cooking, or posting about her dog on Twitter (@aquietstrength).
WESLEY CHING is an Illustrator from Los Angeles who graduated from Art Center College of Design with a BFA in Illustration. When he’s not working on art projects, he enjoys skateboarding, playing basketball, and watching movies. Find him online at wesleyching.com.