Thanksgiving is a holiday for the senses: The smell of sweet potato pie straight from the oven. The way a thick coating of gravy enhances everything on your plate. The pinch around your waistline at the end of the meal. The smiling faces around a table. Being surrounded by people you know and love. Think about their laughter and their voices — your grandmother's cackle; your Uncle Roscoe's voice, thick from years of cigarettes and 7&7.
Every year when I watch my husband, Broderick, or my stepfather-in-law, Luther, carve the Thanksgiving turkey, I think about my own father standing over the golden brown bird in my childhood home. He'd hover over the turkey for several minutes, holding his cherished electric knife and humming a little tune to himself before leaning in to apply his surgical skills to our supper. His whistle-while-you-work anticipation was a little ritual in our home, and I miss him so much, it aches during the holidays.
He died back in 1988, long before I married and had children. My kids now know a lot more about my father's triumphs and his struggles on a life journey that took him from the shadows of the steel mills in segregated Birmingham, Ala., to middle-class life in an integrated Minneapolis neighborhood. Even so, my kids will never hear the sound of their grandfather's voice because I never recorded him in conversation. That's a shame. And it carries even more sting because I have spent almost two decades working in broadcasting, first in television and now in radio, as a co-host of All Things Considered.
It is one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to serve as this year's national ambassador for the third annual National Day of Listening on Friday, Nov. 26. It’s a holiday founded and promoted by the good people who run StoryCorps, the national oral-history project, and it falls each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day when people are usually still surrounded by family members and mounds of leftovers. And on that day, people are encouraged to spend a little time with their loved ones or people in their community to record their stories.
Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, asked me to serve as an ambassador for NDL this year because the holiday underscores the central message of my recently published memoir, The Grace of Silence: Do whatever you can to capture your family history.
I stumbled on my own family history quite by accident, and discovered that my seemingly ordinary postal-worker parents were sitting on some extraordinary secrets that placed my family smack in the middle of some little-known chapters in American history. As I like to say, I found the "I" in history. Now that I am traveling the country promoting my book, I talk to people every day who are desperate to know more about where they came from.
The National Day of Listening presents a special opportunity for people of color because our stories have not been well-documented in America's historic record, and our families have often locked away aspects of their history because of pain, shame, practicality or reinvention — or, as was the case in my family, they did not want to gunk up the engine of upward mobility by burdening the next generation with tales of woe. In other words, they wanted us to soar, so they did not want to put rocks in our pockets.
Think about those people who are going to be sitting at your Thanksgiving table this year: the parents and grandparents who have given you a lifetime of love and unvarnished advice; the aunts and uncles who slipped you envelopes when you went off to college, or wagged a finger in your face and warned you to "watch yourself" when you even thought about stepping out of line. Sure, you know their stories. In fact, you've probably rolled your eyes more than once because you've heard some of those yarns over and over and over again: "Lord, there goes Uncle Roscoe telling that same old tale about the time he had to climb up the tulip oak at Grandma's house to get little Jimmy down off the roof."
But have you heard their full life stories? Probably not. On that Friday after Thanksgiving, most of us turn our attention to the preparations and gift giving for the next big holidays on the calendar — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Ashura. But before that tornado begins, take a moment to consider a day of listening. Instead of joining that stampede to the mall, slow down for an hour to interview someone you care about. Do it over a meal, because food always helps lubricate a conversation.
Compile a series of simple questions: "What did you used to do for fun on a Saturday night?" "Tell me about your summer job — or the first time you saw the big city." Simple questions will open the spigot and get the conversation flowing. Remember to ask specific and evocative questions that will also tickle the senses: "What was the air like in a town filled with big factories?" "Can you still remember the taste of your wedding cake?" "How would you describe the smells from your mother's kitchen?" "What did you do first thing in the morning when you lived back on the farm?"
If at all possible, try to record those conversations. It's easier than ever with today's technologies, using mobile phones, computers, flip recorders or video cameras. You can find a do-it-yourself guide at my website or at nationaldayoflistening.org. You'll also find more suggested questions and ideas for preserving and sharing NDL interviews.
Photos are great. Letters are wonderful. Memories alone can sometimes sustain us through distance and even death. But there is nothing like preserving the sound of those you love telling their own stories, in their own words, with their own voices. If you must rush out to the stores that day and engage in retail madness, have fun. But remember this: Family history is an incredible gift — better than anything you will ever find in any mall.
I hope some of you will share some of what you discover from your family interviews in the "Your Stories" section at my website, here at The Root and at the StoryCorps Wall of Listening. The Root will also be posting some of the best StoryCorps conversations on its website all week.