Douglas White Hodge On Listening And Telling Stories

[W]e allow stories to be told.  Some of the greatest orators of U.S. history have been Black; rap is only the most recent incarnation of artistry in word to come out of African American culture.  When I go to camp with students, one of the things I enjoy the most is listening to the stories that young people have to tell about who they are, what they fear the most, who they love, how they love, when they love, how they see Jesus, and where Jesus is at in their lives.  Many times urban students will tell their story in a type of spoken word or verse style.  Often it is the first time that these young people have shared their story in a safe environment without fear of rejection, laughter and cruel put-downs. – Douglas White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p.139

We cannot afford to do theology unrelated to human existence.  Our theology must emerge consciously from an investigation of socioreligious experience of black people, as that experience is reflected in black stories of God’ dealings with black people in the struggle for freedom. – James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p.15

Story as a theological category is one of the most difficult with which to wrestle.  Particularly if you have been educated in the typical western theological tradition, it is all about concepts, about logic, about rational discourse aiming at the goal of defining and describing God.  As Daniel White Hodge makes clear, however, it is through narrative that Hip Hop and the communities it creates comes to terms with the God of our broken world, the Jesus of the ghetto, and the Spirit that often blows outside the four walls of the church.

While I agree that, historically speaking, African-Americans have been among our best storytellers, I would also argue that far too often that talent has been the focus of demeaning parody by whites, particularly during the age of minstrelsy.  Later, great African-American poets and novelists were marginalized, reduced to part of the “Harlem Renaissance”, or focus was placed on their private lives – August Wilson was “an angry black man”; James Baldwin was gay, preferring younger men (perhaps even boys) – in order to distract readers from their brilliance.  In other words, while we have had great African-American storytellers, we have also spent a great deal of time refusing to listen to their stories.

This continues, by the way.  When young African-American men and women talk of being harassed on the street by police; of being beaten, arrested for no reason; when we read news reports of yet another African-American killed by police, far too many of us close our ears to the long history of stories of official tolerance of violence against people of color.  We read far too many angry rejections of this long narrative of violence, refusing to listen because it just isn’t a story we want to hear.

Yet, White Hodge insists that, given an opportunity to speak in places free from intimidation and ridicule, many young people of color begin to find their voices, telling their stories, many for the first times.  These stories join other stories in the long history of narrative about God, about who Jesus is for these young people, about how it all fits in with the contradictions in their lives.

Sometimes, stories lay buried for a long time.  Stories of pain and loss; stories of personal regret and a desire for forgiveness; stories of personal tragedy yet to be overcome.  “Dance With The Devil”, the song at the top of this post, is told in the third person, yet Immortal Technique makes it clear at the end that he, too, was there, in the thick of the worst moment of the lives of a whole group of people.  Even as he bares his soul, admits his place in the rape and murder of a young woman and the suicide of a young man, he refuses to see any possibility not only for forgiveness but redemption as well.  This story, as horrible as it is, is part of Hip Hop Confession: the need for individuals within Hip Hop communities to tell their worst stories in order for there to be space for forgiveness and redemption.

Far too often, white Americans venerate the criminal black musician: Sydney Bechet, the jazz soprano saxophonist, getting in a gun fight in Paris; Chuck Berry spending time in prison for violating the Mann Act with an underage girl; the drug-taking and drug-dealing blues and Hip Hop performers.  Even as comfortable as performers such as Ice Cube and 50 Cent have had it, we prefer their performer’s persona of the violent, drug-dealing thug. If nothing else, these tend to confirm our view of African-Americans as criminals.  Hip Hop, however, offers people the opportunity to share their full stories, with all the nuance, regret, pain, rage, and shame these stories carry with them.

For White Hodge, however, it isn’t just telling the stories that’s important.  It’s also listening, actively engaging with the storyteller’s voice, showing through our actions that the person and that person’s story are worthy and worthy of our attention.  It is precisely in those moments, those holy moments, that it becomes possible to experience the God and Jesus and Spirit of Hip Hop.  This is a lesson we older church folks need to hear, need to learn, need to practice as we try to incorporate the diversity of experiences and human emotions in to the life of the Church.