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Sorting and sharing stories of pandemic, racial strife, Capitol attack with our kids

Originally published April 20, 2021 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The stories we tell make us who we are. They dictate the narrative of our lives. In West Africa, there was an extremely valuable and high-ranking member of the community charged with passing on the memories of the people called the griot. The great griots knew how to weave an oral tapestry of history and experience to draw the listener in as that was the method of educating, informing, entertaining, and providing critical information about culture, family lineage and even survival skills. As this year of societal upheaval and pandemic life draws to a close, what stories will we tell our children about what happened, how will we shape our collective memory, who will be our griots?

Late-night television pundits share one truth depending on the channel, news sources tell another, and political figureheads share yet another. Children are remarkably malleable and resilient, collecting information and holding it inside waiting for someone to help them decode it later. Today there are many vying for the right to write our collective narrative on our experiences of the last year. Who we listen to will set the stage for what we will remember.

Social researchers tell us that children who survive abuse tend to numb themselves in a self-protective layer of ignoring their own feelings, denying their desires and cutting themselves off emotionally from relationships and experiences; encased in a hard and impervious shell of self-preservation. Sometimes these individuals even hurt themselves to try and feel something, anything to feel again. Eventually, this hardening originally made to protect them becomes a prison they cannot escape, preventing them from feeling love or connecting to others even when the threat of pain is long over.

This year has been one of the hardest for many in our society as loved ones have gotten sick from COVID-19, many even dying, jobs have been lost, social support has been pulled away so quickly we didn’t even have time to prepare or rearrange our lives, like yanking a tablecloth from a set table. Racial tensions have been high, and the world has seemed rife with conflict. As families readjust to life, it’s hard to even remember how things looked when we began. Should we gather all the pieces and try to put them in all the same places?

I have heard it said that nature breaks that which does not bend, and this year has begged for flexibility. Sporting events were canceled, school hallways were silent, restaurants boarded up windows and playgrounds were caution-taped like a crime scene. We saw people killed at spas in Atlanta, we saw hate crimes across the country, we witnessed our U.S. Capitol being raided by our own countrymen. Tensions have been high because of differing ideology, race, religion or political affiliations. Hurt abounded in many different shapes and sizes.

Conversely, we also experienced millions taking part in marches and peaceful demonstrations across the globe standing up for racial equality, we quietly learned how to talk again at our dinner tables night after night, our calendars were cleared of things that often distract us from being present in the moment.

A renewed interest in nature took place and outdoor recreation saw an all-time high, with bikes flying off the racks. Homes became sanctuaries of refuge instead of trucker-esque sleep and go stations. As Georgians, we saw our state and national election system be tested to the brink and emerge intact. A vaccine for a global deadly illness was created and disseminated in record-breaking speed. Reasons for hope mounted.

When conflicting dualities occur in society and in our own lives, what will our response be?

Will we come out of this time communicating to our children the world is falling apart at the seams or that it has great potential to be a place all can thrive, where positive change is created through peaceful means? Albert Einstein once said that the most important question of all is not related to scientific method or formulas in advanced mathematics but simply “Is the universe a friendly place?”

This year has been painful in many ways. Will we choose to lecture on the loss, or can we pick out a few things gained amid the struggle? Was it a season with no fruit, a cloud with no silver lining only leaving us more resolved to not be hurt again or can we attempt to break out of our shell and begin to feel again?

Now more than ever, we have a reason to be hopeful not in denial of the truth of injustice and pain, but in acceptance of our role within it and desire to admit our part in causing hurt and moving toward others and not away. Hope and despair coupled together can create an uncomfortable dissonance that moves us forward.

One of the most important jobs of the West African griot was not only to maintain the memories of the people, but to allow the past to inform the decisions for the future for they wisely knew without proper memory of the past, the future would fall prey to the mistakes of yesterday.

As the griots pass on the chronicles of the people, the stories we tell today will help shape the memories of our kids tomorrow. We have the awesome duty and privilege to share with our children things lost and things gained in an honest and hopeful tone not omitting the difficult parts but rather sharing them through the lens of wisdom and a path toward healing.


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