Stories + Race

It only seems appropriate on a blog about storytelling to take a moment to talk about some of the intersections between story and race, given the peaceful protests sweeping the United States in response to the police killing of George Floyd (and other black men and women), and in light of the violent criminals who have been exploiting this moment and attempting to side-track the national narrative from racism and policing practice in our country.

Even from my own limited perspective on storytelling and race, there are so many different angles and avenues to explore. I could talk about my brief experience of dating a woman from Kenya and how conscious I became of the fact that most of my favorite movies and shows are entirely populated by white people who look like me. I could talk about our argument over whether William Shakespeare’s plays are “white,” when she had a rich history of interacting with Shakespeare’s texts in Kenyan schools and theaters. I could talk about how exhausting it was for her to explain to me how “black” various podcasts/venues/shows/businesses were, or when and how she was treated as “African” or “black” or even “African American.”

Beyond the stories I’ve heard or interacted with in personal relationships, I could talk about storytelling by black authors I’ve read. That Harlem Renaissance class I took in grad school, the syllabus full of George Schuyler and James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. The differences and eerie similarities between early-twentieth-century texts investigating black experience in America and books I’ve read by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, or films like Get Out and Moonlight. The further different, disorienting experience of reading Nuruddin Farah’s North of Dawn, tracing the immigration of Muslim Somali refugees in Norway. Or the many, many short snapshots of black experience being publishing in newspapers and magazines and social media posts, the notifications pushed to my phone every day at this moment in time.

But there are also the big, unspoken stories, the narratives that help shape how people view the other. Stories about who is dangerous, who we need to fear. Who’s hard-working and who’s lazy. Who’s middle-class and who needs a handout. Who needs to forgive and forget. Or the counter-narratives: Who needs to remember, because generations of oppression and disadvantaging don’t suddenly right themselves. That hard work isn’t enough when divorced from opportunity. That the most dangerous people in America usually look like me: young, white, and male.

Obviously I’m not an expert on storytelling and race. But I was struck recently by a list of nonfiction, novels, and poetry Dr. Clint Smith recommended on Pod Save the People, and it reminded me of the opportunities I’ve had to engage in experiences, memories, and stories unlike my own through books I’ve read. Any novel is a gateway to a life, a city, a time, a family, a job, a relationship that can teach us something new about being human.

And right now seems like an important time to be engaging with stories that are not my own.

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