We Are the Stories We Tell

For the life of me, I couldn’t find that damn tooth. Where could it have gone? The mob descended on us, on him, exactly where I was standing. I can’t believe I lost his tooth. 

It’s always felt like my fault. I’m clearly too Black to be with a white guy. Don’t you know your place, your lane? I’m clearly too white, with my blond-haired, blue-eyed mom and dad who marries white women. You talk like a white girl, have no rhythm, and always use words with more syllables than are necessary. That’s how it’s been my whole life, too this and not enough that, never having developed a positive sense of self-identity and now trying to navigate moving into young adulthood. 

It’s a wonder that I made it to college at all. Lord knows it ain’t been no crystal stair. But I did it. I stumbled, fell down, got knocked around a lot, but by the grace of God, made it most of the way through my undergraduate when going into my senior year, found out that I needed to take an anatomy class. I had no idea I was missing a core course.

The oversized class met in a theater-style room that held about 300 people. The chairs were arranged in a sharp downward slope toward the stage, which is where the professor and lectern were affixed. I, being a lackluster student at best, faithfully arrived 5-10 minutes late and then squeezed into any open chair as far back in the room as possible. I honestly cannot remember anything from that course other than Tommy. 

I first saw him as he departed class about a third of the way through the term. I hadn’t noticed him before; my eyes typically glazed over as soon as I tried to focus on the instructor standing what felt like a mile away from my seat. That day, he caught my eye; this blond guy with baggy jeans and tortoise shell glasses I could tell he wore more for fashion than function. He walked with swagger. I like swagger.

Hmm, I thought to myself, I wonder who that is?

The next time class met, I made sure to look for him. I zeroed in on the first couple of rows, hoping to find him where I last saw him. There he was, front row, slight right, and seeming to hang on every word from the professor’s mouth. For the first time, I actually tried to listen to the instructor that day. The look on this intriguing man’s face made me wonder what could be so interesting. At the end of class, I descended the long, deep row of stairs toward the front exit, hoping to get a closer look. Thankfully, not too much effort was needed beyond that; our eyes met, and by the time I reached him, we had both clearly decided that an introduction was in order. 

We hit it off right away. He was self-assured but in a low-key way, not stinking up the place as my daddy would say. He would make conversation by asking me questions about myself like, “What kind of music are you into?” or “What books are you reading?” or “Where have you traveled that you’ve most enjoyed, and where do you want to go next?” I had never met anyone like him before. Not once did he mention all the all-to-familiar favorites of every other man that had ever exoticized me: paying me “compliments'' about my “good hair,” “big butt,” or our potential for “pretty babies.'' These phrases were never uttered, and it was a breath of fresh air. I felt seen, not just for who I am–but given the particularly limited access I had to the world and otherness to that point–what I had yet undiscovered inside of me. 

We found ourselves falling naturally into a perfectly harmonious bohemian lifestyle together. In many ways, he was my teacher, gently inviting me to try new things. Long road trips along the California coast, stopping to body surf in the frigid waters of San Luis Obispo. A Napa Valley day, tasting versions of reds for hours at Ravenswood winery. A sailing day in the bay, with me naively wearing a bathing suit–though a sweatshirt had been recommended–only to discover for myself the famous Mark Twain quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Lollapalooza at Red Rocks Amphitheater and front row energy of Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers, both brand new sounds to my Motown and Hip Hop-tuned ears. I discovered Bob Marley, listened to Ottmar Liebert play in small mountain-side venues, and spent months writing poetry in coffee shops in Haight-Ashbury, connecting with a creative energy that felt like home to me.

My world was made so much bigger by my relationship with Tommy. I was grateful for us and happy. But that’s not enough all the time, is it? Sometimes, the world around us, for better or worse, weighs in. 

Juneteenth Gone Wrong

We were walking hand-in-hand through Five Points in Denver, enjoying the Juneteenth festivities along with thousands of others. Tommy is from Denver, so there was never a hesitation to attend–he and his family always recognized and joined Juneteenth celebrations and were actually the ones to introduce me to the holiday. Out of the blue, someone yelled at us, “What the f– do you think you’re doing, white boy?” Then a hit to his face, then another, and another. In the blink of an eye, a mob–honestly, 20 people–were hitting and kicking Tommy, who was now on the ground. All of the people attacking him were Black. I am Black. I love Black people. Black people are attacking a person I love, for no reason. Well, maybe hate? Why hate him? They don’t even know him. They only know what they believe about people like him–the stories they have been told or their experiences as Black people who live and navigate white spaces. And the anger that builds up inside about those often oppression-filled experiences–those real experiences, has to go somewhere. It has to come out. 

