The TMI Project’s mission is to change the world one story at a time, and their team is putting forth that effort with their #BlackStoriesMatter series. TMI, which stands for “too much information,” works as a platform to get performers to tell parts of their stories that they have been too scared or nervous to share in the past.
On Saturday, March 25 at the Pointe of Praise Family Life Center in Kingston, the #BlackStoriesMatter poets performed to a sold-out house of nearly 600 attendants, as well as having the event streamed nationally.
“Five years ago, Trayvon Martin was killed and we gathered to ask ‘what can we do?’” said TMI Project board member Tameka Ramsey. “The list of bodies kept growing, so we changed it from ‘what can we do?’ To ‘what will we do?’”
The event kicked off with a performance from the Brooklyn Tech Step Team, the Lady Dragons, who immediately thrust the audience into the event, as the dancers received countless standing ovations for their display. Between steps, various members of the team smashed countless stereotypes they have faced throughout their lives.
“You’re pretty for a black girl. No sweetheart, I’m just pretty!” screamed one of the Lady Dragons.
“White skin is the right skin, yet all my girls are beautiful!” another one added.
Following the Lady Dragons’ performance, each poet performing stood on stage dressed in all black garb and gave an introduction to the evening’s performance.
“I’m sharing my story because I have one and deserve to be heard,” one of the performer’s said.
With topics ranging from mental illness, gentrification, foster care, therapy, religion and everything in between, the insights provided by the speakers invoked laughs and tears, induced chills and applause and left you leaving with the message that was said when the performance began: These were real people, with real lives, who were telling real stories.
The first speaker of the evening, Rachel Elaine Bailey, spoke of her experiences with mental illness and how growing up she was taught that black people “don’t do crazy,” making her question her skin color.
“Mental illness is a condition black people aren’t supposed to be susceptible to,” Bailey said in her performance. “It’s like I didn’t read the owner’s manual on being black.”
Bailey’s performance was funny yet touching, as she was effectively able to shine light on what it means to be a person of color and struggle with mental illness. Bailey was followed by TinaLynn Dickerson, who is now a resident of Kingston after she was evicted from the apartment in Harlem she grew up in.
Dickerson watched gentrification take place before her very eyes as her apartment was bought out and her rent was raised from $899 a month to $2,400.
After bouncing around through the shelter system of New York City, Dickerson found an affordable place to live in Kingston, but says she is noticing the same thing happening yet again, as more and more people begin to move from the city to upstate.
Dickerson concluded her performance with gut-wrenching words: “We need to stop the rise of power at the expense of others.”
Praise of Pointe Family Center pastor J.B. Childs says that the hope is for these stories to move us to action.
“Hearing people’s stories is what humanizes them and allows us to understand some part of their experience,” Childs said. “When we understand people it’s so much easier to create inclusive spaces and communities that can work to make sure each of us is okay and whole.”
“In the current climate of the country, which is characterized by a level of division and divisiveness, any opportunity to connect on a more than superficial level will promote greater unity and trust even when we may differ in our stances on issues,” Childs added.
A recurring theme of the evening was inspiring hope. A prime example was Shai Brown, who told a story about her mother shoplifting as she grew up.
“My mother was a thief who used me as a decoy to steal,” Brown said. “I couldn’t call her ‘mom’ in public, but rather by her first name. For my seventh birthday, my mother told me I could have whatever I wanted. I just turned 7 and I was a thief.”
Brown’s mother was arrested before her eighth birthday, and she didn’t see her again for over a year. Brown developed her own habit of stealing and spent four years in jail.
Brown said she always dreaded checking the “have you been convicted of a felony?” box on job applications as she could see the disappointment in the interviewer’s face.
However, Brown believes that “life can change,” as she is now working on a second degree to become a social worker so she can help people like herself.
Carla Lesch, a Kingston resident, attended the event on Saturday and said that going to events such as #BlackStoriesMatter help us learn more about each other and strengthen a more worldly viewpoint.
“It gives us a greater understanding of their stories, so I see no reason not to come,” Lesch said. “Everyone has a story, and it’s important to see people as individuals.”
In addition to the live event, TMI put out efforts to create a digital campaign to reach a broader audience. Those interested were to submit a video of three minutes in length or true stories of up to 250 words accompanied by a photograph, which appeared on the TMI website in February. This is set to become a regular feature with a strong social media presence on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
More information on TMI can be found on their website, TMIProject.org.