How Should We Talk About History?

by The Irvington Historical Society

On June 18, 2022, Commemorate, a group of local advocates who have worked to document the history and social legacy of enslavement in our area, will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for “Yesterday”, a work of public art honoring the legacy of enslaved Africans who helped to build our Village.  Created by artist Vinnie Bagwell, this new monument will be located on Main Street in front of the Main Street School and could well lead to conversations about slavery, race and role of history in today’s times.

To welcome this new addition to our community, Irvington resident Injy Sullivan will be leading a series of workshops on how to build an understanding of the history of slavery in Irvington and how to discuss these sometimes complicated and difficult issues with our friends, our children and ourselves.  The Irvington Historical Society will be hosting one of these workshops at the McVickar House History Center on May 11, 2022, at 7:00 p.m.

We asked Injy what she saw were the Commemorate Committee’s goals for these workshops:

Sankofa is sometimes represented as a bird with its head pointed backwards, taking lessons and understandings from the past, with an egg in its mouth and feet pointed forward towards the future.  Other times, sankofa is represented as a heart, as it will be on the plaque that will accompany Vinnie Bagwell’s work of art “Yesterday”.  Sankofa, an adinkra symbol of the Akan people of West Africa, is a powerful concept for us all to embrace.

We cannot move forward until we understand our past.

The unveiling of Vinnie Bagwell’s “Yesterday” is bound to unearth many feelings this summer.  On the positive end of the spectrum, many will feel profound esteem for the enslaved Africans whose forced labor paved the way for this village to prosper and flourish.  Others will feel immense discomfort, particularly as they are faced with leading a difficult conversation with the children in our community. 

Teaching the history of slavery, and the impact of slavery on life today, is hard. It’s hard because it forces us to talk about race, which many of us were taught is a taboo subject that should not be talked about.  It’s hard because it forces us to grapple with the fact that so many of the historical figures that are honored in our country (and in Irvington) were enslavers.  It’s hard because it forces us to look at the founding documents of our nation, which declared “freedom and justice for all”, and reckon with the fact that they were written by white men, many of whom were enslavers.  It’s hard because the idea of white supremacy that allowed chattel slavery to persist for hundreds of years in North America did not just disappear in 1865; systemic racism continues to have an impact on housing, education, health, wealth and judicial inequities to name a few.

To make matters worse, American schools do not consistently or adequately teach the history of slavery putting the burden on the community and parents to do this work.  The goal of the Commemorate Committee is to support our community with grappling with hard history together, taking lessons from the past, so we can move forward.  Join us.