This morning, I was introduced to a story of the Senegalese Filmmaker, Sembene. I was invited to watch snippets of a film-in-the-making about his life, his message, his impact. I heard about his story, as well as the stories of the two men behind the film: Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman. Very quickly, I found myself in movement. Tears trickled down my cheeks, a sign to me of emotional connection and shift. By the end of the presentation, I felt as though I had stepped through a portal. From where to where was I stepping? What is the difference between what lies on either side of the threshold?
The difference is my relationship with my story of self and my identity as a storyteller.
“They say we who walk this world are made of flesh and blood. I say we are made of stories.” Bubuka from Senegal (taken from the Sembene site video clip).
Sembene was a storyteller who sought to open up and expand the stories of Black African Senegalese people. As I watched the film and listened to its narrator Samba speak (both in person and on the screen), I was gently reminded of my own life story. Or at least, I was reminded of dimensions to my story that I think run powerfully through my identity. What moved inside me, what shifted was my relationship with these dimensions. If I am honest with myself, in different ways over the years, I have not been willing to step fully into these dimensions, into these stories of who I’ve been, who I am and who I can be.
By not fully stepping into them, I mean that I have been reluctant to claim them as sources of wisdom and strength.
All my life, I’ve been writing and thinking and grappling with the theme of invisibility and of being in the margins. I had a sense in my early twenties that the margins were not to be dismissed as spaces of passivity and victimization. In my MA dissertation, My Basement Was No Trivia, I was eager to shout to the world that the margins are places of valuable creative power.
My life has revolved around the margins – around a sense of being constantly the outsider. As a social justice activist, I tended to see my task at hand as one of trying to change the center, change the people in the center. Yet, a lot of the time, I was doing an awkward dance of at once both condemning the center and wanting to be a part of it. Despite the insight I had in my early twenties, throughout my twenties and thirties, I had a very uncomfortable relationship with being in the margins. Much of time, I resented it.
I now see that for much of my life I had embraced a disempowered life. I had not consciously stepped into the fullness of who I am. I was wrapped up in stories that put me in roles where I was deemed of lesser worth and value.
I was a story of a fearful, subjugated, angry woman wanting affirmation and to be included. What stood between me in my power was my tendency to run away from my self. One part of me coveted a place in the center. This part of me believed that another part of me was to blame for my marginalization. I was telling myself a story that said the center was the place to be and belong and that, because of certain aspects of who I am, I was not worthy of being and belonging there.
I wanted to walk into the center by leaving a part of my self behind, in the margins – a space I believed to be the location of rejection and worthlessness.
Now I know better.
A few years ago, I started approaching social justice and my relationship with center and margins differently.
For starters, I stopped thinking in terms of center and margins. What matters, I now realize, is where I choose to center my self internally – that is, what I choose to give power to inside myself. I’ve started walking with ears and eyes wide open into the stories that had become my life. I’ve started questioning them. I’ve started challenging them. I’ve started letting go of some of them. I’ve started writing new ones.
I’ve started mourning for the loss of the stories that were never brought to life. I cry sometimes for the identities I could have lived and the relationships I could have formed, but which have been lost. They were lost because we – I and people close to me – were lost in stories that sought to push us away from our inherent beauty, our peace, our courage, our wisdom and our self-love. I mourn the stories that can never be told, by the lives that can no longer be lived.
At the same time, I celebrate the stories yet to be written from the life I/we have lived and the life I am/we are now living. I have spent much of my life imprisoned and I’m conscious that to be able to write a story of freedom, I will continue to go into the depth of who I am. I will witness and acknowledge all that is there – the struggle, the pain, the fear, the anger, the sadness, the rage, the beauty, the joy, the imagination, the compassion and the wisdom.
I will seek in all the stories I see and hear to find what it is they have to teach me that is restorative. I will restore my self. I will tell the stories that I believe will encourage others to step into their/our creative power more boldly.
I will tell the stories that I believe will encourage me/us to write a story of freedom.
Today’s presentation of various strands of Sembene’s, Samba’s and Jason’s stories helped me cross a threshold.
I have been standing at the threshold, afraid to tell the stories that pulse through my veins and want so badly to be heard. I have been reluctant to cross over that threshold because I seem to carry many stories that want to take me/us into the silences and into that-which-I/we-do-not-talk-about.
As I listened to the stories told this morning, I was moved and I shed tears because I felt I felt kinship. I felt the kinship of people who are conscious of what it means to resist being woven into the threads of other people’s stories. I felt the kinship of people who experienced a life where they thought their worth and value would be found in an identity that was not truly their own. I felt the kinship of people in mourning for lives that were not lived.
I felt the kinship of storytellers who are willing to step into the silences.
Surrounded by my kin this morning, I was moved to cross a threshold. I was moved to step through a portal and into a new frontier. In this land, I will dare to tell the stories that I believe I am here to tell.
Thank you, Jason and Samba, for bringing your stories and Sembene’s story to me and to the world.