While wasting time on Facebook, which is something that I find myself doing more often than not, I came across this insightful and inspiring TED.com video. If you haven’t spent time on TED.com, do yourself a favor and do so. You will be a better person for it, trust me. I discovered TED about a year ago when I googled a wonderful actress, Sarah Jones, for some reason that I can’t remember now. I was led to her website and there was a video of her appearance at TED.com on behalf of UNICEF. After watching Sarah’s crafty performance, I went on to discover the video’s source. Since then, I’ve been hooked on TED, which is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Its sole purpose is to push their Ideas Worth Spreading initiative, hosting several talks/sessions per year and then under the Creative Commons license, post video footage on the Web for greater coverage.
Now, as for the video I’m raving about, it features Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie and her talk on the danger of a single story. As she recounts her experience growing up in Nigeria, then traveling the world and meeting new people, she eloquently builds a profound argument about disallowing powerful entities from controlling our perceptions of people and then using that perception to generalize the whole. Considering that the video is enclosed with this post, I won’t recap any of the points. You can just view it for yourself. But before you do, allow me to elaborate on how this relates to my life as a writer.
One of the main things that I’m concerned with doing as a writer is reshaping the perception of my home state of Mississippi and of Black Southerners. All Southerners are generalized for the most part; many believe us to be one-dimensional, uneducated, and simple-minded individuals, however, when you’re Black and Southern, there exists another level of misperception. Given films like Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill, Black Mississippians are often viewed as subservient, poor and always the tragic victims of brute force. Their depiction consists of sweaty faces and bodies, with kinky hair, dingy denim overalls, and they spoke in broken English, denoting their lack of education. While those films tapped into a yesteryear reality, to this day, whether you believe me or not, I am sure that there are some around this country who have mentally embedded that as a base perception of Black Southerners; drawing from that in such a way that certain aspects of ‘being Southern’ work against us. For instance, our Southern drawl has been regarded as an indicator that we’re rather slow-brained, which contributes to our ‘supposedly regressive’ natures.
As an undergrad, I remember vehemently defending my intelligence when a Brooklynite attempted to explain a specific passage in a book that he was currently reading but I had read. Very flatly, he told me that I was not able to understand the concept because ‘cats down here in the South don’t get into this kind of knowledge’. Over the years, when I have told people that I’m a native Mississippian, I’ve been asked questions like, ‘Do you have running water or a bathroom at your house?’ Yes, at one point in time, an area in the Mississippi Delta known as Sugar Ditch in Tunica County was the poorest in the nation, however, to suggest that the rest of us lived like this was preposterous.
Admittedly, the state of Mississippi has a torrid past with deep racial scars that continues to haunt its present day circumstances. However, I grew up in a family that cherished the struggles of our relatives. My mother often recounted events such as the Strike City protest that included many of my family members and gained national attention. She tells me of how my great-grandmother held such a personal authority during a time when a Black woman’s life had about as much value as a speck of dust (to some extent, it still does). She has told me of her vivid childhood memories of rural living, love, and a sense of community. My father has told me about his days as an athlete and the silly things he used to do with his brothers while growing up in rural Alabama. You see, the oppressive forces of racism were prevalent, but there was an everyday living that took precedence over that.
My own childhood in Mississippi was not wrought with despair and lack or anxiety about racism, instead my blue-collar parents gave me a rather middle class lifestyle; my father paid my college tuition with his factory trucker wages because he didn’t want his daughter bogged down with student loans. I grew up in a single family brick house on a paved street with neighbors–something that may be in stark contrast to how the media has portrayed how we live in the ‘Sip. For every childhood friend that may have fallen by the wayside, there’s twice as many who are doing quite well for themselves. It is from this wellspring that I draw my stories of Southern living, hopefully giving the world another angle to see Black Mississippians/Southerners.
Just as Adichie, I have to admit that I have been guilty of allowing a single story to shape my understanding of a few people from other ethnic, socioeconomic backgrounds, states and countries. Now, I try to take a genuine interest in the person by being open enough to allow them to paint their reality for me. From there, I get a better portrait of them. By doing that, I usually begin to marvel at how interesting and rich their experiences have been. This is why I now believe EVERY ONE should write an autobiography.
Anyway, enough about me, enjoy the video. Feel free to comment and share.