The Weight of a Single Word: Black American Stories
Storytelling is one of the most empowering acts in the human experience. A storyteller has the ability to uniquely curate each piece of their tale - the plot, characters, setting, language and tone - in a way that leaves their fingerprints on us, the audience. While the teller cannot control how a listener interprets their message, they alone choose how the story is communicated, ideally without the filter or editing of another’s bias. Being immersed in a well-written narrative leaves us vulnerable to an encounter as close as, or even closer than, a face-to-face conversation with the narrator.
We owe it to ourselves to interact with a variety of stories, to marinate in lovingly-crafted language, because in this medium we learn to empathize, to understand, to find our own voice amidst the inspiration of others’ accounts. Throughout my life, and particularly during the last several years, I have been shaped, taught, overwhelmed and inspired by reading the work of many African American authors. Since moving to Atlanta, the birthplace of the American Civil Rights movement, I’ve felt beckoned to listen to and learn from black storytellers. In turn, these important voices and tales have molded me as a writer and person.
The experience of black people in the United States is inherent to the fabric of our national identity, yet its role is so often downplayed, over-simplified, or ignored. Nevertheless, numerous gifted black writers have told their stories throughout our history, sharing the value, pain and beauty of their experience in resounding prose and poetry. Reading their writing transports me. Maybe I don’t fully understand their experiences, but I can sense the truth of them. They are flesh and blood experiences, water and dirt, minute to minute acts of breathing, speaking, and participating in family relationships, neighborhoods, modes of transportation, workplaces and cultural expression, varying between people yet common points we all share. They carry the effect of feeling the sun on someone else’s skin, reaching beyond my burdens to carry those of another, taking in the phrases painted on the page in a kaleidoscope of color, making me stop, think, and wonder at the vastness of the world and the weight of a single word or thought. These stories face the sobering reality of our shared past, the progress and inequities of our present, and the haunting promise of tomorrow from the perspective of the black experience. All the while, they usher me to come to terms with my experience and responsibility as a white person.
When I think about the most impactful work that I’ve read so far by black writers, a few indelible themes come to mind. These include the masterful rendering of place, ancestral history, fractured yet loving relationships, justice and its adversaries, spiritual encounters with the Divine, and persistent hope.
As you review the examples of these themes I list below, I hope you are encouraged to read stories by these authors, as well the many other African American storytellers who so bravely and skillfully steward their (and by extension our) unfolding history.
In Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, she provides a textured setting and backstory for the main character, young Pecola Breedlove, by describing her family’s dwelling and its surroundings. Her description sounds like local history from a neighbor. Yet the poetic phrases also reveal the family’s lowly position in society and foreshadows the defeated sense of self-contempt that is a grave centerpiece to Pecola’s character arc.
“There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio. It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy...
"So fluid has the population in that area been, that probably no one remembers longer, longer ago, before the time of the gypsies and the time of the teen-agers when the Breedloves lived there, nestled together in the storefront. Festering together in the debris of the realtor’s whim. They slipped in and out of the box of peeling gray, making no stir in the neighborhood, no sound in the labor force, and no wave in the mayor’s office.”
- Toni Morrison
In his award-winning book, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead introduces Cora's backstory and motivation by illustrating her grandmother’s and mother’s quests to maintain their dignity despite being enslaved on a Georgia plantation. The garden plot that Ajarry tends to becomes Mabel’s and then Cora’s inheritance, a single slice of ownership eked from an otherwise spoken for existence. The small piece of land reminds Cora of her roots and her ancestors’ rebellion against the status quo.
"Feast or no feast, this was where Cora ended up every Sunday when their half day of work was done: perched on her seat, looking for things to fix. She owned herself for a few hours every week was how she looked at it, to tug weeds, pluck caterpillars, thin out the sour greens, and glare at anyone planning incursions on her territory. Tending to her bed was necessary maintenance but also a message that she had not lost her resolve since the day of the hatchet.
"The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew."
