Paul D. Best: Telling Tales

Paul D. Best

The seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). This week’s portrait, Paul D. Best, embodies many of these principles in his daily life. An artist, activist, educator and storyteller, we caught up with Best to discuss the importance of capturing and sharing our stories. 

Tell me a little about yourself.

I am from Gary, Indiana, born and raised. I’m the youngest of seven, six boys, one girl. Fortunately, we were spread out, so I only grew up with 2 other siblings in the house. So it didn’t feel like a huge family to me. Mom was from Arkansas, my dad was from North Carolina. They were both children of parents who moved up North as part of the great migration for the factory and steel mill jobs. They settled in Chicago and Gary. 

How would your mom have described you as a kid?

I was a busy-body, but I think the first thing most people would say was that I was an old soul. I was born 2 months after an elder in our family had died and they said I came out looking and acting like him. My mom talks about how quiet I was, especially meeting new people, she said it looked like I was reading their souls before deciding to engage with them or not. [Laughing] And I still kind of do that! But once I got to be 4 or 5, I made up for lost time and they could not shut me up. I was talking all the time! And I loved reading. We went to a Baptist, fundamentalist school and I would get in trouble for taking my siblings text books and reading them. They’d be, “Where are my books? I need to do my homework!” Paul has them. My dad has cassettes of me reading “Highlights” magazine and weekly readers out loud. So I was a creative child, marching to the beat of my own drum.

Highlights! What was your favorite part of the magazine?

Remember the Timbertoes? I liked them, and every once in a while, they would have stickers in the magazine and that could make your whole week. Oh! And Goofus and Gallant, the two brothers, one was very respectful and the other one was just a hot mess!

I liked them, and the hidden pictures. 

Ha! I didn’t have the patience for those. 

What was a favorite book as a kid?

“Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold. She was a Black artist who was known for her quilts, she painted right onto them. When she was coming up, they didn’t feature Black women in the museums, so she was like, “I’ll feature my own work on my quilts!” She wrote Tar Beach about growing up in NY when the beaches were segregated and how her parents would take them up to the roof and they’d lay out a blanket and look up at the sky while the adults played cards. It was their tar beach. In the book she dreams that she’s flying over the Brooklyn bridge and the artwork is incredible. In a full circle moment, years later I got to meet her and photograph her, and she signed my copy of the book. 

Nice. What extra curricular things were you involved in at school?

I was in orchestra; I played the violin from the 5th grade through college. I ran track for a couple of years; did a couple of plays; worked at McDonald’s; played the drums at church. I was one of those who tried everything. There was an organization called “Key Club;” it was part of Kiwanis International which was a community service organization. I volunteered in nursing homes, and planted trees. I was the lieutenant governor of the Indiana district of the Key Club. It gave me a lot of leadership experience that set me ahead of the curve by the time I got to college. 

What did you study in college?

I studied English Literature with a minor in Cultural Education at Ball State University in Muncie. 

And where did you go after that?

I matriculated to Indianapolis. I’d joined a branch of Americorps called VISTA — Volunteers In Service To America — working on capacity building. We’d work with nonprofits. Mine was an organization that matched students with mentors and helped with college access. They found that the combination led to successful students, and after my volunteer stint was over, they hired me. Later, I got laid off and so I took a leap of faith and opened my photography studio and it was successful. I got to travel all over the world and work with people I never thought I’d encounter, I’d say it was one of the crowning achievements of my life. It fulfilled dreams I didn’t even know I had. 

What was a favorite gig as a photographer?

That’s hard, there have been some great jobs. But I’m going to go with photographing the Prime Minister of Belize. I photographed him and his wife for his reelection campaign and they were such nice people. They were so open to working with me. It was humbling. I got to go around Belize and meet different people and see the work that they’d done for the country. And they won, so I’d like to think I was a little part of that! 

Worst gig?

Anytime you do a family event, whether it’s a graduation or wedding, or anniversary and you have that crazy aunt who’s had too much to drink who follows you around thinking they’re going to go home with the photographer. “Mistah photographer, get my pictcha’.” It’s usually an aunt or sister-in-law. I even had a woman grab my crotch one time. 

Woah! Your own #Metoo moment. 

Yeah, it was like, lady, #1) you’re barking up the wrong tree, and #2) I know you’re trying to be all down with it, but I’m a professional trying to work. 

I hear you. I did wedding videography for a while. When and why did you come to Philadelphia? 

I came here in 2015. My dad never knew his father but I did some research and found out that we had family here including his older sister. Long story short, we met her, and she only had two kids as I mentioned. I come from a family of nine, including the parents. Not to mention a whole lot of great nieces and nephews. So overnight her family grew considerably in size! She later moved to Savannah and offered her house here to me and her grandson. I was looking for a change. Indy is a place that you can outgrow really fast. You become a big fish in a small pond quickly and I was ready for something else, so I was like, “Woah, I can move to the East coast and live rent/mortgage free?” Normally, that’s the biggest thing to worry about moving to the coast. Without that to worry about I just closed my studio and moved here. And it’s worked out. 

So talk about the work that you’re doing now.

I teach Social Justice for the 8th grade at Young Scholars Charter School. I designed the curriculum for middle schoolers which gives the history of America through a full lens that gives both sides of every story. It’s the story of America, good and bad. Right before I left Indy, I started storytelling. One of my friends was running an open mic. He liked the stories I would tell him about my family and things, so one night he pulled me up on stage. I told the story about how I called 911 on my mom once, and the audience thought it was funny so storytelling started becoming a regular thing. 

