February is Black History Month. At its conception in the 1920s, it was seen as an opportunity for African-Americans to learn and value the cultural and historical traditions of the African-American community existing in a broader community. Treasuring tradition and providing a historical narrative gives strength to a particular culture. It is now considered a time for those outside of African-American culture to understand and celebrate its richness.
Despite such good intentions, politics in our nation continue to be powerfully divisive, encouraging the “us-and-them” narrative. Both sides of the spectrum identify the villains across the fence. As long as we never meet them, never hear their stories, this should continue easily. Labels facilitate the process: North and South, Black and White, rich and poor, Christian and secularist, citizen and immigrant. Each label carries with it a tradition, a history and a visual held by the one in the group and a very different one outside the group. So long as we play on our own team, we can continue to identify this as a game with winners and losers. If they win, I lose. If I win, they lose. We usually do not gloat over their losses but see it as a necessary evil for the perpetuation of the greater good, that is, whatever is good to me.
In time for Black History Month, my book club read and discussed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is known as a historically important book and a historically influential book, but even without formal study, I had a sense there was modern controversy surrounding this work. I dived in.
Most striking to me, and the book club members, was the power of this work. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is reportedly described by Abraham Lincoln, when he met her, as “the little lady who started this great war.”
In the novel, beautifully written, heartbreaking but hopeful, Stowe uses the story framework and characters to refute every argument in favor of slavery. The book works because the characters are good and bad. Slave owners are capable of changing but are sometimes too lazy or too selfish to do so. The subtle prejudices of those who preach against slavery are revealed and taken deeper. There are slaves whose characters are driven, determined, hopeless, resigned, or desperate. Their hearts are a mixture of good and bad, too.
Research indicates that reading literary fiction (literature that has stood the test of time as opposed to genre or popular fiction) can increase empathy. According to Scientific American, “Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships… This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”
Sermons, rallies, social media posts, genre-works with preachy stereotypical characters who are good or bad (not both like normal humans) preach to the choir, as they say. It serves to strengthen those who already believe it.
In contrast, by storytelling, by making personal those with whom we see ourselves having little in common, to see them as human, can change hearts. Influenced by the portrayals in Stowe’s 19th-century bestseller, those on the fences could see the error in the beliefs that slavery could be tolerated, that it was enough to treat slaves well, that they were happier for it, or that one could position himself as against slavery but still recoil at integration.
Storytelling makes the “other” not so “other” anymore, but human. We have differences to be celebrated, but in the end, we are human. The person on the other side of the political, socioeconomic, or spiritual fence has just as valuable a story.
If you want to change the world, tell a story.
If it’s time to change your heart, read one.