Michelle McKinney, archivist, storyteller, and griot, discusses how to plan for and preserve legacy in this Detroit Sound Conference presentation.
Good morning everybody. How are you doing? Little closer, closer. I’m Michelle McKinney, but I really don’t know who I’m talking to. Do we have archivists out there? Raise your hands. Hi! Do we have librarians? Do we have students? Do we have musicians? Actors? Oh wow, great. So we have artists out here, right? So it seems like we’re all on the same page to me. And this whole thing is really, for me, great, because it’s storytelling. I’m a storyteller at the root of everything. You tell stories with the jazz songs. You tell stories with being a mother and I’m a mother; I have four kids. And you’ve talked about the legacy. So I’m here in a dual role. I’m a mother and an individual and I’m also a wife and all that stuff. And then I’m also here as Charles H. Wright’s first Black archivist actually, because we had an archivist, who came and helped set us up and she’s since moved on; but she helped train me, and so now I’m here as a professional archivist.
To quickly introduce myself, I’m the widow of a jazz musician who helped bring jazz up to the level it is now. His name is Harold McKinney; he single-handedly kept jazz alive in the city by going around to Detroit Public Schools and taking jazz out of the bar and putting it into the educational system as a legitimate classic American experience. So he’s honored today; he’s the first grand jazzmaster of Detroit, and he should, had he lived and he probably would have become a NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Jazz Master. He also brought up the vision of people that there was a lot of jazz musicians who were not honored or respected; people like Roy Brooks, he became a Jazz Master, who would have thought? Kenny Cox should have been one. My sleepiness has not left yet. There’s a bunch of them, Marcus Belgrave, all the cats. So I come from that community, and that community is now starting to be documented and appreciated to the standard that it should be. But as a person here talking about planning for legacy, I want you to think of ourselves as persons, as families, and community, and organizations. But I want us to think, when I’m talking about these things, I would want them to be on all those kinds of levels. But first I want to tell you a story; and this, to me, the story kind of contains the root of the problem.
[McKinney sings “Kayra Sillo”]
“The path, the cross roads.” “Kayra Sillo.”
Once there was a farmer who had a chicken farm and nobody was buying chickens. So a friend told them, why don’t you go on up to the eagle’s nest, steal some eagles’ eggs and let your chicken hatch them. So he did, and he stole two eagle eggs and put them under the chickens, but they were kind of big. But they hatched, and out come two little beautiful eagle children. Well, to make a long story short, one of them, became a chicken as much as he could. And the other one kept looking up at the bright blue sky. Didn’t know why. So one day, the one looking at the blue sky, was looking up and saw a dark blue spot and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And this huge bird came [crash sound] and sat on the limb right above this little eagle. And of course this little eagle said, oh my god. And the eagle said, “I was flying by in the sky and I noticed the eagle child sitting here with the chickens and I wanted to know why.” So the little eagle says, “Well, I am a chicken.” [And the eagle said] “You’ve got to be kidding, come up here and let me tell you who you are.” He [the “chicken”] said, “I don’t know how to fly that high sir.” [The eagle says] “Let me show you how; you run to the furthest part of the barnyard, you beat your wings, you get up here; now!” So, to his amazement, he lands in the tree.
And the eagle commences to tell him about all of his heritage — that he has the blood of his mother and his father, and he has all this heritage; he had all this history that he had no idea that he ever had. So, he said, “OK, you are going to express this history, continue the legacy by becoming what you really are. Right now.” And he breaks the limb on which the baby eagle is standing and he’s flapping, “Oh my god!”; and then he starts flying. And so their flying along and he happens to look down and the ground just scoops down; just drops down to a valley. And he’s new at all this; he says, “Oh my god we’re gonna fall.” Grandfather says “No, this is a valley of oppression and you’re going to fly over this, because you’ve got the blood of kings and queens in your wings.” What did i just say? [with audience] you’ve got the blood of kings and queens in your wings. You’re gonna fly on.
So he flew over the valley of oppression. “I’m bad, I’m bad. I did it, hey hey.” And then he comes to this place where there’s no green, it’s just desert. And he says, “Oh my god, what is this place?” And you know, what was it, when it’s just sand. They call it “The Desert of I Don’t Care.” “The desert of mediocrity.” “The desert of C average.” And he’s going to fly over there because he’s got the blood of kings and queens in his wings. He’s got what? [repeat, singing] the blood of kings and queens in his wings. And he’s going to fly on. And he did. So, he looks up and there’s this wall of rock in front of him. So he looks right this way and continues, and looks right that way and continues, and looks right that way and continues. He says, “What the heck is this?” And his grandfather says, “Well you have come to a mountain and this mountain is a mountain of isms? It’s a mountain of all the stuff that people tell you that you can’t do. There’s isms like agism, classism, racism. You all know all these isms. And you are not going to get over this unless you start trying. So let’s go.” So they’re flying. And you know he’s not used to all this activity. So his wings get all tired. And so he gets up to a point and says, “I gotta go back. I can’t do this, I’m not sure that I’m strong enough for this.” Grandfather says, “Stand on my shoulders; you’re going to get up on this.” And grandfather has these powerful wings… and boom boom boom; and he’s carrying this child, but finally he pokes his back and the child, this kid has launched, and to his amazement he catches the air and starts to soar and he lifts up over the mountain and he can see the shape of earth. He can see the farm he came from. He sees the valley and the desert. The mountains are tiny now. He’s become an eagle and he’s in his heritage. He can be anything he wants to be. But before all that he didn’t even know he could fly. He’s sitting in a barnyard earthbound.
