In West Africa it is said that “when a griot dies, a library burns to the ground.”
With this philosophy in mind, Cheo Tyehimba founded the Museum of the African Diaspora
’s “I’ve Known Rivers
” project in December 2005. Since then, the endeavor has blossomed into an expansive six-volume digital collection of oral histories. Through first-person essays, photo montages, poetry, audio interviews, and streaming video content, the project documents the experiences of people of African descent throughout the United States and in places as diverse as Bosnia, Brazil, Haiti, and South Africa.
The latest volume, “Crossing Fences” (which is still under production), captures the stories of multigenerational men of African descent who live in Oakland. With this project, Tyehimba hopes to answer the question “What is that knowledge that is across the fence that we don’t always have access to between elders and young men in [the black] community?”
In a sneak peek of “Crossing Fences,” which was shown at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco last Thursday, African-American men and teenagers engaged in startlingly honest discussions on a broad scope of issues: the emotionally charged meaning of fatherhood in the black community, the psychological pain and numbness found in violent social environments, and the idealistic dreams of black millennials.
The completed “Crossing Fences” will feature a culturally rich mosaic of oral histories as told by teenagers, adults, and even a supercentenarian (meaning a person who is more than 110 years old). One intended interviewee, Andrew Hatch, a 115-year-old Oakland resident, has a wealth of intriguing stories to tell — for example, he was once imprisoned in Irving, Texas for the “reckless eyeballing” of an attractive white woman, an illegal offense at the time. However, Hatch, a locksmith, was able to pick the lock of his jail cell, hop a boxcar, and flee to Mexico, where he lived for several years before moving to Oakland in 1933.
In addition to providing a sneak peak of film footage on Thursday night, Tyehimba interviewed a cross-generational panel of men in order to offer a glimpse into the kinds of candid, poignant, and occasionally hilarious conversations that “Crossing Rivers” will feature.
Panelist Spencer Whitney, a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, expressed sadness that black children and teenagers in Oakland often feel confined to specific geographical spaces and, as a result, are left unexposed to cultures and experiences outside of their neighborhoods. “Mentally, it has become so ingrained in a lot of communities, especially African-American communities,” said Whitney. “You have internalized that there are places you can’t go, and while those places aren’t necessarily segregated, it’s segregated in your mind.”
Meanwhile, Zef Amen, an entrepreneur and public speaker, emphasized the degree to which “black aesthetics” pervade mainstream American culture, affecting the lexicons, dance moves, and mannerisms of people whose skin colors come in all shades. “At the end of the day, we know we’re beautiful,” said Amen. “Elvis knew the aesthetic was beautiful. Bieber knows it!” Amen urged black men to see themselves not through a lens of oppression or through a lens of cultural outsiders, but through a lens of their own creation, which is more expansive and luminous than anything that has existed before it.
Once “Crossing Fences” is completed, a selection of its most compelling “first-voice” narratives will be commissioned by artists, poets, dancers, and dramatists who will transform the stories into theatrical pieces to be performed in churches throughout Oakland. These performance pieces will provide a new living, breathing medium through which the evolving African-American experience can be explored and celebrated.
The first collection of narratives from “Crossing Fences” will be uploaded onto the “I’ve Known Rivers” website
by early June 2014. The rest of the digital archive is available here