Dexter Nelson II remembers being one of two Black kids in his classroom in Oklahoma when a teacher started talking about slavery.
“All eyes are on you,” he said. “But you’re like, ‘I’m not a slave!’”
Now, as a historian with a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Central Oklahoma, Nelson knows Black history is so much deeper and richer than what’s taught in schools.
“Back in the classroom, it’s slavery, MLK and Rosa Parks. That’s it,” Nelson said. “Our history is so much more than the blurb in the back of the textbook.”
Nelson is among a new cohort of young, Black historians who arrived this fall in Colorado amid a national reckoning over race relations and disputes over how to accurately frame America’s racist past in classrooms. They are here to preserve history and tell the state’s stories without whitewashing the past. They also want to celebrate Black lives in Colorado by telling stories that don’t just revolve around trauma.
History Colorado hired Nelson, 30, five months ago as its associate curator of Black history and cultural heritage. Madeline Alexander, 29, started working on Nov. 1 as History Colorado’s engagement coordinator for Black communities, and Jordan Lewis, 22, joined the staff in June as a new digital communications specialist.
Meanwhile, Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, 38, became the only Black person teaching in the University of Colorado Boulder’s history department when she started in August.
They join Jameka Lewis, a 39-year-old senior librarian at Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, who is making a mark in the community after working at the library for almost five years.
“For me, it’s a heavy responsibility and burden because most of the time in historical circles and in the museum field specifically I’m the only one that looks like me in these rooms,” Nelson said. “It’s important to acknowledge that and know we are the change we want to see and we are doing that.”
The five say they want to help Colorado tell its story in a more diverse and inclusive way.
Lawrence-Sanders came to Colorado from the University of Dayton in Ohio, where most of her students were white, and she often was their first Black female professor. So far, it’s been the same in Boulder.
“At this time when there’s so much confusion on Black history and what’s taught, I think it’s important that Black history professors are here,” she said.
Lawrence-Sanders said she was trained by Black historians to research and teach African American history. It’s not the same as studying white history because the sources for the work are different. She frequently hears students tell her they’d never heard about the characters and events covered in her classroom.
“I’m never adding Black people into the story,” she said. “I start with Black people.”
At History Colorado, Alexander’s job is to reach Black communities and encourage them to share their stories. She especially wants to collect stories from Colorado’s African immigrant community. And she believes in finding positive stories, not just those surrounding traumatic events.
“I want to focus on Black joy,” Alexander said. “There’s so much triggering content and then we get caught in this trauma loop. But we have to find spaces of joy, and Black joy is a form of resistance. We have to make sure we are celebrating ourselves in the face of oppression. History Colorado then is a space for me to do that, to go into communities and say, ‘What do you love about yourself? Let’s share it with everyone else.’”
A historian’s job is not to pacify people because the past is unpleasant, Lewis said.
“Sometimes those truths and facts are ugly,” Lewis said.
She hopes her job as a digital communications specialist helps other people find their voices.
“If you have it, use it,” she said.
At the Blair-Caldwell library, Lewis’s primary job is supervising the first-floor stacks where people come to read, study and check out books. But she wanders up to the second and third floors as often as possible to research Denver’s Black history.
One of her favorite artifacts is the 1834 manumission document carried by Robert Smith, a freed slave as he traveled to Denver from Forsyth, Virginia. Smith would have been required to show the papers to any white person who asked to prove that he was free.
“It puts everything in a different perspective,” she said. “Being Black and knowing what our ancestors endured and knowing that what we know is not even a fraction of what actually happened, I mean it’s controversial to say, but I think Black professionals should be in charge of Black history. We have different lived experiences. We have different ways of appreciating that history.”
Terry Nelson, a veteran research librarian at Blair-Caldwell, said she welcomes the new generation to Denver’s community of historians.
“It’s like the skeleton of the body. If it’s not well put together, it doesn’t stand. It’s like a knob on the axle on a wagon. If the axle isn’t strong, the pieces feeding into the axle won’t be able to take the pressure” Nelson said of developing the next generation to tell diverse stories. “That’s the history of our lives. It’s usually the elders who have lived the life, and they’re trying to pass the challenges they had and how to handle them to the modern world. And to learn to appreciate them and to not let them feel defeat, but to let them look forward and think about the future and what they can do better to not repeat it.”
Source: Read Full Article