New Haven to Charlottesville: Why We All Need to Tell a New Story
By Delma Thomas-Jackson
I’m sitting at home just outside Flint, Michigan, watching the violence unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, while thinking about the work Center for Whole Communities conducted in New Haven, Connecticut less than a week ago. I’m trying to write and track the latest news at the same time.
I JUST watched footage of someone plow through a group of protestors and then drive away. One has been confirmed dead. I just watched the POTUS respond by practically refusing to respond. His brief statement was flaccid—rendered hollow by his obvious reticence to condemn his base—an ode to neutrality. In not choosing he yet again affirmed his previous choices.
So… the Stevie Wonder in my earbuds is life right now.
On August 6, I stood in an auditorium with several members of my CWC family, facilitating conversations for roughly 150 students. We invited the graduate students—many just meeting each other on their first day of orientation, to consider how their journeys, social identities, and vocation within the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies potentially intersects to create the greatest possible outcomes for themselves and the world in which they work. In other words, we spent 4 hours asking the students to consider who they are, how they became so, and what it all means for the communities they will call home. Where is the potential for growth? Where is the opportunity for pruning?
We invited them to bring their whole selves—to be both clear and confused. We encouraged them to be both confident and vulnerable. By striving to model the very behaviors we were asking them to practice, we welcomed them into our slice of authenticity—in the hope that they might repay us in-kind. In other words, we asked much of them. And they did not disappoint. For the third year in a row, a new class of incoming students showed up and showed out. I left feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. I felt accomplished and encouraged.
Yale’s campus has seen its share of contentious, highly-publicized engagements with identity politics. However, Yale is but a microcosm—one of countless spaces wherein centuries-old, racialized mythologies of meritocracy through rugged individualism are taken for granted as the meta-narrative of American exceptionalism, and more broadly, the American experience. A continuous thread within the mythology states—sometimes implicitly, and sometimes not—that the US was “built” by and for the betterment of white, cis-gendered men.
While some of these mythologies are etched into the very fabric of our founding documents—they continue to inspire, for they have much more to say. For the parts we prefer to commemorate are much loftier. Like Trump’s neutral response, the founding documents have something there for everyone—no matter what you prefer. Therefore, our preferences have power because stories have power. Which version of the US you understand, determines how you move with and around the people in it. It’ll inform whom you vote for, where you live, where you send your children for their education. It will inform how you view everything from criminal justice and law enforcement, to gun rights and Black Lives Matter.
When I’m on Yale’s campus, every ivy tendril, every hardwood floor, every student, faculty member, and custodian of color, reminds me of a bitter irony wherein schools from New Haven to Charlottesville are, at times, hotbeds of contention around ever-greater calls for acknowledgement—ever-rising calls for a different version of the story we tell. US demographics are shifting. Consequently, many are beginning to fear that the story we have told for so long may not be accurate. As the historically marginalized speak out, those who have enjoyed the spoils of our mythology feel ignored and oppressed. One interpretation of the founding documents is slowly giving way to another.
Perhaps there is pain in the realization that you were lied to for centuries—that any chance of a good life through meritocracy (a myth crystallized in post-WWII mass media) were rendered possible for the majority through the kleptocracy and resulting misery of the minority. Perhaps there is pain in watching everything you dubiously, yet tediously, and desperately hoped for be peeled away—slowly, painfully—like a stubborn scab. All of your John Waynes and Rocky Balboas can’t save you. The “dark others” are coming to take your country and White Jesus is nowhere to be found. Ronald Reagan is gone and as much as you try to believe it, you KNOW in your heart of hearts that 45 is no Reagan.
I suppose… there is… real pain… in the unraveling of a beloved mythology.
The folks most impacted by this pain are going to need help navigating it. Without guidance, there will continue to be those who lash out at the very people who may best understand the pain of living with double consciousness—two warring, seemingly irreconcilable ideas about self and place. In every arena of oppression—from race and gender, to sexuality and citizenship—veils are thinning and mythologies are crumbling. Without a new story to replace the old, equity will forever taste like oppression to those who have long enjoyed the benefits of their own hard work and the privilege of assuming that their experience must be universal.
As I continue to observe Charlottesville, and consider the bright faces and minds in New Haven, I am hopeful for the story we may yet tell. In all the pain, I have found my peace—at least for the moment. Those students are future decision makers. They are passionate. By their permission and engagement, they excavated that passion and brought it forth—hearing it reflected back to them from the voices and silences of their colleagues. They will make mistakes. They will likely, at times, fail themselves and each other. However, they will succeed where so many of us have failed. They have taken the time to see each other—to hear each other. And that’s what is needed now—if you’re interested in telling a new story. I dare to suspect that a few of these students will be the neo-griots—the keepers, tellers, and singers of a new story.