The Counter Narrative Project is a love letter to Black organizers from history

When Charles Stephens founded the Counter Narrative Project (CNP) in 2014, he wanted to create a political home for himself and other Black gay men who found themselves victimized by the narratives surrounding them.

“I was frustrated with the public narrative that I saw about Black gay men in the media,” Stephens told Georgia Voice. “I didn’t see the wide range and diversity of representations I knew to be true. CNP was a response to that.”

Stephens and others at CNP believe that narratives have power, power that can be weaponized against either marginalized groups or racial injustice, depending on how they’re used.

“We [at CNP] knew that we wanted to operate in the terrain of narrative because we saw such power in that work,” Stephens said. “Narratives have public policy consequences. Narratives can be weaponized against marginalized communities, but as much as narratives can be weaponized against us, we believe that we can reprogram and build narratives to empower our community, to fight back, resist, and most important to inspire activism.”

To harness the positive power of narrative building, CNP works at the intersection of art and activism. To Stephens, media and culture are tools for social justice, strategies used by CNP through both the inclusion of artists in organization and mobilization work and the creation of original content. By creating its own content, CNP is combating the violence of erasure while ensuring that Black gay men have control and power over their own narrative.

“It’s critical that there aren’t just stories told about us, but that we own the narrative,” Stephens said. “We tell our own stories. We are the authors of our own narratives.”

CNP creates an abundance of high-quality content through three different platforms: The Reckoning, an online publication focused on telling the unique stories about Atlanta’s Black LGBTQ community; the CNP podcast network, which covers everything from conversations with prominent Black LGBTQ people to analyses of your favorite horror films; and Revolutionary Health, a YouTube series covering Black gay men’s health and wellness.

CNP’s initiatives don’t only include creative pursuits. As part of its organizing work surrounding public policy, the project’s leaders have penned an open letter to the Surgeon General regarding the victim-blaming messaging surrounding COVID-19 and Black and Brown communities and secured a proclamation from the Fulton County Commission marking a day of remembrance for Tony Daniels, a prominent Black LGBTQ community organizer and poet from Atlanta. They’re also currently organizing the CNP Summit, which will happen this March. This year’s summit will honor civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and explore what activists can learn from his legacy.

“Bayard Rustin is such an incredible inspiration for CNP,” Stephens said. “CNP is a tribute, a love letter, to Bayard Rustin. He was one of the greatest organizers ever, and we seek to find inspiration and blueprints from his legacy.”

Without the rich history built by Black organizers like Rustin, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill, organizations like CNP wouldn’t exist — and Stephens not only recognizes, but celebrates that. He believes it’s crucial to honor where you come from and heed the lessons of your elders, who laid the groundwork for narrative building and community organizing.

“We want to be in conversation with movement history. Part of our work as organizers is to elevate our movement history because there’s so much wisdom we can gain from it,” he said. “One of the lessons I take from the very powerful civil rights history is the importance of understanding both community organizing, grassroots activism, and mobilization as well as the power of symbolism, media, and getting the message out … We can learn from the legacy that was left for us; we’re not reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch. But so much of our movement history has been erased, which is just a form of violence.”

It’s this erasure that necessitates both the narrative ownership that CNP advocates so heavily for and visibility initiatives like Black History Month, because Black LGBTQ people have been an integral part of building both America and Atlanta and aren’t reaping the rewards.

“I think it’s important for the City of Atlanta to recognize the contributions of Black LGBTQ folks to this city,” Stephens said. “We see our work as correcting the record, because you cannot have a conversation about Atlanta without talking about the amazing contributions of Black LGBTQ people.”

Through their work combating the violence of erasure and embodying the power of the narrative, CNP is changing the landscape for Black LGBTQ Atlanta and empowering a new generation of activists who will carry on the tradition of the leaders of the past.

Learn more about CNP at thecounternarrative.org. Read “The Reckoning” at thereckoningmag.com, listen to CNP’s podcasts at thecounternarrative.org/cnp-podcast-network, and watch Revolutionary Health and other videos at CNPTV on YouTube.

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  1. John Burl Smith

    Stevie Wonder Leads the Call for: A Truth Commission

    By John Burl Smith

    The Rolling Stone broke the story of Stevie Wonder’s “Calls for A Truth Commission” with a video letter on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday. Spearheading the nation effort, after leading the nation to declare Dr. King’s Birthday a national holiday, Stevie’s open letter is the ultimate honor for Dr. King!” His appeal was a very strong and heartfelt statement, “I am calling on President Biden and Vice President Harris to launch a formal, government investigation to establish the truth regarding inequality in this country. This truth will validate the history, and this commission will recommend reconciliation.” Listening to Stevie’s plea tears filled my eyes, as my memories raced back to that last day at the Lorraine Motel (4-4-1968), as Charles Cabbage and I listened to Dr. King’s desires for his “Poor People’s Campaign,” hopes for the poor, unity between black power activists and civil rights leaders, as well as racial justice and equality across America.

