After my book talks and speeches in which I get to share my love of history—African American history, especially—someone will inevitably draw me aside and into his or her confidence. She will utter the question most frequently asked of me. He will say: why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me who we really are and all we’ve done? Their faces deeply pained, their heads shaking in disbelief, their demeanor implying: my life could have been so different.
In my own experience, I know the value of telling us, when we are young, what we need to know—sometimes as fuel, sometimes as inoculation.
Visiting a cousin, I was amazed to discover how little she knew of our family history. We were granddaughters of identical twin sisters. I'd thought our shared genes held shared memories. Not so. Talking into the night we realized a painful divide.
My mother, with stories passed down from her parents, had plied me with family tales and photos. My cousin's mother had scoffed at her African American past.
My mother had spooned knowledge of my heritage into me as if the tales were vitamins to ward off future chills to the soul. My cousin’s mother had dismissed identical tales as useless in her current reality.
My mother encouraged me to see myself as part of a vast world. Her mother—wracked by imposed and internalized limitations of caste and class—saw herself as part of a vast void.
My grandmother's only two grandchildren had both graduated college. We’d earned advanced degrees, and my cousin, a lawyer, was also a college president. Of her grandmother's twelve grandchildren, four graduated college. The stories we’d heard growing up weren’t the only determinant of our success. But, they were certainly a factor.
Driving home, I remembered a tale age-old Africans tell of "Mother Lion and Her Cubs."
Sad and dejected, the youngsters cuddle against her. They ply her with what they have heard other animals say about lions—terrible things heard in the jungle—at play.
Could what they say be true, the cubs ask, in two yelps just above a purr.
What they hear told is not the lion life they know from their mother and father. It is not like the stories of majestic beauty, strength and wisdom they so love to hear.
In the time of your great father's father, their mother has told them. In the land of your mother's mother, their father has said of the place of high grass and cool waters that nurtured their ancestors.
In this history and in this present is the greatness they are meant to inherit, to live, to pass on as legacy.
But, other voices bring messages from afar—strange voices—that own a different calling.
What is to become of our lives, the cubs wonder. How will we find our way to being the lions our elders have told us we are meant to be, they fear, burrowing under their mother. Mother lion listens to her young ones, lapping their ears, soothing their hurt. Then she stands. It is time to move on.
Shaking the dust from her belly, she nudges her cubs to their height. “Do not listen to what others who do not know you say of you,” she roars. “Your time will soon come to tell the tale.”
With that, Mother Lion and her cubs press on toward their pride.
It was from my need as a child that stories of my ancestors emerged. It was from the depth of my daughters' questions that my books have been born. And, it is from the wisdom of my grandparents and theirs that our answers have come.
Pressing on toward our pride, we discover routes to bring us through the pass undeterred by misdirection and misinformation—no matter how great the creature chatter.
As I have come to understand as I cross the savannas of my years: what we tell our children as they approach life's crossroads begins with what we were told—and what we tell ourselves.
Excerpt: RAISED BY DR. KING © Janus Adams 2019
FROM THE INTRODUCTION