Storytelling for Social Change

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A response about the nature of storytelling as a means of social change–from Frederick Douglass’s 19th century autobiography to the current climate of education reform:

In the deep gashes of head wounds, the heart-wrenching separation of mother from child, and the action-packed gang violence silhouetted across farm barn walls, Frederick Douglass painted the landscape of 19th century slavery in the medium of his autobiography. Douglass’ act of storytelling is a dichotomous representation of his freedom from bondage and the cross he bears—laden with the responsibility of speaking for a diverse population of oppressed people. Recruited to tell a tale of “self-made freedom” as a key piece of the abolitionist movement, Douglass was utterly conscious of his white audience. In carefully critical paragraphs, Douglass structures his story in a familiar form–adhering to a relatable arc of crescendo and rising action, climate, denouement, and resolution.[i]

Douglass, like so many activists that would follow in his footsteps, used a familiar form to express a new message. In the same way that he learned the white man’s conventions in written word and speech in order to pave his path for escape,[ii] Douglass wrote his autobiography in a crescendo and decrescendo of combat that was provocative yet familiar for his white audience of potential abolitionists. Scenes of white vs. black violence play on the entertaining theme of the “dark horse”[iii] in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, and the reader is left hurriedly flipping pages—captivated  by the horrors of inhumanity. Entangled in the plot, the reader clutching the autobiography is open to digest a provocative appendix focused on the hypocrisy of the “Christian” slaveholder. However, even this critique by Douglass includes a disclaimer: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” (321). In his writing, Frederick Douglass makes constant compromises—tweaking his message for optimum impact. The line he treads is thin. If a white person reading his autobiography in the 19th century were too overwhelmed by the deep terrors of American’s culture of slavery, a call to action could feel futile. Balancing the gore of whippings and the atrocity of the slave auction with an appeal to the family values of white women, Douglass perfects his art of storytelling.

We can isolate the strategy of storytelling in almost any dialogue. In sharing our stories we build relationships, begin movements, and perceive life experiences more fully. This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Boston centered on the topic of Education Reform in America. A summit led by college students from across the nation, the keynote speakers, workshop leaders, and community organizers compared Education Reform in the new Millenium to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In powerful vignettes proclaimed by Howard Fuller and Kira Orange Jones, the students who sat in at lunch counters demanding to be served were replaced with today’s cohorts of students demanding equity in the classroom and the closing of the devastating “achievement gap.”[iv] In every session and every address this weekend, the starting point was a story. Shaking hands with dozens of other student leaders, we perfected the spiel-like stories about our entrances into a shared passion. We were woven together by beginnings and ends.

As Frederick Douglass demonstrated in his work, we are creatures attracted to the magnetic pull of the story. We are drawn in by the rise and fall of a tale that seems to breathe—mirroring story structure conventions in everyday conversations and in National movements. Moving forward, we might continue to harness this power and pair it with a skill just as transformative—the ability to listen.

[i]  The plot of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography begins with the entry into the hell of slavery (marked by the bloodied and beaten body of his aunt,) peaks with the climactic scene of Douglass’ fight with overseer Covey, and resolves with his status as a free man in Baltimore—married and devoted to telling his story in an effort to fuel change.

[ii] Here I am thinking of Douglass’ cunning plan of escape that involved writing a false letter from his master meant to excuse him for the Easter holiday and protect him in the event of being stopped as he crossed to freedom in a canoe (p.300).

[iii] The scene I refer to is found on p. 290

[iv] This achievement gap refers to the fact that low income and minority students are much more likely to struggle in the education system of the United States (in a very simple definition of the term.) This is measured in terms of correlating factors like socioeconomic status, race, test scores, college entrance and completion, and course selection.

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