In 2007, as an undergrad in a study abroad program at the University of Ghana, I met a man who, through his storytelling, showed me the impact of hearing a story you’ve never heard. His name was Armstrong, and he was the guide for my class. Small in stature, but with the heart of a lion, he would often playfully flex his bicep while smiling to emphasize the last part of his name, “strong!” He was passionate about telling the stories of his life as a native Ghanaian and about Ghana—the coast at which millions of captured Africans had their last memories of home. These stories, paired with a profound poignancy of place, made for an experience that forever changed me.
Just think about some of your favorite stories. They likely include some sort of protagonist who overcomes a major obstacle, or the classic romance of two people who meet under unusual circumstances, but find a way to happily ever after, or the “American Dream” rags-to-riches tale. Stories have a way of drawing us in; they have a way of changing us—how we see the world, how we act in the world, and the choices we make. The impact of stories in our lives is profound, which is why the work of the International African American Museum is so very important.
IAAM exists to honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites. Hearing stories of the African Diaspora that have not been widely shared can change our country—in a way we so desperately need right now. I imagine how hearing these stories could affect how a human resources director approaches hiring or how a business owner approaches community engagement. I think about the ways it will change how teachers share history lessons or how much empathy a policeman carries with him on a shift. I mostly think about our children and how the inspiration and grit found in these stories can impact how students see both themselves and their own potential for achievement. I see a future where moms bring their children to the museum often, to hear and see stories that will sit in their minds and hearts for years to come. I see a generation that is better off because of the truth that lives in these untold narratives.
Armstrong will always be a part of my coming to know and love myself more. The stories he told helped me realize how strong our ancestors actually were and the ways in which I can decide if I want to work for that legacy to live on or die…and this gift to choose is only possible because Armstrong taught me the importance of stories simply by telling his own.
By Vernita Brown, Member of Board of Directors, International African American Museum and Chief Operating Officer, Natalist