This is an installment in an occasional series on Chicago’s West Side.
It was a simple question posed to a group of students at Providence-St. Mel school, my alma mater, on the West Side early this spring: “How many of you trust the news media to tell your story?”
To a person, they said they did not, believing instead that they were best equipped to tell their own stories in their own voices. That social media was one vehicle by which they could help tell a more excellent and accurate story than what has already been told.
I agree, which is why I am writing a series on West Side stories and have spent the better part of my career trying to humanize a place where I was born and bred, and that too often is overlooked or stereotyped.
So, fellow West Siders, I beseech you to tell your own stories. For they are of critical import to Chicago and the world beyond. Let the world know we are not “America’s Millstone.”
Let us arm ourselves with pen and paper, cameras and smartphones and take to social media as St. Mel students suggested to tell our own narrative through our own lens.
I stand as a living breathing West Side story. And I have come, even as a journalist for nearly 30 years, to distrust the media and also the “academy” to tell “our story.” For I have witnessed on the inside of news and academic institutions the jaded and insidious perspectives that misconstrue, misrepresent and misjudge our lives and stories.
Maybe I am too distrusting, too skeptical. Perhaps I have reason to be.
This much I know as a native son: The West Side is not a laboratory but our home, a community. And the dear people who live or have lived there are not lab rats but people.
Nor are we fodder for some researcher’s next bestseller. Not relics to be reviewed and studied in some museum. Not natives to be gawked at on a passing safari tour bus.
We don’t need the sympathy of the South Side “Afrostocracy” that historically has treated us like wet food stamps. Nor do we need the pity of the so-called scholarly or liberal do-gooders who would pat themselves on the back for their foray into the wilds of the West Side.
So, I say to you, fellow West Siders — past and present — write your own stories. Tell your own stories, using digital technology. In our voices, through our own eyes, show them. Preserve them. Pass them on.
We don’t need anyone to “legitimize” our stories in order for them to exist. Or to finally discover, after all these years, that we West Siders have a story worth telling.
We don’t need our stories told from the outside looking in. And we must reject even the slightest notion that our story has not been told until, or unless, those who deem themselves to be the “authoritative” and “legitimate” storytellers of society tell it. That’s simply a bunch of bull.
What of the stories and voices on this part of town that I myself have chronicled over the last 30 years as a journalist/writer/author, even in my own memoir, “True Vine,” about growing up on the West Side? Or the countless stories that other West Siders have told? What is that — chopped liver?
Our stories are valid. That’s not news to us. And our stories are forever ingrained in God’s green earth on this side of Chicago’s tracks.
We are West Side. We have the power, the ability and the right to control our own narrative. Those are the kinds of stories we can trust.