He was raised in rough circumstances in Virginia, and got out through a 20-year hitch in the Army. But today, Ray Christian has become one of the best and most famous Southern storytellers in the world, reaching hundreds of thousands through The Moth Radio Hour. Our own Tim Turner gets to know the man himself, while AIR Serenbe and filmmaker Ethan Payne take us on a visit to Ray’s retreat in the North Carolina mountains.
Film & Photos by Ethan Payne
Story by Tim Turner
Ray Christian captured three armed Iraqi soldiers holding nothing more than his penis.
Well, you had to be there. Then again, you didn’t. But Christian makes you and everyone under his voice feel as if you were, as he inhabits one glorious tale after another in what is now his given profession as a storyteller.
Christian, 55, is among the best anywhere at sharing his thoughts and observations as a master storyteller around the country. He’s won competitions by deftly unpacking a satchel bursting with hilarious, heart-wrenching, and ribald musings. Now, he appears before packed houses, like one recently in Chicago, shaping his lifetime of real stories into a new phase of life that, for him, feels quite unreal.
“And then there's a standing ovation as a thousand people are there,” Christian says, referencing Chicago. “And I'm saying, ‘Why am I on this stage?’ Just before we take a bow, I said, ‘In God's name, why am I up here?’ Look at this. I don’t even know any of these people. I wish my mom could see this. It would certainly be beyond anything she could have imagined.
“She would have been happy if I’d got that job at the factory and maybe got me a place, you know what I mean? To help her pay rent or something. Stay out of trouble with the police. We were simple people, simple goals. All this from just being foolish enough to try.”
Christian’s path to stardom began in starless circumstances. His Virginia upbringing was in the poorest of Richmond’s neighborhoods, where he lived with an illiterate mother — who helped drive his thirst for education — and an emotionally inaccessible stepfather (his birth father, now dead, never married his mother). Ambushed by nothingness and people going nowhere, it was an existence Christian thought inescapable.
“If I think about who my family was, the kind of people we were — mostly alcoholics and whores — you know, we fucked shit up,” says Christian, who last year was awarded Air Serenbe’s Frances Focus Fellowship, which supports storytellers with deep ties to the American South. “We'd get drunk on Christmas. Beat our wives. Cheat on our wives. Have babies with men and tell them they are somebody else’s. Lie to kids. Don't go to no PTA. Those kinds of people, you know? Everybody’s got relatives you can't choose. You wonder who they are kin to? They are kin to me.
“My sister plays around with genealogy a bit. We’re basically from slavery and pretty much remained poor. There are no leaps in my family where there were people who were very successful and lost the family fortunes. Basically one (class) of people continued along the same path.”
Christian’s saving grace was his thirst for knowledge. He read comic books. He watched nature documentaries on TV. He read everything in the library. He was a blerd (a black nerd) before blerds were cool — especially in that environment. He wasn’t encouraged for being smart, as he might have been in a middle-class neighborhood or at a school that expected more of its students than his did.
“I was the weird kid who liked reading weird shit,” Christian says. “I was told all kinds of stuff. Folks on the street saying, ‘They ain’t going to let you be a doctor. I went to college. You need to find you a hustle.’ Just some dumb (people), giving bad advice.
“And it doesn’t have to come from people that ignorant. It could be a teacher in school saying, ‘Why don’t you study basket weaving instead? That might be better suited for you.’ And that could be black and white (teachers). Because I had it. I had that both ways. I had black teachers tell me more than one time — around about middle school, they started — you ain't never gonna make in school.”
He did, but without resources to further his education, the next phase of his life was a 20-year career in the Army. After basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, Christian headed to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for Airborne training, and training in life.
The area around Ft. Benning then — in Columbus, Georgia — was lousy with strip clubs and tattoo parlors. And Christian was among the thousands of soldiers enticed.
