Racism, Sexism and the Fight for the Story
I’m reading a fascinating novel right now. It’s called Lion’s Blood. It’s by American Sci Fi writer Steven Barnes, and the reason it came to my attention was because of a Facebook post from Steven critizing the up-coming HBO series by Game of Throne creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss called Confederate.
Confederate is about an alternative reality where the South won the U.S Civil war, and slavery still exists in the modern day. As you could imagine, Barnes, whose own novel Lion’s Blood turns US history on its head with an alternative world of its own where black Africans enslaved White Europeans in the new world, and often writes/lectures on racial issues and storytelling, is not a big fan of the idea. (See his comments in The Hollywood Reporter here, and buy his book, it’s excellent.).
Reading his comments on the upcoming series, I had an “aha” moment. He’s right! No one (least of all black people) needs yet another portrayal of blacks as slaves, and especially as slaves in the modern day. It’s at best problematic, and at worst racist. He calls it dangerous.
The ‘aha’ moment wasn’t only that Barnes was right to be critical of this potentially hugely flawed idea (which he was), it was more that his criticism of it seems to be gaining traction. People are jumping on it, mostly everyone in agreement with his concerns. What he’s doing, and what a lot of other people are doing, is challenging the story.
It’s another confirmation of a trend I see happening fast and furious in our culture:
The breaking down of the dominant myths of modern western culture.
And the fight for the right to shape the new myths.
What Barnes is saying is essentially “enough is enough!” – can we stop tellling the story of the founding of the United States and the Civil War through only one lens, from the perspective of white people? Enough is enough! There are other perspectives at play that are very, very important to be telling right now.
He’s fighting for the right to shape a new ‘myth’, one that is more fair and balanced, or even one that competes directly with the dominant myth. The fight for the story.
And I call it a fight for a reason – it has all the feel of a battle. People get offended when cherished beliefs are challenged, when new perspectives and ideas emerge that challenge them. Storytelling is deep stuff. Stories define us and are not easily relinquished.
Another example? Check out the “Removing Cornwallis” event on Facebook. Read the comments. This was a protest group, spearheaded by members/supporters of the local Mi’kmaq nation, that managed to get a statue of Edward Cornwallis removed from a city park in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (In 1749, Cornwallis issued an infamous scalping proclamation promising a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, and had been considered the ‘father’ of modern Halifax.).
They were challenging the story. Fighting for the right to tell a different version of it. Like Barnes, they were saying “enough is enough”.
What’s interesting to me is that from what I can tell, there wasn’t much of push-back, and most Halifaxians seemed to shrug and say ‘go ahead, take it down’.
But there was a little bit. Although there was some out-and-out racism, the push-back was pretty mild, and mostly in the form of caution, worrying about what other Mi’kmaq version of the story would replace it. Something along the lines of “ok, we’ll back off from the ‘Cornwallis as hero’ version of the story, as long as you don’t replace it with a “all white people were evil genocidal conquerers and you were innocents” version.
Fair enough, history is always full of shades of grey. Real stories, real history is full of dark and light, heros and villians. And if we don’t like or agree with how someone is telling a story, then challenge it. Tell the truth as close to accurately as you can.
Activist Sarian Carson Fox, talking about the need to hear Indigenous voices, says it bluntly in this video: “Stop Telling Our Stories for Us!”
Oh, and I mentioned sexism in the title too, so here goes – I see this same trend in how women are fighting to tell their stories in their own voices. Think of the introduction of the word “mansplaining” into our lexicon. A few years ago, I’d never heard of that concept. But now, I see it being called out all the time. Frankly, women are tired of men speaking for them.
I see it also in how many writers and commentators are challenging the “John McCain as lone hero” narrative coming out from the recent defeat of the ‘Skinny Repeal” bill in the US Senate (an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act). They are pointing out that Senator McCain was only one of three Republican senators to oppose the bill. The other two were women. Women who had more to lose and put up with more harrasment to cast their ‘No’ votes. I’ve seen article after article coming up fighting for an alternative narrative, a story that is more balanced and true. We are done with being silenced, or as in the case with Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, being cast in supporting roles aside the male hero.
It’s part of that same underlying urge Steven Barnes is writing about, that the Mi’kmaq are protesting. It is arising from being silenced too long – “enough is enough. let me tell my own story in my own voice’. Stop speaking for me and start listening to me.
Challenging the popular, dominant version of the story. Fighting for the right to shape a new myth.
We are in a period of massive change, change that it is happening at breakneck speeds.
Power is shifting.
Myths are collapsing.
And if you want the new world that is arising to be fair, good, compassionate, if you want to be heard, then get ready to fight for your story.
Because there is no new world without new stories. New myths will arise to replace the old. Now is the time to speak up. Because if the ‘lightworkers’ and compassion seekers of the world don’t fight for the right to be heard and to have their stories told, then others will …
and you may not like the stories they will tell.