Garrison Hayes refers to his TikTok videos as “short documentaries,” and once you dive into his content, it’s hard not to agree. Hayes is TikTok’s unofficial history professor and documentarian, and his popular series “Forgotten Black History” is changing a lot of lives.
According to Hayes (@garrisonhayes), it all started in the summer of 2020 — when COVID lockdowns, the murder of George Floyd and widespread racial justice protests were at the forefront of media coverage.
At the time, Hayes said it felt like many Americans were finally acknowledging racial disparities and urging each other to “do better.” But when it really came down to it, he didn’t feel like anyone was actually “digging into the issues” in a meaningful way.
“My concern was that we weren’t having very history-informed conversations,” Hayes told In The Know. “I love history, and many of the books that I read center on history, and so much of what we saw in 2020 [and still see today] … has a connection to something that happened in the past. You know, really looking back at history helps us really kind of see into the future in some ways. And I felt like that was missing from the conversation.”
So, he did the only thing he could think of at the time: Hayes jumped into the conversation himself and started to create the history-driven content he wanted to see.
Since then, Hayes has created hundreds of informative, thought-provoking videos that tackle difficult subjects like Black reparations, American police reform and cultural whitewashing.
He’s even discussed the often polarizing subject of white privilege, which isn’t always easy to do.
“The conversation around privilege is so fraught because we really want to believe that everything we have, we’ve worked for,” Hayes shared. “And in many ways, we are all working and trying our very best, and we all have challenges and difficulties. So it’s easy to see why someone would bristle around a conversation around privilege.”
As a workaround, Hayes often comes up with creative ways to delicately tackle these touchy subjects.
“What I found to be a really helpful way of thinking about it is to almost remove the ability to have a knee-jerk response,” he explained. “What I mean by that is to reference privileges that we don’t necessarily have this sort of baked-in, bristled sort of response against.”
Hayes also exposes critical moments in U.S. history with huge impacts on the outcome of Black Americans — like the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened when a white mob attacked a predominantly Black neighborhood in 1921 for more than 18 hours and destroyed what was then known as Black Wall Street.
Once a few of his videos went viral, Hayes began to build a following, which helped him reach the eyes and ears of thousands.
“I was really surprised,” Hayes said of his initial success. “And not just surprised in an ‘oh my God’ kinda way but pleasantly surprised that there was an audience of people who were interested in these conversations in the first place.”
Hayes doesn’t just talk at his viewers, either. Often, he recommends books, documentaries or other forms of media to help them dig into topics themselves and form their own opinions.
So far, TikTok has been a near-perfect forum for Hayes’ storytelling — especially when it comes to reaching Gen Z.
“When we’re younger, we’re more open to possibilities, we’re more curious,” he said. “And as we age, we become more hardened in what we believe. The beautiful thing about the internet, and Gen Z specifically, is that they’ve been exposed in many ways from a young age to a wide-ranging set of ideas.”
As he continues to create content, Hayes hopes to be a driving force in opening young minds to new and challenging ideas. Ideally, that will only help pave the way for future generations.
“The reason why I think it’s important to tell some of these stories [is] if we look across the country, specifically here in America, there are so many school districts and states and school boards that are either watering down Black history or outright banning Black history from being taught,” he explained. “And as I think about the next generation of people, I really see so much of myself in their experience.”
In fact, trying to give kids the tools and knowledge he didn’t have growing up is a huge part of what drives him now.
“I really wanted more — I wanted to know more about who I was and where I came from and the people who came before me, and I didn’t always have access to that information,” he continued. “The internet really gives us a phenomenal opportunity to provide a direct line to these young people and even older people like me, people who are interested in hearing these stories, learning this history and applying it to their lives.”
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