Building Community Through Storytelling: An Interview with Dr. Burrowes
The first time I heard of the ancient kingdoms of Africa was one year after graduating high school. In high school, we learned about the ancient kingdoms of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. I had never heard of the kingdoms of Mali, Nri, or Kush. Up until that point, I was conditioned to believe that the history of Black people began with slavery in America. History books in my social studies classes allocated African American history to a single page. I sat in awe as I listened to a community elder share stories of African kings and queens. The conversation changed my perspective. I began to be proactive in learning about the history of Africans in America, exploring everything from the history of the wealth gap to leaders in civil rights movements.
My exploration of history did not start in a textbook. I explored history through autobiographies, documentaries, and community elders. The content of those resources determined what I learned. However, what was most important was who I learned the content from. In a conversation with Dr. Burrowes, author of Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea, he said, “It is not what happened, it’s what we tell ourselves what happened.” History is one thing. What we tell about our history is another.
As a young person discovering my history for the first time after high school, I was able to see myself more clearly. I was able to wake up and have a better understanding of the world around me. Dr. Burrowes aspires to reach Liberian people in the same way through his book.
He explained the book as being his life’s work, “It’s not just another book. It’s about opening people’s eyes.” In the book, he writes of the history of Liberia before colonialism. He described Liberian communities today as being divided after two major civil wars in the country beginning in 1989. Dr. Burrowes said, “Sometimes the worst victims are the survivors.” The survivors are forced to relive experiences daily through their own personal battles and through the aftermath of the conflict. Dr. Burrowes described his book as a love letter to Liberian people to remind the community of its rich history and unite those most impacted by trauma.
The Liberian community is one of many. When we allow people outside of the communities we identify with to tell the stories that belong us, we give up the power of the narrative. As a result, stories go untold, heroes are lost, and trauma repeats itself. Knowing my history empowered me to reach higher goals and in turn gave me the platform to share the stories I learned with my own community.
Dr. Burrowes said, “The stories we tell each other are like the tapestry.” The moment we weave those stories together, our community becomes one body. Understanding the history of those that came before us creates connections to the past that guide us into a better future. He explained that we get strength from connecting to our past. Knowing the stories of our people is empowering and motivating.
“Youth facing the most disparities need storytelling the most.” He went on to say, “People without history are like people with Alzheimer’s. They don’t know themselves.” When we take the power of the narrative away, young people are often left feeling disconnected from their communities and their individual identities.
Dr. Burrowes explained that there is an opportunity for all of us to participate in telling our own stories. If we wait for those in power to affirm us through the retelling of history, it is not likely to happen. We are all responsible for shaping narratives to reclaim our best qualities.
Carl Patrick Burrowes, Ph. D. is the director of the institutes for research and policy studies at the University of Liberia. Burrowes is the author of Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea: A History of the Liberian People Before 1800, The Historical Dictionary of Liberia. His research has received awards from the International Communication Association and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.