Storytelling and Song: A Reflection

Storytelling and Song: A Reflection

June 4, 2019

By Keaton Hill

Asheville, NC

In the past few weeks a few CJJ events have revealed the power of storytelling and song.

First, my work with the Racial Justice Working Group has forced me to think about how the stories we tell shape the world we exist within. As the group has discussed the content for a Racial Justice Practice Group, we have talked about the narratives that we claim and those unspoken narratives that still have power over us and are part of our cultures. Among other things, this cohort will examine how Anti-Semitism is manipulated by systems of White Supremacy to keep white Jews from examining racism, and thereby maintaining the status quo of racial oppression.

Second, last week, I had a conversation with a colleague of Cole’s who is engaging the New Mexico White Jewish community in antiracism consciousness shift.  Her name is Amelia Paradise, and she spoke of the importance of placing ourselves personally and culturally in a historical context where we can counter false stories and U.S. historical amnesia.  From this place of greater internal, familial, organizational, and systemic knowing, she suggests, we can provide meaningful counter narratives to the dominant stories that uphold racism in the U.S.

And most recently, on Saturday evening, many of us in Asheville saw the power of story and song at Defiant Requiem. The power of the meaning of the song the choir at Terezin sang gave them not only community and bravery, but life itself. The tales we tell mold our culture, have the capacity to change and challenge our reality, and can give us strength to continue.

This all brings me to a quote by celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her TedTalk “The danger of a single story,” she said, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

This, in turn, reminds me of a story: On the final day of his life, Moses gathered the children of Israel – his people – and he told them a story. He told them their story, the full story of their birth as a people. He reminded them of the great moments – their faith and courage as they stepped into the Sea, unable to imagine would what happen next. He told them of their moments of despair – when they yearned to return to their lives of oppression, for freedom was too hard, too scary. And he told them of his own grief, when he begged God to allow him to enter the promise land. But God, the One who told Moses that God would be with Moses' mouth, the God that would give Moses the words to say to Pharaoh to liberate the people, the God who gave Moses words to say to the people – this God told him to stop talking, to never again speak of this matter.

Deuteronomy 31:19 offers the last of the 613 commandments as this: "But now, write yourselves down this song, teach it to the children of Israel, putting it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for Me among the children of Israel."

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks: Why call the Torah a song? He answers: "Because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing. Torah must be affective, not just cognitive. It must speak to our emotions...If our Torah lacks passion, we will not succeed in passing it on to the future. Music is the affective dimension of communication, the medium through which we express, evoke and share emotion. Music speaks to something deeper than the mind. If we are to make Torah new in every generation we have to find ways of singing its song a new way."

After Moses told his people their story, after he reminded them of the commandment to teach their children their song, right before he ascended the mountain to die, Moses sang. Moses sang the people of Israel his farewell song (Deuteronomy 32).

As Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

What is the story you’re telling? What is the story we’re telling? What is the song that we’re singing?