TALKING WITH STRANGERS TEACHING, LEARNING, SHARING

by Annette Daniels Taylor

We all know people who love to talk, and those who like to ask questions. Arriving in Buffalo, my mother-in law introduced me to the infamous, now gone, Gigi’s restaurant. Famous for its delicious comforting soul food, Gigi’s was also a popular meeting place for a group of elders who enjoyed discussion. It was sometimes loud and heated but often filled with laughter and spirited.  In the far back of the restaurant on particular afternoon you could be a volunteer audience to anywhere between 4 to 8 senior Black men debating politics and current events and how those events affect our lives.

When Gigi’s succumbed to fire several years ago, the men and their discussions left along with the fried chicken and pinto beans. I don’t know if they found another spot for their meetings if the talks just ended. However, during the mandatory quarantine imposed in March, talking in close proximity of those who don’t live within our own family households can be very risky for our health. 

So, how do folks who like having discussions and debates with friends get their social fix?

For six-weeks, I had the pleasure of facilitating a reading and discussion program entitled “American Politics & Community Today”. We started well, with more than 20 multi-generational participants Black and white, male and female. Reading essays and returning to discuss and question their meaning, our understanding or feelings towards them.

During quarantined, we were forced to change to a virtual format to continue the discussions.

At first, I was a bit skeptical about the effectiveness of an online version of our program. Meeting in person the conversations were lively and inspiring. Folks felt connected to one another. The invisible barriers of difference and ignorance seemed to crumble with further questions and discourse. It was exciting to see people opening up to one another!

We were actively changing how we thought about “others” through simple basic exchanges of storytelling, sharing, questions, answers and real honest listening.

Our first ZOOM session was fraught with a handful of technical hiccups, folks not muting their mics when they were addressing someone inside their home. Others not being able to turn on their video or their sound correctly. However, we forged ahead helped one another and waited.

We had three sessions in person and three sessions online. Both environments brought their own challenges and successes but during the entire process we learned different and important aspects about how our neighbors thought, felt and lived as Americans in Western New York today, and other cities and in the past. We learned about African American prep school experiences, past military experiences between black and white, we learned about historic neglect and racism towards indigenous Native American communities.

Through the writings of Ralph Ellison and other authors we made comparisons and shared personal moments which taught us more about our own learned individual prejudices. These moments of learning allowed me to be reminded of the importance of seeing and engaging with neighbors and building strong communities by “making time for thinking deeply about a single idea from a variety of perspectives”

This article is a refection on last seasons reading series . This season focuses on Black Writers, Essays Fiction Drama Journalism and Poetry facilitated by  Annette Daniels Taylor.                

Taylor is an artist, and author of the poetry chapbooks, Street Pharmacist and other poetic tales, and Hush now poems to read aloud. Her debut YA novel, Dreams on Fire (October 2018) with West 44 books is an poetic urban teenage journey written in verse. An award winning playwright, her drama A Little Bit of Paradise, won the 2008 Artie Award for Outstanding New Play. 
A poet, artist, and storyteller interested in American public history, her practice includes performance, poetry, video, sound, and vocals.
A 2018-19 New York State Public Humanities fellow, a 2016-18 Arthur A. Schomburg fellow with the Department of Media Study, SUNY University at Buffalo alum; a three time NYSCA awarded artist; a Pink Door Poetry alum; and lead teaching artist with Young Audiences, Underground Railroad Residency of Western New York program.
A native of Staten Island, New York with roots in North and South Carolina, 
Annette Daniels Taylor’s storytelling practice reminds audiences of forgotten histories.