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The H3O/Art of Life Blog

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Living Your Legacy: Dr. Margaret Burroughs

By Dr. Mary Ann Cain

Presented by Omni-U Virtual

Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, a much-beloved Icon, was principally involved in launching two important institutions, the South Side Community Art Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History.[1] Along with her work as a visual and literary artist, Dr. Burroughs sought not only to bring the true history of people of African descent to light but also to create an enduring legacy to ensure that future generations would never again forget the beauty, dignity, power, and strength of their African ancestors. While this legacy was aimed towards African Americans, Dr. Burroughs sagely kept those of diverse heritages in her sights as well. She deeply understood the transformative power of telling the truth about the history of a people—in this case, the ancestors of her people, Black people, starting on the African continent and also carrying over to those brought against their will to the Americas.

It is the transformative power of that history that I wish to address here. Dr. Burroughs had great foresight in embracing the idea that an understanding of Black history is a powerful force for anyone, not just Black people. Why? Because, as she liked to say (paraphrasing the famous Biblical verse also cited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), “The truth will set you free.”[2]

What exactly might that phrase mean, though, when it comes to history? When the actual, historical achievements of those of African descent are revealed, the White Supremacist narrative that has sought to reduce Black people, in particular African Americans, to a state of inferiority, infantilism, and inherent lack of drive becomes indefensible in the face of such evidence. Current controversies about the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) only underscore the immense power that telling the truth about Black people’s history, heritage, and legacy exerts on the population as a whole. Instead of seeing only the oppression of slavery and the struggle against it, the cultural narrative shifts towards a vibrant people and culture who, in the past, have led the world into a more beautiful, prosperous, and humane existence, and are positioned to do so into the future. If this history wasn’t as powerful as it is, the backlash would not be as great as we see today, as state legislatures consider banning any mention of CRT (which is basically [banning] Black history) in all state-sponsored classrooms, from kindergarten to higher education.

Dr. Burroughs was one of the prescient ancestors of the 20th century to recognize this power and to organize people and institutions to ensure its legacy would continue. Her struggle to tell the truth, however, took place in a very different context. She was one of only a handful of African American contemporaries who vigorously questioned the representations of her people. As she notes in her autobiography, "Life with Margaret:.", even as a schoolgirl she began to smell a rat, so to speak, when teachers told her that Black people had no history, no achievements, nothing to claim as collective pride and accomplishments. As one of the early truth-tellers, Dr. Burroughs played a major role in making sure that the history of Black people truly represented the greatness of their African ancestors: their mind-boggling accomplishments despite the monumental stone that enslavement placed on their backs. She connected with artists and others on the South Side of Chicago to break apart prejudicial stereotypes and re-present Black people as truly remarkable—not just in their struggles as a captive people[3] but, as re-inventing themselves time and again as powerful, as beautiful, as worthy of respect and admiration. Her moment was one of re-constructing a history that had been "obscured and omitted."[4]

Now we are at a different moment. Dr. Burroughs’ work still remains, embodied in part by the institutions that she helped begin, and also in all the other institutions for which she helped pave the way, most notably the recent Smithsonian addition of the magnificent Museum of African American History and Culture. But that legacy is being challenged daily by those who fear its transformative power to “set free” anyone willing to embrace it. Thus, this is a moment to be grateful for Dr. Burroughs’ powerful legacy, this “truth” that can not only" set us free", but also keep us free. That "Truth Genie" has been out of the bottle for many decades now. The historical record has been, and continues to be revised, to re-present Black people as still powerful, still beautiful, still able to meet the truth and carry it to those who are willing to listen and join them in being “set free.”

Hers is a powerful legacy that must be preserved and enriched by new insights and discoveries into the lives and achievements of Black people, in the U.S. and around the globe. So much is at stake. No one can afford to be complacent that this history is in the books and on the record. History is a living thing, which Dr. Burroughs also well understood. It must be lived and embodied on a daily basis. Dr. Burroughs devoted her life to doing just that. We would all do well to follow her example and continue to find those truths that will set ourselves and others free.

We invite you to view the series of episodes that celebrate the Life and Legacy of Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs resuming Friday, November 11th @ 8:30PM on CANTV, CHANNEL 19, and continuing each Friday through November 25th. These shows will be repeated on Sundays through November 27th.


[1] Now The DuSable Black History Museum

[2][ John KJV And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

[3]Ancestor] Dr. Margaret T.G. Burroughs, " What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?..."

[4] ibid, Burroughs

Recommended Reading

[Ancestor] Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs. Life with Margaret: The Official Autobiography of Dr.Margaret T.G.Burroughs.

Mary Ann Cain. South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs.

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