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“Be true to the story”

I’ve just finished reading Amanda J. Cobb’s book Listening to Our Grandmother’s Stories: The Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females, 1852-1949. In her conclusion, she writes,

Taped on the wall above my desk are two pieces of paper. One is a copy of the page from the guest register of the Bloomfield/Carter reunion, dated May 20, 1978. My grandmother’s name is on it. Her handwriting looks like my father’s. The other piece of paper is a list of reminders I typed up myself–things I wanted to think about as I wrote. The first item on the list says, ‘Tell the story’; the second, ‘Be true to the story.’

The words resonate with me as I think of the projects I undertake in my academic life. Teaching, writing, discussing and debating with others. Or not debating, as the case may be.

I had my students in my composition course read a chapter out of Gloria Anzaldúa’s book, La Frontera/Borderlands: The New Mestiza because I’m asking them to write a profile of a group they belong to, an autoethnography. Anzaldúa I give them as an example of a profile of a group, written by a member of the group. Tomorrow, we’re reading bell hooks’ essay “Straightening Our Hair.” Monday, Sherman Alexie’s story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” There’s a theme here, yes. All of these texts I’m presenting as profiles, whether that’s the genre they were written in or not, are by members of groups that have often been profiled, studied, written about in ethnography, by outsiders, and, further, by outsiders that have more political power than they.

Tell the story. Be true to the story.

My students felt that Anzaldúa was biased. That was the first thing they said when I asked them about her angle. So naturally we teased out the idea of the word, “bias” and the negative associations with that word.

“It usually means something is false or wrong or not valid” one of the students said when I asked them to define “bias” for me.

“Is anything is this chapter false?” I asked.

They all had to answer no. They reluctantly retracted the label of “bias” and we talked about angle and perspective instead. We talked about Anzaldúa’s audience, her goals, why she was so aggressive in her indictment of Anglos, or gringos, for their treatment of the Mexican population in Texas and Northern Mexico. We talked about the context, the fact that she was writing in a time when her story had not been told, had been hidden, had been distorted. That her story is still often hidden and distorted.

I can’t help but think of so many cultural events that have also been hidden and distorted: violence against citizens by people in authority, violence against women and children, corporate violence, military violence, just violence all around. All of these stories seem to be lost in lies and distorted, and we seem to have difficulty determining what is true and what isn’t. Worse than that, we seem to have difficulty understanding whose stories should be listened to, and whose stories are just serving to silence the oppressed and the wounded.

Tell the story, and be true to the story. I have to add, “Listen to the story.”

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