When my grandfather passed away, I walked through his house touching belongings—old magazines, the TV in his bedroom, a globe standing in the living room.
I thought myself a pseudo historian, interacting with the archive of my grandfather’s life. But then I think of my cousin, Jocelyn Imani, who practices the study of history for a living. Looking to understand what history equips the living with, I called her with some questions.
COURTNEY TAYLOR (CT): You got your doctorate in history from Howard University, but when did history first call out to you?
JOCELYN IMANI (JI): I went to [Fisk University] to be in a five-year MBA program, and then I was going to go to law school, and I was going to have three degrees by the time I was twenty-five. That was the line. I said it over and over.
And then orientation week or shortly thereafter, I heard somebody give a presentation on the Fisk Jubilee singers—my mother is a Fisk Jubilee singer. I grew up knowing that history. I swore that I knew it forward and backward, but she said so many things that I just never heard.
I had a thought that was not my own, but it was really clear: ‘Change your major to history.’ It was just that simple. And that was how we got started.
After her studies, Jocelyn took a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History (NMAAHC). She was part of the inaugural staff.
When NMAAHC first opened, lines stretched down Constitution Ave. You could get in line in the wee hours of the morning and still never make it inside. But I was lucky enough to follow my cousin to work one day. Jocelyn guided me through the massive structure, first leading me through the dark, hushed basement of slavery. We hovered at glassed-in artifacts like Phillis Wheatley’s collection of poetry.
At NMAAHC, time is measured through upward walking, an intentional, time-consuming climb. We ascended decades of reconstruction, Jim Crow, Black Power, the 90s, until we reached the highest rooms of sports, entertainment, and culture where something as familiar and current as a greens pot is memorialized.
JI: It’s the big all-sliver greens pots with the silver handles that are hot, with grease stains. The pot we’ve seen in kitchens across America. But for folks to see that greens pot held up as high culture and as something of value…it makes me think of that Nina Simone quote where she says in 1968: ‘I think that Black people are some of the most beautiful creatures in the whole world if they could just be more curious about themselves.’
My grandfather’s magazines could be displayed here—held up as valuable, worthy of memory. These upper contemporary rooms are not separate from the halls of history below them; they exist because of that complex foundation. I imagine NMAAHC getting taller as Black generations come and go, as future rooms are built. I think of the room I’m meant to build atop of my grandfather’s life.
Now Jocelyn is the National Director of Black History and Culture at the Trust for Public Land (TPL) where she helps communities retain and reclaim historic property. She’s particularly invested in “Black-placemaking.” Last year, she worked with Nicodemus, Kansas, one of the last remaining Black-founded communities in the U.S. These photos were taken at Nicodemus’s Homecoming/Emancipation Celebration.
Photo Credit: Trust for Public Land
Photo Credit: Trust for Public Land
Jocelyn’s latest project is reviving a historic Black cemetery in Delaware.
JI: It’s a plot of land in the middle of a Black community right next to a gas station. There’s a headstone with a chain-link fence right behind it, and the ground is bubbling up. You’ve got World War I and II veterans’ headstones turned sideways. I think there’s a direct correlation to the disrespect of Black life and the disrespect of Black death, and the treatment of Black bodies after they’re no longer here.
[TPL] would lead the community in a participatory design process to determine how to revitalize this green space and make it a living space. I dream of truces being negotiated there, and family walks happening there, and descendants being taken through with their children, or people who are trying to figure out how they’re going to go which way in their own lives having a place to go and pray, and reflect, and calm their nerves, and collect their thoughts. So, for me this work is sacred.
History-making and keeping is a heavy endeavor. It is the work of the living. Each of us in our own right embody the task of historian. And as historians, we must realize there’s nothing ahead of us that isn’t also behind, below, all around us.
Something else stood out to me in my conversation with my cousin, something about how this work of history began for her. Well before any formal education, Jocelyn had been a record-keeper and storyteller in the family.
JI: When I look back on my life, I was doing this all along. My mother’s grandfather on her mother’s side was eighty years older than me, and I remember doing an oral interview with him when I was nine-years-old. I think my grandma just got a tape recorder, and I was fascinated by the device, and my first impulse was to interview my great-grandfather.
He’s my introduction to grief in the world. When he died when I was ten, I was heartbroken, but I did this oral history with him because I was just generally curious. That was the beginning of my career as a historian.
Grief guides me to tell the stories of those I’ve lost. Grief is an opening to history, and I make a museum of my world. In that museum, there are many rooms. My life’s mission is to keep building atop them, keep building up.Leave a Comment