Chains of Identity

There are two events in the existence of every human being past present and future which binds us together,-birth and death. In Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” that is the underlining message even though his meaning would have been filled with caveats. Non-“white” people and women weren’t really included in his pronouncement.

But no two humans experience the world and their existence in the same way. Even identical twins are different just from the standpoint that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So no two things are exactly the same. Rather than copping to that fact the human animal seems to need to classify what are unique individual entities into groups, based upon some perceived similar characteristics or traits.

Our identities become “smushed,” formed or reformed based upon not only how we experience the world as we travel the distance between birth and death, but also how we are described and categorized by others.

I can remember very distinctly a sense of “otherness” when traveling to see my “granny” from Philadelphia, PA, my hometown to Bainbridge, GA sometime in the late 50’s early 60’s. It was my first time travelling alone to see her. I was filled with excitement. The long overnight train ride was an adventure watching the landscape rush by my window of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s West Coast Champion heading from Boston to St. Petersburg with stops in Wilmington, Richmond, Rocky Mount, Florence, Savannah, and Waycross, GA where I changed trains.

From the sleek express, I would transfer to the Atlantic Coastline’s local and go from one world to another. Life in the south was in transition. Since the Brown Decision in 1954 there was fierce “white” resistance to integration and mores died hard.

So even though I was schooled in the ways of segregation both Northern and Southern varieties it was still a rude awakening when the elder colored fella who was the station’s janitor informed me after having seated myself in the main passenger waiting area that where I was seated wasn’t for me. I belonged over here, in the small unkempt, dusty, dark, dingy anti-room off the main terminal reserved for “us.”

Now mind you I had been very comfortable in my chosen seat for maybe a half an hour and none of the other passengers paid me any attention. I wasn’t perceived at that point as some threat to “the way things were down here” by the “white” travelers waiting as I was for the next leg of my journey.

I was perturbed. I was just minding my own business. Why should I have to move? I briefly thought of ignoring his admonition to move, but as “other” as it made me feel, I somehow knew that this fellow Negro was looking out for one of his own.

Georgia wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama, but Negros still “disrappeared” as my granny used to say in the Peachtree State. I knew what happened to Emmett Till even though my parents tried to shield me from seeing his mutilated face in the Jet Magazine photo. Thinking that it might give me nightmares, but like every other young person my age on my block we had to see what all the fuss was about.

Identity is a precious thing. For “black” folks particularly throughout the Diaspora, given our history, there can be a deep schism between who you know or think you are and how you are perceived by others. Other “blacks” want you to embrace “the cloak of blackness,” of Negritude, of “racial” solidarity as a survival and empowerment strategy. To be “white,” has come to mean seeing oneself atop some human imagined hierarchy with others being “less than.”

The concept of “race” is an invention that empowers some to diminish others based upon some specious category like skin pigmentation or national origin. Like that friendly janitor of my youth schooling me as to where I belonged, but according to whom? Him? The people who ran the railroad? The society in which I was living and the strictures of the culture? I think not. No one has the right to tell another where or to whom they belong or how to be. That is for the individual and only the individual to decide.

As the narrator intoned at the beginning of each episode of the old TV series, “There are eight million stories in The Naked City.” Yet rarely if ever were there stories that featured “black” folks as central characters. We can go further and say there are 6 billion stories in our world today, each unique and individual and no two are alike. Each protagonist in that story makes survival choices based upon what their needs are.  And each of those six billion individual stories make up what we collectively call The Human Race. There may be intersections, interactions, cooperation, conflict, but each of us goes through life as a single entity. Each of us has our own unique identity. To be self-defined is to be self-empowered. As The Bard said, “To thine own self be true.”

Walter Harris Gavin is the author of The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar, a novel of identity,


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