Last night, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, when I decided to ask the cute young guy at the cashier, “What do the initials E.J. on your name tag stand for?” He looked a bit flustered by my question that veered off script, but replied, “My parents are Catholic, and my dad’s name is Emmanuel. When I was born, Dad insisted on calling me Emmanuel Jr. It’s quite a mouthful.”
The woman standing in line behind me nodded and said, “A beautiful name…God with us.”
I said, “My dad was a prisoner of war, and he tore pieces of wax paper into letters to spell Emmanuel and stuck them to the wall of his cell with toothpaste to remind himself that he was not alone.” At this point, the checker looked stunned by the depth of the conversation, so different from the usual upbeat chitchat at the till.
The woman behind me said, “That reminds me of a Victor Frankl quote–he said ‘people can take almost everything away from you, but they can’t take away how you see.'”*
I’m an artist, and I’m fascinated by how we see, and the stories or narratives we tell ourselves about reality. One of the reasons these narratives are so powerful is that they are largely subconscious. Narratives show up in pictures, in slips of the tongue, and most especially in what we avoid talking about and addressing in our society.
We don’t see our eyes, we look through them. A narrative is like a lens or a window, invisible and therefore really dangerous because we don’t question it. The narratives we believe are powerful because they lead to action or inaction and this is a life-or-death issue, because what we don’t see or perceive, we can’t act upon.
I want to share the powerful shift in my perception that I received this past weekend at a workshop called Kids and Race led by Jasen Frelot. Many of the examples of racial narratives and counter narratives in this post are ones that he presented. Perhaps the most potent tool that he gave me as an artist and writer is the idea of a counter narrative. Every time a dominant narrative gets challenged whether in word, image or example, KAZAAM, you have a counter narrative. Counter narratives shake up societal assumptions.
First, here’s an example of a counter narrative to the two extremes of the Left’s despair, and the Right’s glib denial of a problem regarding the state of our country. Rebecca Solnit’s counter narrative of Hope is so powerful that I couldn’t watch it all the way through in one sitting. She points out all the times in the past 100 years that ordinary people have triumphed over impossible odds–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of the first Black president, the end of nuclear energy expansion in the U.S., the vote for women and more. Her list is pretty exhaustive, and if it doesn’t make you feel a glimmer of Hope, I will eat my shoe. I don’t agree with her on everything, but she is indisputably a prophet, a bold voice in the wilderness of pessimism, cynicism and inaction.
Here’s a powerful narrative that I grew up with and NEVER once questioned:
Did you catch the message embedded here that as humanity evolved, we became whiter? Also, did you notice this is a male human, rather than a female human? I don’t think I’ve ever seen the evolution of humanity presented as a female, come to think of it.
Okay, so a quick web search shows that there are some, but again the same narrative about white supremacy shows up:
Here’s a counter narrative where the homo sapiens actually has blacker hair and skin than the Neanderthal:
Here’s another powerful narrative that I grew up believing, based on the Mercator Projection first presented by cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569:
Here’s a counter narrative, the Gall-Peters Projection, that more accurately represents the actual, comparative sizes of continents. When I saw it I was shocked at how large Africa and South America are in comparison to North America and Europe. Somehow, we continue using the other map in our schools and homes, even though it is wildly inaccurate and continues to perpetuate the myth of a White world when in fact more than half the world’s population is either Asian or African.
On the left (above), we have a Savior who might get the pat down at the airport for being a suspected terrorist. On the right, we have an image that could have been used in a Nazi propaganda poster. And that is why narratives matter. I don’t care one whit for political correctness. I’m not in favor of inventing untrue narratives to make traditionally underrepresented groups like gays, women, and people of color feel better. I’m interested in the truth. The problem with all of these narratives is that they reinforce lies (Jesus was Anglo Saxon, White people are more evolved than Black people, Northern Continents are bigger than Southern Continents, etc) and these untrue narratives maintain oppressive power structures while the people excluded, erased or misrepresented by these narratives bear the brunt.
And now for a few counter narratives:
These children’s books succeed as counter narratives to the dominant narrative of Black people as either Victims, Heroes or Violent Criminals by presenting ordinary, loving Black families leading nondramatic, beautiful lives.
I hope to write more about the power of the counter narratives in a future post. Suffice it to say, after weeks of hearing a voice in my head telling me that I’m alone and forgotten, I woke up today with a counter narrative spoken by me in a dream, “I have plenty of love.” And I started seeing all sorts of evidence that it was true–from the messages left me by my friends to the joy I felt in spending the day sewing a giant coat of many colors. That, my friends, is the power of the stories we tell to define and align ourselves with the Real. So, let’s take the world by storm and overwhelm it with truth, joy, compassion and hope.
*The quote actually goes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This post is dedicated with gratitude to Jasen Frelot.