Connected through history

by Jewél Jackson

March 7, 2019

Panelists discuss how the stories we tell—and fail to tell—shape the past, present and future in universal ways.

“South Africa to Syracuse—A Common Struggle” was the first of the three panels in “No Innocence This Side of the Womb,” a symposium hosted by the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement Feb. 28 at the Newhouse School. 

“There are things that objectively happened in the past, but that is not history,” said associate professor Charisse L’Pree, as she moderated the panel discussion “South Africa to Syracuse—A Common Struggle.”

“History is the story that we use to weave together certain things that happened in the past, which aids our understanding of the present and the future.”

Panelist Michelle Schenandoah, CEO and editor in chief of Rematriation Magazine and a member of the Oneida Indian Nation, reminded attendees that the history of Syracuse cannot be separated from the history of the area’s indigenous people.

“The government that you know here today in the United States is born and inspired by my people. But that is left out of the popular narrative and specifically about Syracuse and surrounding areas,” Schenandoah said.

As Schenandoah gave a fuller picture of Syracuse and American history by explaining the influence of indigenous people, she said that “pieces are being left out” that are fundamental to our understanding of our past. Her words were a testament to the fact that the history we regurgitate doesn’t always tell everyone’s complete truth.

Local artist and journalist Ellen Blalock illustrated this idea by telling the story of Syracuse’s 15th Ward. A Black neighborhood, the 15th Ward in the mid-20th century was the site of what Blalock referred to as the “Black Renaissance of Syracuse,” similar to the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming of Black culture in 1920s New York that celebrated the cultural and artistic achievements of Blacks. In the 1950s and 60s, however, the construction of I-81 decimated the neighborhood, scattering its citizens. 

“The 15th Ward was identified as a community that could easily be torn up and butchered,” Blalock said.

Blalock said that the African American population in Syracuse makes up about one third of city residents today and dates back to slavery, but Black history is mostly left out of the Salt City narrative.

“Black people within this community need to tell their own story instead of people always writing about it and getting it wrong,” Blalock said.

When talking about discrimination, exposing the true version of history is essential in order to understand and make progress. Zuko Gqadavama, resource development coordinator for Inkululeko, a nonprofit that aids students in South Africa, elaborated on how his country’s history affects the present.

Although he was born after the end of apartheid, Gqadavama said, “Politically the country is free but economically the country is not free yet.”

The year 1994 saw both the end of apartheid and the election of anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela to the presidency in South Africa, starting a period of recovery and reconstruction. Despite the country’s population being 85 percent Black, Gqadavama said the bulk of the economy remains under the control of White people. This unequal representation will ultimately hinder economic growth, he said.

Pulling from his experience conducting research in and about South Africa, Maxwell School professor of geography John Western shared his observations of our evolving world.

“I have a strong suspicion that the way the world has worked is to be fortunate [for] some people and cause misfortune to others,” said Western, noting that history and geography are a lock that are easier for some to escape than others.

New York Civil Liberties Union chapter director Yusuf Abdul-Qadir spoke about the importance of all people striving to make a difference, whether they are in the minority or the majority, suffering or benefitting from the systems in place within a community.

“We cannot accept the realities of yesterday [becoming] the realities of tomorrow,” he said. “You have to get involved.”

Read about the second panel, “The Arts—Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Promise”>>

Read about the third panel, “Communication—No Easy Walk to Freedom”>>

Jewél Jackson is a sophomore newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.