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For the soul of Black history, a podcaster-author looked past the same old stories


On the shelf

The Humanity Archive: Recovering the Soul of Black History from a Whitewashed American Myth

By Jermaine Fowler
Row House: 416 pages, $29

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When people with brain damage who suffer from right-side spatial neglect are asked to draw a clock, they often crowd out the numbers and hands on the right, but leave the left blank. They think the picture is complete, unaware of their blind spot. It could be argued that Europeans and white Americans have the same half-blindness when it comes to telling history, mistaking a fraction of humanity’s achievements and tragedies for the whole story.

In “The Archive of Humanity: Recovering the Soul of Black History from a Whitewashed American Myth,’ Jermaine Fowler tries to fill in the rest. Fowler, 39, is not a formally trained historian, but a podcaster embarking on a kind of history of people. While “The Humanity Archive” started as a podcastit’s truly a love letter to books and a childhood spent in the library learning about the wider world that wasn’t taught in schools.

His new compendium of overlooked history bypasses the most famous stories (especially from the civil rights movement) to cover the unheralded achievements of both Africans and Black Americans, as well as their mistreatment at the hands of Europeans and then white supremacists here. Fowler recently spoke via video from his home in Louisville, Ky. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is being advertised Black History Monththough you argue that black history should be taught all year round instead of getting this “fleeting scribble.”

The book comes out on the 28th, the end of Black History Month, so I think of it as a starting point, to show that Black History has no expiration date and can go beyond February, starting your journey with the book.

Some on the right, of course, think too much Black history is already taught.

There needs to be more uproar from people who do not want books to be banned, but want this history to be taught. The voices from the other side are heard louder. I’m trying to be a voice that says, “We need more access to every book kids want to read so they can become critical thinkers as they learn this history.”

Who is your imaginary reader for this book?

I wrote this book as a black man in America — a book a young Jermaine would have wanted to read. So in that sense, I’m writing for black readers. But I always hope to touch broader themes of humanity and reach out to other people as well.

You write that when you were younger you ‘dive headfirst into Afrocentrism’, but then realized you had gone too deep. Where’s the balance?

To me, that speaks to the point of fighting the monster, but not becoming the monster. Eurocentrism reduces all African things to their worst qualities. That was the story until the late 1960s. I think there should be a counter-narrative. We shouldn’t get rid of afrocentrism, because a lot of great black history has been discovered and emerged from it. However, for me personally, it was almost like becoming the monster – I shrunk Europe and said, “Forget all that is European.”

You celebrate the ruler of Mali from the 14th century Mansa Musa, but criticize his focus on wealth and empire as no different than white rulers. If you remember getting to know the true depths of Rosa Parks’ activism, discuss the sexism within the Cpissed off Rairing msurrender. Does it feel dangerous to be self-critical all the time?

It feels dangerous because we’ve had that against us so many times over time. But to be honest, to tell about all sides of black humanity, I have to. I had to see what power looked like when the oppressed came to power, like in Liberia. I’m not afraid to turn the critical lens inward. It’s the only way to grow as a person.

Black history is getting more attention with books about, for example, the Massacre in Tulsa and the slave ship Clotildabut books like yours and Clint Smith’sHow the word is passed ontake a broader approach. What do you think your book adds to the conversation?

I want to connect the underlying themes. An individual story may miss the bigger picture of what black humanity looks like. Those stories usually connect the black experience to the pain and trauma, but what about everything else?

Your book covers so much – figures out 1,000 years ago in Africa to the 20th century US, subjects from ancient metallurgy to contemporary art – that the sprawl can become overwhelming. Worried about certain topics getting lost in the shuffle?

The details try to tie in with the bigger themes.

I wanted to make sure I was telling overlooked stories – that’s why I didn’t have any chapter on the civil rights movement — and I want people to say, “Wow,” and then dig deeper themselves. Therefore, I will write, “I have read this book,” and name the black scholars who have written extensively about it. My book is broad strokes and I want you to start getting into more detail. It is a challenge for the reader.

Covering so many topics must make it challenging to get the right details and perspectives. For example, you write about Mallie Robinson who moved from Georgia to Pasadena a century ago and is still faced with segregated housing and swimming pools. But moving to California allowed it Robinson’s son Jackie play in integrated teams; when Branch Rickey chose a candidate to break baseball’s color barrier, Robinson had the experience because California was integrated.

That story was more about his mother and what she encountered in California. But the book is my personal journey through history. I’m not an expert, I’m just someone surrounded by books who loves to read. I did do scientific research, but I do what I hope other people will do, which is to jump into the mess of history and try to figure out a way out.

Has dwelling on the past, horrors and achievements made you optimistic or skeptical about America’s future?

The people I wrote about were resilient and brilliant enough to make it through, and we can do the same and make this experiment with democracy a success. There’s a spectrum with everything from Afro-pessimism to “The Black future is in joy.” I’m somewhere in the middle. The truth deals in equal terms with hope and despair.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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