- Colson Whitehead
James Baldwin’s short story, The Rock Pile, shares the same family of characters as Go Tell It on the Mountain, one of his most famous novels. Brothers John and Roy are tempted to join the neighborhood boys on the rock pile across from their Brooklyn dwelling, against their mother’s wishes. When Roy’s brash foolishness results in injury, John, the older brother, is blamed for the misfortune by his formidable stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher. This confrontation spurs John’s protective, peacemaking mother, Elizabeth, to go toe to toe with her husband in her firstborn’s defense, bringing deep-seated resentment to the surface of a room electric with tension.
“[Elizabeth] tried to soothe Delilah back to sleep. Then she heard the front door open and close - too loud, Delilah raised her voice, with an exasperated sigh Elizabeth picked the child up. Her child and Gabriel’s, her children and Gabriel’s: Roy, Delilah, Paul. Only John was nameless and a stranger, living, unalterable testimony to his mother’s days in sin.
“What happened?” Gabriel demanded. He stood, enormous, in the center of the room, his black lunchbox dangling from his hand, staring at the sofa where Roy lay. John stood just before him, it seemed to her astonished vision just below him, beneath his fist, his heavy shoe. The child stared at the man in fascination and terror - when a girl down home [Elizabeth] had seen rabbits stand so paralyzed before the barking dog. She hurried past Gabriel to the sofa, feeling the weight of Delilah in her arms like the weight of a shield, and stood over Roy, saying:
“Now, ain’t a thing to get upset about Gabriel. This boy sneaked downstairs while I had my back turned and got hisself hurt a little. He’s alright now.”
- James Baldwin
In Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Cassie Logan lives in Jim Crow Mississippi with her family on land purchased by her grandfather. The Logans are one of the few black landowning families in the area, but Cassie, Little Man and her other brothers and neighbors still have to walk to school, as the bus only transports white students. To make matters worse, the bus driver seeks to intimidate and humiliate the children. This spurs strong-willed Cassie to settle the score, putting her family at further risk of racist violence.
“Little Man turned around and watched saucer-eyed as a bus bore down on him spewing clouds of red dust like a huge yellow dragon breathing fire. Little Man headed toward the bank, but it was too steep. He ran frantically along the road looking for a foothold and, finding one, hopped onto the bank, but not before the bus had sped past enveloping him in a scarlet haze while laughing white faces pressed against the bus windows.”
- Mildred D. Taylor
Howard Thurman recalls his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida, with enrapturing language in his autobiography, With Head and Heart. His upbringing was rooted in Christian community, but some of his most peaceful, grounding, and influential spiritual moments occurred outside of the church walls, along the shore of the limitless ocean and below a towering tree in his backyard.
"When the storms blew, the branches of the large oak tree in our backyard would snap and fall. But the topmost branches of the oak tree would sway, giving way just enough to save themselves from snapping loose. I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I wanted to hold my ground. Eventually, I discovered that the oak tree and I had a unique relationship. I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that I was understood."
- Howard Thurman
Although set in modern-day Portland, Renee Watson’s Jade in Piecing Me Together processes her high school and family woes by creating paper collages inspired by York, the enslaved black man who journeyed west with Lewis and Clark. Jade’s creativity and angst, her frustrations and aspirations, are layered like cut-out pages in first person narrative as she describes her work, standing at the precipice of the rest of her life, standing on the shoulders of important yet forgotten historical figures like York.
“I’ve been combining moments from different photos, blending decades, people, and worlds that don’t belong together. Knitting history into the beautiful, bloody tapestry it is...
"I see York traveling west again, knowing which way to go this time. I see him crossing rivers, crossing mountains, seeing the Native Americans who were so awed by him. This time he is no one’s servant or slave. This time he tells them the whole story, tells how he is the first of his kind.
"This time he speaks for himself.
"Of the art I’ve been making lately, this is the only one where I’ve included myself. I am with York, both of us with maps in our hands. Both of us black and traveling. Black and exploring. Both of us discovering what we are really capable of.”
- Renee Watson