By Mike Jones
It’s a moral imperative that all Black children learn to read, not just be functionally literate, but learn to become active, critical readers capable of comprehension of how new ideas and facts change your understanding of what you know or what you thought you knew.
The reason it’s a moral imperative is because it’s the only way they can ever come to know their ancestors; not their personal family history, the story of their immediate family, but come to know and understand who they are as part of the African Diaspora.
How do we connect this present generation to the Ancestors? We do what we’ve always done, we tell them our stories. An African tribal storyteller is called a griot, but they are more than just storytellers, they are praise singers, poets, and musicians. In places where written history wasn’t available to everyone, through the oral tradition, they preserved the genealogies, history, and traditions of the tribe, they were the tribe’s cultural historical and guardians. Because of their historical knowledge and perspective, they were also often political advisors.
How we tell our story to our children in 2021, the way we always have, the griots tell our story. We are still an intuitively oral people, but modern technology has allowed us to expand our storytelling. The modern griots include Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, Nicole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project. It’s also poets, playwrights, and musicians; Mya Angelou, Amanda Gorman, Amiri Baraka, August Wilson, Nikki Giovani, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Tupac, and Biggie. Once our children know whose they are, they will discover who they are.
I’ve been reflecting on the beginning of the collapse of American society as we’ve known it, and white America’s inability to deal with the moral reckoning of its inherent contradictions, and how the Herculean and heroic political effort of Black people will once again go unrewarded.
We regularly ask, what does this mean? Your life, my life, our collective lives, this moment in time, the universe. It’s what philosopher’s call an existential question. An existential question is a question relating to existence, kind of the ultimate philosophical question.
At moments like this I find myself drawn back to a writer and an essay I was introduced to as a college student over 50 years ago. The writer is Albert Camus, the essay is the Myth of Sisyphus. What does Camus’s interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus have to do with the Black the condition in America?
Let’s start with Camus’s notion of the absurd. The dictionary defines absurd as something so extremely unreasonable and so foolish that you shouldn’t take it seriously, something ridiculously irrational.
Camus uses the Greek legend of Sisyphus, who is condemned by the gods for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top, as a metaphor for the individual’s persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life.
But it’s not the push up the hill that interests Camus, it’s Sisyphus’s trip back down that gets his attention. On the trip down, Sisyphus is free from his labor, Camus calls this his hour of consciousness, and it’s in this moment he can reflect on and understand the absurdity of his fate, and with that understanding free himself from the need to make sense of his situation.
The Myth of Sisyphus is the perfect metaphor for the Black experience in America. Black Americans have been pushing the boulder of acceptance up the hill of approval since we arrived on the shores, only to watch it roll back down. But we must once again learn to embrace the trip back down, those spaces we have created that belong exclusively to us, where the griots remind us of who we really are, as they reconnect us to the ancestors.
Once we quit trying to make sense of America, America makes sense. Which is why Camus writes at the end, “we can imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Michael W. Jones is a columnist and member of the St. Louis American editorial board.