As we come to the end of Black History Month, I am reminded of all the strong narratives that have come out of the black American experience. Storytelling is our roots and wings.
No matter who you are or where you come from, the human spirit wants—no, needs—to be validated. While story means so much in every culture and ethnicity, I know that black folk, no matter how they got here, are planted in story and shared lived experience. It’s the way we witness. The late Virginia Hamilton, the author of The People Could Fly—a revered children’s book of African American storytelling—said that storytelling was the first opportunity for black folks to represent themselves as anything other than property. As Congressman John Lewis, a standard bearer of the civil rights movement and equity in this country, says, “The movement without storytelling, is like birds without wings.”
Black folks come from a long line of storytellers, and we seek out the stories that shed light on who we are in this country. We have learned how to tell the story as it came from Africa to Opelika, Alabama; from Commerce, Georgia; and even from a reservation in Oklahoma. It came with us from the islands and with the Great Migration. It is peppered with jokes and gospel and jazz and Aretha.
Stories, including the razor-edged ones of lynchings and segregation, are the ties that bind us. So are the stories of being brought up in segregated neighborhoods, traveling through the South knowing where you could and couldn’t go. There is no question that storytelling for black America is a way of saying I am here and I matter.
We all need a witness
I wanted to be a storyteller all my life, but I didn’t know how. I was looking for what the pros call my “voice.” I struggled with shaping my own stories the best they could be, but I felt like I had no roadmap, because I didn’t have the storyteller’s voice, or so I thought. I didn’t know what voice was, and I didn’t know where to find it.
It never occurred to me that, as a young black girl, I was a student and a witness to the way to be a storyteller. I began to see that I had the beginnings of the seed to tell my own stories and those of my family. Whenever I make Sunday dinner, it is the voice of my long-gone grandmother whispering all her stories in my ear. And I cling to the stories that my long-gone grandpa told me about coming to Gary, Indiana, from the South and building a life for his family. I still cry when I think about sitting on the front porch with him hours after my grandmother died. He told me all these stories about their 62 years together. He needed a witness.
This past weekend, I attended a summit called Power Rising in New Orleans. It was a gathering of nearly 1,000 black women who came together to talk about strategies and social action. But there was something more. It was an opportunity for these women, of all stages and ages, to tell stories about their stress, their pain, their hopes for the future. Even when they sang and danced and cried, they were bearing witness to not just the stories of their past but the stories of their futures.
We heard storytelling from Stacy Abrams, the African-American woman who made a run for the office of Governor of Georgia and lost. She told the story not of her loss, but of why she has to keep on going to address voter suppression and why it matters for us and our children. There was Linda Goler Blount, the president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, an epidemiologist by training. She took the stage to use a bit of data to paint a picture of the impacts of stress and working too hard. When she said, “It’s killing us,” you could see the acknowledgement of every woman in the room. We pledged to write new scripts for our health and well-being. One woman after the next took to the stage to tell some deep and authentic and shared truth through storytelling. If I had to sum up all the stories in one sentence, it would be, “We’ve all been through some things.” And we have.
There is the story of what generations of stress does to our bodies and our mental health. The story of what happens when you discount the power of black women and take our votes for granted. One of the speakers, a minister, who had truly been through some things, told her story so unflinchingly, lovingly, and earnestly that you could hear a pin drop. The silence gave way to the triggered cries and in some cases wailing all over the ballroom we were in. The stories hurt us but they freed us and moved us. Good storytelling in my community is measured by the response. You know you made your point only by the reaction or lack thereof.
Yes, we’ve been through some things.
Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris was there, telling us how she got to stand as one of the few black woman to run since Shirley Chisholm. And even though she was in the presence of her sisters, the story-stakes were high for her. She had to get it right. Black women, the most active voting block in presidential campaigns, need to get to know her and her story. Showing up wasn’t going to be good enough for Harris. As she talked about her mixed-race heritage, and her life as a child of an Oakland activist, it became clear that authentic storytelling was her way to make us feel like she was one of us. The whole weekend was a masterclass rooted deeply in the African and African-American tradition of story on all burners.
I learned at the hands of master storytellers, so I already had the voice. I just had to learn to trust it. Like Glinda the Good Witch says in the Wizard of Oz, “Oh my dear, you’ve had it all the time.”
And we are all witnesses
If you look at why storytelling is so important in 2019 and beyond, revisit slavery, when it was forbidden in policy and practice for blacks to read or write. It wasn’t just illegal, but could be deadly for the slave. But story is as essential to the human spirit as breathing. Slaves knew that telling story was the only way they could bear witness to what they’d been through. They knew that they didn’t dare write their story down, or read someone’s story, but the only freedom they had was to speak it.
A story told by a black person, especially one who has roots in the South, could be about crossing the street but it is never just about that. Somewhere there is going to be something about God and grits and blue lights in the basement. There is going to be a song that includes a long-ago heartbreak, and a dance, and somebody is going to tell you about the best food (or the worst) they have ever tasted. Sometimes there is a dog. It is our tradition. And it’s one that is so different from the linear tradition I learned in journalism school.
I switch around in the way I witness through story. Sometimes it is the who, what, where, when, and why of a journalistic work that covers a story that is not my own. But other times it is visual through the lens of a camera. And then there is when I get the opportunity to stand in all my Black Girl Magic and say, “Let me tell you something.”
One study recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that the brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading and hearing a story, or even experiencing it in real life. I believe that. When we read books, both fiction and nonfiction, by black authors, the best ones flow like oral narrative. They lift themselves up off the page with rhythm and heart. Take Song of Solomon or Beloved by Toni Morrison. Reading Morrison is like sitting at the feet of a grio who is going to paint a picture with her words and her voice. She is going to make you feel all the feelings. Or take a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., who told us that he had a dream that we would get to the mountaintop, even if he wouldn’t get there with us. It is a story that has endured. Or I think about the way former President Barack Obama burst into “Amazing Grace” as he gave the eulogy for the memorial at the Charleston church where there was a racially motivated mass shooting. He was the grio that day, and we were the witnesses.
But what blew my head back as a storyteller and changed me forever as I looked for my voice was hearing Toni Morrison read her work out loud. It hurt me to hear that kind of beauty. I felt so inadequate and ill-prepared. I wanted to hurl my computer right out the window. My husband said, “Maybe she’s a really good storyteller.” She’s Toni Morrison. Of course, she’s a great storyteller. But she is also a master of transcribing the oral tradition of storytelling and spinning it on a potter’s wheel and turning it into a thing that hangs on and won’t let go. Her stories sound so beautiful and familiar because they are.
Years after I heard her read, I got invited to give a TEDx talk. At this point, I’d written books and given many speeches in front of thousands of people. Yet I sweat this one. It wasn’t just any story. It was my story. It was my coming-out story as a creative. Someone said to us presenters that this would be the most important nine-minute story we would ever tell. And then it was like all those storytellers I have ever known and loved leaned in to me to whisper, “You know your story. Just tell these people your truth.” Tell our truth. Witness and give testimony. I did.
The last time I told a story to a live audience, it was to journalists in New York. I was a keynoter. I had chosen to talk about being a “woke journalist.” At some point, the pressure of preparing to tell this story and bearing witness made me cry. I was the storyteller. I wanted people to know how I had moved beyond being the third-person journalist to the person who needed to be a witness in this very tumultuous time. I remember a moment on the stage when I didn’t know how far to go in the story. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the story. I just didn’t want to offend a mostly white audience, as I talked about race and gender and class. I closed my eyes for just a moment and I heard my grandfather’s voice. Tell them the story. Just tell them. We are all witnesses.