Final Post: Storytelling from Slavery to UVA

The Walter Fisher Narrative Paradigm (WFNP) is a theory of interpersonal communication and human instincts, which argues that we all naturally take on the role of storyteller and therefore approach our lives as narratives. Specific to this course, WFNP has taken on the role not only of a descriptive theory but also of an applicable tool for understanding episodes both from history and from our daily lives. The five elements of WFNP, Nature, Beliefs and Behavior, Culture, Rationality, and Choice, are echoed in four units of our course (slavery, civil rights movement and television, hip hop, and social media) as well as in the historical incidents that have been developing before our very eyes this year at UVA. Using WFNP as a lens for understanding these incidents and our lives has provided striking evidence in support of author Mark Twain’s seminal quote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

The first element of WFNP, Nature, creates its strong foundation. It says that we are all storytellers by nature, animals using symbols to create a narrative from our lives. This is certainly true of the process of creating the social changes we have examined. The basic question that humans always seem pushed to ask is “how will I be remembered? What will my story be? What is my legacy?”. For slaves, it was a struggle to be acknowledged and remembered at all. For those in the Civil Rights Movement, it was the struggle to put their story in front of a broader audience, culminating with Bloody Sunday being televised. For hip hop, it was the struggle to tell their story in an honest way, without corporate or political manipulation. And for social media, it has been the struggle to tell stories in real time, as they happen. These struggles are inherent to the process of being storytellers by nature. But the struggle of being storytellers by nature that I have come to understand through my experiences at UVA is that we often have little control over our own stories. Many times these narratives are forced upon us or reinterpreted long after we have control over them. In the same way that those on ground in Selma could not have known that 50 years later most people would know John Lewis but forget Diane Nash, Martese Johnson could not have known four months ago that his personal narrative would become embedded in the national conversation on police brutality with #JusticeForMartese. Because we are storytellers by nature, in each of these incidents of social change we are obligated to both create opportunities for ourselves to tell our stories and to take control of the aspects of our stories that are thrust upon us by circumstance.

The second element of WFNP, beliefs and behaviors, is the most ambiguous, but is centered around how we use “good reason” based on our own collections of information and knowledge. No matter what story we are trying to tell, we will come into those stories with assumptions and pre-existing narratives that we are trying to support or deny. Thinking to the civil rights movement and hip hop, both of these social changes were dependent on deconstructing the white populations belief and ‘knowledge’ that black communities were inherently inferior, violent, etc. In the same way, the Columbia Journalism School Review of this year’s controversial and retracted Rolling Stone article showed how the journalist who wrote the piece came into UVA with a story in mind (knowledge) and just looked to fill in that pre-existing belief with available and fitting information. I have been able to understand this relatively abstract aspect of the WFNP through the cheesy but concise the lyrics of the song Wonderful song from the musical Wicked – “A man’s called a traitor…or liberator. A rich man’s a thief…or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.”

And which label persists is largely dependent on culture, which is the fourth element of WFNP. Again, this element is both ambiguous and essential to our understanding of the stories we tell. Culture is made up of the beliefs, customs, preferences, stereotypes, and prejudices specific to a certain community. Highlighting and contrasting these cultures often becomes an incredible effective tool for turning information into an appealing story. When people travel to different communities, they often come back and are excited to share the surprising cultural constructs and customs they witnessed. The spirituals and songs of the slave South were effective because they had specific cultural relevance to their community and mixed cultural concepts from both African tradition and southern Protestantism. Televising the Civil Rights Movement was effective because it brought southern life into northern living rooms, just like hip hop brought urban black poverty into white suburban bedrooms. These contrasts in culture and experience are what give the stories we tell life and shock value. The “fly on the wall” appeal of stories like the Rolling Stone piece and videos like the one of Martese on the Corner is dependent on those mediums ability to provide a window into someone’s cultural experience.

