Why Black Stories Matter: They Build Empathy and Heal Trauma

When she was growing up, Rachel Bailey was taught that only rich, self-indulgent White people suffered from mental health issues. Black people were supposed to be tougher. Although she remembers struggling with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder since she was 4 years old, it wasn’t until age 34 that she began to seek treatment, checking herself into a psychiatric ward after a severe mental breakdown.

“People of other races, especially White people, they get to be crazy and have their reasons and their subtle shades of insanity,” Bailey says. “It’s unfair that you get to be insane in colorful ways and I just get to be nuts and go to jail and rot there.”

Bailey was one of 11 Black performers who shared their stories in front of an audience of 600 people at TMI Project’s inaugural #BlackStoriesMatter show in 2017.

Among the performers was Tina-Lynn Dickerson, who spoke about becoming homeless after being evicted from her home in the now gentrified Harlem neighborhood she grew up in, and Micah Blumenthal, who spoke about how the lack of meaningful Black characters in film affected him as a child.

TMI Project is a nonprofit based in Kingston, New York, that works to uplift the voices of underrepresented populations in the community by helping them share their stories publicly. This is done through monologue-writing workshops that, if the writer chooses, culminate in a performance in front of an audience.

The goal is to raise awareness about different social issues, give people new perspectives, and inspire people to take action, says Eva Tenuto, co-founder and executive director of TMI Project.

“There are often stories that, if you read a report or statistics about (them), you might not feel deeply impacted by,” Tenuto says. “But when you hear one person tell their true, real experience about what they’ve lived through, it might alter your perception about a certain group of people.”

In the past, TMI Project has collaborated with the local LGBTQ community, adults with mental health issues, people struggling with eating disorders, military veterans, incarcerated teen boys, survivors of domestic violence and assault, at-risk teens with psychiatric disorders, teen mothers, and cancer survivors.

TMI Project’s most recent social justice effort is the #BlackStoriesMatter initiative, spearheaded by program director Tameka Ramsey, with the intent of addressing racism and inequality in the community and across the country.

Since the first performance in 2017, TMI Project has hosted another #BlackStoriesMatter workshop in partnership with The Slave Dwelling Project, during which, six Black writers participated in an overnight stay at a historic slave cellar in New Paltz to create a performance about their experience, titled “Reclaiming Our Time.”

This April, TMI Project brought a #BlackStoriesMatter event to Bard College that featured a discussion panel of local activists, scholars, and artists about race and inclusion, in addition to story-telling performances. They are now working with a group of Black students at Kingston Public High School to create the first teen version of Black Stories Matter.

TMI Project also uses its website and YouTube channel to promote content from #BlackStoriesMatter. In 2019, Ramsey says, the initiative will relaunch with an event calendar full of workshops, performances, discussions and more.

“We believe that the telling of these stories will engender empathic pathways in the soul and in the heart, to change the way we deal with race in this country,” Ramsey says.

The performances also affect the storytellers — this was the case for Bailey, who found a sense of comfort with the audience members who related to her story. Bailey has participated in four TMI Project workshops.

“I get to share an experience and find out that it really is shared,” Bailey says. “Afterward, when people come up to you and say ‘I thought it was just me, too,’ that’s a connection you’ve forged.”

In her #BlackStoriesMatter story, she talked about not fitting into the stereotypical idea of what it means to be Black, and the stigma around mental health issues that she faces as a Black person in America.

Bailey detailed a particular time in her life when she was having suicidal thoughts daily. Every day she went through so many roller coasters of emotion that by noon, her brain would feel completely fried, she says. At night, she’d go home and recharge just enough to repeat the process the next day.

“It’s not ‘You can’t have your crazy,’ it’s ‘We want to be allowed to have our crazy facets too,'” Bailey says. “It’s not all drugs and slave narratives that drive people of color crazy — some people have chemical imbalances, some people had awful childhoods — there are reasons people are crazy and that doesn’t change because of skin color.”