As I’ve walked the streets of places like San Juan, Havana, the Bahamas, I have become aware of a Black culture that I reside just outside of. There is a dash or dollop of Africa that you can hear in the music, see in the radiant colors of the people’s skin, and taste in the rice, bread, vegetables, and meat. I can sense where generations of Black people in those places have made something of themselves in a land far away from Africa. It causes me to wonder about their origin stories. Are they descended from chefs, writers, or artists?
My encounters with others in the African Diaspora cause me to long for Black Americans to be free enough to be able to tell better stories about ourselves.
One of the better stories that we can tell is how we express joy in a world that wants to destroy us. One of my favorite things to witness is Black women and girls in a group talking loudly to each other in public. I love to witness this because, more than anyone, Black women and girls are told to silence their joy and pain—celebrate quietly and humbly, or don’t celebrate at all. I believe it is necessary to be expressive and exuberant when joy is upon you. Pain will cycle through shortly, so enjoy yourselves today.
Another way to tell better stories is to acknowledge our common language. When I was coming of age, there was a debate both within and outside the Black community about Ebonics (known as African American Vernacular English or African American English today). In the late 1990s, the school board in Oakland, California recognized Ebonics as a primary language of Black American children. Doing so allowed the school district to set aside money to teach students Ebonics (with the hopes of improving Standard American English mastery) and incentivize staff proficiency in the language, but the decision was also highly controversial.
As a teenager during this time, I encountered many different reactions to the Ebonics debate in the Black community. One end of the spectrum made it seem like Black children weren’t capable of learning “correct” English, so they shouldn’t learn Ebonics either. The other end argued that knowing Ebonics was similar to being bilingual; Black people understood “correct” English and could also communicate within our own socio-ethnic enclaves.
I tend to believe that most of us understand so-called “Standard American English” and that we also have the ability to code-switch. In other words, we know the rules, but we are selective about when we choose to play by them. Our language can help us tell a better story because, as Black Americans, we have our own way of expressing ourselves that transcends the “norm.”
There are many more aspects to our better story. How we dress tells the story of our collective pride. What we eat is a story of resilience. The music we make is a spark of creativity. The more that oppression disconnects us from this better story, the more we forget that our lives are greater than the story of our oppression. Our stories are more than a compilation of unfortunate events; they testify to human survival. Our stories tell the story of us: we are joy birthed from pain, a song born of silence, a culture when they expected conformity.
We were forcibly taken from the land that fed, raised, and buried us. The ones who came after those ancestors have never found rest in that land again. Many of us labored and toiled on the land, praying for liberty. Some of us ran in search of the elusive concept of freedom. What we found was more land that wanted us to wash away our true selves. That land was only fertile for those who did not rock the boat. But that was a problem—the boat was in the way of the promise of freedom, so the boat needed to be rocked.
We clung to the promise made in the ancient text that says, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end, they will come away with great wealth.” This text might not be about us, but we have used it to make sense of our struggle.
And now, during this new Civil Rights Era, we have the opportunity to tell the story of how the Almighty has marked us. We are made in our Creator’s image. Our culture and our survival are manifestations of how he has preserved us. We were stamped for destruction, yet we are still here.
We have a better story—it’s time we tell it. Let’s tell stories that consider our collective experiences while acknowledging our collective perseverance.