Storytellers wield power.
Tracey Baptiste has been thinking a lot about this—and about who gets to tell stories.
As an author, a former elementary school teacher, and currently a professor of creative writing, Tracey explores the power and origins of storytelling. She gave the 2017 Finnegan Lecture, named in honor of Evelyn M. Finnegan '48, an educator and children’s author.
Tracey, who hails from Trinidad and teaches in our MFA in Creative Writing program, wrote the acclaimed children’s novel, The Jumbies, about mythical Caribbean monsters. She talks about her recent efforts to unearth and explore some of the stories that illuminate the brilliance and scientific acumen of early African cultures—stories that are largely untold in our global literary canon.
Society’s stories are told by “mostly white men of European descent,” she says. “One small group of people with a limited world view.”
Given this, she says, "Is there such a thing as a universal truth?"
Tracey is concerned that only one-fifth of children’s books feature characters of color, and among those books, less than half are written by authors of that race or culture. Hence, every storyteller may have the power to affect a universal consciousness, but not everyone gets to tell their story.
“Anyone stuck with a chatty stranger knows that everyone has a story,” she quips. “So why are the stories in our canon and the stories we’re currently publishing so skewed toward whiteness?”
And many children’s books about the African-American experience are about struggles—slavery, Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter—featuring a narrow range of heroes, from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Harriet Tubman, whose stories are commemorated during Black History Month.
“They deserve honor, but surely they cannot be the only ones,” Tracey says. “A lot of the stories about African-Americans are about freed slaves or about struggle and triumph. I’m trying to get other narratives into the books that kids read, not because those narratives aren’t necessary, but because there are other ones. One perspective cannot be the only story we tell about an entire group of people.
“Imagine feeling like all there is in your history is fighting—fighting against someone or something. Can you feel the weight of that?”
So in addition to teaching and writing (including a sequel to The Jumbies), Tracey is focusing her research on untold stories of inquiry, genius and success, which has led her to the ancient Dogon people of Mali in Western Africa. They demonstrated highly skilled architecture, knowledge of astronomy, and creation mythology that reflects today’s established scientific theories.
“The Dogon’s mythology matches what we now believe to be accurate, like the Big Bang, the spiral of the Milky Way, and even DNA,” Tracey says.
But rather than credit this advanced civilization, some 20th-century anthropologists, astronomers and scientists concluded that Europeans somehow managed to convey this knowledge—or that perhaps aliens came to earth and taught the Dogon.
“What is blackness in the white imagination?” she muses. “Is it only about struggle?
“What kind of stories are waiting to be told?” she asks. “Imagine what the universal truths would be if the entire universe had a chance to tell them.”