Written by Funto Omojola
At the age of four, Rachel Elaine Bailey “Beetle” remembers having their first manic episode. Twenty years later, when they checked themself into a psych ward after a nervous breakdown, they remained haunted by the same thoughts they had carried with them for most of their life: they were not good at being black. Growing up, they were met with sentiments from those around them regarding what it meant to be a strong black woman. They were told that black people were not meant to be susceptible to mental illness, were supposed to be tough and resilient in the face of weakness, and were most definitely not ones to ask others for help. During the recent TMI #blackstoriesmatter performance, hosted by Bard College, Beetle shared their story about navigating these difficult notions of blackness. They recounted their initial experience with the TMI organization.
“I was first involved with the TMI project about four years ago, almost didn’t do it, but decided what the hell, maybe they’ll find something interesting about me,” they told me. “And they just have this way of pulling relevance and reliability out… these things that other people can feel that you just didn’t know were in you. So when they started #blackstoriesmatter and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, I immediately said yes.”
The TMI Project is a nonprofit organization based in Kingston, New York with the aim of fostering compassion and transformative change and awareness through the medium of storytelling. The #blackstoriesmatter initiative is a project that sprung out of this belief of storytelling as a powerful way to specifically address issues of racial injustice as well as national and local incidences of intolerance. Against the backdrop of the countless murders of black men at the hands of police nationwide, and the subsequent lack of due justice, Eva Tenuto, executive director of TMI and Tameka Ramsey, TMI project board member and Black Stories Matter committee chair, felt the need to do something.
“The first conversation that we had about [blackstoriesmatter] was after Trayvon Martin. As Eva mentioned, we were shocked and stunned and thought what could we do,” Ramsey said. “And then it kept happening and then it was another one and another one and another one, and it’s still happening. I think it was after Eric Garner when we had a conversation and were just like we’re going to use the platform that we have, but we have to start now. We can’t sit on our hands any longer because this isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.”
During the event which took place on Wednesday April 4, performers shared their personal stories of navigating the various nuances that come with being people of color. Micah Blumenthal spoke of how his encounters with TV shows and films in which one-sided depictions of black characters who were the first to die, if they were bothered to be shown at all, affected his perceptions of himself as a black man. Storyteller Dara Lurie opened up about her experience at a Dutchess County-based home and school for disadvantaged children and how it shaped her understandings of her own biases towards those who were darker or of different socioeconomic backgrounds from her. Other performances included painful retellings of the destructive nature of gentrification, in addition to the racist and unforgettable encounters that many people of color experience in everyday life.
As the night went on, the impact these powerful stories were having on the audience was clear. There were moments of utter silence as the raw nature of the stories that filled the room resonated with all listening. Audience member Stella Frank, a member of Brave, who co-sponsored the event, spoke of what the performances meant to her.
“I don’t think I fully understood the degree to which some people of color don’t feel like they fit into categories within the community. I hadn’t heard such personal stories and honestly, I think it was just a good reminder of how mean and racist people can be. Being at Bard where everyone is trying to be so progressive and careful with their words, you forget that you can be eight years old and called the N word and that’s not something that we talk about here very much.” Speaking of why sponsoring such an event on Bard’s College campus was so important to Brave, she added; “Something that we have been discussing for the past two years is the necessity to include people of color and to address the lack of mental health discussion in communities of color. [Inviting TMI] was an effort to reach communities of color and make that connection that was lacking.”
Tameka Ramsey shared her own story of navigating the terrains of underrepresentation and unequal class opportunities at the Predominately White Institution she attended. To her, the idea that storytelling can truly change lives is what inspires her to continue to do this work. To my question of what she hoped people took away from the event she answered;
“I want people to examine their own relationship with this issue. I want the stories to inspire them to action in their own lives. One of the reasons why we use storytelling for social justice is because we believe that telling stories has the capacity to change, you know everything. Legislation is important and activism is important but relating to one another on a human level, through storytelling, we just believe wholeheartedly, is the way to inspire people to action from their hearts.”
In today’s political climate, one that often seems hinged on racial tension and misunderstanding, it is imperative to acknowledge the necessity to listen and give space to the voices of the marginalized. Yet, within these collective notions of identity, it is also important to realize the vast nuances of “the black experience.” The stories shared by #blackstoriesmatter highlighted the different pains and joys that have formed us as black individuals—pains and joys that make our culture so unique and beautiful, no matter the ways they may manifest in our lives.
“Being black is not all black things to all black people. I am not horrible at being black,” Beetle said as they finished their performance. “There is no monolith of blackness. Not as it relates to mental health, or taste of music, or anything else. I am living proof of that.”
For more information about the #blackstoriesmatter initiative or to get involved, visit www.tmiproject.org/blackstoriesmatter.