How the Story Works

by Shaker rrp

I'm addicted to fiction. I love stories. Any story, told any way. Tell them forward, tell them backwards, tell them inside out, tell them all braided up, I'm happy. When I was in graduate school, I hung out with philosophy majors and critical theorists (an ecologist needs distraction after all), so I started to hear a lot about narrative. At first I thought it was just a academically tarted up way of saying story. But narratives are sequences and stories aren't necessarily. Narratives inflict order and again, stories might or they might not. But the main thing I remember from hanging out, drinking beer and chatting is that narratives make sense of things.

Which is why they're so powerful. Which is why people depend on narratives to do a lot of work. Which also explains why people get upset when a narrative they're comfortable with is challenged or threatened. That's why people got so upset when a blogger suggests that maybe our Thanksgiving practices should include a moment of remembering how much the establishment of the USA, with all our wealth, cost the people who were living here when we got here.

I've been really mulling over the story of civil rights for African Americans, because there's been a struggle about this on the blogosphere and even out away from computers. It came up in on this thread a couple of days ago. There's a triumphant narrative to this piece of American history. Africans brought here in chains, the horrors of the slave trade and slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the backlash of Jim Crow, lynching and the anti-lynching work, then come the 50s and 60s and there seems to be a happy ending. Discrimination is illegal (though far from gone) in the USA.

There are other important struggles for rights in US history, the fight for unions, for women's suffrage, for farm workers rights, against nativist anti-immigrant laws and violence. But none of them seem to have captured the popular imagination the way that the fight for African American civil rights has done.

Maybe it's just timing. With the climatic acts and events coming early in the television age, many people could see the dogs set on peaceful demonstrators, see black kids spat at as they tried to go to school, see the huge march on DC. And then there are the speeches, the incredible speeches that King gave, that give me chills when I hear them now, not simply because I know this man is going to die, but because he's such an electrifying speaker.

But I think it's because the narrative says that ancient wrongs were righted, that justice did triumph and that right was done. The narrative suggests that since it happened once it can happen again. That things that are wrong now can be fixed, that rights that are denied now can be had sometime, some time soon.

And so it makes perfect sense to me that when some LGBT people talk about our rights, they invoke the African American civil rights movement as a model. It's a perfect shorthand and it gives hope.

But when this happens something in me tightens up. As an African American who was a kid in the 50s, who knew that the story that was happening on tv was about me and about people like me, who was the same age as the four girls who died in that blown-up church, I feel like that story is mine.

But it can't belong to me, because once it's become narrative, it's off to do whatever work people can make it do. It's not a story any more and it really can't be mine. But doesn't stop me from feeling that I belong to it, that it owns me in a way that other people can never understand and it's that knowledge which gives me an unease about its casual and careless use that I just can't get myself over.

Another thing that that nags at me is how the narrative's been invoked about LGBT rights. I really started to hear it a lot after Prop 8 lost in California this November. This makes a sort of sense, because marriage is a right that strikes into people's hearts. It certainly struck into mine.

Still last year, when there was that struggle about a trans-inclusive ENDA, no one was writing much about the analogy with African American rights, how come? Employment protection, the right to apply for and keep jobs was an important part of the earlier struggle. But the discussion about getting the legislation pitted people who wanted the law to be inclusive even if there were little chance of the law passing (not that there was that much chance of the law passing anyway) against people who wanted a law they thought the powers that be would go for (as if).

It's this selective thing. When it came to marriage, then the narrative's invoked, But when it came to the equally basic right to work that one person might have and others don't, not a whisper. People have been surprised that many POC didn't vote for marriage rights. People should have been shocked at the number of LG people who weren't wiling to fight for trans rights. Understanding that all our rights are connected and that we need to fight for every right for every person isn't something that comes automatically with your skin color or your gender or your class or any other part of your identities (or their intersections). It comes when you do the hard mental and emotional work to be a progressive. And that's more than any story alone can do.

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