Melanated Writer Series: Getting Our Story Straight


Hunter Adams, III

President, Royal Circle Foundation

The South Shore Current June 2015


"We wish to plead our own cause... "Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has

the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly."

By Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, editors of Freedom's Journal, first edition, 1827;

the first black newspaper in American history founded in New York City.


What is it about movies, music, novels, poetry, dance, theater, concerts, sports, and all types of television programming we find so captivating? Stories. What is it about beauty shops and

barber shops we enjoy? Sharing stories. What is it about law, politics and religion that holds

society together? Story-based rules. What is it about education, formal and informal that fosters and facilitates personal and professional growth. Learning via stories.


Stories weave the fabrics of our lives into a tapestry of meaning with problems to

mitigate and possibilities to actualize. Stories may inspire or inform, enrage or calm, heal or

harm, deceive or destroy. Stories intersect and interface all our relations. We are largely

socialized via stories. In fact, our brains are “wired for story creation and interpretation.”

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing Black people today is “getting our story

straight”—for more than 2000 seasons our story-world has been demeaned, distorted, and

disaffirmed.


At a deeper level, systems of oppression have selectively classified or

misappropriated and misconceived numerous aspects of our story-world, and then confounded and concealed them from ourselves, and indeed the world, by an elaborate ruse called framing.


WE HAVE BEEN FRAMED


Human experience depends on the mental models, representations, narratives or frames that are used to interpret, interrogate, partake in and shape “reality.” So, why don’t Black Lives Matter? A simple, yet complex answer is that: WE HAVE BEEN FRAMED! Strategically Black people have been set up—not necessarily in a criminal sense, but in terms of how we imagine, investigate and understand reality and history, how we relate and create, how we engage and navigate the world, and expect it to work, and how others worldwide see us. But, what exactly is a “frame”and why is it important to the Black community, past, present and future?


According to linguist George Lakoff, frames, “...structure our ideas and concepts, they

shape how we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most

part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic–we use them without realizing it.”



“Frames are organizing principles that are socially shared and persist over time, that work

symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.” notes media strategist Stephen Reece. Frames have rhetorical and legalistic persuasive potency as philosopher, Judith Butler

explains in her book Frames of War: “Some power manipulates the terms of appearance and one cannot break out of the frame; one is framed, which means one is accused, but also judged in advance, without valid evidence and without any obvious means of redress.”


Butler insists: The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a

strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality...This

means the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version.”


Hence we are aghast at reversals of criminal causality in State-sanctioned murder where

the victims are “framed” as liable for their own death: Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and hundreds more.


In his book, The Political Brain, Emory University Political psychologist Drew Westen reviews

some neuro psychological studies, which reveal: “Frames influence not only what people think and feel about an issue but what they don’t think about.” Frames always contest, compliment or compete with one another. While frames are everywhere, with every point of view (cultural, historical, moral,religious, political), most people never think about them—until, elections when candidates for public office: 1) “frame” issues according to voter demographics sympathetic to their own and their funders, 2) “frame” their opponents’ positions and personality in a negative or harmful light, and 3) “frame” themselves in the best light. Frames drive all our relationships, business and sports competition, and propel political campaigns like that played out in Chicago’s hotly contested Mayoral election run-off.


FOUR STORIES

At the heart of African American life the big themes and stories, and desires and dreams have not changed since our captive ancestors arrived 396 years ago: We remain casualties of “Crimes of State” and, struggle for freedom, dignity and due process, value, validation, and the right to live and define ourselves on our own terms. While designed as a political campaign strategy, Drew Westen’s “Four Story” approach, offers an effective arrangement to better navigate and negotiate the minefield of racial frames, and thus diminish the drama and actualize our aspirations. Writing in the Washington Post, Westen maintains: “Four stories are at the heart of any campaign. If you understand them, you know who controls the message—and with it, perhaps the election. These stories make up what campaign strategists call the “message grid,” which has four quadrants.



The first two (#1 & #3) comprise the positive stories the candidates are telling about

themselves and are usually the stuff of biography ads and warm-and-fuzzy convention videos

which seek to establish a relationship with voters, leaving them with the sense that the

candidate shares their values, understands people like them, and is the right person for the

times.



The other two quadrants (#2 & #4) in the grid feature the negative stories each

candidate is telling about the other, and reinforce or supply voters’ anxieties or misgivings about an opposing candidate, motivators that can be just as potent as enthusiasm and hope. Though people loathe negative stories, the fact is that they are enormously effective in eliciting deep disparaging emotions.


Heal is the deal: Whoever can control all quadrants of the story message grid, wins, and by

winning gets to write the Grand Narrative or backstory, which in turn frames all stories. Put

another way, television and radio-talk show host Tom Hartman says, “Whoever controls the

frame, controls the argument.”


