July 22, 2022

The Spark and the Flame: The Circle of Preserving Black History

The Kongo cosmogram is a diagram that describes the passage of time as understood by the BaKongo people of Central Africa. This circle, or dikenga, outlines the turning of the universe, the passage of time and the cycles humans move through as they move through their evolutions on Earth. Starting with the rising of the sun and birth in the East, the dikenga moves through stages of growth, becoming fully realized in the universe, aging and growing wiser, eventually ending with death and ancestral transformation. The dikenga is not a simple relic of the past, but an understanding that many Black people share about the concept of time.

Sayings such as “that baby’s been here before,” decorating the graves of the dead with cigars, food, and liquor, and cultural traditions such as family Bibles and packed attics full of ephemera show that time is a circle and a cycle—where the impacts continue to reverberate. The dikenga does not end, but continues on, showing up in our lives as we move through our cycles and seasons, connecting us to our dearly departed dead through our stories, histories, and traditions.

An exterior view of a small white church. There is an expanse of grass in front of it and a set up stairs leading up to the entrance.

photo by: Clinton Church Restoration

Exterior view of Clinton AME Zion Church. Yarborough wrote about this African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grantee in a piece about Black Churches.

And while it is represented as a circle, the dikenga can be found in many places: a church sanctuary filled with saints singing hymns, a dance floor in a disco filled with happy queer folks, a cemetery where the living come to commune with their dearly departed. The dikenga is an embodied part of not only how Black people approach time, but history as well.

As a budding historian, my time as the editorial fellow for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund was marked with this understanding. Through the interviews I was able to do with community culture keepers, staff at historic sites, and family members of historic Black figures, the understanding that we are connected to not just our past, but our future through our histories in a temporal, metaphysical way was clear. This was a throughline not only with my Action Fund work, but also while working on my own project, my Master’s thesis, on the history of D.C. Black Pride.

Finding the Spark: The Clifton House

Sometimes a story begins with research—other times it begins with a spark.

When I decided which site I wanted to focus on first, that spark happened with Lucille Clifton’s family home, and its restoration process to becoming a community haven for artists of the city of Baltimore. In that moment a memory rocketed back, and I remembered that I once had been searching for a copy of Clifton’s out of print poetry book called "Two-Headed Woman". When I thought about the title, I wondered what Clifton’s relationship was like with the spirits that walked with her and how they influenced her life and writing.

A view of the exterior of The Clifton House which is blue with a wide front porch and a series of steps leading up to the entrance.

photo by: The Clifton House

Exterior of the Clifton House in Baltimore, Maryland.

Thus began a scavenger hunt for other places where Clifton’s spirit lived in Baltimore: The Enoch Pratt Free Library, a demolished dive bar called Angel’s where she read poems, and the home she made for her family in Baltimore. This led me to another part of Clifton’s spirit that stewards her work now—her daughter, Sidney Clifton, who not only gave me insight into the process of preserving the home and greater understanding of the Clifton family’s life in Baltimore, but her potent and open connection to the spirit world that informed her writing and her life in the Clifton House.

Exterior view of two sides of a classically styled building used as a library.

photo by: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

Exterior of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In our interview, Sidney Clifton spoke of her mother’s gifts of intuition building connection with Lucille Clifton’s extended conversations with a group of spirits called The Ones, her communication with past selves and departed people who spoke through her writing. As I wrote my first story, replaying Sidney Clifton’s words and pouring over archival finding aids, the connectivity of Black people’s spirits through our histories became a flame that I returned to each time I wrote a new piece.

The Flame: Oral Histories and D.C. Black Pride

This spark would come up again when I listened to the tapes from my oral history interviews with narrators from D.C. and Charlotte, for my master’s thesis project which focused on the history and development of Black Pride celebrations, beginning with the first ever Black Pride in Washington, D.C.

The initial spark that set the project aflame was the documentary "Pride" on FX, from Raquel Willis and Angelica Ross. In episode 5, the documentary details the life of Nelson Sullivan and his archival work of the LGBTQ folks, drag queens, performers, and friends that lived in the Village with him during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Watching clips of the ten-year project to tell Sullivan’s story brought energy to my own work about the history of D.C. Black Pride. This project came together as an intersection of my vantage points as a Black queer person, a student, and an attendee of the event. My interest was further driven through my work on Black in Space, a five-day virtual Black Pride festival I supported with a group of creatives in the beginning of the pandemic.

Cover of a DC Black Pride program. It shows a group of people standing posed in front of the Capitol Building.

photo by: David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University

The cover of the program for the 1997 DC Black Pride event.

I wanted to hear stories and travel with people back to a moment in time as they discussed their memories, their losses, their joys, and triumphs where D.C. Black Pride served as a container their histories. I wanted to use oral histories to time travel with narrators creating a space for others where they can be present with moments and memories that have passed, even if those memories are not ones we have directly experienced.

As I worked on my study of D.C. Black Pride, following its spread from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte, North Carolina, parts of my process in my writing for the National Trust and my writing for my thesis blended, the flame nurtured by the spark of my curiosities. For each of my oral histories, it was the voices of narrators that wrote the story, I was merely the scribe to organize it. As questions led to follow-up questions, opening the floor for connecting stories and sweet nostalgia to become necessary knowledge. It is because of these foundational conversations that I was able to build out the stories I sought to write about.

Cropped image of a 1988 North Carolina Pride Poster

photo by: David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University

1988 Poster for North Carolina Pride.

In Jafari Allen’s book, "There’s A Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life,” he views the lives of Black LGBTQ folks through the metaphor of a disco ball, a place where ”...time and space collapses…where the dead are present, family is not bound by blood, community is connected even if they have never physically shared space.”

The disco ball is the dikenga, connecting us through time and space and raising the dead to dance with us once more. Oral history is another space where this becomes possible. Oral history becomes the dikenga—we move through the cycle of our lives and the impact of our movements leaves a path, where others follow the worn path, expanding its reach across generations. As Anderson Flen said to me when I interviewed him about his work with preserving Africatown, he shared that when he returns, he goes to the cemetery first because “...those people are speaking to me.” Following the path that has been set in motion for him, Anderson’s words exemplify the ancestral spirit of our connections found in our history.

A view of a cemetery with markers lined up in green grass.

photo by: Leigh T. Harrell under CC BY-SA 3.0

A view of the Africatown Cemetery.

It’s something more than simply hearing the stories of our community: we are able to see our lives in the larger context of history and connect our past to our present circumstances and hopes for our future. We are able to travel back to a moment in time, even if we weren’t alive for its original execution. Most importantly, oral history allows us to leave evidence of our existence.

In a world that seeks to render us extinct, invisible, and silent, documenting Black history, and Black LGBTQ history in particular, becomes an imperative. In recording the fullness of our stories and experiences as a community, we are not to prove our worth to others, but preserving our stories for our community first.

My time as an Action Fund Fellow allowed me to spend time with many historians, preservationists, families, and friends who are documenting the fullness of their community stories for themselves. This work has inspired and influenced new projects of many types and has given me deeper understanding of the historian’s process and work. As sites seek to share and interpret their histories, some are spurred by ancestral memories, a sense of justice, or curiosity as to who they are. But all are connected by a single mission—to never forget the truth of our stories.

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Orilonise Yarborough

Orilonise Yarborough is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Orilonise is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public history at North Carolina Central University. Her research interests include oral histories, Black LGBTQ life and political organization, historic preservation of plantations, and Black women’s resistance movements.

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