Storytelling and Racial Healing

Robert E. Lee Statue, Charlottesville, Virginia (Wikimedia Commons).

I recently returned from a storytelling school in a small coastal town on the North Channel of Northern Ireland. I spent a week with a small group of Irish and Americans learning about the uses of storytelling in peace and reconciliation processes. Similar to its role in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Holocaust Germany, among other places, storytelling played an understated yet vital role in the social healing of Northern Ireland following its longstanding sectarian strife. In the wake of the Troubles—the most recent period of often violent conflict in Northern Ireland between the 1960s and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998—storytelling brought those advocating for a united Ireland and those advocating to remain part of the United Kingdom into unprecedented testimony and listening. For the Americans attending the storytelling school, from varied states and of varied lineage, the acts of storytelling as part of Northern Ireland’s peace process reinforced the need for our own nation’s storytelling, especially in the wake of Charlottesville.

Amidst the hatred and violence on display in that southern college town was a narrow story of the United States. Chants such as “blood and soil” vocalized familiar white racial claims to the nation. They made powerfully audible what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie warns as the danger of a single story. The chanting told a singular story of the history, land, people, symbols, and future of the United States and race took center stage in the national conversation. The story that was being told shocked and hurt, precisely because the story was so narrow and exclusionary.

Part of the work of racial healing is the need for more inclusive narratives. Storywork is about telling personal stories and having them heard by others different than ourselves. It necessitates vulnerability and risk. It requires acts of telling and listening to uncomfortable and sometimes agonizing accounts. In storywork, listening does not mean agreeing. The mission of storywork is not to assert right or wrong, but in the exchange of emotion and experience, to engender deep understanding.

In Northern Ireland these practices meant gathering Protestants and Catholics; bringing together grieving family members of those killed during the conflict; the soldiers and militia members who killed; and the witnesses who, in the face of violence, regrettably did nothing. One of our teachers, Dr. Derick Wilson, a professor emeritus of education and an advocate/practitioner of storytelling as a tool of practical reconciliation, described stories as “the space where I can speak my questions, express my uncertainty and brokenness, the hurt done to others by me, and the hurt done to me by others.” Storytelling can liberate because it can re-humanize.

Frederick Douglass mural on the “Solidarity Wall,” Belfast Northern Ireland (Wikimedia Commons).

Storywork is an under-practiced yet a familiar and still growing resource in the project of racial healing in the U.S. The simple words Black Lives Matter, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, changed the national story on the value of Black lives. For years, public interest lawyer and prison reform activist, Bryan Stevenson, has drawn on his personal narrative to provide an intimate look at the racial disparities and inhumanities of the criminal justice system in the United States. Under Stevenson’s directorship, the Equal Justice Initiative‘s (EJI) recent exhibition “seeks to spark an honest conversation about the legacy of racial injustice in America today” and forms part of their broader research and efforts to memorialize the victims of lynching and racial violence in the U.S.

As a nation, we have yet to hold a serious and sustained engagement about the legacy of genocide and racial terror in the country. Even more needed is truthful racial storytelling from and amongst white people. These almost socially forbidden stories are essential to creating the conditions of understanding and trust needed for inter- and intra-racial relationships to be re-imagined and remade.

Exploring storywork in Northern Ireland was generative not only because the country faced the violence and animosity of a sectarian society, but also because it reminded me of the need for our racial storywork to dialogue with the struggles of others. In Belfast, driving past a mural of Frederick Douglass, I recalled how his 1845 sojourn across the U.K. sought to grow international solidarity amongst the oppressed. During his visit to Ireland, which included Northern Ireland, Douglass published, and sold out, copies of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He used his own story to draw his northern audience’s attention to the conditions of Black people in the United States, and to galvanize political support from a population with its own history of subjugation, and on the verge of famine.

Fellow Irish classmates shared their alarm at seeing in Charlottesville what they had once witnessed during the Troubles. They also compared the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States to the conservative political turn that supported the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. As scholar Amartya Sen writes, “No theory of justice can ignore the whole world…There are few non-neighbors left in the world today.” If listening is justice, as Dr. Derick Wilson proposed to our group, then a further reaching notion of justice must include the willingness to hear how our struggles converse with those of others. It also asks us to heed the lessons of how other nations and peoples have attended to their own deep troubles.

Storywork is hopeful and incomplete, but not naïve. Stories cannot solve the systemic problem of racism and racial ideology. Rather, storywork can be a tool and practice of reconciliation in its capacity to invite new modes of engagement, if only temporarily. As Wilson cautioned, “[S]tories might only be small shafts of light piercing a dark landscape, soon to be snuffed out or they were, and are, stories of contrast that give new possibilities if people exercise new choices together.”

With the International Day of Peace approaching on September 21st, we can task ourselves with courageously asking what conversations we need to have and what stories might we be willing to tell and hear.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.