African peoples’ story-world-frames exist within the dominating and directing Euro-

American story-world context, and hence it is extremely difficult to effectively, reliably and

successfully define and control even positive stories of ourselves, and simultaneously resist the constant barrage of negative stories.


We watch with contempt how corporate media use negative narratives buoyed with legal loopholes provided by assorted “authorities” to fashion faux facts (story #4) where unweaponized Black men and women deserve being casualties of Capital murder—evoking Junior Walker’s song—Shotgun (Shoot Him While He Runs)! Now, isn’t it plain why many believe “Black Lives Don’t Matter? Beyond scenarios of Black communities vs. police (and law creation and enforcement systems), the ‘four stories’ process of “you” and “your opponent (or competitor)” offers insights into Black family and cultural dynamics.


The 1970’s Black Power Movement, the 1990’s African-Centered Education Movement, 45 years of Kwanzaa celebrations, and now the Black Lives Matter Movement marshaled exceptional efforts of turning our “otherness” (“darkness” and“distinctiveness”)—so-called negative stereotypes of ourselves, contrived by media, institutions and individuals—into a significant asset and transformative value proposition. With numerous initiatives, grassroots groups have combated what Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Florida A & M University, Kobi Kambon calls “Cultural Misorientation.” While this is progress, a daunting difficulty remains—How to contend with two elephants in the room—1)what psychiatrist, Dr. Patricia Newton calls, “Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder” and 2) our chronic hostile stress living environment revealed in the Department of Justice’s Ferguson and Cleveland reports and articles describing the plundering of Black communities like Baltimore following the Freddie Gray murder protests.


Here are a few suggestions to shift the story message matrix. Black people, with People

with Conscience, without fear of being accused of “playing the race card,” must passionately

push back on frames of defamation (story #4). Public and private discourse demands that

existing “racial frames” where “white” is framed as supreme, privileged, pure, clean, good,

amazing, and virtuous, with “Black” the opposite or worse, be forcefully contested.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King passionately pushed back: Somebody told a lie one day.

They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your

dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister...Well I want to get the language right tonight!”In that light, Never say “white supremacy”; instead say “depraved white dominance.” Never say “slave” or descendants of slaves.” Instead say “captive” or casualty of a “white predatory wealth extraction enterprise.” “Slave” is a political legal fiction intended to deny or diminish a person’s or people’s humanity.


Secondly, we must confront purveyors of perspectives misrepresenting all Black men (via

guilt by association) exclusively as the bad guys—bad fathers, criminals, killers, players, women beaters, drug dealers, cheaters, buffoons, thugs, trifling and lazy, and then, engage friendly media people with positive examples. Individuals of all races exhibit unbecoming behaviors, not the vast majority. Riled by similar caricatures, Black women must also rebuke lurid labels, especially “ratchet.” Our children’s minds and identity are at stake.


Thirdly, we must intensify our positive story by recovering and reaffirming our humanity

(without wearing a sign). We must unapologetically assert that our story began in Africa,

199,000 years before writing—not in 1619. All subsequent members of the human family are

African, henceforth informed by 1) early African peoples’ foundational moral ideals and

socialization practices as Maât from Kemet (Ancient Egypt) and Ubuntu of South Africa, and 2)acquired cognitive tools to create, flourish, and, as prize-winning author Toni Morrison asserts“become available to our imaginations.”


Lastly, we need what writer Meta Commerse calls Story Medicine, which based in the

teachings of West African traditions whereas ritual is used in an initiatory process of a healing

sojourn involving reading, writing, story-telling and listening, revealing a deep, connection to our ancestors, and explored in her debut novel, "The Mending Time." This medicine is experienced in Trinity United Church of Christ’s annual Maafa and Thanksgiving Services.


In conclusion, every opportunity must be seized to create stories of self-reliant, self-referenced Black future life, and mollify the negative. Remember this: according to motivational speaker Ester Hicks: “Everything that you are living, everything that you or anyone else is living, everything that is being lived by anyone—is in response to a story being told.” Say you want justice, you want to flourish, then you have to start telling the story the way you want it to be, not the way it is framed. Learn more in my forthcoming (2018) book, WE WERE NEVER SLAVES!


Sources:

www.royal-circle.org.

2Drew Westen, The candidates’ message: I might be so-so, but the other guy is terrible.


http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-candidates-message-i-might-be-so-so-but-the-other-guy-is-

terrible/2012/09/07/77b619e4-f799-11e1-8253-3f495ae70650_story.html


3 Meta Commerse. Workshop registration: http://www.janesstories.org/Events.html#anchor_270;

http://www.storymedicineasheville.com/

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