When I moved here, I learned that Philly and Baltimore are the meccas of black storytelling. The National Association of Black Storytelling was founded by two women, one from here and one from Baltimore. I found myself in this golden hub of storytelling and got involved with an Afrocentric organization called, “Keepers of the Culture.” Granted, I’m usually the youngest person in the room because there are a lot of elders, but my parents had me when they were older, so these folks are like extensions of my parents. And I love it when you get Black elders in the room and they tell stories of the past, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes embellished but it’s all good! It’s priceless. And they’ve taught me that it’s not just about telling tales, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s an homage to our people, preserving the Black oral tradition, something that’s dying in the face of social media. 

Yeah, it’s hard to tell a good story in a 280 character tweet. 

Definitely. I became the president 3 years ago and have been getting training. I’m in an apprenticeship now through the PA Council for the Arts; it’s with Linda Goss who is a Master Artist. I’ve had a residency at Penn Museum, I’ve been on a few radio shows, and I love it. Storytelling is also a skill that’s very useful in the classroom. I can start a story and immediately the class becomes quiet, and I love helping the kids pull their own stories. I believe you need to learn about your own history first. It’s such an important skill. It’s powerful, it’s healing, it’s medicine, and it’s something that you can take with you anywhere you go. 

So true. I know Linda Goss and Charlotte Blake Alston from back when I did a children’s show. 

Wow! I want to be Charlotte Blake Alston when I grow up! She’s the co-founder of Keeper of the Culture. 

Have you taken the kids to the Underground Railroad museum at Belmont Mansion?

No; we’ve been working with the Stenton museum in Germantown, they’re doing a thing about the enslaved women who saved that whole area during the revolutionary war. We’ve done events there with students, including a group of students from Middlebury College in Vermont who chose Philadelphia for their alternative spring break. I’ll be doing workshops on how to pull stories from your family and use them for healing. They’ll do workshops and storytelling and have a chance to hang out with some of the elders. I’ve also been doing virtual storytelling with people all over the country. I don’t know if you know the Moonstone Arts Center on 13th Street, but we’ve been working with Larry Robin there. He published the works from some of our students which was exciting. It was a chance for them to say, “Hey, you can write something and actually get to see it in a book” was really cool. I’m trying to find ways to keep them engaged until things open back up. 

That’s great! So let’s backtrack a bit and talk about your coming out.

Sure, I grew up in the Pentecostal church, so very rigid. The catalyst was when my sister passed in 2010. It really jarred me. She was 27, just two years older than me. She died of kidney disease, but before she passed she did so much with her life. It made me question myself, what I was doing and what was I not doing, which was being fully authentic. I knew I was gay by about the 6th grade, but my mom had a brother who died of HIV/AIDS and there was an underlying narrative of, ‘You see what happens to those types of people.’ They loved and treated him well for the most part, but at the time people still weren’t sure how it was transmitted so there were little ostracizing things like ‘don’t eat off any plates he’s used or eat anything he’s cooked and don’t kiss him.’ 

So in my head, I tried to suppress my feelings, I asked God to cleanse me from all of that. Basically doing my own self-conversion therapy! But by the middle of college I decided that God loves me just the way I am, that He knew what was going on even before I showed up, so just embrace it. And more than just accepting myself, I needed to be open about it. So when my sister passed I came out to my dad and it went better than I expected, and not long after that I came out to my mom. That went okay. Every once in a while, I’d get something in the mail about Sodom and Gomorrah but most of the time it was okay. 

Once my parents accepted it, it was on, I didn’t care who knew. So on a whim, the night before my birthday I came home and wrote on my facebook status, “Hi! Let me re-introduce myself. My name is Paul, I’m 28 and I’m not straight.” I posted it and went to bed. As I was trying to fall asleep my phone was just like, ‘zzzzzt, zzzzzt, zzzzzt,’ with messages coming in! I refused to check it and the next morning I woke up to text messages, phone calls, emails, full inboxes, it was crazy. Five generations of phone calls! There was a lot of shock, some relationships got stronger and some not, but there’s a proverb that says, “Whatever you lose in the fire, you don’t need.” And I got a lot of messages thanking me and some confiding in me, things like, “I’m in a hetero marriage but I’m gay, pray for me.” And that’s why I did it. 

I’m a big believer in social responsibility. If you have influence, use it to grow and liberate your people. On the flip side, I always remind people that it’s not all we are. Don’t be so busy being gay that you forget to be you. Be a holistically queer person where pride is important, but you value everything else about yourself just as much so you can be a full person in every facet of your life. 

I used to tell people, I’m not going to be in your face about it, but I’m going to be in your life about it. 

Ooh, that just hit me. I like that! 

Okay, random question time. What’s your sign and is it accurate?

Sagittarius. And yes, I am the archer, the shape-shifter, in a good way. I don’t shift to be deceptive but to be what people need in that moment but still true to myself. We’re thinkers. 

[Laughing] Considering your Southern roots, how come I don’t hear much of an accent?

I think Philly’s rubbing off on me. I’ve said, jawn quite a few times and it’s coming naturally to me. I’ve even called some of my students ‘young bulls.’ But in the right context you’ll hear my accent come out, especially when I’m storytelling. 

Most unusual possessions?

I collect a lot of things. I’ll say acorns; to me they represent the idea that all the power that’s needed to become a mighty oak tree is already inside the tiny acorn. I have them all over the place. It’s a reminder that everything I need is within myself. 

Well, I think that’s a powerful place to stop. Furaha ya Kwanzaa!

Newsletter Sign-up