Reflections: On Identity
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” Erik Erikson
What about identity? I have early memories of The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg series by Florence Kate Upton. It was a once popular children’s book series in the UK. Mommy Bates, my beloved surrogate mom in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, had copies on her bookshelf and saw nothing wrong with reading those stories to my sister, Joy, and me. We saw nothing wrong in enjoying the giggle-worthy escapades of a strange looking, charcoal black rag-doll and his wooden doll friends. In our innocence, we had no idea that it had a pejorative connotation in the same vein as the N-word, Pickaninny, Mammy, and a slew of other offensive, stereotypical terms used to describe people of color. We were two little black girls living with an elderly, white English couple in a sleepy seaside town in Essex. We were loved and that was the lens through which we viewed our surroundings and the world beyond Clacton-on-Sea. In that seemingly idyllic setting, we navigated an uncertain world where many embraced us and a few ridiculed us. Who am I? Who are You?
Why such an arrangement? As far as we were concerned, the Bates were Mom and Dad, at least for the time being, and until our biological parents, students in a segregated London, were ready to retrieve us from the temporary arrangement that was the lot of many children born to immigrant parents. This was a time when landlords had no desire to rent space to blacks with kids, and so, many families from the African continent and the Caribbean hired and paid foster parents to care for their children. As foster kids, we were not wards of a judicial system as the term connotes in the USA, we were wards of loving families recruited by distraught parents who were left with few options for their children while they attended professional schools. Of course, the irony of it all was that we embraced our foster parents with a measure of love that the landlords denied our parents, and this deep love informed our identity. We belonged because we were loved and, even though the world we inhabited was fraught with unpleasant perceptions about race and identity, we navigated that world without feeling closed out or pushed aside. At least, not for a long while. What am I? What are You?
“I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me — they, and the love and loyalty I give them, form my identity far more than any word or group ever could.” Veronica Roth, Allegiant
What about that Golliwog? The first time I was called a Golliwog by the silly child who lived a few doors down from our cottage, I was amused. I was amused not because I thought it was necessarily a funny comparison but, because as a child, I thought he was an idiot for comparing me to a rag doll character in a children’s book. Who in their right mind would look at me and see a rag-doll? I remember the same kid doing hilarious mimicry of feeding monkeys and when I shared it with Mommy Bates, she forbid us from going near his home. As I write this, I remember trying to make sense of the instructions and warning we got, and wondering what all the fuss was over this other child … my foster parents knew better. I was just a kid. It took some distance, and many years later, for the implication to settle into my bones; instead of rage, I felt sorry for him. We are our children’s first connection to the outside world and our prejudices and petty hatreds are open doors through which our kids walk to meet, greet, love and hate other members of our global family. Our actions as parents shape our children’s identity and, while some of us kids formulate our own sense of self as we grow up and make informed choices, many stay locked in the identity bestowed on them by their parents, culture, and other powerful influences. Our love and loyalty to our loved ones can make it quite hard to break out of the mold. Who am I? Who are You?
Why have Ascribed Identities? For kids who grow up and rebel against the expected norms of their upbringing, it can result in alienation, shaming and even, in some cases, harm. Forming an identity that we are at peace with can be a minefield for some and not entirely easy street for the rest of us. When I made the decision to move to the USA, it was not an easy choice or one supported by my parents. I was moving to a new country with a volatile history of racial segregation, and they were concerned about how I would find my footing in what would essentially become a fragmented world for a young woman with one foot on African soil and the other on European soil. I was secure in the knowledge that I was human first, of African extraction, and born in Europe. On those two continents, my dual identities were clear. In America, they were blurred. I was an outsider who looked like an insider until I opened my mouth and then the questions would come hurtling at me faster than my brain could send conflicting messages to my mouth.
“Are you Jamaican? Are you from Kenya? Perhaps Somalia or Eritrea?” My inquisitors would ask.
No, No, No, I would say. But … I have tons of friends from those countries and grew up with kids from there. I often said, while catching my breath.
“Then, what are you!?”
The questions would always end on a suspicious note. People often try to invent identities for those who don’t fit into a proverbial box marked X. What am I? What are You?
“Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.” Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
Are you having an Identity Crisis? Is it comforting to know that at different points in our lives, we, all of us, experience some form of identity crisis? For some, it comes during that transition from being a child to becoming an adolescent. Our raging hormones and physical changes create periods of confusion and worry in many kids. Most of us survive the mental and physical shift by trying new ways of viewing ourselves and the world, and those new perspectives inform the narrative we create for ourselves. It’s an awkward time for everyone, and I know that what spared me from going nuts was my all girls boarding school where rules and regulations made it difficult to act out to the max. We were going through the growth and change together, and we had our headmistress and her tutors keeping us all in line. From time to time, some of us would assert ourselves by sneaking off the school grounds to head into town for a cigarette and coffee, and the occasional meetup with other rebellious kids. But we were contained so, our identity crises softened as other daily demands took up our time, and exams dominated what little room we had for such meanderings. Who am I? Who are You?
What is my/your identity? Writing this post got me thinking of the many life experiences, travels, family ties/friendships, and challenges that have shaped my life. Today, I straddle three worlds and they are all important to me because they have informed my personal journey and narrative through three continents. What is apparent, at least to you, is that I am a woman of color and all the things you see, read, and know about me. However, I am more than those external definitions. I am the sum total of all of my life experiences, my heritage, my internal/external life, my training and even what I might pretend to be. How I choose to express my personal narrative is my call and it can vary from day to day. There are no easy or pat answers when it comes to delving into the murky waters of identity classifications, and I don’t want to mislead anyone by saying: Here is all I am or all YOU are. It’s not so simple, even though, many folks like to resort to labels first; male, female, religious, racial id etc, etc. But that said, one thing remains constant; I am human first and the totality of my life experiences and connections inform my identity. What am I? What are you? Who are YOU?
This post was inspired by a WordPress Prompt: Discover Challenge: Identity – For this week’s Discover Challenge, focus on identity. You may use it simply as a one-word prompt, or tell us what the word means to you. Or you might publish a sketch that represents who you are or how you feel today, a poem about identity in our digital age, or a personal essay about who you once were. Like the previous challenges, you are not limited to format: photographers, painters, spoken word performers, flash fiction writers, and others are welcome to submit posts inspired by the word, topic, and theme of identity. To help other participants and new fans find your response in the Reader, tag your post #DiscoverWP.
Positive Motivation Tip: Our identity is informed by the totality of our life experiences and exposures…. Explore and embrace yours.