journal #14: The Stories We Tell

Rest in Peace Toni Morrison

Rest in Peace Toni Morrison

Have you heard an older black person tell a story? My grandma is one of those people that start their day before anyone in the house is awake. After cooking and cleaning, she ends her routine with a phone call to one of her friends. I wouldn’t say my grandmother gossips, because i have more respect than that, but she does tell stories. Whether she’s recalling her day or someone else’s, she tells the story with such detail. My mother does something similar when she gets home from work. She calls her sisters or friends to do the same. My grandfather, who is no longer here, told stories to my and brother and I when we were children. His stories were simple and often ended in a punchline as if it was a comedy routine. Storytelling in the African-American community has been so important throughout our history. Before we were allowed to read, information was decimated through word of mouth. During slavery, storytelling was a means of education and entertainment. I often wonder if the stories we tell make our ancestors proud.

I haven’t used this site to speak about racism or the present state this country is in. I find it exhausting to have to say something so obvious as; America is racist. The generations before me spoke so eloquently and brilliantly about what is is to be black. What can I say? How can I contribute? I succumb to my fear of inadequacy and I say nothing. I do nothing. I remember sitting in my Hyattsville apartment when I heard about Trayvon Martin’s murder. Living in that Howard bubble is real. I was surrounded by so many black people all the time that I forgot that there was evil outside. I didn’t have to defend black life to anyone because we were all on the same page. We were hurt because it could’ve been anyone of us.

This past weekend, there were two separate mass shootings. One shooter was a white supremacist, the other is currently being portrayed as just another angst white male. 22 were killed in El Paso, Texas and 9 were killed in Dayton, Ohio, with dozens injured in both El Paso and Dayton. I saw the news at work, and in the moment it didn’t affect me in the slightest. Later that day, I saw my brother and he repeated the news. I still didn’t have much of a reaction. After days of processing the news and my reaction; white men are our biggest domestic terroristic threat and always have been. White supremacy has claimed so many black lives in this country’s history that there isn’t a number on it. 

In the last 10 years I can rattle off the top of my head mass shootings that have happened in this country. I’m doing this shit in real time: Sandy Hook, Pulse, festival Las Vegas, church in South Carolina, Stoneman Douglas High School, movie theater in Colorado. Sadly, I know I’m forgetting some. Shit is sick when there are enough mass murders where some may slip through the cracks of your memory. These past 10 years have taught me that mass  murders can happen anywhere at anytime but this truth doesn’t make me more afraid. It’s also shown white America that you too have to walk around in fear. I’ve always walked around with a certain level of fear or understanding that every time I step outside, something bad can happen to me.  

I’m a black man from Chicago, but I’m a light skinned man. I make this distinction because men and women that are darker than me may have been exposed to more overt racism than I have. This is true, but there’s a level of paranoia that every black man carries everywhere that he goes. I was in Oklahoma the same year Trayvon was murdered. I was there on the Electric Highway Tour. My friend and I exited an elevator on the first floor. A white family stood waiting. As we walked past I heard, “niggers” mumbled from the mother’s mouth. We were in shock. I couldn’t believe how she casually called us niggers and entered the elevator. 

Years later we were in Brentwood, Los Angeles visiting a friend who happens to be white. We were walking back from the burger spot up the street. Of course as we approached the apartment building a middle aged white woman was doing the same.When she realized we were all going to the same place, there was a startled look on her face. My friend opened the door for her just to show her we were harmless. She went her way and we went ours. As we sit in his apartment, there’s a knock at the door. The knock is too formal. My stomach begins to turn. The door opens and LAPD stands there. The officer said that he’d gotten a call that two guys were beating on doors. I’m in the officer’s line of sight, we make eye contact. In that moment we both realize what happened. The conversation ends quickly and the door closes. It was awkward after that. I was wounded by it. Not because she was racist, but because she can be racist and I have to do social gymnastics just to prove that “I’s a good nigga.” Everyday on social media there’s a new video of something similar or far worse.

Toni Morrison just passed away today at age 88. She is one of the most prolific writers in American history. As black people, we’ve lost some amazing storytellers and we’ll continue to lose more. They have given us all the wisdom they could give. It saddens me that that the generations before us fought so hard only for their words to still be as relevant and necessary today as they were when they were written. I’m afraid that in 60 years, nothing would have changed. Just to clarify,  Ms. Morrison isn’t a footnote in this piece. She’s the reason for this piece and the reason I will change what I write about and how I write about it. She’s the reason why I’m challenging my peers to do the same. We are the storytellers of this generation but what stories will we tell?

Kelvin HicksComment