“The cabs would be lined up on base,” Christian says. “And basically the cab driver was not just a driver. He was a pimp. He was a drug dealer. There were hundreds of them lined up on base all in one spot. Waiting there for all those trainees.
“You get in and he’s saying. ‘Where you want to go? What do you want to do? You want a girl? You want a boy? You want to see some titties?’ It was wild. I’ve been back, and over like 15 years it changed so much. A much better area.”
And those distractions were the last thing Christian needed when he was essentially still wet behind the ears. He was forced to grow up fast. He reflects on his Army years and the transitions they brought.
“My early years in the Army were really hard emotionally because I was leaving home,” Christian says. “I’m growing up. I'm starting to shave and shit. Acne still drying up on my damn face. I’m awkward. Still trying to learn how to drink more. Still taking it hard when Sarge was getting in my ass.
“Just starting to learn to take responsibility for my own shit, when grown men expect shit from you. Your behavior. Right now, I'm coming out of high school. This will be changing. I was so damn resistant to every damn thing. I tried to do the least of shit. And at some point — maybe about two years in — I started becoming a soldier.”
It was at two years that Christian realized he’d earned a reputation as a whiner. He wasn’t doing what men did: being accountable and accepting responsibility. And finally, he stopped thinking like a kid.
“If you want to be treated as equal, people expect stuff of you,” Christian says. “I’m around adults, you know? Dudes shaving twice a day. People doing their taxes. They got wives. They got second and third wives. They’ve experienced life. Parents have died. Traumatic shit. Combat. War. I haven’t been through nothing.
“But I wanted to measure up. I could see myself starting to change when I saw newer people coming in and started thinking of practical things. Like, you know, if you get promoted, you make more money as opposed to a further resistance of the system and keeping yourself broke. Men were always trying to do stuff to level up (get promoted), you know? Kids are trying to get out of shit.”
He realized his upbringing had left him with a decided deficit in social skills. Engaging with men from across the nation opened his eyes, Christian says. His soft skills needed honing. He needed to deal more constructively with people above him in the hierarchy, even those who didn’t handle their power well.
“Mentally, the last six years in the Army was a whole other place to me,” Christian says. “Now I'm an old, PTSD-ed, tired, cynical soldier. In civilian years, that’s not a lot of time. In military times, it’s quadrupled. Military life is a hard life. People staying in two, three, four years, that's all they could take, and they do their time. Over 20 years, shit repeats itself constantly in a very stressful way, you know, all the time. I was becoming cynical by the time I was a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer). My mind was in a bad place emotionally. I was thinking about retirement all the time at that point.”
He also learned that irrespective of the skills he had gained in the Army, irrespective of his hard work over two decades, his options would be limited when his 20-year hitch was up.
“Those last six years, I also came to realize that no matter what I did in the Army, if you're an enlisted man or any person, if you don't have a college education, you can be the hardest working person ever, it means nothing. Even in the military, the guys advancing had college educations. Even a little bit of college meant a lot against someone with no college.”
A little bit of college was all Christian had. While in the Army he’d taken enough courses to finish two years. Out of the Army and in his late 30s, Christian became highly focused on education. He saw it as a stepping stone. He finished his bachelor's degree after the Army. But he thought a bachelor’s alone was not enough. His attempt at law school failed, but it did not deter him from attaining more education.
Today, Christian holds four graduate degrees and has taken his academics to another level as a part-time teacher at Appalachian State University in his hometown of Boone, North Carolina. Christian moved there 15 years ago when the university hired his wife. A while after they arrived in Boone, they decided to move their family into a rural setting outside town.
“My wife grew up in the country,” he says. “We got the chickens and ducks, turkeys and stuff. We chose to move further out into the wilderness, beyond the little towns, for the land and quiet.”
While there, he is working on a doctorate. His thesis subject? His own life. He’s examining how a kid from a wretchedly desperate environment could resist the call of the streets that claimed so many family members and friends.