Particularly in the current context at UVA, the fourth element of WFNP, rationality, is directly tied to individual understandings and experiences with culture. Rationality asks whether a story rings true. The visual imagery of Bloody Sunday provided this rationality by rejecting any shadow of a doubt about southern stories of mistreatment at the hands of the government. I have personally seen students and alumni divided on whether the stories told by Rolling Stone and in the aftermath of Martese Johnson’s arrest this year “rang true”. While many argued that the assault depicted in the Rolling Stone article seemed plausible, others argued that details like the UVA fight song quoted as a ‘popular’ song when in fact few students are familiar with it gave the story a sense of fiction that they could not overcome to believe the story. In the Martese Johnson case, many white students highlighted their own sense of Charlottesville law enforcement as relatively “relaxed” in an effort to reject the story, while many other black students spoke to the similarity of Martese’s treatment to treatment they had seen or experienced them selves. Ultimately, this forces us as storytellers to make decisions about which audiences it is most important to ‘convince’ with our stories.

The last element of WFNP, choice, transitions the paradigm from the perspective of the storyteller to the perspective of the audience/listener. Just as people are naturally empowered and positioned to be storytellers, we are also all an autonomous audience, able to choose among the stories of others. Effective social movements put issues right in our face, so that we cannot ignore them. However, using our beliefs, culture, and rationality, we can resist certain stories while embedding others into our own personal narratives. Ask a student of history what caused the Civil War. Ask a civil rights leader whether voting rights or economic equality is more important. Ask a hip hop artist whether they want to effect political or social change. Ask a Twitter user whether #BlackLivesMatter or #YesAllWomen is more influential. Ask a UVA student which of this year’s controversies and tragedies they will remember most in 10 years. The answers to all of those questions will be different depending on whom you ask, because of this powerful element of choice.

Combined, the five elements of the WFNP should be seen both as a tool for empowering and understanding social communication and social change and also as a challenge. They show that the road to social change is complicated, but also that it is possible and important, and that history has much to teach us as we strive to continue making progress in our communities and beyond.

No Social Media?

My first response to the question of “What happens if there is no social media?” is that that is impossible. As we’ve learned in this class, “social media”, defined as a tool for sharing stories in order to build networks, has always existed. Across platforms and artistic mediums, people have always sought to tell and refine their own stories as a way of building networks and advancing causes. Think about it – do politics, politicians, and elections even exist without this kind of coalition building? The classic political strategy of using local and personal anecdotes to connect with broader groups of people is a building block of social media.

But working with social media as we see it today, with the wide variety of photo and soundbite sharing digital spaces we use, I think it is this political realm that would be most substantially effected if all of those things were to go away. With the election of Barack Obama, we saw a presidential candidate who fully embraced these platforms as a means of rallying support from young people and minority groups. These groups represent a large portion of voters who typically go ignored and uninspired in the political process. Without social media as we know it today, I think that politics would struggle to shed its elitist and distant reputation. I think it was the lack of powerful and democratizing social media platforms that allowed politics to be dominated by stereotypical “rich old white men” for so long because there was not a strong platform for public representation of the faces and stories of other groups. Social media contributes to this democratization and ease of accessibility of the political process and without it, I think both the candidate and voter pool going forward would look very different.

Hashtag Activism

I am tempted to say #BlackLivesMatter is the most impactful hashtag campaign. However, the longer it has existed, the more I have run into the troubling but important fact that it can be very divisive outside of highly educated and engaged communities. While its underlying foundation is meant to highlight the ways that black lives are routinely ignored relative to other lives, for those who are not deeply engaged with social justice or race relations issues, it can come off as a rejection of the value of non-black lives. The counter-argument that “All Lives Matter” is frustratingly frequent, but accurately shows how the message of #BlackLivesMatter is easily misinterpreted and intensify the racial divides it is trying to address. To be clear, I believe the message of #BlackLivesMatter is vital as we go forward with conversations about race relations, civil rights, and police brutality. But beyond the message, strong hashtag campaigns and social justice campaigns more broadly cannot just have a strong message – they must have an accessible message. For better or worse, #BlackLivesMatter draws on more academic conversations about the history of black marginalization and oppression.

For this reason I am more drawn to the power of the accompanying and associated #ICantBreathe hashtag campaign. While #BlackLivesMatter often ends up as an abstract and academic conversation, #ICantBreathe speaks to both the broader issue of black marginalization and to the physical pain suffered by many black men and women. This duality of meanings and close tie to a specific, well-known incident of police brutality makes #ICantBreathe a strong tool in raising awareness of the continued struggle for civil rights in our country. Its power is not only shown in its meaning itself, but in the way it has transitioned from social media and the digital space to be a rallying cry used by both black celebrities and athletes, to protesters on the streets.

