I read recently that Alex Haley, the late author of Roots, learned the whole saga – the story that would later become a Pulitzer-Prize winning book – while sitting on his grandparent’s front porch. As a child growing up in Henning, Tennessee, in the 1920s, Haley would sit spellbound on the front porch of his grandparents’ home listening to his maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, tell stories of his African ancestors who had come to America as slaves. They included Kunta Kinte, a young man captured near his West African village and transported on a slave ship to America in the 18th century. These stories, told from a front porch, later inspired Haley to research his ancestry and write the novel that changed the way an entire generation would come to understand the history of our nation and the evils of slavery. It all started on the front porch.
The prophet Joel reminds us of the importance of telling stories and keeping alive the flame that is our heritage: “Tell your children about it in years to come, and let your children tell their children. Pass the story down from generation to generation.” When was the last time you told a story about your late father, or your mother’s mother, or, as Haley called Kunta Kinte, the “furthest-back person” in your life? When was the last time you asked a friend, or a neighbor, about his or her life story?
When you know your own story – both the memorable and even the forgettable parts – you know yourself more fully. When you share that story with others, as Haley did his own, others come to know you more fully and, perhaps, they even come to know more of themselves.
My son Casey was given a recent assignment for his high school history class: to interview a World War II veteran about his experiences in war. I arranged for Casey to meet with an old friend of mine — someone whose life and life story I have come to greatly admire over the years. Later that evening, I asked Casey how the interview went. He said, “I talked with one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Just hearing his story makes me want to be a better person.”
What Casey was saying, I think, is that when you hear a good story, it makes you want to have a better story.
Find a front porch somewhere. Spin a yarn or two. It’s one way to change the world.
Photo Credit: jcbwalsh