Bessie Odom

Alaska's Black community reveals struggles, triumphs in new documentary

By Julie Varee, Community Outreach Archivist

The writer Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Thanks to the work of Besse Odom of the Poor People’s Campaign and Teresa Pond of Cyrano’s Theatre Company, some elders in Alaska have been able to share their untold stories with people around the world.

The documentary film, Hekima (Wisdom): Their History is Our History features interviews with some of the most influential longtime members of Alaska’s Black community. The film showcases their journeys to Alaska, reveals their struggles and triumphs, and seeks to dismantle preconceived notions about Black Alaskans. Produced by Cyrano’s Theatre Company, the film features the music of Anchorage’s Cal Williams. An earlier version of Hekima is available on YouTube; an updated version of the film will debut in Anchorage on June 17 and be shown at the Anchorage Museum June 18 - 20.

Besse Odom wanted to uplift the stories of Black American elders living in Alaska. She says, “Too often, the experiences and stories of those who came before me aren’t given the space of which they’re truly deserving. Not only does Hekima uplift some of the experiences of Black Alaskans, but it also immortalizes those experiences. It was extremely humbling to be able to honor my elders in this way.”

Odom, who was born and raised in Alaska, was surprised to hear the elders describe Anchorage as a more unified community than Odom sees it as today. “With all that has happened over the last decade or so, it seems that our community has become more polarized. How can we truly begin the process of healing? I genuinely believe that the process starts with such efforts as Hekima, efforts that allow for more understanding and appreciation.”

The Anchorage Museum is working to include the stories of a more diverse group of community members in its archives. The museum also encourages people to document the lives and experiences of their family members and neighbors. Besse Odom hopes more people will center the voices of those from whom the community never or rarely hears. She advises people who interview others to go beyond just hearing stories they share. “Oftentimes,” Odom says, “in interviewing we may not always hear what we want to hear, but it’s important to honor what is being shared. One piece of advice I have is to uplift and share the stories and experience of who you’re interviewing in a way that is respectful and that honors them and their culture.”

The film, Hekima (Wisdom): Their History is Our History will play in the Anchorage Museum auditorium June 18-20. The film is included with the price of admission on June 18 and 20. See Hekima at no charge on Saturday, June 19, as part of the museum’s admission-free celebration of Juneteenth, sponsored by AK USA Credit Union.

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