Forgive Them Father

As with many Lauryn Hill songs, “Forgive Them Father” is able to cover a lot of very personal and important experiences and issues in one cohesive song. I think it is very relatable both to the specific experience of being a UVA student at this specific time, but also it more broadly speaks to the experience of educating and informing oneself that students all across the country have during college.

I think that the amount of knowledge, both academic and social, that students are asked to grapple with in college brings up a lot of the same issues of opportunity, faith, and ignorance that Lauryn Hill is dealing with in this song. Many students come into college with a certain set of beliefs and when faced with the uncertainties that come with this new environment, they hold on tightly to those beliefs, often with a sort of blind faith. However as the songs lyrics say, “if you’re looking for the answers then you gotta ask the questions.” While its important to have strong beliefs, it is also important to allow those beliefs, whether they be religious, academic, or political, to be questioned and informed by the experiences of others.

I also think the song is an important way for college students and UVA students to examine how we evaluate and judge the actions of others. Using a quote from the Book of Luke in the Bible, Hill says “forgive them father for they know not what they do.” Thinking to recent controversial events at UVA and around the country surrounding race relations, this quote is a big challenge to me and I’m not sure what Hill’s answer would be. Specifically, how much does ignorance allow people to forgiven and to what degree is it people’s responsibility to educate themselves about the state of the world and the history of race relations. I was recently at a talk with author and advocate Janet Mock and she said something that I’ve heard echoed a lot recently – “it is not the responsibility of marginalized people to educate you about their struggle. They have enough to do. Educate yourself.” I think this quote and this song challenge us to look at how we judge people’s actions and how others may judge our actions in areas where we may be ignorant.

Women/Hip Hop/Social Revolution

As someone with a knowledge of hip hop that is generally limited by a radio-friendly, pop-centric lens. Therefore, the artist who to me most exemplifies the convergence and potential conflict between hip hop and feminism is Nicki Minaj. As a popular artist, this exposure provides her an opportunity to reach those outside the traditional hip hop audience.

Personally, I have enjoyed the music of hers which has reached mainstream popularity. Yet as a casual listener, I continually come back to how to reconcile derogatory lyrics and hyper-sexualized imagery in her music and aesthetics with very empowering and feminist personal rhetoric. Though I was have seen various versions of this quote in other formats from other public figures, I will always remember watching an interview with Nicki Minaj and her commenting that “When I’m assertive I’m a BITCH. When a man’s assertive he’s a BOSS.”

In an interesting way, this could possibly be framed as hip-hops answer to the predominantly white and white-collar “Lean In” rhetoric popularized by Sheryl Sandberg and her coordinated “ban bossy” campaign. What a gather most from the comparison of these two overlapping narratives from two very different women is that one important role of women in social revolutions is to point out and question generally held beliefs or inherent biases within our cultural constructs. For both of these cultural commentators, and Nicki Minaj in particular, the allure of her public rhetoric is her ability to identify often overlooked double standards and put them into a pop culture context.

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“That Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed”

The question of why social activism so often leads to rioting, looting, violence, and other forms of disruption and destruction will always be difficult. In a very abstract way, it seems rational to simply argue that people should create change from within a system. However, history has shown that this argument irrationally assumes that this system itself is perfectly just and representative. I think immediately of the visceral reactions I had when, following the Trayvon Martin decision, some talking heads referred to protestors as ‘agitators’. While this term is meant in a derogatory way, it is also deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement, when commentators of that time referred to nonviolent civil rights activists as agitators as well. From a public relations perspective, it was shocking to me that modern pundits would use such a loaded word, when history has so severely judged the segregationist and racist Southern political leaders of the 1960’s who used the term previously. What those commentators do not account for is that those they are calling agitators tried to use the system. It is at these junctures, where the mainstream institution and system has been used and failed to serve marginalized groups, that violence and destruction are bond to arise.

