The A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center a bright spot of knowledge

Odell Winfield, left, and A.J. Williams-Myers at the Center’s opening in 2017. (Photo by Dan Barton)

This week we are going to take some time to learn about what they do at the Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center on Gill Street in Ponckhockie. The name is long, but there’s a reason they chose it — they wanted to make sure people know something about it before ever stepping foot inside. First, it’s a library. Like any library, there’s plenty of information and resources. Next, it’s named in honor of someone — SUNY New Paltz black studies professor emeritus and academic superstar A.J. Williams-Myers, who is a precious and crucial knowledge leader and historian in our community.

Last but not least, they made sure to include the word “center” so you would understand it is a community space where a variety of things happen. Just like youth centers, community centers, senior centers et al hold a variety of activities suited to their name, so too does the African Roots Center.

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Why is this important? A lot of people are confused — they are confused as to why we need a black history month at all, and why do we need an African Roots Center. Some people will claim these things in and of themselves are prejudiced; we have all heard the, “what about White History Month?” from some legitimately confused and others sincerely sinister. 

Answering the “what about White History Month” question is simple: Our school textbooks take care of teaching us “white” history very well; it is in fact their default setting. But black history is American history too — inseparable, but often underplayed and outright omitted.

As Odell Winfield put it when describing the African-American Festival happening this August, “Could we claim America as the most innovative nation on earth without invention of the modern traffic light, the perfection of the carbon filament or the mathematics that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon? African-American culture is American culture and African-American discoveries are American discoveries. Without the accomplishment of African Americans, we could not boast the ingenuity and cultural richness that all Americans cherish.”

That’s right — African-American history is simply another phrase for American history, but a part of history which has gotten short shrift overall. So the Library seeks to teach us some of that. To help in this endeavor they have created a Circle of Elders — local scholars that present topics important to our communities.  Some members include Pierre Leroy from Haitian Peoples and Paul Bermanzohn, community activist, doctor, and survivor of the 1979 massacre at Greensboro, N.C.  Of course there is Williams-Myers, Sally Bermanzohn, a retired Brooklyn College professor and member of Neetopk Keetopk (described as a “group of local indigenous people and allies teaching traditional wisdom as solutions to modern crises”) and Arie Dixon, also a retired professor and Native American scholar.

This year is especially exciting to the Library, because with the “400 Years of African-American History Act” of the Department of the Interior, an event which seeks, nationwide, to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival first documented African slaves in English-speaking America they have planned, in partnership with the aforementioned groups an African-American Festival and Parade on Aug. 25, which will focus on culture through performances, activities, food and other things to be announced.  It’s sure to be a good time.

Talking about the formation of the library and its location in a part of the city often overlooked by the powers that be, Winfield says, “When the state fails to protect some of its citizens, history has shown you must build new institutions.” This they have done, and are looking forward, during Women’s History Month all March long, including a celebration of women authors from Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) to today; women’s drumming; women and the Earth. The library, along with Harambee, Center for Creative Education, MyKingstonKids and a refreshing amount of community support, has put together one hell of a month-long celebration here in Kingston. Please check out their schedule at https://africanrootslibrary.org/upcoming-events/.

In the meantime, please don’t forget there are two more weeks of Black History Month Kingston still to come, including an important note from MyKingstonKids — they have received their official non-profit status. Kudos to them! Some events this week include: tonight’s Bring Your Dude Dance — whoever the important man in your life is, bring him to the dance at Kingston High School at 6 p.m. There’s also the not-to-be-missed The Wiz at UPAC tomorrow (it’s free!), Friday the 15th, at 7:30 p.m.; and the TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter, 1 p.m. Sunday the 17th at the African Roots Library. Do not miss the rescheduled (thanks, snowstorm!) Nubian Café at the Kingston Artists Collective, 63 Broadway, at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19.

If you attend just one of these events you will see both how needed and how not-odd they are and notice how you feel right at home in a different setting learning different things.  Come on out and learn some new stuff with longtime neighbors. You’ll be glad you did.

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