Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: What We Bring to Our National and Personal Stories

This week, stories on the Internet whirl around powerful issues - stereotypes, profiles, justice.  These are good conversations to have out loud, instead of in our respective minds and insular communities.  Because when we move these conversations into the open, we can examine the assumptions, expectations, fears and aspirations behind them, and that, I think, is good for both personal and global storytelling.

In a modern world where all of us can become storytellers to strangers, many of the filters set in place to moderate stories told by journalists and authors no longer limit stories we tell or read - lines between truth and libel, fiction and reality are increasingly blurred.  And with that lack of official filtration comes an ethical need to recognize and acknowledge what we are bringing to the tale - our assumptions, expectations, fears and aspirations.

One of my storyfathers is Dr. James Coleman, who wrote the book Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban.  I studied African-American literature with him, more than a decade before he wrote the book.  He was frustrated, when I was in class, by the national fascination with Alice Walker's The Color Purple. He felt that the book was popular among white readers because it fulfilled expectations about violent and animalistic black men.  He felt that these depictions of black men made white America feel better about years of oppression.  In the Caliban book, he argues that many male writers also fulfill those expectations, in part because the narrative is so strongly represented, and alternative stories are so rare.

Looking at The Color Purple through his eyes changed the way I read the story.  I didn't forgive the men in it, but I viewed them with  a different understanding.  I had to consciously choose to read them as complicated characters, who had their own untold stories of oppression, anger, and struggle, rather than as simple stereotypes.  This complexity came back to me a couple of years later when my fellow college students were harassed by police after the Rodney King riots.  The police took the LA riot narrative and made assumptions about young black men attending a little liberal arts college in Minnesota.

In our attempts to simplify the complexity of our world and the myriad people in it, it seems to me that in all the stories we tell - whether national news or personal narrative, we are doing a combination of these things:

1.  We are making assumptions about the story.  We are bringing our personal and cultural history into our hearing, our telling, our editing.

2.  We are bringing our expectations to the story.  We have an idea of how the world works, and we seek out the pieces of the story that fit those expectations.

3.  We are bringing our fears and aspirations to the story.  We have fears about the world and how it works, and we have hopes for how the world should be, and we seek out the pieces of the story that fit those visions.

In personal storytelling, this plays out in many ways.  The beloved grandfather couldn't possibly have committed adultery, so it isn't talked about out loud.  The angry uncle who never comes to Christmas couldn't possibly be his town's biggest philanthropist, so his family doesn't realize it until the story emerges at his funeral.  The war-hero cousin couldn't have PTSD, so she struggles alone, without family support, afraid to damage the stories her family tells.  Into our personal stories, we carry our aspirations for our loved ones; our expectations for their stories; our assumptions based on our own interactions with them; our fears of who they might be and what it would mean to who we think we are.

We do the same in our national and global narratives.  Right now, the nation focuses its attention on a single story and all of these assumptions, expectations, fears, and aspirations come into the dialogue.  Mr. Zimmerman brought his expectations of Mr. Martin into his decision-making, and ended Mr. Martin's life.  Many people rationalize his actions using the national narrative about young black men.  And in his acquittal, many other people see their expectations of a biased justice system fulfilled.

Fundamentally, the jury selection process is supposed to be an act of separating people from their stories - finding the people who can look at the stories told by defense and prosecution, and bring nothing of their own to those stories.  As a citizen, I hope it's possible.  But as a storyteller, knowing how deep these stories run in our history and in our souls, I worry.

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