Black men are often subject to stereotypes, social norms, and narratives that we often feel compelled to live up to even if they do not fit us. The book “We Want a Different Story” by local author Terence Gray challenges the narratives about black men in an effort to change how black men view themselves and how black men are viewed in society.
I got a chance to sit down with the Terence to discuss his book, the inspiration for writing it, and his hopes for those who read it.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Gray: I am a native Memphian, born and raised in Memphis. Grew up in the Whitehaven area, graduated from Whitehaven High School. My family is from here, and I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life except for a couple of years in Dallas. I graduated from the University of Memphis, and I’ve been serving in the urban youth ministries capacities for the past seven years, so I spend a lot of time with urban youth just helping them find a better path here in Memphis. So that’s been a lot of my work. I’ve done that in the youth ministry capacity. I’ve done that in case management as well. But over the course of the last two years, I’ve been observing issues that I deal with as a black man in Memphis and just spending time with so many youth and men, I just see this common thread of a misunderstanding of identity. So, yeah, that’s been a passion of mine as well, just to advocate for black men to help them find themselves.
What caused you to go in this direction of advocacy?
Gray: I would say it began with myself first. Just growing up as a black man in Memphis, you get told so many stories about yourself. A lot of those aren’t positive. I think 43% of the news stories of black men are of them being athletes and another 30% are about crime. So, you get this very limited, monolithic imagery of black men in Memphis, and I’ve seen that influence so many people and influence myself. So, what got me on the path of this advocacy, in particular with helping men find their identity, is just the pain that I’ve seen in people who don’t know themselves. So, through observation, observing myself and observing what a lot of other men are going through, you keep hearing this common theme of man, my identity has been fractured or I don’t have enough positive examples of myself. You begin to hear that a lot, and that has led me to want to help men in that area.
What is your book about?
Gray: “We Want a Different Story” is about the power of narrative and how it influences African-American male identity. In the book, we deconstruct a lot of the false narratives that have been told about black men. A lot of those narratives are things such as hypermasculinity, that black men are just naturally hypermasculine, toxic, violent, angry, hypersexual, less intelligent. So, for a long time in America, black men didn’t really have access to ways to write their own stories, so we were just subject to the storytelling of an oppressive culture. We had to take it. I give a timeline of how that story has evolved throughout history, and after that I talk about how it has influenced me personally and how it’s influenced other people for the hope of seeing the monster, deconstructing this false narrative so that we can pick it apart and live in light of who we are.
How do you hope this book will influence readers?
Gray: When I was writing the book, I was thinking about two different audiences. I think for minority men, when we read this book it’ll help us deconstruct a lot of the lies that we may have been believing about ourselves, and so hopefully a person will read this and say, ‘Man, you know what? I actually do feel the pressure to perform when I’m in white spaces, and I need to take that pressure off of myself’ or, ‘Maybe I have limited myself in what I can be, and what I’m capable of doing, and I need to strive for something better and higher.’
Hopefully, in reading this book there’s this deconstruction of a lie that will help you live in light of who you truly are. For black men, that’s what I hope they get out of it. I think for non-African-American readers, I hope this helps to cultivate empathy, that they can hear other people’s stories and experiences and realize that black men in America have been through a lot, and it’s not for them to pity black men, but to understand. I think empathy is the proverbial need of the hour. I think that we need to be able to hear them and understand them in order to relate to them better.
Do you think this book will push against concepts like code-switching?
Gray: I believe that that could be a result of reading for some people. I think there’s an unhealthy form of assimilation that takes place a lot of times for African-American men, and I would hope that after reading this book, that it would help people not live in light of that unhealthy assimilation. And I think—and I write about this some—I think that even white Americans code switch when they have to go in certain environments. Like, if a northerner goes to the south, they may switch it up, or if a white southerner goes to the north, they might switch that accent up a little bit, and so I think everybody does it depending on the environment that you’re trying to influence. I don’t think code-switching is innately bad, but I think when I am internalizing self-hate, and I believe that I can’t assert a part of myself in certain environments, and I believe I can’t assert things that are good in certain environments, I think we have a toxic problem.
Overall, what would you say your future vision for black men in Memphis looks like?
My vision for black men in Memphis is that we would one day be able to navigate culture without negative identity narratives being a hindrance to our growth and advancement. Practically, that looks likes more boys developing a vision for their lives that goes beyond being a rapper, athlete, or drug dealer. Quite often, this rapper-baller-hustler trifecta has been the status quo of achievement in the Memphis African American community. As a man of faith, I believe that God has created each individual with the capacity to dream and express oneself in a unique way. There are many men in Memphis who are enjoying this freedom of expression and I want to see more find such freedom. There are black doctors, lawyers, educators, writers, artists, athletes, ministers, and businessmen who are creating a new narrative every day, and I simply want to see that reality be multiplied into the lives of more men. Outside of the professional realm, I want to see more men become leaders of their homes. I believe that the home is the place that is most critical to the rewriting of the African American narrative in Memphis. Many men have taken up the mantle of leadership in their homes, and I too want to see this reality be multiplied in the lives of more men. My hope is that “We Want A Different Story” would be a catalyst for change in the lives of Memphians.