Bridging Histories and Raising Voices in the Last Frontier

6 min read

This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others.

Yaa Gyasi

Once I finished the book, Homegoing (available digitally through the Fairbanks Library mobile app), I gained a profound understanding of discerning the significance of memoirs, narratives, and individual accounts. It became clear to me that storytelling holds unparalleled value in the creation of history. Authenticity lies in personal experiences, and it is only through the shared narratives of others that we can truly grasp the depth of these collective experiences.

Author Gyasi goes on to say,

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

With this heavy in my heart and mind, I drove up the hill to the University of Fairbanks Museum of the North. There, in the special feature exhibition, I found myself immersed in the stories that lined the walls, played on the screen, and were embodied through historical artifacts.

Though the stories, interviews, and portraits of the participants are available online, there is an intimate and ineffable quality of experiencing these photos as larger than life and to hear these voices fill a room rather than headphones.

With over forty individual portraits on display, each is paired with a title card that includes the participants name, Alaskan location, and a quote from their interview. There is also a QR code available under every image, connecting the viewer directly with the video interview and story of the participant.

Julie Varee, the community and outreach archivist at the Anchorage Museum, is one of the many portraits. Her interview tells of her experience of being in Alaska, both as a career woman and as a peer. Her story goes on to explain how she came to appreciate Alaska, not only as a beautifully wild place but as a land of possibilities and dream-chasers.

Her work has inspired the likes of Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy, at the Anchorage Museum. She says,

"I’m excited about bringing more stories into an institution that is filled with stories but has room for more. There’s always room for more."

Julie Varee, quote from Black in Alaska exhibition

Another story comes from Fairbanks entrepreneur and outdoorsman, Bird Nelson, owner of Ascension Rock Club. He shares his experience in being Black, a business owner, and a rock-climbing competitor.

A lot of people participating in the sport are people who have never dealt with the concerns that the Black community has.

Bird Nelson, quote from Black in Alaska exhibition

The stories above are so powerful, and still just a glimpse of the plethora of stories that speak to the joy, the pain, the optimism, the pride, and the truth of what it means to be Black in Alaska.

There are also the stories of what it had meant to be Black in Alaska, the stories of those before us.

The exhibition showcases a video by Dorothy Jones, both a professor emeritus at the University of Fairbanks and participant of the Black in Alaska exhibition, in which she shares a synopsis of The History of the African American Community in Fairbanks. Jones opens this presentation with a quote from Diane Fleetz, a participant of The Race Card Project,

"The African Americans presence in Alaska’s past predates Alaska’s statehood and we are a vital part of its presence, but yet we are conspicuous in our absence from all the narratives about our home."

Diane Fleetz, quote from The Race Card Project

Jones’ presentation, similar to the Black in Alaska exhibition, shared first-account experiences of being Black in this state, the only difference being that these stories span back a century. These histories were from people who were a foundational part of Alaska becoming a state – the stories of the goldminers, early settlers, business owners, politicians, doctors, and educators.

Some of this research was featured on display in the Black in Alaska exhibition, such as a profile on Mattie “Tootsie” Crosby, a prospector, prohibition era bootlegger, cook, and bathhouse owner. There is also a display highlighting the names and exemplaries of some of the Black Alaskan historical figures as written by George T. Harper.

Following the natural flow of the exhibition layout, it ends in the back-left corner, with a screen silently playing the interviews on a loop. A touch of the button brings these voices to life as you hear each participant share their first-hand experience of what it means to be Black in Alaska. Sitting here, listening to real people tell you their stories – surrounded by these intimate and beautifully composed portraits – is where history is told.

I sat even after the video went silent and the loop began again. I looked at the faces on the screen, the portraits hanging nearby, the words displayed underneath. Each participant had to be vulnerable, genuine, and courageous. In doing so, each participant not only opened up the hearts of many, but also gave people who are Black in Alaska a voice and a history.

To make history is to share a piece of yourself with the world; it is courageous and it is necessary.

The museum will display, Black in Alaska: Interior Edition, until April 1, 2024. Admissions are Monday through Saturday, 9 AM – 5 PM; $14 Adult Admission (15+ yrs), $8 Youth Admission (5-14 yrs), $5 UA Staff / Faculty, and free for Alaska-based military families with ID, UA Students with ID, and Museum of the North Members.

Through storytelling, this project aims to dismantle stereotypes and create a deeper connection between the Black community and their fellow Alaskans. Please share these stories, photos and other media from Black in Alaska’s website, blackinalaska.org and on Facebook and Instagram.

To go a step further and support this cause, please consider getting involved by telling your story, donating, or spreading the word.

Alyssa Petit

Alyssa Petit

Hey there! My name is Alyssa, and just a month after receiving my diploma at the University of Kansas with a degree in visual communications, I traded the flatlands for a life in the Last Frontier with my husband (no, there were no ruby slippers involved nor is my husband made of tin). As a Fairbanks transplant, I quickly embraced and became part of this extraordinary community. I’ve found the people here are a unique blend of resilience, inspiration, creativity, quirkiness, and above all, passion.

My life's passion is to create on purpose. I believe that language, in both its spoken and visual forms, intricately shapes human consciousness. My mission is to contribute to the crafting of a world where everyone feels safe, heard, and empowered. And where better to embark on this journey than in the state of beautiful extremes! Here's to creating a world for us all. Cheers!

P.S. I enjoy painting, I have caught some really cool fish, and I make perfect soft-yet-chewy bagels.

Alyssa Petit

Alyssa Petit

Hey there! My name is Alyssa, and just a month after receiving my diploma at the University of Kansas with a degree in visual communications, I traded the flatlands for a life in the Last Frontier with my husband (no, there were no ruby slippers involved nor is my husband made of tin). As a Fairbanks transplant, I quickly embraced and became part of this extraordinary community. I’ve found the people here are a unique blend of resilience, inspiration, creativity, quirkiness, and above all, passion.

My life's passion is to create on purpose. I believe that language, in both its spoken and visual forms, intricately shapes human consciousness. My mission is to contribute to the crafting of a world where everyone feels safe, heard, and empowered. And where better to embark on this journey than in the state of beautiful extremes! Here's to creating a world for us all. Cheers!

P.S. I enjoy painting, I have caught some really cool fish, and I make perfect soft-yet-chewy bagels.