By Dr. Anika T. Prather
In These Pages
There is so much to glean from the ancient folk
There is so much to learn from those who spoke centuries ago
It is different for every person
How the books connect to the soul
But they will if you let them
And it may take time to reflect them
Doesn’t matter the color of your skin
Look deep inside, you will find that you are in
The pages spoken by the sages of your humanity
It’s plain to see and if you can’t
You see others have struggled too
But we all had to invite Hurston,
Du Bois, Woodson, or Wheatley to speak for us
So let them guide you
Let them ask the questions that reveal
How these books speak what’s true
About our humanness
Let the process cultivate your mind
To be able to know beyond what’s read between the lines
Talk about it, with a friend
Draw close to a stranger of a different shade
But is from the same specie—
Woman or man the whole lot
Can be found in these pages.
My journey into studying classics is a unique one. I was not homeschooled classically. I did not earn a BA, MA, or PhD in classics. My background is in K–12 education. I started out in the public schools and then decided to go into private school education after my parents started a classical school. That moment shifted everything in my life. It changed my entire perspective on education. As I saw my students’ minds open up beyond their world view and perspective and as I saw them begin to think beyond just filling in the blanks, I recognized that there was magic in classical learning. I think that magic is connected to the study of the canon, which is the signature of classical education.
The interesting thing is that I am African American and the majority of my students have been African American as well, and seeing them understand how the African-American story and others fit into the overall human story has been an amazing journey. For years I have worked with students that have been able to read the texts connected to their heritage, in conjunction with the texts of classical Greece and Rome, and the texts that also reference classics throughout history. Going through this process has revealed to me that reading the human stories of people that do not look like us draws us closer to our fellow man and brings us to an awakening of how similar our human journeys are. I have also found that our human stories intersect, either in that they share similar themes or that our stories are interwoven into each other. The story of Western civilization and the African American story are very closely connected, as African American authors often reference the books of the Western canon in their writings. Discovering this brought my students even deeper into an interest in reading from the canon. Now that I am teaching at Howard University and presenting the same evidence of the African American connection to the canon, the same desire to read classics is developing in my college students.
I am greatly inspired by the work of educator Marva Collins. In Marva Collins’ Way, she says the following about her students:
I encouraged them to become universal people, citizens of the world. I did not teach black history as a subject apart from American history, emphasize black heroes over white, or preach black consciousness rather a sense of the larger society.
Reflecting on my life’s work of bringing classical education to the African American community moved me to write an allegory entitled The Human Story Books. It is my hope that in reading it, others come to understand the importance of remaining engaged with the canons of the past in order to fully understand and be inspired by the story of humanity through the centuries. To me the picture seems so clear. We need all of the canons, all of the human stories to understand each other. Our pasts, our heritages, and our roots help us to be able to connect together in this world that we share. We may find in reading them that we are not that different. It is also so important to learn how diverse people have used the canon to help them understand their place within humanity. Instead of fighting against these texts left behind by all of our ancestors, may we consider starting to investigate the ways these texts have inspired mankind throughout history. In doing this, maybe the lessons learned from these texts can bring us together and help us chart our way forward together.
In the beginning was the Word and that Word told the story of humankind. Many people believe they know the Author, and even as I write this my faith is strong in who the Author is, but there are many stories that name a different one. One thing we can agree on is that humankind had a beginning and at the beginning the story was revealed of how humankind was one race, created to be in harmony with each other, the universe, and the Author.
Who is this Author? To some he is the Creator. To others he is a Father. To others he is a Savior. To others he is Creator, Father, and Savior all in one. To others it is the First Cause that spurred the world into being, and to others it is an explosion. What we all can agree on is that there was a beginning and at the beginning humanity was one. The story of humankind also reveals that each man and each woman were created with the freedom to choose harmony or separation, and the majority chose separation. Maybe they chose separation because of pride and a desire to dominate others. Maybe it was a desire to cling to those who believed, looked, spoke, acted, danced, sang, and existed the same? Or maybe it was all of those reasons?
At some point humankind disconnected from each other, joining with those who shared their beliefs, traits, or characteristics. As this separation happened, each group felt the need to write their own human story, thus leaving the original narrative of the one human race. In this separation canons were written, a series of texts written over the centuries that told a particular human story. Maybe it told the story of those who conquered other human lands. Maybe it told the story of those who worshiped Allah. Maybe it told the story of those who awaited the Messiah. Maybe it told the story of those who felt the Messiah had already come. Maybe it told a different story for each shade of skin. Maybe it told the story of those who worshiped on Saturday. Maybe it told the story of those who worshiped the Sun, Moon, or Stars. Maybe it told the story of those who worshiped a female instead of a male God? Maybe it told the story of those who find power within themselves. Maybe it told the story of those who live in different lands and spaces.
Each human community wrote their own narrative, adding to it the events of each year, decade, or century. They guarded the story over the ages so that the story of their humanity would not be lost. Some human stories were lost on paper, destroyed by other human conquests, but they remained in the hearts and minds of its people, an oral tradition. Each human community passed on the story to the next generation, and as each generation grew older their minds held tighter and tighter to their human story. And they gathered around this story, forming a protective barrier around it so no one could get in and no one could get out. In doing this, there was no room to learn of other human stories or to even know other human stories existed.
Thus the separation continued to grow stronger, so strong that sometimes the separation created hate for any human story that was not part of their human story or seemed to not belong in their human story. The nature of humanity, however is that no matter how closed off we may be to the “other,” at some point our paths will intersect. It happens as one human community dominates another and enslaves its people. It happens as we do business with each other because one human group has something the other human group needs. It happens when someone from a people group decides to read a bit of the other’s human story and becomes inspired.
It all goes back to the original human story. There is this insatiable pull for us to be one. This desire for unity is why we all fight each other, resisting the instinct to be one … equally one. We were meant to be one. In fact, if we read each other’s human stories we would find our stories are quite similar, maybe even the same. Or maybe one human story fills in the holes of another human story? Maybe if we ventured out from protecting our human story, and read others’ we would discover one Human Story with chapters, and series, and testaments, and versions of the same narrative? No human story is more important than the other. No human story is more powerful, brilliant, or wise than the other. No human story is complete without the other! Together they tell our story as one race, one people, one community. They tell the story of humanity.
Dr. Anika T. Prather teaches in the Classics department at Howard University and is the founder of The Living Water School. This is adapted from the introduction of her collection, The Human Story Books. Her website is drprather.com.