In the News

More Black Folk Need to Be Anthropologists

By Trelani Michelle

I like learning about how black people live around the world. I like to traveling to go see it for myself. Like eating the different foods and listening to the different music. I LOVE seeing how much we have common. That’s why I ask so many questions – to old black folks, especially.

In the last couple years, I’ve been sharing the conversations I have. Krak Teet is an example of that. I also share audio and video sometimes. I call that work “story gathering.” For myself specifically, I call it “Zora Neale Hurstoning,” because our styles of gathering and telling stories are a lot alike. 

Textbooks call us “anthropologists” and “ethnographers.” I use those terms when I need to, but I don’t care for them personally. I feel like they create distance between me and my people. They’re also intimidating, and the work is far too important for us to shoo it away.

We need more black folk who want to be anthropologists. I’m realizing that more and more. Oral history tells the story of what actually happened and what also happened. These are the stories that are usually left out of the newspapers, because they’re told by folk who ain’t gon’ talk to the news people. We still need their stories though.

Their stories teach us:

  • how our elders and ancestors survived
  • how they saved money
  • their opinions on what was going on in the world at that time
  • what was important to ’em
  • what they put their faith in
  • what patterns they were noticing
  • and the stories that were passed down to ’em
Uhuru by Nelson Stevens (rare)

It’s so easy to do. You can even (and probably should) start with your own family. Turn on ya phone recorder and start asking folk questions. Here are 10 questions in case you need help getting started. Keep it casual. It’s a conversation. Be so curious that you come off as child-like. And save what you record, even if it’s just two minutes of audio. I recommend saving it on a cloud, because if you lose or break your device then your interviews are gone.

Once you’ve stocked up enough interviews, then you can decide what you want to do with it. Maybe you put it on a CD and share it with all your family members. Maybe you start a podcast. You can also share them with the Library of Congress or even your local historical society. 

I interviewed 21 elders for Krak Teet between 2016-2019 and only 3 of them are still living. That gave me a sense of urgency to continue doing the work, yeah, but also get more people doing it. It ain’t hard. Anthropologists don’t need a college degree and you don’t need to turn ya badge in at work to do it. Just…do it.

It’s a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction that you get from replaying those recordings after the person you interviewed is no longer here with us. Not in an ego kinda way either, but a wow. A whew. A thank God I did that.

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headshot of Trelani Michelle, a young black woman leaning against a tree TRELANI MICHELLE is a writer, editor, and a historian who’s helped over 1,500 teens and grown folk write and showcase their personal stories through memoirs, poetry, podcasts, and visual art. She wrote her first book, What the Devil Meant for Bad, in 2012 while a senior at Savannah State University. In 2016, she received a Master’s in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. While a graduate student, she started Zora Neale Hurstoning, interviewing 19 black elders over the age of 80 in Savannah, and wrote a book called Krak Teet with their stories. Michelle co-created a curriculum that centered social issues, self-exploration, writing, and ethnography and taught it to high schoolers in an after-school program for two years. In the summer of 2018, she completed a 10-week internship at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center where she curated and digitized Gullah Geechee collections, wrote and recorded podcast scripts, and held original handwritten manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston. In addition to The Library of Congress, Michelle has partnered with UNC’s Black Communities Conference, the City of Savannah, the Jepson Center, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Deep Center, and the Life Balance and Wellness Institute to help people share their personal stories.

This article ran in Black Art in America on 10/25/21.