Stories on top of stories. I’ve been thinking about that tonight. How could I not? I was in the audience in Fairfield as Jacqueline Woodson, a brilliant storyteller, spoke about and read from Harbor Me, and because she couldn’t tell that story without telling the story that lay beneath it, she read from Brown Girl Dreaming, her autobiographical book, about growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn. She told about how when she was writing Brown Girl Dreaming, she had found that she had some gaps in her memory, so she had tried to ask her mother, who until then had been reluctant to tell stories about life in the South, now that she had escaped that life and started a new one. When Jacqueline’s mom had passed away during the time that Brown Girl Dreaming was still becoming, Jacqueline said that some of the stories beneath the story of how the girl became a writer were lost. “So talk to your family. Kids, talk to the old people, you know the ones over 30 years old. Listen to their stories. Don’t let them be lost.”
This all reminded me of a section of Harbor Me that Jacqueline did not read tonight, but that seemed to fit so well, that now I can hear her asking herself, “Should I read that part? Or will it take me too far off track?”
Here’s the passage I recalled:
“Our story starts in Ms. Laverne’s class in the borough of Brooklyn in the city of New York. But it’s a story on top of a story. It’s a story that’s started and ended a whole bunch of times. When we were studying the history of New York, we talked about the Lenape people — they were the real Native New Yorkers, but it wasn’t called New York then. Their name for it was Lenapehoking. But then the Dutch settlers killed them and took their land. That means that wherever we put a single foot–it’s land that belonged to the Lenape. It’s land they might be buried under. It’s land that they died for. Ms. Laverne said that we should always remember this. That even though we have our dreams, the Lenape had dreams too. That even though we’re here now, they were here first. I think this is what the world is –stories on top of stories, all the way back to the beginning of time.”
And so, as we were driving home, Nancy was thinking of questions she wished she had asked, like, “Can you describe the world you’d like to see in 2050?” She had heard environmental scientists engaging in this envisioning on NPR, describing the carbon-free world that they believe we could create. Now Nancy was wondering if a master storyteller with heart and wisdom could describe the hate-free world that she envisions. THAT would be a story to place on top of this time. It’s a story that hasn’t been told yet.
And I was thinking of a boy in my class who started today by showing the class the pictures he’d taken from walking the Freedom Trail in Boston this weekend, but ended his day half an hour later, too sad to stay in school, because today was the birthday of his cousin, his almost-a-brother cousin, who would have turned 11 today. A story that started and ended. He didn’t take stories of the past with him when he passed, he took stories that wouldn’t happen.
Later in the same chapter of Harbor Me, the narrator describes how the conversation closed:
Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’
I will harbor you.
Jacqueline Woodson said she wished for a world where Esteban wouldn’t have to return to the Dominican Republic to reunite with his recently deported father. She wished for a world where “I will harbor you” was the sentence on everyone’s lips.
I have that same wish for my class today.