For a long time, I thought of myself as a person who valued order, routine, and predictability; “I’m pretty risk-averse,” I would tell people when the topic came up. Individuals who knew me well often looked at me puzzled—does a risk-averse person self-publish a book or date their professor or adopt a child?—but that was how I related to myself, a narrative formed in childhood that lost its accuracy at some point during my teenage years. One of the many things that this move has forced me to do is reconsider this story that I have told for so long, and to examine why I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to let it go before now.
Narratives are powerful, and like any powerful thing, they can be dangerous. When we fail to update our stories about ourselves, we wind up living inside of limitations that are entirely self-imposed; when we fail to update our stories about others, we can—as individuals and groups of individuals—do terrible damage.
Such has been a piece of the conversation in my classroom the past few weeks, as my sophomores and I read Feeding the Ghosts, a hauntingly beautiful book of historical fiction that imagines the voyage of The Zong, a slave ship infamous for its captain’s decision to throw sick slaves overboard in order to maximize profits. It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an incredibly difficult text to read and reckon with: questions about dehumanization, power, prejudice, and the nature of humanity have filled my days. There are no easy answers—one of my personal and pedagogical core beliefs—which is part of what makes the examination worth the while.
I am interested in asking my students (and also myself) to look at and consider the material on multiple levels, hence the conversations about how narratives can influence and determine everything from our self-understandings to our institutional structures. It may seem a stretch, but I do believe these things are connected; if we push ourselves to be more reflective and in reality about the narratives at work inside our own lives, we are better prepared to take responsibility for the narratives we participate in as family members, employees, citizens, and adherents to a particular dogma. And Lord knows we could use a little bit of that in the world right now.