Learning From the Past

By Norm Headlam
In eLetter
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As a child growing up in Jamaica, we did not have the equivalent of Black History Month. However, we did have many occasions to remember significant events and people in the island's history. These occasions were primarily celebratory opportunities to remember the past: We celebrated the good, the bad, and the triumphs.

After coming to the United States as a child, I was eventually introduced to Black History Month. I can distinctly remember learning more about Black American history during this time compared to other times throughout the year. Learning about Black History beyond the superficial overview of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., gave me a more profound sense of connection, belonging, sadness, and joy—all at the same time. As I reflect on how I was taught history growing up in Jamaica, I realized that to understand the black experience in America better, I needed to go beyond what I was being taught. Black History Month represented that time for me. Being curious led me to read more and ask more questions.

As time went on, I quickly realized my experience as a young black person in America was very much a mirror of the black experience in America's past, with nuances. I quickly learned the language, patterns, and behavior to navigate my new world by code-switching: something I never had to do as a child in Jamaica. For example, when I was in mostly white spaces, I would go above and beyond to ensure every white person knew I was safe. I would say hi and smile to random strangers all so that they wouldn’t stop and question me for no reason. Unfortunately, it did not always work. I would shop by myself in stores to reduce being followed, since I found that shopping in a group drew more attention. Again, it did not always work. You get the picture. As you can imagine, this was exhausting and could be downright humiliating based on the context. But learning and embracing the past has helped me to cope better.

A pattern I love in the Bible is when Jesus reminds whoever he's talking to about the past to make what he's talking about relatable or understandable. As an engineer, I love patterns. I find them useful to understand things better. As part of life, not just during Black History Month, I continue to remain curious and crave learning. I try to understand our past to understand our present better.

A book I read last year is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. If you want to learn more about this aspect of our world history, you can find the book here. We can better understand and navigate the present if we understand and know the past.

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