As I was preparing to write this, I was listening to an episode of Code Switch about the Cherokee Nation sending its first representative to Congress in accordance with the nearly two-hundred year-old Treaty of New Echota. In this episode, they explore the treaty, its aftermath, and the long-standing family feud within the Cherokee Nation through the eyes of two playwrights—two storytellers—both of whom plumb the stories that have informed their understanding of who they are or, in equal measure, the uncertainty about who they are that came from not knowing those stories. I have always told people that I value stories the way that the Sikarians in Star Trek: Voyager do: they are essential components of individual and cultural identity, of time periods, of our understanding of place. Perhaps it is because I’m a Libra, because I am empathic, or because I am an Autist that I find actively engaging with stories to be the primary way in which I understand the world. It is because I hold stories in such high regard that I am particularly excited about a National Day of Listening.
I, for one, would love to visit Sikaris. I wonder if I can get one of those halo thingies.
A rather new observance, the National Day of Listening was launched by StoryCorps in 2008 to encourage folks to take the time on the day after Thanksgiving/National Day of Mourning to talk to one another and record the histories of their family, chosen family, friends, and community. We are all of us, at our cores, a collection of stories, each of which has informed our experiences in the world, our ethics and morality, and who we want to be going forward but so much of that gets lost to time when we prioritize the narratives of the powerful. The National Day of Listening, along with other programming from StoryCorps, puts the agency to record histories in the hands of any of us willing to take the time to do it. StoryCorps’ mission reads, in part: “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. … At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.” The following video, for example, is a powerful story of civil rights and voting rights activism that is not told by white folks on the Freedom Ride busses nor the predominantly white text book authors; it doesn’t focus on President Johnson’s signing of legislation. In fact, it takes place some two decades before all of that—and this story is every bit as powerful and it influenced folks who would come after in the fight for voting rights.
This was one of my first introductions to StoryCorps and it seems as timely this year as it did when it was made.
In contrast to Black Friday, which stresses me out just to think about, National Day of Listening encourages us to use the day to build a sense of community rather than focusing solely consumerism (and leftovers. Y’all know I’m 100% here for leftovers). And, this year being what it is, we could all use an increased sense of community; not to mention, the whole camping-out-in-front-of-the-stores, stampeding-through-retailers’-doors thing is super inadvisable this year. Sitting around the table with your quarantine pod or on a video call with loved ones, sharing stories—sharing histories—seems like a much more chill and much less risky way to spend the day after Thanksgiving/National Day of Mourning in the midst of a pandemic.
Photo Credit: giselaatje
There are three resources, in particular, that StoryCorps offers that makes this project of democratizing history-telling more accessible: the StoryCorps app, StoryCorps D.I.Y, and—immensely helpful in the age of COVID-19—StoryCorps Connect which allows you to record your conversations remotely. The StoryCorps app allows you to build a list of interview questions, record your conversation, and archive your interview to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress—they were not joking in their mission statement when they said, “creating an invaluable archive for future generations.” StoryCorps D.I.Y., while geared toward community organizations, can be a great resource for individuals too. It offers self-paced tutorials and courses that can help you improve your interview skills, best practices for hosting a StoryCorps-style recording in different settings, and offers adaptable lesson plans for teachers! StoryCorps Connect is a new resource created specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a way to continue these conversations remotely and preserve them in the American Folklife Center.
Photo – Dan Ferreira
One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to focus on stories that have to do with events or things that have traditionally been seen as “historically relevant.” Talk to your best friend about the first time they fell in love. Ask a parent about their favorite teacher and the most valuable lesson they learned from that teacher. Discuss sexuality with your Queer auntie. Talk to your sibling about a protest in which they participated. Cliché though it sounds: the topics are only as limited as your imagination. And that is because we are all more than a series of benchmark experiences; often the things that fundamentally shape us occur in the day-to-day experiences of life: a conversation over pie and coffee, an interaction with a stranger at the post office, cooking a dish from an old family recipe. That’s not to say the big, life-altering experiences don’t shape us, they do but there are—just mathematically speaking—more days spent relearning how to function after those events, in the day-in-day-out of coping and living: those days shape us every bit as much.
Photo Credit – National Archives, Rediscovering Black History
So, this year, in lieu of other things that may put you at risk in the midst of a pandemic, consider observing National Day of Listening—reach out to a loved one or five and share stories. In a world that seems to desperately need greater connection and empathy, taking the time to learn more about the people around you sounds like a good first step to me. Not to mention, learning to listen is a necessary step toward a kinder and more just world—a world we could be more thankful to share next year and the year after.
Stay safe. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Happy listening!