“No one, no, nor no one million
ones dare deny me God, I go forth
along, and stand as ten thousand.”
-Maya Angelou, “Our Grandmothers”
I bring my whole self to work every day, but I never come alone. I bring everyone I have ever known, young people from around the globe, and all of the ancestors – mine and ours – with me. That I have the privilege to serve in this institution at this moment is an experience that honestly transcends all the words I have in my vocabulary. I will give it a try anyway. I prayed for this, but that’s another story for another time.
I am the 2016-2017 Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. My research explores student activism at HBCUs in the Black Power era, particularly the concept of the Black University. I also work in the Office of Curatorial Affairs (OCA). Some of what I do includes researching potential acquisitions, making recommendations on accessions to the permanent collection, completing paperwork, giving talks, and collaborating with OCA colleagues on various projects.
In many ways I was prepared for this: I completed a BA in History Magna Cum Laude with W.E.B. DuBois Honors at Fisk University and a PhD in African Diaspora and Public History with Distinction at Howard University. For six years I served in the National Park Service in a variety of positions. I interviewed my great-grandfather for a family oral history project at age 9. I have been “doing” history for years.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for this: I have met people from my history books. I have learned stories about my heritage that I never heard before. I have traveled to places I have never been. Every day I get to converse with some of the nation’s most brilliant thinkers. When I think about it long enough, I weep. I am intentional about taking moments to cultivate gratitude. That I would be entrusted with the responsibility of collecting, preserving, and sharing people’s narratives is an honor I never take lightly. One of my favorite parts of this museum is the visitors. On any given day Heritage Hall is filled with a glorious combination of schoolchildren, multigenerational families, church groups, civic and social organizations, and couples in all stages of their relationships. They are diverse, multifaceted, and enchanting. I am them and they are me. It is my greatest joy to walk up to a visitor and say, “Welcome to your new museum. I’m so glad you’re here.
Jocelyn Imani is a historian, cultural consultant, and community builder. She holds a PhD in History from Howard University and a B.A. from Fisk University. She has worked with the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and has been a professor at several institutions. She actively works to make shared space – public lands, museums, educational institutions, etc. – more relevant and accessible to all populations in an ever-changing America. She believes firmly in the power of one and uses her resources to empower individuals – and by extensions organizations and communities – to act as catalysts for change.