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Intergenerational Narratives: Providing Models of Resistance and Building Hope

Are we facing a “narrative crisis”?

Key points

  • The shared American narrative is in crisis as we struggle to achieve a narrative that encompasses all of us.
  • Narratives told by older generations to younger generations convey meaning and purpose.
  • Intergenerational narratives of resistance can help change the narrative and build hope for the future.

We are in a “narrative crisis” according to Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy. Mr. Stevenson was a keynote speaker at the Association for Psychological Science annual meetings last week that I attended. He spoke eloquently about the role of narrative in creating a shared American story, often called “The American Dream.” But this narrative is in crisis as we struggle to achieve social justice, to achieve a narrative that encompasses all of us, a story that foregrounds the challenges while simultaneously championing the triumphs. We need an American story that holds our sorrows as well as sings our praises.

Family Stories

Mr. Stevenson’s talk was peppered with personal stories, stories of family strength and love, stories especially about his grandmother, who told him that he was special and destined for great things (as she told all of her grandchildren!). Through her love, and through her stories, she affirmed his human dignity. His own family stories provided an entry into the larger world for him, a world where he is now creating his own story and, through his foundational work at the Montgomery Memorial for Peace and Justice, telling the story of so many others whose voices have been silenced through violence.

At that same conference, Ed T. de St. Aubin, of Marquette University, discussed a project on collecting life narratives from middle-aged Black women in Milwaukee, a city that remains highly segregated and has the lowest mean income for Black residents than any other major city in the United States. Almost all of the women interviewed suffered tragedy in their lives and continue to face severe challenges, yet most were hopeful, especially about the legacy that they were leaving the next generation.

When these research participants were asked what they would say to a young Black woman just starting out in life, the themes that emerged were of accepting and loving oneself and of resisting the “meta-narrative”—the culturally prevalent narratives that portray Black women in negative ways. These highly pernicious stereotypes still, unfortunately, pervade our culture and shape the narratives we tell about ourselves and others. To resist the narrative is to question these assumptions and create your own story of strength and resilience in the face of these challenges. And perhaps the stories told by the older generation to the younger generation begin to provide those narratives of resistance and of strength, as did the stories told to Mr. Stevenson by his grandmother.

Stories Within Communities

Research in The Family Narratives Lab, that I direct, has consistently shown the power of intergenerational stories—stories told by the older generation to the younger generation, in helping young adults build self-esteem and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. But these intergenerational stories do not only occur within families. They also occur within communities, often communities that are marginalized and seek out stories that resist the dominant narrative that excludes them. Nic Westrate, of the University of Chicago at Illinois, presented a paper at the meetings that described a project within the male LGBTQ+ community where members of the older generation and the younger generation share stories with each other. LGBTQ+ youth who know more of the stories of struggle and resistance from their elders show higher levels of self-esteem and a higher sense of well-being than those who know fewer stories.

Hope for the Future

As Mr. Stevenson said, we need to do the narrative work to change the narrative to be more inclusive and affirming of all Americans, and this requires that we be hopeful. Jordan Booker, Karen Brakke, and Natasha Pierre asked Black women attending Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, to narrate their own stories of challenge. Those who narrated more personal growth through challenge showed higher levels of well-being, more emotional intimacy, and more regard for their own mental and physical health. They also professed more hope for the future. Where does this hope come from? Older generations who help the younger generation find hope amidst their struggles may be key.

Perhaps we are beginning to change the narrative, to listen to those who have been historically silenced, and to be more inclusive in the way we understand the American dream, the dominant narrative of our culture. Perhaps by listening to the stories of the generations that came before us, stories from all members of society, we are beginning to understand our own stories in different ways, in ways that give new meaning and create a narrative of social justice. Perhaps the “narrative crisis” will lead to a new narrative. I hope so.

References

Booker, J. A., Brakke, K., & Pierre, N. (2022). It’s is Time to Make More Goals So I Can Keep Pushing: Hope, Growth, and Well-Being Among Young Black Women. Emerging Adulthood, 21676968221089179.

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