Opinion
 

How to fight the polarization that’s poisoning our politics and our city: listen to each other’s stories

According to Alex Haley, “The most powerful phrase in the English language is, ‘Let me tell you a story.’” Flannery O’Connor used to put it this way, “A people is known not by their statistics or their statements but by the stories they tell.” Michelle Obama blesses storytelling in her new book “Becoming”: “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something you own.”

I like to say: “The most important thing about any one of us is our personal story.”

With the increasing polarization in our city, state, and nation, the storytelling that Haley, O’Connor  and Obama invite seems more and more essential. The president of  the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, writes convincingly about how loneliness in America—more loneliness now than ever before—is one of the main reasons people turn to angry politics where they think they will find some kind of supportive home.  Moreover, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, this year more than 45,000 of our people will take their lives, and that’s only a twenty-fifth of those who attempt suicide! Loneliness is often the reason.

Brooks’ solution: “Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.” Good advice for sure, but I want to take his advice further and encourage the angry and the lonely to listen to the personal stories of others and find ways to tell their own stories.

When we tell our stories and really listen to the stories of others, we may find ourselves still in strong disagreement and still lonely in our lives, but something will have changed. We will find ourselves in a new place, “happier,” in the way Brooks uses that term, as we learn to appreciate one another’s humanity. Good for others, good for us.

As an Episcopal pastor, I have spent most of my retired years listening to and sometimes recording diverse stories: in prisons, in various secular groups, as well as in faith communities. I worked many of these stories into a 2017 book, “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond.” I wanted to challenge the view widespread among white people that the black youth in our city are the source of our problems, especially crime.

The title of the book comes from the first chapter in Mark’s Gospel: Satan has driven Jesus into the wilderness, a terribly harsh place, for 40 days and nights. The wild beasts are after him. And then we are told that the angels ministered to Jesus (Mark 1:12-13, Revised Standard Version). Besides inviting the “angels” in my book to tell their stories, I regularly invite others in various groups I have been part of to tell their “angels in the wilderness” stories. I find this an excellent way for me to get to know people and for them to get to know each other.

In one of the chapters, I asked several “angels” from the group Icons for Peace to tell their stories. The Icons define themselves as “a Constitutional Citizen movement. We are students and professionals who are educated and trained to effect community change. . . . The Icons’ primary goal is to build the capacity of local youth leaders to create a stronger civic engagement and advocacy infrastructure that gives the youth of New Orleans power over issues facing their vulnerable communities.”

Cheryl Gerber

Derrick ‘Sonny’ Strong

I was privileged to meet with the Icons, and I support them in any way I can. Many were part of gangs. Gangs become a kind of “home” for them, but they are also a youthful, inner-city version of the angry, self-righteous, political efforts that bring on such mean-spiritedness and polarization these days. Before becoming Icons, some had gone from gangs to prison. But now, with their visual art, their rap, their poetry, their music, the Icons—connecting with youth even better than churches—have been able to support other young African Americans, some of whom have been on the verge of committing serious crimes.

I often invite Derrick “Sonny” Strong to join me on book readings. A rap artist and poet, he spent several years in prison before he became an Icon. Sonny is also a visual artist, and when he was an inmate at Orleans Parish Prison, he drew pictures of the oppressive conditions inmates endured there: asbestos flaking off the walls, toilets leaking non-stop. He drew people fighting to use the one shower that was available to 95 men. He drew pictures of the paper bags inmates put over toilets to keep insects from coming out of them. A Muslim chaplain brought the drawings to the attention of federal authorities, and the drawings figured in the consent decree that requires the sheriff to put an end to such inhumanity.

