Enlightened storytelling

Bystanders plaque at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

My son and I recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where we visited my college-aged daughter.

On the one hand, there were cherry blossoms and a kite festival, and tasty plant-based meals as a reunited family. On the other hand, there were visits to museums dedicated to the experiences of displaced Native Americans, enslaved Africans and disregarded Holocaust victims, which reminded us how cruel and callous people can be.

I like to think that the younger generations are ushering in, with non-binary inclinations, a new definition of power. I like to think that after women reach at least 50% of leadership, we will see faster change. I like to think that we do bend toward justice.

A friend once described me, after he continually trounced me in chess matches, as a “persevering optimist.”

But I also recognize in those museum messages that our treatment of “others” today, and our ignorance of authoritarianism, is very similar to what we loathe about the past. In 1938, a conference of 32 countries was held to talk about the Jewish refugees Hitler was pushing out as “inferiors.” No major country would take impactful steps toward refuge, and the extermination began.

One 1788 quote, enshrined on a panel at the Museum of African American History and Culture, encapsulated our ability to be bystanders: “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves, but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar or rum?”

Narratives in the media

Just prior to the trip, I was part of a two-day event, co-hosted by MPR, about racial narratives in the media. Much of the conversation focused on how certain communities feel invisible — or how quick reporting, by people outside those communities, leads to stereotypical storytelling.

Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of the award-winning Latino USA, was on a panel moderated by MPR’s Angela Davis. Hinojosa said she got tired of trying to persuade management of the value of telling certain stories, so she created her own platform.

For similar reasons, Mark Trahant, a Native man, left mainstream newspapers to become editor of Indian Country News.

Later, I was in a small group discussion. A local publisher noted a concern that if every community connects only with its own storytellers, we remain in silos without understanding each other’s experiences.

How to create solidarity

In D.C., I noted a museum panel about the Resurrection City tent community of 3,000 people on the National Mall, a few weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968.  Over its six weeks, the Poor People’s Campaign organizers tried to create a multinational coalition focused on living wages and full employment.

The panel indicated they learned how important it was “for each group to create its own solidarity, and how future coalitions required the ability to acknowledge their differences but focus on their shared values.”

Sometimes I despair over whether solidarity is achievable alongside identity politics. I confessed this to the moderator of a book discussion group, which is exploring Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now.” He pointed out Pinker’s comment:

“Humans, we now know … are guided by intuitions about authority, tribe and purity; are committed to sacred beliefs that express their identity; and are driven by conflicting inclinations toward revenge and reconciliation.”

Who gets the floor?

As we’ve been discussing in the book group, an enlightened culture does not let bullies who believe in “others” control the narratives.

Reason, data and analysis of what works and what does not — with input from the grassroots level — might not come across as strongly in storytelling as do emotionally charged “opinionaters.” Yet experience shows that an enlightened community tends to be more accurate in naming and resolving issues.

The enlightened simply have to fight hard to lead the debate.

As the Rev. David Breeden put it in a recent local talk, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion reminds us that brave people had to stand up against a police raid to say, “I am not broken! It is society that is messed up!”

He continued: “Stonewall was the Enlightenment in action. Our call is to face the fear. Our call is to lose the fear. Name it. Reason about it. And seek the justice that only reason can create.”

It is hard to know what our communities might look like today if, instead of choosing to open up the country 400 years ago by ownership of people and resources, we had maintained the vision of Indigenous cultures to honor our interconnected ecosystem as people and planet.

The enlightened aim is to share stories to help us get there.

Mikki Morrissette is the owner of Minnesota Women’s Press, which showcases women who are shifting narratives to effect change.