STARKVILLE, Miss.--"Look to your past to determine your future" is advice Shirley Hanshaw shared Thursday [April 23] with audience members during a special presentation at Mississippi State.
A member of the university's English department faculty, she was delivering the second of three lectures being sponsored by MSU Libraries in connection with The Kinsey Collection.
The major exhibition continues through June 20 at Mitchell Memorial Library.
"In American history and American life, black Americans are invisible presences," the associate professor said. "They are not seen not because of their absence, but because of the presence of the myth of absence which operates not by misinterpretation and slander, but by silence and exclusion."
Also a member of MSU's African American Studies faculty, Hanshaw quoted from noted historian and Clarksdale native Lerone Bennett Jr.: "'By simply not mentioning certain realities, the manipulators of the myth change the color of the past and control perceptions and acts in the present.'"
A University of Mississippi doctoral graduate who has taught African American literature at MSU since 2005, Hanshaw further illustrated her point by drawing on observations of Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker and cultural critic.
"Sankofa is symbolized by a black bird looking backward while moving forward; the literal meaning being 'go back and fetch it,'" she said. "It means, as Haile Gerima said, 'We must go back and reclaim our past so that we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.'"
Echoing sentiments of collection co-owner Bernard Kinsey, Hanshaw emphasized the importance of "changing the lexicon, the way in which we discuss history as well as literature, as well as works of art by African Americans."
She cited Kinsey's insistence on "the importance of saying a person was 'enslaved' rather than 'a slave.' When one is enslaved, despite lacking physical freedom and being manacled and shackled, that person still maintains control over his or her mind and spirit, as opposed to the slave who is submissive in all respects."
As Hanshaw observed, early African American writers literally had to write themselves into existence. Viewed as "pieces of property, something to be bought and sold," their very existence required authentication by controlling powers of the day.
"If you look in Phyllis Wheatley's book ("Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," 1773) that is on display in MSU's Kinsey Collection, you will see that her book, in the preface, had to be signed by eight white men because the reading white public was told that Africans were subhuman," Hanshaw explained. "If they left one plantation and went to another, they had to have papers saying who they belonged to."
Hanshaw went on to share brief histories of other early poets of African descent. They included:
--Lucy Terry Prince (1730-1821), whose 1746 poem, "Bars Fight," is regarded as the earliest known literary work by an African American.
"Born in West Africa and kidnapped as an infant, she survived the Middle Passage (sea voyage) and was a skilled orator who often performed her poetry to anyone who would listen," Hanshaw said. "If you've heard of slam poetry, or spoken word poetry, this is where it began."
--Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), who became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book. Additionally, she became only the second woman of any race to publish a book in America, the first African American woman to earn a living from her writing and first woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women.
--Olaudah Equiano (1745-97). African-born, he was the first to tell of being kidnapped in Africa, experiencing horrors of the Middle Passage and being enslaved around the world before finally being deposited in England.
"He was on the Middle Passage to many places, and he survived to come and tell us his story," Hanshaw said. "While he was in exile, he was learning everything he could about the shipping industry, so by the time he got back to England, he was able to get a job and buy his own freedom."
As a result, Eqiano "went from being property to owning property" and, like many of his contemporaries, became an ardent supporter of the abolitionist movement, she said.
Hanshaw encouraged audience members to give special attention to "Ancestor's Torch," Ava Cosey's 2011 oil painting that is part of the exhibit.
"Inscribed on the woman's dress are inventions by African Americans," she pointed out. "Most of the inventions were in the 1700s and 1800s, right after Africans were emancipated."
Also in the library's third-floor John Grisham Room, the final Kinsey Collection lecture takes place May 20. Beginning at 4 p.m., artist and Starkville High School art teacher Andrew Lark will discuss some of the collection artists and their works.
In addition to MSU Libraries and African American Studies, the collection is made possible by Visit Mississippi, Greater Starkville Development Partnership, Mississippi Humanities Council and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the exhibit do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Mississippi Humanities Council.
MSU, the state's flagship research institution, is online at msstate.edu, meridian.msstate.edu, facebook.com/msstate, instagram.com/msstate, pinterest.com/msstate and twitter.com/msstate, using hashtag #WeRingTrue.