My Beautiful Braids

Recovering from being jumped by a mob wasn’t easy, particularly for Tommy’s parents. They had been our biggest fans but shifted to a bit more tentative as they worried (rightfully so) about their son’s safety and all the hardship that could befall us if our relationship persisted. During the winter holidays, we all found ourselves in Chicago, visiting both our families.

I spent the first few days in Chicago with cousins and friends. I got my hair braided, something I couldn’t find anyone to do where I was living in Colorado. A friend dropped me off at the home of Tommy’s Chicago family, where I would join them for dinner and spend the night before our road trip back to Colorado. I knocked on the door, and Tommy’s mom, Joanne, an absolutely delightful, loving woman, answered. The huge smile that was on her face as the door opened quickly dropped. She literally froze. Then she called her husband’s name without ever inviting me in. Tommy’s dad came to the door, looked at me, and then at his wife, who by then had broken into nearly hysterical crying. Tommy's dad, alarmed, said, “Joanne, what’s wrong?” Her reply was, “She looks so Bllllaaaccckkk. Why did you have to make yourself look so black?”

This woman I loved, and who I know loved me, reacted out of fear. She wanted me to be accepted by her family, who didn’t yet know the person she and her son loved. She likely continued to feel the pain of knowing that her son was attacked because he was with a Black woman. As a mother, I can absolutely understand her instinct. Her reaction was not hate toward me but part of her own story that had been soiled by hate. We both left that experience with deep and lasting scars. 

Why do I tell these stories? 

Because my stories are me. 

Your stories are you. 

Even the stories that you have not personally lived but have been handed down to you from others, filled with their own interpretation of events, are also you. 

Stories are how we make meaning. They are how we come to understand who “we” are and, importantly, who are “they.” We use stories to help us navigate current and future experiences. Sometimes, though, our stories are old, in a context that no longer exists for us, or are filled with the fears, biases, and hurts of those who passed them onto us. Only by recognizing the power of story–possessed by the storytellers and by those of us who ingest them–can we find some semblance of peace. We can decide what we are going to claim as our own–or reject outright. We are not at the mercy of other people’s stories, their hate-filled narratives. We have the ability, the responsibility, to be accountable for our contributions to collective storytelling. 

It’s now 2024, and we are at–in my opinion–a pretty low point in our collective story. I’m overwhelmed with the level and degree of negativity–straight-up hate–that is flooding my every source of information. Hell, I can’t even tell what’s coming from real humans or not. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I have an unwavering belief in human goodness. Not everyone is equally good–noted. But most people, across identities, geographies, and politics are fundamentally values-based. Maybe not your values. More aptly, according to Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, they may not define or prioritize their values in the same way as you. They may live in a la-la land and haven’t yet put together all the ways in which they could be more helpful or stop being harmful, but they're not evil. They–all of us–want to be heard, understood, cared about, and engaged

As you begin the new year:

  1. Listen to how you talk about yourself, your organization, and others. 
    • What words do you use? 
    • What is the ratio of positive or neutral words to negative ones?
    • How do you frame descriptions of experiences? Is there typically a bad guy and a good guy? Do you use open, non-judgmental language? 
    • Do you convey curiosity? Openness to learn and explore an issue from multiple perspectives? 
  2. See people as more than ONE thing.
    • None of us is only a compilation of our identities, our political views on one topic or another, our education, our this or that… 
    • We don’t have to like everyone. But to dislike a person–or an entire group–outright for ONE thing that we know or we think we know about them leads to catastrophe. 
    • Actively seek to understand the variety of aspects of a person, including those that might/will resonate with some of the aspects of you. 
  3. Be curious.
    • The world is moving fast and filled with AI and bad actors. None of us has the luxury of believing that our truth is “TRUTH.”
    • Use critical thinking on yourself. Think about what you think. Where does it come from? Are you just “piling on” to a social media thread or to what seem to be the loudest cries? Stop. Get quiet. Call upon your OWN values (which are likely rooted in generosity and caring for others). 
    • Try to understand where other people are coming from. Right now, most everyone is coming from a place of fear. If you remember that, it might help us explore a little bit more deeply at first before hurling or putting up walls. 
  4. Create space for grace. 
    • Avoid making assumptions about others. 
    • If you don’t understand where another person is coming from, ask questions. “I would like to better understand your point of view. Will you share a bit more about your thinking?”
    • Give yourself grace. We’re living in times that are unprecedented, and no one is going to get everything right (by the way, the definition of “right” is ridiculously elusive!).  

How do we do more of this – suspending judgment about the stories swirling in our minds long enough to engage with the authentic desire to learn, develop new ways of seeing and experiencing each, and create the next chapter in our story? You know what they say, all the best stories have happy endings.

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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