Black Cultural Mythology imagines a world where Africana cultural memory is an intellectual field with its own agency that does not rely on other cultures’ models to sustain itself.
“This book reacquaints us with an overlooked intellectual tradition of Africana cultural memory.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Christel N. Temple. Temple is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book is Black Cultural Mythology.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Christel Temple: The current political climate for Black citizens is one in which traditional struggles of equality and voting rights are still daily concerns. These concerns require historical awareness and activism that help us to maintain and manage our power as a cultural group. The current social climate is one in which, as Black people, we are confident and aware of our cultural uniqueness and proven resilience, but we are not as concerned as we perhaps should be about structurally ensuring that the story of our inheritance continues to be told with clarity, precision, and deliberateness. Socially and politically, we benefit from a methodology for better and stronger cultural living. Black Cultural Mythology contributes to this. The book introduces a philosophy of ow African Americans have approached cultural memory, and this enlivens our historical awareness in ways that will trickle down to how we behave in social and political climates by summoning proof and perspective from our own dynamic traditions. The book highlights a set of fifteen terminologies that reflects what our activists, philosophers, and writers have gifted us over the past nearly 200 years to help us remember how we survived, engraved identity on American soil, and “began again” after so many relocations and struggles. During the Obama era the term post-racial appeared from outside of our culture. I have always viewed “post-racial” as “post-cultural”—a sad dismissal of our legacy and inheritance as African Americans. Much like what Carter G. Woodson intended with the public Black education program that evolved into Black History Month, Black Cultural Mythology provides an easy to manage structure that prompts us to meditate with greater precision in order to retrieve more information and inspiration from our formidable historical actors such as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Toussaint Louverture, and Malcolm X.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Alice Walker said, “We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and, if necessary, bone by bone.” The beauty of activism and community organizing is that these roles have more freedom than schools to apply the philosophy and ideas of our geniuses for the direct benefit of our communities. Black Cultural Mythology will be familiar to activists and community organizers because many are students of Black Arts Movement philosophies from which the idea of “mythology” emerged from a meditative approach to Black culture. In this book, I demonstrate that “mythology” as a criterion for Black culture is alive and well. Black Cultural Mythology presents new data, new information, and new formats for programming and innovative thought related to legacy. The book reacquaints us with an overlooked intellectual tradition of Africana cultural memory, and its philosophies and ideas found in literature and art have much to offer. Activists and organizers will find the book’s tools useful because they frame our legacy in terms of heroic survival, models how to meditate on the in-the-moment impulses of great feats of our cultural actors, helps us to explore our heritage to better interpret the ways cultural actors forged greatness in immortalizing ways, and emphasizes how our heritage gives us tools for cognitive survival—that our cultural heroes were tactical, farsighted, and striving. It is powerful to realize that all along, writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Edwidge Danticat, and Charles Johnson, have never forgotten or wavered in acknowledging the depth of the culture’s heroic legacy.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will un-learn the words “slaves” and “slavery” and that they will un-learn the impulse to begin our story of survival and inheritance with the language of “slave memory.” Black Cultural Mythology introduces a specific, Africana Studies (or Black Studies) inspired methodology for bypassing the abrasiveness and cultural ambiguity of “slave memory” in favor or remembering heroic survival and how we engraved identities on new soil in a process of beginning again after the Middle Passage. This framework is one of many that scholars in the field use to address cultural memory, however, Black Cultural Mythology is a volume that verifies once and for all that there is an intellectual tradition to stabilize “Africana cultural memory studies.” In surveying adjacent ideas about cultural memory and commemoration, many scholars lightly use terms such as “memory” and “cultural memory,” but they do not much define these terms within a theoretical structure or intellectual tradition. Also, “slave memory” feels like an abrasive description that is too heavily infused with the language of trauma, oppression, scars, and amnesia to be liberating. Finally, I hope that readers will un-learn an over-reliance on the linear, chronological approach to narrating and remembering history. We miss so many philosophical opportunities to embody the heroic moments of our historical actors, especially those moments when they made choices to proceed into near superhuman courage for the sake of Black freedom. It is our inheritance to be able to commune with the past, to pause, to meditate, and to consider what the ancestors wanted us to learn from their moments of epic intuitive conduct, hyper-heroic behavior, and resistance-based cognitive survival. In terms of geography and transnationalism, this book considers the African Diaspora—primarily the U.S. and Haiti—but I anticipate its expansion to consider more areas of the Diaspora.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are so many. From the distant past, I am indebted to David Walker, who wrote Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) and Maria W. Stewart, an 1830s African American abolitionist whose fiery words were preoccupied with how the race could immortalize itself. These ancestors taught us how to think and how to weave together persuasive, historically infused anecdotes and observations to sustain a quest for Black freedom well beyond their lifetimes. I honor all of our heroes—too many to name here. I read a host of writers and philosophers in a search to uncover whether or not they addressed myth and mythology in their work. Richard Wright’s essays revealed a beautiful philosophy on the role of myth. James Baldwin’s approach to commemoration by writing a letter to his nephew to interpret the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is structurally profound. Molefi Kete Asante’s first wave of scholarship from the 1960s to 1980s made a solid imprint on African American myth studies. Ralph Ellison and Edwidge Danticat’s short stories related to the Haitian Revolution are also intellectual gems. Their stories—such as “Mister Toussan” and “A Wall of Fire Rising,” respectively—are inspirational, but the authors’ structure and intent reveal that these intellectuals love their culture and are invested in illuminating the sacredness of Africana cultural memory. It is an honor to dedicate the book to Toni Morrison because her critical essays reveal that she was touched by the philosophy of the Black Arts Movement and that she, like Alice Walker, Larry Neal, and others, was committed to a style of artistry that has a sacred level of ancestor acknowledgment.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Black Cultural Mythology highlights Black intellectual and artistic visions of ritual remembrance, historical reenactment of worldview, and ancestor acknowledgment. In this case, the authors have done the imagining, and the theoretical framework of Black cultural mythology is the critical tool that extends the broader cultural meaning of the authors’ imaginings. Ralph Ellison imagines how two young boys are empowered by the story of Toussaint Louverture’s victories in the Haitian Revolution. Poet Laini Mataka imagines the romance and love that Harriet Tubman should have had upon return from her many journeys. Robert O’Hara imagines ancestrally guided time travel back to Nat Turner’s revolt as a means of learning the truth about the ancestors’ sacrifices for future generations. Black Cultural Mythology imagines a world where Africana cultural memory is an intellectual field with its own agency that does not rely on other cultures’ models to sustain itself. The framework reinforces the normalcy of a world where children and adults in our culture are confident that their heritage is sacred. The book also imagines a world where Black heroics are not manipulated in mainstream media to serve interests beyond the culture, such as forcing Black stories into the American dream or into an American patriotic worldview. Black Cultural Mythology is premised on an organic African American Diasporic logic. It presents a cultural measure for heroics as well as anitheroics, and has a comprehensive intellectual tradition to sustain this new tributary of cultural memory studies.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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