Story Time

When I was a bartender at a grim restaurant located just outside the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, I used to tell my customers stories. It passed the time, and it kept them from drunk-talking to me.

I’ve always been a storyteller. Of one kind or another. Growing up, I told my parents lots of stories. They usually centered around me and where I had been and who I had been with. That is, if they asked. In college I told myself stories, like that guy probably liked me even though he was insulting — and worse. Once on my own and doing what I wanted, the stories got more intense. They were like spells I would cast, concerning subjects like money, fame, and love. I told these stories to almost anyone who would listen. Then, in my adult life, I realized I had been telling myself a lot of stories that really didn’t ring true. I mean there’s nothing wrong with fictional story-telling. But when we publicize them as non-fiction, well that’s just disingenuous.

Telling a story brings with it a connotation of not telling the truth. (But all us spiritual folks know that truth is a pretty weak word to pin our hopes on). “Stop telling stories,” the old folks might say. (And maybe some of you young folks, too). But I later figured out that what that actually means is, don’t say anything to me that doesn’t sound true to me. Ah-ha, truth is in the ear of the be-listener.

As an actress I participated in a lot of stories — on stage and off. As a mother I told my children all sorts of stories, some I made up, some were made up by others who got paid to write them. It’s an actual market! Of course, there were some stories I also kept from my children. There were even some stories I kept from myself. Those would emerge later, fully illustrated, in hardcover, waiting to be plucked off my psychic shelf. Gotta face your own stories sooner or later.

Now my work is all about asking who tells stories and why. Historians look at people’s stories and then take those stories and tell them differently to others. But some historians actually ask why the story gets told that way in the first place; and then they ask who told it, and just where the characters and plot actually originated. We even ask if there was possibly an agenda to a particular story, and if perhaps there were different stories told on that same subject at the time. If you’re a scholar, or activist ,or engaged citizen, when it comes to Black history, then this activity will keep you busy for the rest of your years.

You know, I was thinking this week that I was going to tell a story here. Do something different. But the thing is, I’m always telling a story in these blogs. I’m telling my stories, about women and love and fear and pandemics and oppression and more love again. I like to tell stories. But I don’t like to tell others’ stories. That’s not my job. In fact, it’s why I am an oral historian, spending hours listening to the stories of people who didn’t get to tell theirs at the time. My job is to highlight and foreground and amplify others’ stories.

Once upon a time there was a country that started with the premise that all people should be free to practice life in just the way they choose. But the premise was a story told by those who got here first, assumed some power, and then realized that if everyone did as they chose their power would be no more. All sorts of people suffered at the hands of these power-people and their story. They still do. There are moments in this very long story when it seems the country in question might actually be heading in the direction of its premise. But just as soon as it veers that way, the story goes back to the power-people and their need to be in charge. It’s kind of like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, except the three days are translated into three centuries and still going strong. People might need to get up and stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, grab a snack, but the tragic epic tale will continue.

I don’t want to spoil the ending. (I don’t actually know the ending). But it’s a pretty sad story. (With some happy moments interspersed). Black History Month is a radical idea because Dr. Carter G. Woodson knew that certain stories had been interred and were in need of exhumation. He found many avenues for this story-telling, and thanks to him and his colleagues, and all the griots since then, we still amplify these stories — in February, anyway. It’s not silly or antiquated; it’s a month to remember that we are lacking in a certain genre of story told by a certain ilk of author about a certain kind of people. We’ll never catch up, mind you, but it is imperative that we keep seeking out and telling these stories. Every month. Every year. Every life.

2 thoughts on “Story Time

  1. Thanks for this post! I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of personal narratives too. You describe your work as being devoted, not to the telling of other people’s stories, but rather to the highlighting and amplifying of them. I have been intrigued by this since you introduced me to your oral history project some years ago. It makes me think about how this idea might inform the work of teaching writing. Maybe, helping students to listen, with care, to their own stories first? And then coaxing and coaching the writing process….hmmmm. Anyway, thanks for giving me something to think about this morning.


  2. Yes! It totally applies to the writing, to students telling their stories. We’re not telling them what stories to tell — or even how to tell them. We are “coaxing!” Thanks for this.


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