The Power of storytelling, Ursula Le Guin, and Black Lives Matter

Robbing one of one's stories is a form of violence; instead we must listen.

For a while now, I've been musing about the concept of power (the social kind, not V*I), as it pertains to my research. Before that, a more central focus of interest around the time of my switch to the Engineernig Education program was that of narrative, inspired and shaped largely by Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck. Mixed up in there has been an interest in interplay of gender and language, which led me to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

It was then quite serendipitous when I came across a blog post by Maria Popova weaving all these ideas together. I had been sitting on this idea for a post for a while, not quite sure where to take it beyond "isn't it nice that all of these things that have been increasingly meaningful to me are brought together so neatly by Maria Popova", but over the past few weeks with yet more murders of Black men at the hands of police officers and subsequent demonstrations and shows of civil unrest I've been thinking about the power of telling ones story, and the oppression (also a form of violence, as Paulo Freire argues) of suppressing one's story. Many White people in the U.S. do not necessarily view recent events in this way. Rather, they seem to have a troubling detachment from the history of our country, a history that Le Guin summarizes beautifully:

My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.

The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.

Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.

The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.

The exploitation of Black lives runs deep through the history of our nation, yet many White people continue to condemn any form of protest to this exploitation that they do not deem "acceptable" (i.e. any form that succeeds in broadcasting the personal stories of pain, fear, and distrust of authority), yet every July 4th continue to proudly celebrate the violence they perpetrated in response to "stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation."

Ultimately, these shows of violence can be seen as acts of storytelling. That is, after trying unsuccessfully share the narrative of oppression to enact meaningful change through lobbying government, having it fall on deaf ears while Black lives continue to be stolen by institutional authority, the only recourse is to share that story in a way impossible for the oppressors to ignore.

This aspect of the conflict is poignantly demonstrated by the Black Obituary Project as a direct response to not only the taking of Black lives by state-sanctioned violence, but also the larceny of those lives' stories by White media outlets that focus on any past criminal record, no matter how irrelevant, and the possibility the victim had a weapon, no matter how unfounded, rather than what that live was, and what it meant to their community.

I certainly don't know what all the answers are to the present unrest we have been experiencing, but I do know that to move forward we need to start listening to each others stories more closely, and with intent. This is not a "their problem", this is our problem, or perhaps more optimistically, our challenge. The exploitation of Black lives that will always be a part of the ugly and uncomfortable foundation of our country, we can't change that, and we must not forget that. While continuing to keep an eye on the past, how can we envision a future in which together we insure that this exploitation is contained in the past?