The Stories of Our Lives (Question 1)

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I'm putting it down for you to see if our fragments match anywhere,

if our pieces, together, make another larger piece of the truth

that can be part of the map we are making together

to show us the way to get to the longer-for world (Pratt, p. 31).

I am fascinated by using personal stories to get at oppression and attempting to understand and to change the world in which we live. So I was thrilled to read Pratt and Segrest telling their stories, especially as they recognize the difficulties of this, e.g,. how Segrest choked on stories as she "struggled to find a voice to bring you back these stories" (p. 1). I believe that stories are essential to our lives and to who we are, and I think that perhaps they may be essential to attempting to make trouble. Stories are a way in, touching our emotions and moving us--out of sorrow, anger, fear, hope, wonder--a way in which our personal struggles are embodied in our physical, emotional, and spiritual (in the broadest sense) selves.

One of the important mechanisms of stories is that our own stories can help other people make sense of theirs (and vice versa). They also can be a means of self-preservation. In Chapter Four, Segrest writes of a day in which, after the story of herself was demonized, she spent an afternoon "trying to decide whether to kill myself," culminating in her being "resigned to a lonely and tragic life" (p. 38). Being able to tell her stories and hearing those of others allowed her to accept herself--especially when her stories were validated by other people. Pratt also writes of her pain and sorrow over her inability to speak, in other words, to voice stories of oppression, and how the scripts/stories into which we are socialized separate us from other human beings.

Additionally, Segrest and Pratt both used their own stories and experiences of oppression to lead them into a greater understanding of other forms of oppression and their interconnectedness. Segrest writes about "finding in his [a black man murdered by a distant relative] angers, fears and resolves a deeper understanding of my own outcast self" (p. 2). She came to realize that "th
ere is no separate safety" (p. 49). Bailey writes that such moves can result in a shift in our ways of seeing, understanding, and moving through the world.

My sense is that these types of stories are quite common and so sharing them allows us to be more fully human with each other, to empathize, to share our struggles, to admit our own failings and shortcomings, our pain, despair, and fear, to struggle with how we feel our stories may betray people we love or even our own stories and histories. However, I also worry about this process for several reasons. One that Segrest identifies is how the conflicting stories of her life/oppression set up barriers between her and her friend Carl that outlasted his death from AIDS. Another is identified by Pratt, when she writes that knowing the racial histories of her region can be paralyzing, leading her to a constant interior dialogue about whether and how she is playing out racial scripts in every interaction, from casually passing someone on the street to attempting to develop deep relationships.

My biggest worry, though, is that falling back on our own stories can actually get in the way of learning how to live and changing unjust circumstances that keep us from being able to speak to each other (Pratt). While we can, as Bailey says, quoting Lugones, identify with people whose worlds we do not share, this does not automatically mean that we understand other people's worlds/stories. It can also lead us to draw facile comparisons that hide mechanisms and structures of oppression. For instance, in the antiracism work that I do, I have seen over and over that white women use an understanding of oppression we face as women as a way of understanding racial oppression. But I have also seen innumerable examples where white women use their own stories to stop them from hearing other people's stories and having to acknowledge their complicity in racial oppression. Often, I think this is about fear and discomfort, about actually having, as white people, to acknowledge that we have been and are, often unwittingly, participating in oppression. When hearing the story of a "racial other," white women or gay men or poor white men use their experiences of oppression to avoid talking about race by going immediately to other explanations or to their own story, e.g., what is really happening in this room, this discomfort and inequity we are experiencing, is not an issue of race but actually about gender or class or. . . . . I often stop people from drawing these comparisons because I have seen how these personal stories actually derail attempts to talk about race and white supremacy. 

So, my question is: how do we honor each other's stories and share our own, while not using our own pain and struggle to avoid acknowledging how we are complicit in other forms of pain and oppression? In other words, (how) can we use our own experiences of oppression as an entry point into understanding larger systems and working to change them, rather than allowing our own experiences to put up barriers to understanding and better, more authentic relationships? How do we recognize when our own stories may get in the way of other people's troublemaking? How do we do the work of antioppression--make trouble--in places of mutuality, companionship, creativity, sensuousness, curiosity, easiness of the body, places of hope, safety, and love (Pratt, p. 41)? What is the role of relationship in this? (Pratt's articulation of this: "we will only be able to act effectively if we gather up, not just information, but the threads of life that connect us to others [p. 65].) And how do we do this if it is seen as traitorous by those with whom we already have deep and intimate connections?

Other related thoughts (since none of us seem to be able to ask just one question, myself included!):

  • Segrest identifies what we might term several elements necessary for troublemaking structures of oppression: analyses of power (both people and institutions), specific skills and organizing tactics, and psychological, inner work. Pratt also locates knowing the histories of (local) struggles and oppressions as key. Where have you seen these elements? Can these elements exist within the academy? In what ways, for instance, does the academy encourage us to view people as objects, rather than subjects, of research, and how does this prevent us from challenging oppression?

  • Segrest writes that homophobia, classism, and racism were major mechanisms that allowed (and continue to allow) the AIDS crisis to go unaddressed: because some lives are considered expendable. This explicitly ties to Butler's conception of "grievable lives." Can stories help us to flesh this out more?

  • How do we reconcile peoples' different truths--including sometimes having to toss out some stories as not true (e.g., how the Greensboro massacre was portrayed)?

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