The cast list is out, rehearsal dates are set, and I’m packing my bags for the trip back to Durham.  Next week marks the start of the Bull City Dignity Project, a documentary theater initiative that brings together high school students from across Durham to collect, interpret, and perform stories told to them by Durham’s diverse community members.

The Bull City Dignity Project will explore topics such as race, class, sickness and health, family, sexuality, and old-age.  As the students conduct interviews with doctors and ministers, mail carriers and middle-school teachers, we’ll join them in asking, “What is at stake when we tell someone else’s story? How can sharing personal narratives help us better our community? And how might we-- as students, writers, and artists—ever go wrong?”

Around this time last year, I was asking many of the same questions in Birmingham, Alabama, as I interviewed veterans of the Civil Right Movement for a spoken word poetry project.  (Link).  One of the hubs of my work in Alabama was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which was built across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church.  My mind keeps playing images of those four little girls walking down the stairs, two by two, in yellow and blue dresses. 

A Facebook post, from my friend Joel:

I am beyond distraught at what happened in Charleston. News media has already started to "diagnose" the suspect (who's a white male by the way)…

I am beyond distraught at what happened in Charleston. The shooter will not be labeled as a thug. The shooter will not be labeled as a wild animal. Those epithets were saved for - and have been used against - the protesters at Baltimore, who killed no one, by the way. The media will say that some thing - just one thing - went wrong for him (and maybe his family) that caused him to do this. White people will not be pathologized at all.

Stories can, in many ways, be site of tension. When we make space for the complexity of someone’s story, we honor their humanity. What, then, does it mean when only some people are afforded this privilege? In the mainstream and social media, the stories of white people who kill, abuse, or terrorize people of color often seem to be told with more nuance and compassion than the narratives of their victims. 

In our first Bull City Dignity discussion next week, we’ll look at the ways stories of violence can be weaponized. What does it mean to talk about the Charleston shooting as an isolated incident rather than an act of terror? Who does the media choose to humanize in this story, and who gets overlooked? How does the way we talk about Charleston compare to the coverage of the Baltimore protests or the UNC shooting or Ferguson?

We’ll ask those questions, and we’ll talk about Tywanza Sanders, age 26, who had just graduated from Allen University, and died trying to save the life of a relative.  We’ll talk about Ethel Lee Lance, age 70, who had been a member of Emanuel A.M.E for more than 30 years. We’ll talk about Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45, who was a mother of three, a reverend, and a beloved track coach.  We’ll discuss campaigns like #saytheirnames and artists like Danez Smith, María María Acha-Kutcher, and Devin Allen, that seek to re-center the American discourse on blackness through their poetry, artwork, and photography.  To go off writer Courtney Summer’s quote, these stories matter because black lives matter.

Just as we have the responsibility to prevent tragedies like the Charleston shooting, we also have a duty to talk about them responsibly once they happen.  You can read about the victims of the shooting here and here as part of the #saytheirnames campaign.