“They have some kind of trait, you know? Some kind of protective factors,” Christian says. “We don't want to depend on that shit, but we do know some kids come this way. You don't want to give up on kids, because they can still spin out of that despite the shit that their parents do.
“There ain’t a lot of them who, without some help, will get out of that. Kinda like most of the kids I would have known, who would have been around me, would have been a bad type. (By middle school and high school), a lot of them were permanently gone. They’re done with school, right? They don't want to be 18 in the ninth grade, so they just don't go to school anymore. I want to know why some don’t end up that way.”
While pursuing the doctorate, Christian wanted to develop his other interest: storytelling. He attempted pitching his stories to anybody he thought would listen, but that went nowhere. By his estimation, he collected 30 rejection letters and was on the verge of quitting. But finally he was selected to tell a story on New York City-based RISK! Podcast called “Comfortable in the Water.” It was heard by people from The Moth in New York City, who wanted Christian to be a local talent for a live show in Raleigh. After his Moth appearance came another on the Snap Judgment podcast, then another on WFDD radio in Winston-Salem.
“That’s when I blew up,” Christian says.
Christian became a Moth monster, winning 10 of its story slams in a single year. It was just the positive reinforcement he needed,
Today his has his own podcast, What’s Ray Saying, whose 17 efforts (so far) dive into history and current events from his own distinct perspective.
“I interpret stuff,” he says. “Like on complexion, and why black people look the way we do. And I have a story about plantation life. Have one about blacks and the police. Why black people live in the South. Why people living in the North. Black names and practices, all kinds of topics. And I tell you stories about my own life. I'll have some commentary on that, and I'm mixing some music in between that.”
Still, he presses on to develop his craft further. But he already had the hardest part down cold.
“You live the life first,” says Christian, who is married and a father of six. “The stories come after you live it. You can craft a great story, but that’s not how stories are told.
“What changed for me was the writing of the stories. I don’t write where they are coherent. I am looking for the bullet points and how the words sound when they are coming out of my mouth. Not too polished.”
If he could make a bumper sticker about it, it would probably read, ”Polished is poison!” The more natural, the better.
“If it’s really, really polished, it sounds funny, because people don’t speak that way,” Christian says. “It’s the way you breathe. How you lick your lips. Whether you repeat words. It all is part of it being natural. You know what it’s like when you’re talking to somebody, and you’re in that zone?
“When you are trying to reach inside somebody’s gut, when you are trying to touch them in their heart, you've got to be vibrating on the same frequency that they are vibrating on. I try to remain as real and vulnerable in my speaking style as I can, and not to be very polished. It’s my stories I refine and not so much my projection or delivery. Remember, it’s the same frequency.”
Or heartbeat. Christian speaks of connecting on a heart level.
“That’s the secret sauce,” Christian says. “If you speak in a tone that's in the same rhythm as people's heartbeats, you could do anything. But it's difficult to do. You don't even know if you're doing it.
“I would imagine the most speakers, charlatans, preachers, and gurus and, you know, whoever they are, they know how to do this. When, you know, it’s like a riddle with people. You solve it, and people are on your every breath. They hold their breath and don’t say a word. The only limiting factor is time. So, you go out there and try your best each time out, not being afraid to be foolish enough to try again tomorrow.”
Which is part of Christian’s success. A willingness to overcome and defy the odds.
“Most often, the phrase I heard was, ‘You're out of your mind,’” Christian says. ‘You're crazy. I didn't get a lot of buy-in on my choices. Even before this, people were saying that was a stupid idea. It was a stupid idea to retire. A stupid idea to go to college, you know. But here I am.”
This Story Produced In Partnership with AIR Serenbe
Watch this film and many others on the big screen through AIR Serenbe's Filmer project. Filmer brings to life the untapped creative energy of emerging and established Georgia filmmakers by pairing them with high caliber artists from all over the country. This year, they have produced 16 new films by 14 filmmakers. Join us Friday, November 9, at 7 p.m. to see the premieres of all of the films. Event details here.