We need stories.

We need them like we need water.

It took me a long time to know this for a long time.

Perhaps I'm thinking of early experiences. How narratives inform everything. They're how we disseminate information and make it burrow deep down so we don't have to think so hard. We can just go about our lives. They're how we convince each other and ourselves of belonging-to and devoting-to things bigger than ourselves, things incomprehensible. They're how we learn to be human.

I think we're not as functionally smart as we'd like to believe and that its stories that really make the stuff stick.

But stories don't stop there. Narratives confirm and re-confirm what we already "knew". They're how we point out and say 'well, if this story-thing is everywhere, it must be true'. We construct our own stories around those stories as they uplift us or sink us. Often, we never really know what they're doing either way.  Stories, therefore, are as alive as we are.

Mos Def, "Black On Both Sides"

Mos Def, "Black On Both Sides"

Listen.. people be askin’ me all the time,
”Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?”
(Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us”
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
comin down to visit the townspeople
We (are) Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So Hip-Hop is goin where we goin
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
ask yourself.. where am I goin? How am I doin?
Til you get a clear idea
— Mos Def, "Black On Both Sides"

 

What is the current state of our storytelling?

Market forces and dominant cultures seem to have a stronghold on the narrative - consciously or unconsciously - out of profit or mere survival.

We invest in stories of the past to guide our future. We construct future-narratives with huge consequences for the present. 

There is a mass of stories which aim to make us comfortable, complacent, perpetually on the brink, but never quite...there. They want us to buy things to cope in between the breaks that we are provided. In this way we live, I'd argue, in a coping culture. In degrees, perhaps this has always been true.

What is the coping culture of the 21st century? And where do our stories intersect? Can our stories resolve this moment? Might they perpetuate it?

I'm interested in stories from every angle: what's the widest range of stories can we tell? Why should we tell them now? Who do we tell them for? Can a story wake me up? Can a story put me to sleep? What's the difference? 

"ackee & saltfish" (2014) dir: cecile emeke

"ackee & saltfish" (2014) dir: cecile emeke

I’m not a minority. I think people should start rejecting this term. I view the world through my own gaze. On a planet where the majority of people are brown like me.
— Cecile Emeke

Who controls who sees whom in our stories? What is normal? What is a risk in storytelling?  What stories do we take for granted? What stories do we think we know, but have no idea? How can stories gain visibility when the storytellers themselves are maligned?

What is my place in all this? What is my responsibility? How can I use the yearnings of myself and others to unleash - not restrict - the scope of my storytelling?

I don't propose to have answers, but rather to use stories as an antecedent to the solutions. Einstein offered us the gift that "often times the formulation of a problem is more essential than its solution". Yes, stories as problems. Stories as mirrors. How do we look today? Stories as manifestations. Becomings. Stories as infinite loops that only we can break. Stories which are meant to be broken.

Can we be so bold as to come to our stories to learn, and re-learn, and learn again?

Can we come to our stories to be broken?

justin simien wins Best First Screenplay at the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards

justin simien wins Best First Screenplay at the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards

I started writing this movie some 10 years ago as an impulse because I didn’t really my story out there in the culture… I didn’t see myself reflected back at me in the films I love or the stories that resonated for me. I tried to put myself in the culture. That can be difficult when, along the way, there’s really nothing there to tell you that you belong there.. If you don’t see yourself in the culture, please put yourself there, because we need you. We need to see the world from your eyes.
— Justin Simien

I am invested in the pursuit of stories. I merely wish to keep all my senses open.

I recently read an article where the writer stated they were sick of slave movies. I understand the feeling, but I think to the contrary, we must re-visit them, we must recapitulate our storytelling so that these slave movies come closer to something which we have missed, something that enables our children to blossom unrestricted in their freedom, unfettered in their growth, and limitless in their potential. Who ever met a person that didn't need some freeing? I see it not as a matter of either/or, but of also/and. Because I also want more than slave movies and struggle stories for black people. What is the widest range of narratives we can create?

This pursuit is daunting. As my friend Jamila Reddy has written, "The strength of being Black in this lifetime is knowing how to stay as close to your joy as you do your grief — claiming your right to pleasure with the same fervor you claim your right to rage." May we all be strong storytellers - with belly laughs that shake the trees and tears which enrich the soil. This inquiry is what I have made my life's work.

When I was a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Something about frontiers, discovery, adventure, and vastness conjured some yearning. I'm still not sure if I'd consider myself an artist. I still kind of want to be an astronaut. But I suppose so long as I've got my hands full with some vastness, I'll be alright.

Statement: So long as we can tell stories, we will be alright. 

CJM
2.5.16

(Left to right)
"COPS!"; Tulsi Maya
"Venus Anadyomène"; Kehinde Wiley
Edited "Clueless" Movie Still; Artist Unknown
“New Generation;” Elizabeth Catlett
President Barack Obama & Jacob Philadelphia; Pete Souza/NYT