In another chapter, with stories from the amazingly strong after-school program College Track, in the middle of the Ninth Ward, Tia Cage writes about how she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her sophomore year in high school. Before that, she had everything going for her. Here is how she ends her story, titled “Differently Abled”:

Cheryl Gerber

Tia Cage

Getting back on track with school my senior year was harder than I had hoped. I am mostly wheelchair bound, and although my right leg isn’t functional, I am learning to walk with assistance (with a brace, walker and crutches). My heart was set on nursing, but I’ve questioned whether I would ever be able to do something that rigorous. I think about how my life would be different if I were not diagnosed with cancer. I would be working with JUMA [an employment program for teens] at the New Orleans Superdome, where I would get to see my favorite football team, the Saints, while saving money for college. I would be helping my family in any way I could. I would be a member of the varsity volleyball team at Lake Area High School, a loyal volunteer worker at many different places, a better friend, daughter, sister, and aunt.

Cheryl Gerber

Robert Burnside

I wouldn’t change a thing though. I surprise myself with the goals I accomplish every day. I also found the career I would be more than happy doing the rest of my life, which is social services. One day I will start my own non-profit organization helping those I have learned to call “differently abled” teens, like me.

Another student from College Track, Robert Burnside, tells of how when he was sixteen he was accosted by five or six police officers with weapons drawn who had mistaken him for the young black man they were looking for. Though terrified by the experience Robert tells how he resolved not to become bitter, but to become better. He is now working to support inner-city youth like himself. Because of lingering and damaging racism, the young people in this book have every reason to become bitter but, like Robert, in various ways they have resolved to become better.

Cheryl Gerber

Tugga Cloud

And here, in the first chapter, is Big Chief Tugga Cloud, of the Red Flame Hunters, the only all-youth Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Most afternoons for 11 months Tuggs sews his glorious feathered outfit, getting ready for Mardi Gras and the opportunity to lead his fellow Indians, walking, dancing, and singing on a 10-hour excursion that takes them anywhere in the city they choose to venture. At the same time, Tugga and his “Indian” friends learn the kind of discipline that keeps them out of gangs, out of trouble—and dedicated to becoming good citizens.

And finally, here is a copyrighted poem by Kelly Harris DeBerry, used with permission. She offers this poem, “Names Don’t Name Me,” as part of her story in the chapter on Christian Unity Baptist Church, where she is a devoted member.

 

Cheryl Gerber

Kelly Harris DeBerry

My 6th graders know

good words from bad ones,

except when the word

starts with N.

 

Sometimes, it’s hard for them

to explain why

it drifts easy without an anchor

or thought or history

or excuse me or oops

or don’t or stop saying

that N word.

 

It’s just there, they say—

on purpose sometimes,

a habit mostly between

friends, ya know?

 

The N word don’t mean

what it meant.

Used to be a bad sign

in a yard, on fire in the South.

 

It’s just familiar talk before

what’s up or please.

It’s the beat we speak

when the radio’s on

and the jokes fly.

 

It’s the punch line emphasized.

You’ve heard

a woman cussing mad

or a fight starting in a street

 

Could be an N word

acting like an N.

 

Depends,

on the mouth’s

meaning and if

you’re in or outside

of strangers (white folks).

 

Don’t want them

thinking our talk

is theirs, it’s different.

 

Can’t explain why

our English

don’t mean—mean

the way it used to

in slavery, in Mississippi,

in Georgia, in Memphis,

in Kentucky, in stores,

in bathrooms, in schools,

in courtrooms, in elections

in hospitals, in restaurants,

in banks, in day or night.

 

The N word don’t hang

in doors or from trees

or chase my feet or grandpa

no more.

 

That’s history, they say.

6th graders know these things.

They learned it all before

knowing the right way

to rub words together

to start a fire.

 

I could go on and on with the amazing stories and poems from the black youth in the New Orleans wilderness. No gang-seeking, no destructive loneliness here.

Like Alex Haley, Flannery O’Connor, and Michelle Obama, I hope that more and more people will tell their stories and try to appreciate the stories of others, whether they are young and black in New Orleans, or driven into angry, polarizing conflict as a way of dealing with their loneliness, or like me doing fine, for now. Our angry, polarized city, state and nation can still be that “sweet land of liberty,” of thee we sing.

William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. It’s available on Amazon or from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. Special thanks to Cheryl Gerber for permission to reprint her photographs from the book.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.