Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

University of Iowa

Friends and family have often asked me, “Why history?” I have also asked myself that question. When I think back on my experiences, as an undergraduate majoring in psychology, as a group counselor, as an MA candidate in education counseling, and as a volleyball player and coach in high school and college, I find history to be the most fulfilling. As Malcolm X has stated, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.”

Why didn’t I begin studying history initially? Like most African Americans, I grew up being denied “my side” of the story. What is interesting is that history itself was not often discussed, but racism was. We were not taught about the African American experience, except for slavery and the civil rights movement, but I experienced racism. No satisfactory programs on television discussed the plight of African Americans. If information was presented, it was negative and made me feel inferior. Therefore, racism was all around me. This eventually led me to seek to understand where this frustration and confusion stemmed from.

As a result of my research in psychology, I began to study history firsthand. History helped me to understand contemporary people and the problems and origins of African Americans.

I felt motivated to study history because I did not understand how racism was manifested in America. I wanted to know why African Americans and other people of color were continually struggling with “our” condition. What it comes down to for me is an understanding of the past, the eclectic past: African history, African American history, and American ethnic history—in other words, American history.

History is empowering for me. It inspires me in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it continually enriches my understanding of the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans. This is what has been missing in my own and in many African Americans’ everyday understanding of themselves and each other. Investigation into the past, then, has allowed me to understand the present.

Studying history took a little nudge though. I turned to history and believed I could study it because other people believed in me, such as my parents, Patricia Tefft-Cousin, Robert Blackey, and Ward McAfee, who encouraged me emotionally and believed in me academically. In fall 1992, I entered the graduate program in history at the University of Iowa. Graduate work in history is difficult. Many times I do not think I will fulfill my own goals. I find myself, at times, forgetting why I began to study history at all. Then I remember my own experiences, the history I was taught, and the continual struggles that African Americans have endured. Keeping these two factors in mind allows me to persevere.

There is one major problem, however. There are not enough African Americans and other people of color studying history. I do not really know why. Sociologists turn to it, psychologists turn to it, business people turn to it, lawyers turn to it, and educators definitely turn to it, so why aren’t there more people of color studying history? What I can surmise is that African Americans do believe history is for them or that they are a part of history, at least not as they conceive it. It may also be because we feel we are not included, in America and in American history. Well, we are. Begin reading about the past so that one day you too will be interpreting it.

Next essay: James Riding In