“People are known by the records they keep,” observed Pulitzer prize-winning writer and human rights activist Alice Walker. “If it isn’t in the record,” she continues, “it will be said that it did not happen. That’s what history is…a keeping of records.”
Walker’s dictum on the power of history and the utility of record-keeping and documentation has long inspired my philosophy as an educator, public historian and museum practitioner. For me, “keeping” African American history and culture, in particular, is not merely a vocation, it is a calling. The gravitational pull to document our stories for the next generation; to rescue our records and unvarnished truths from the atrophy of memory; and to “keep” our history for perpetuity is what drew me to the International African American Museum and ultimately to Charleston.
Before moving here two years ago, Charleston had long stood in my imagination as a charming city with all the trappings of Southern hospitality — great cuisine, friendly people with eager smiles, and a townscape replete with well-preserved historic buildings, public memorial landscapes, and greenways. But I learned very quickly that as a “Comeya”— a Gullah Geechee referent for a newcomer to the area — that I had so much more to learn from Charleston and her people. Thus, began my journey at the International African American Museum.
As a museum, memorial, and research complex, this institution is poised to be one of the most significant destinations for the exploration of global Black experiences and the study of African American genealogy. Its quest to chart the human stories, traditions and vernaculars that connect South Carolina to the wider African diaspora will bring the local, national, and international contours of Charleston’s African American history and culture into sharper focus. While the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and domestic slavery are inextricable parts of the African American narrative; it is not the sum of our story.
I believe visitors from across the world will be drawn to the International African American Museum — some will come as tourists, others as students, researchers, and heritage entrepreneurs. But many will pilgrimage to this landmark in the spirit of commemoration and reunion.
My greatest hope is that the museum will not simply be a cultural attraction or a cabinet of curiosity, but a site of conscience — a place that leverages history, models courageous inquiry, and encourages inter-generational dialogue to learn from the past and build more equitable and just communities for the future.
Brenda Tindal is the director of education and engagement for the International African American Museum.