This story, to me, illustrates that people don’t understand their legacy. They have to be educated into it. If your parents don’t tell you; if your grandfather doesn’t know and doesn’t appreciate what legacy is, how are you going to pass it on? How are you going to pass on those important lessons that make us human beings?
So let’s talk about how we educate people. How do we gather together as a community and make it happen? How do we reach out to all those Black folks who are so suspicious of repositories? The Charles H. Wright, [huffs] “I heard y’all ain’t got no temperature control, and you ain’t got no people over there that know how to do anything with my stuff.” And so much legacy gets lost in the basement, right? In the attics. Somebody dies and leaves something in the attic and the kids don’t know about it.
So we are all forced really to become griots, on every level. So here I go now. You’ve got to define what legacy is. Legacy is the footprints you leave in the sand as you’re walking, right? And somebody sees those and records the shape and the direction and the weight of you, the impression that you left; legacy is very important. So you have to define legacy to everybody around you: your family, to yourself. What are you creating with your life? What picture have you drawn with your character and your choices?
So you have to know in yourself what’s legacy and what you have done that deserves… well, there’s good legacy and bad legacy OK. Legacy is just legacy, and we have to put the value on it. So define the legacy for yourself and communicate it, because it doesn’t mean anything unless you communicate it and record it somehow. Legacy has inherent in it that you’re passing something on — birthdays, anniversaries, a sacred time to ritualize an assessment of yourself. How many people in here have an altar or a rite or ritual where they pat themselves on the back? How many? Shame on you. This is your Mama talking. You better get to it.
Because if you don’t appreciate it, how’s somebody else going to appreciate it? So do that. Have a moon day. Mondays are my moonday. I think about my week, what I want to accomplish, do my little prayers. I think about who I am and what I want to become. I have goals. That’s why you have that last name. Carleton Gholz. [laughter] [inaudible] And a person has to do that. So you can pick an anniversary of your birth, you know? And maybe that’s a good time to do it. I celebrate for a whole month, because it takes a whole month to think of everything I’ve done for the whole year. But I do. Another way is a family. You can even designate a family among your family. You can have reunions. You go to funerals, weddings, births, you know, the new year celebration or whatever. But you can use one of those to gather your family and talk about legacy and maybe you can designate a family historian. Gather who will communicate with all family members.
It’s their responsibility. You can have one person do it for that year maybe and then put it on the shoulders of another person so that it doesn’t get too heavy. Because that’s a heavy thing there. You stated you were going to give me your resume and what you do at your work, but you haven’t done it. I’ve been waiting for a month. Do you want me to come over there and get it from you? You have to kind of nag people because they won’t do it. Believe me, I know. So yeah, you designate a family historian, a gatherer who communicates with all the family members and then this person is gonna be responsible for periodic gatherings where you share that legacy. So everybody knows about everybody. This is important. And then you have a potluck feast.
So in Africa, in many countries, this person is called an oral historian, a griot; you’re trained from birth and they use these mnemonic devices, proverbs, folktales, dances, songs to remember the legacy, right? And this person lives and experiences the family himself or herself and they storytell from their own perspective. So entire families could be trained to fulfill that function. An organization designates somebody in your organization that’s a records manager or an archivist who will periodically collect that institutional memory of your community. Create an association or designate an existing association to act as the community griot and use technology to keep everybody abreast and engaged and make sure that they share because we are a family, right?
So the main thing about all of these things before there’s four parts to it. Thank you. And now I’m going to tell you these four parts and then i’m going to get off and let somebody else…
Set a policy that you all agree on, to be together; set a policy about what is legacy to you.
Second, create a workflow or meetings that we routinely record and archive your legacy.
Three, just as in a family, this designated person, this family, the designated organization creates a periodic gathering, where you can enjoy the sharing. You can enjoy the legacy, through the sharing of stories.
And finally, make a record. Make a record of this retelling and deposit it. It’s redundancy, redundancy, redundancy, right? Having it in more than one place. Either in a self-created repository in your house or in one of our fine professional repositories such as the Charles Wright that collect your type of information.
So the Charles H. Wright, I’m going to tell you our mission statement, then I’m going to get off. It’s the world’s largest institution dedicated to African American experience. And the mission is to provide learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs, and events based on collections and research that explore the history, the diverse history and culture of African Americans and their African origins. Our vision for our presence in this community is to be recognized as the institution of choice for exploring and presenting African American history and culture. And that’s our niche. So we need to all become griots; that’s important for community and helps it to flourish. So, that’s my passion and I hope that’s your passion too.
Thank you. [applause]