Celebrating Black History Through Learning And Story
This month at WYSO, we’ve been looking at the history of Black History Month. It grew out of work done by the historian and scholar Dr. Carter Woodson – whose life was devoted to the study and promotion of Black history. Dr. Woodson founded The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915, and he’s known as The Father of Black History.
ASALH has chapters all over the world now, including one in Dayton and its president is someone you've heard here on WYSO, Omope Carter Daboiku, one of our West Dayton Stories producers. She's a storyteller and an artist, born and raised in Ironton, Ohio, not far from where Carter G. Woodson lived for part of his life. Neenah Ellis from Eichelberger Center for Community Voices had a conversation with her and asked if she had heard the story about Woodson's experience reading aloud to his fellow Black coal miners in West Virginia when he was a young man.
Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):
Omope Carter Daboiku: Not the story, but the experience of there being group reads in places like barbershops, at quilting bees, even if it was somebody who could read the Bible. There is a strong literary tradition, and one of the African retentions is the memorization of long verse, which was given to me as a small child, which is probably what has fed the storyteller thing. I can remember sitting up in my mother's sister's lap and her reciting poetry to me that I didn't realize was Paul Laurence Dunbar's work until I was living here in Dayton. Wow. So, you know, reading, knowing, being literate has always been a part of my own family's heritage.
Neenah Ellis: And now you are the president of the of the Paul Laurence Dunbar [chapter] of ASALH.
Omope Carter Daboiku: What can I say? If ever there was an example of destiny, that would be one. It was not my intent to move to Dayton. That's another long story. And after I got here, it was not my intent to be responsible for anything but this body. That was my plan. But my plan got shifted.
And in my work with Woodson's organization, I got recruited by being asked to do a performance, to write something. I was commissioned to write something and the piece that came out called December 7th, 1941. And it's a series of letters between my paternal grandmother and her sister in law and writing over the mountains, you know, when folks didn't have telephones, and how the announcement of World War Two could have affected the family. So I did that piece and she asked me how much was it going to cost? And I told her, how about a year's membership to ASALH?
And she agreed, and that's how I became a member, and three years later I was the branch president, I surely did not intend for that to happen.
But because of that opportunity, I was able to volunteer with the Dayton Aviation National Historical Park and founded the Dunbar Literary Circle there. And that has been a great honor. A great honor.
Neenah Ellis: So you're only, I understand, only the third president of the Paul Laurence Dunbar branch.
Omope Carter Daboiku: I am. Dr. Margaret Peters is the founder and first president of twenty- eight years tenure.
The second president was Dr. Greer Stanford Randall, who now lives in Atlanta, and I am number three and it's been five years for me. Mm hmm.
Neenah Ellis: And what kind of stamp are you going to put on your tenure there?
Omope Carter Daboiku: Hmm. Well, I think the Literary Circle will be known. I also serve on the National Membership Committee, and I'm looking forward to this 2022 event called hashtag Dunbar 150, which is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Paul Laurence Dunbar's birth. It's being coordinated by our local Park Service office and my name will be on that list of who helped make this happen.
Oh and one of the things that we're hoping that we have through ASALH, is the opportunity to fly Dunbar High School flags at the Dunbar House property. So they'll send their flag, they'll get the opportunity to have it flown on the property, and they will have a story to tell when the flag goes back that will keep them associated with Dunbar's hometown and his legacy. So I'm looking forward to that. That'll be fun.
Neenah Ellis: We don't need Black History Month in order to celebrate Black history, but I'm assuming that there is some kind of celebration that maybe has put on hold because of Covid. Can you talk to me about how do you celebrate Black History Month?
Omope Carter Daboiku: Well, I wake up every day. My first study of Black history was to learn who my ancestors were. Then I heard about the argument between Booker T. Washington and DuBois and then I grew up and could read for myself.
I chafe a little bit every time Black History Month comes around because it's American history.
Yeah, but, you know, like Woodson said, if we have to take a week, which is what he originally implemented, to focus on this so America can understand how significant the contributions have been by her African captives who were enslaved for hundreds of years, then if that's what they'll give us, that's what we'll take. And from a week to a month. And, you know, if the ancestors and other spirits are willing, it'll get normalized into American history textbooks and we'll tell the truth. Stolen people working stolen land is how this country grew, and that ain't propaganda, that's the truth. That's history.
Neenah Ellis: Yeah, you're part of our new West Dayton Stories project as a producer, telling stories from your community. I heard you also on an Ohio history podcast not long ago from Ohio Humanities, talking with another poet or storyteller, I believe from England.
Omope Carter Daboiku: That was an Ohio State Folklore Center....
Neenah Ellis: Awesome project. So, like, how are you looking at your role in this community down the road? Five years, five years?
Omope Carter Daboiku: Gee, now it's like, you know, I'm seventy three l getting ready to be seventy four years old.
Neenah Ellis: What's next for you?
Carter Daboiku Well, when the Covid came in, I had to look death in the face. I made a list, I queried myself, I said, if you were going to die in 14 days, what would you regret?
This is what I said in my first commentary for YSO. And I realize that everything else on my checklist--I've traveled internationally, I've seen my name up in lights, I've been to foreign countries where they speak foreign languages. I've lived a very, very adventurous life. But I hadn't done very much around teaching other people how to grow food. I was talking to my brother this morning, and we cannot remember a time when we were children, when we weren't growing food. Growing food and foraging for nuts in particular. My father was a hunter, so I grew up eating wild meat. That was normal for us. Learning how to restore a relationship with the land for the sins of people who left agriculture to come for an industry that's become bankrupt, manufacturing is bankrupt.
So how do we take that energy that is now swirling about with no place to go? And reinstill heritage art to people so they can become more responsible for their own well-being. That's kind of where I'm at. I don't know what that's called. I don't know what that job description is called just yet. But I am very focused on a concept called spiritual ecology. Well, I've always thought, you know, we've we say Mother Nature and I've always thought of the Earth as feminine because it nurtures and feeds. Not that I think of it as, you know, of a cognating being that thinks, quote, like a woman. That's not the point, but it is the thing that allows us to exist on the sphere in this time and place. And we need to be a little more respectful of the mother, I think, and a little more acknowledging because, you know, we got kids who think food comes from the grocery store, food come from the earth. So if I could use that concept and help restore the integrity of what we call community, what we call neighborhood, and you know that ubuntu – “I am because we are” if we could really get to that place, maybe when I'm in the great beyond and called an ancestor out here and talk nicely about me, that would make me happy.
This story was produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.