    Watching Stevie’s video my though also return to that room in the Nation’s Capitol hearing room where Charles and I testified before the Congressional Committee investigating Dr. King’s assassination and conversation with committee staffer that express such happiness that the nation would finally know the truth about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s role in Dr. King’s death. But again, from back then, tears continued filling my eyes, thinking about how the House of Representatives voted to seal their report before the public knew what was in it for 25 years; so the truth would not be known even today!!!

    So, back in the 1970 truth tellers and other voices like mine were overshadowed and drowned out by those who did not want the truth of Dr. King’s assassination known. Many today, for whatever reason, still after 52 years still fight to keep those lies from back then alive. Again I say Stevie’s call for “A Truth Commission” renews Dr. King’s favorite quote “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” Stevie is leading a chorus of artists, including Alicia Keys and Khalid, who are called for the Biden-Harris administration to establish a “Commission On Racial Justice.” In June 2020, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) proposed legislation for forming a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission following the killing of George Floyd and in the wake of Covid-19.

    I sent a letter entitled “Truth Forever on the Scaffold” 11/10/2020 to the Chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus, US Representative Karen Bass, requesting Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi schedule a vote to unlock the investigation report from the House of Representatives investigation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination which convened in 1978. However, there has been no response or action from either Chairwoman Bass or Speaker Pelosi. I made this request to the Congressional Black Caucus because it comprises every representative elected from the majority of African American communities across the United States. However, it seems and great that someone of pubic statue and acclaim, like Stevie Wonder and others, are saying out load things I have advocated since I testified before the US House of Representatives hearings into the Assassination Investigation in 1978 is fallen on deaf ears and cold hearts.

    It was truly heartwarming as Stevie said of Dr. King, “For 36 years we’ve had a national holiday honoring your birthday and principles; yet you would not believe the lack of progress.” He referred to first meeting Dr. King at age 14, “You became an inspiration, and a true hero!” But then Stevie drew attention to, “It is painful to know that the needle has not moved one iota….. It makes me physically sick, and yet you would not believe the lack of progress…. More than any award that I have ever received, I want you to know that I am thankful how you influenced my place of love, which allowed me to try to push the needle of love and equality forward.”

    I will say and hope in establishing “A Truth Commission” we do not make the same mistake as Pres. Bill Clinton with his Presidential Commission—Dialogue on Race,” (1997). Prompted by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, which were another white supremacist militias and other hate groups respond to demand of equality and justice by descendants of American slavery. Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention pandered to racism, similar to Donald Trump, attacked changes in American culture.

    Also, 24 years earlier The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders or Kerner Report was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation. However, even though it was published like a novel, the government paid no attention to its findings. The Kerner Commission’s analysis—which argued that the nation was moving towards two separate and unequal, communities, and that billions in dollars was needed to rectify these problems—preceded the assassination of Dr. King just over a month 4-4-1968 later. Many believe that report brought white politicians to J. Edgar Hoover’s side and his opinion that “Dr. King Martin Luther King, Jr. is the most dangerous Negro in America,” and support for his solution.

    With this new “Truth Commission” the nation needs to designate young new voices to lead it, like Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Rep. Cori Bush, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and BLM activists like Tamika Mallory, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. The tendency is to fill such efforts with older individuals who need to retire and go somewhere and sit down. It is long past their usefulness. They all have bought into the system and gotten rich milking it. They were part of creating the problem that needs addressing today, and will only protect their legacy of thievery and lies. They will never look for truth and real change, because they are invested in the system. If this “Truth Commission” will be about truth telling, select people who have no reason to protect the old lies.

    This is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alum and icon Stevie Wonder cited “being sick of lies and deceit,” and rebukes people who use “God for convenience” alongside politicians ‘trying to find an easy solution to a 400 year problem’ while ‘truth is struggling to be heard and defended.’ ‘Until we turn our mouth movement into righteous action, we are doing our nation, God and your (Dr. King) memory an injustice!” He concluded, “Until what we say is what we do, there is no truth. It is just repeating and rewriting history, just as we have for the last 400 years…. Without truth we cannot have accountability. Without accountability we cannot have forgiveness. Without forgiveness, we cannot heal

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