This question also made me think of Civil Rights activist Charles Cobb’s controversial book “That Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed”. In it he explains how the use of violence, and guns specifically, is not inherently detrimental to the history of the black struggle for civil rights in America. It is an interesting examination of both the more theoretical aspects of nonviolence as a philosophy and of its applications in the Civil Rights Movement from someone who was on the ground. You can read an excerpt here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/07/28/this-nonviolent-stuffll-get-you-killed/

Musical Textbook: Ronald Reagan

The following 10 songs together create a lesson about the 1980’s and more specifically, the legacy of the presidency of Ronald Reagan. This era is very important to American history, as it set the stage for many social and political issues we are still dealing with. Some of these include “Reagonimcs”, Reagan’s top-down economic theory that promoted the “rising tide raises all boats” conservative ideology and arguable was a major contributor to rising income inequality in the United States. Additionally, this lesson speaks to Reagan’s policies and legacy regarding strict drug enforcement, police militarization, and his handling of the Cold War. The songs vary in their uses of either explicit or thematic references to the Reagan era but all provide important commentary for these social, political, and economic themes.

A Year at UVA

Regardless of political ideology, academic field, or social involvement, the events of the past year and the most recent local and national crisis surrounding the arrest of Martese Johnson have become a part of the lives of the students at the University of Virginia. We have talked about this incident, previous incidents, and their broader implications constantly: over lunches in Newcomb with our roommates, over the holidays with distant family members, over loudspeakers at protests and rallies, over Twitter and Yik Yak with complete strangers.

As a legacy student and lifelong UVA fan, my friends have often said that I “talked about UVA like it was my job”. And since coming to this University, it sort of has been. As a tour guide at UVA, I spend a lot of my time talking about this University. Just in the nature of the role as a guide, it is expected that I will be able to do so in a succinct, thoughtful, and accessible way, regardless of what is going on at the University on a day-to-day basis. The majority of this time is spent telling personal stories of classes I’ve taken, activities I’ve loved, and the friends I have made here.

But my favorite stop on my tour has always been my conclusion, where I get to talk about why I chose to come to UVA. This past week, as I was mid-spiel, standing on the grass in front on Peabody Hall with 40 high schoolers and their parents, a protest chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ crossed the Lawn towards Alderman Library. My tourists’ attention was, of course, immediately drawn away from me and towards the protest, and they soon dispersed, without much of a conclusion in sight.

The conclusion they missed, that I have given almost 100 times, used to go something like this: You will love college. College, as a concept, is great. But what has set UVA apart for me is that while people here love college, they also love the University of Virginia.

But if I have been able to abstract one larger lesson from the various tumultuous events of this year, it is that this is unequivocally untrue. Not every student at the University of Virginia loves the University of Virginia. Not even close. And that is ok. What I have been most impressed by this past year is that while students may not love UVA, we take ownership of it. If students truly did not care about this University or its student body, we wouldn’t spend our time and energy working tirelessly to better this place not only for ourselves, but for all of the Wahoos that will come after us. We may not love UVA, but we own it and we push it forward.

And to me, this is more important and more worthy of praise than any fictional sense of universal school spirit that I could have ever imagined.

Late Songs

Previously posted as a comment on January 28th:

Like everyone else, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll never be late to #SC4SCUVA. If I ever have to sing for being tardy, I’d probably sing one of the following songs:

1) “The Good Ole Song” – This would definitely be my go-to song to sing for the class! It is short, easy to remember, and the tune doesn’t really require great singing skills. Even better, hopefully this song would inspire my classmates to sing with me!

2) “ABC” by The Jackson 5 – I absolutely love the Jackson 5 and I probably know the lyrics to this song best. When my parents would play Jackson 5 when I was younger and I didn’t know what the band was called, I would call it “the happy music”. Bonus – if you’re a Jackson 5 fan, theres a Taylor Swift/Jackson 5 mashup that is a horribly cheesy but weirdly addictive guilty pleasure of mine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWJdcxKfgIM)

3) “Thank God for the Summertime” by Ben Rector – Ben Rector is a singer-songwriter that I love. I have seen him in concert in Charlottesville twice and he’s a really fun, casual performer. I like how informal this song is and, especially in the winter, it’s nice to be reminded of more relaxed summer days.