What/who did you say you are?

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, in a post called Who do we think we are?, Curtis Ogden, retold the story of a Native American  elder. At the start of a meeting about ecology with non-Native physicists, she concluded her introduction by saying “This is who I am. The features of the land determine my conduct, responsibility, and ethics. Now I want to know to whom I am talking, before I say anything else of substance.” This gave rise to Curtis’ question “What do we lift up as markers of our identity?” The ensuing rich discussion focused on the links between our identities and the land.

I wanted to loop back to the conversation, through the lens of privilege, after reading “An Eskimo Goes to Harvard,” (called to my attention by colleague Carmen Johnson). The Boston Banner article profiles Anaukak Allen Matthew Henson, the great-grandson of Matthew Henson. The older Henson was the African American who, along with Commander Robert Peary and four Inuit guides, first reached the North Pole in 1909. The younger Henson identifies as an Eskimo, though he also has an African American in his lineage. It reminded me that who we think we are, and how we describe ourselves, is informed by so much more than just the percentage of blood we have from various ancestors.

Back to the links between personal and collective identity… For many of us, what determines our “conduct, responsibility, and ethics” is the community and web of traditions within which we were raised, with more or (sadly) less explicit ties to the land itself. And, for people from traditionally marginalized groups, the communities and traditions which form the basis for identity, conduct, responsibility and ethics are forged in the crucible of oppression. Often, what gives our lives most meaning and our communities most vibrancy are precisely those aspects of our identity that are most marginalized in the broader society. And, it is critical that we can claim those identities with pride and joy, oppression notwithstanding!

In my case, my identity as a black Christian woman from the country has shaped my “conduct, responsibility, and ethics,” though I have some European ancestry if you go back far enough. While my great-great grandfather was Irish, I’m more intrigued by his Cherokee/African American wife. And, though I know that Portuguese explorer/exploiters were involved creating Cape Verde, I have always understood my Cape Verdeans as people of color.

As you consider who you know yourself to be, what forms the basis of your identity, “conduct, responsibility, and ethics”?

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  • Gibrán says:

    It’s a powerful thread to pick up. I come from a Puerto Rican nationalist and religious background that was further honed by my family’s move to the main land US when I was 12 years old. This identity has shaped so much of who I am and until I was about 30 years old, it was the very driver of my presence of the planet, my point of attention, the essence of how I walked the world – with great intention.

    Something happened since. A sort of evolutionary leap (from my perspective). This identity has been “transcended and included” in a way that I have found powerfully liberating. Prior to this shift I made a direct link between my embrace of that identity, a socio-political understanding of it, and my quest for freedom. But something has shifted, and loosening the grip – NOT rejecting it – has allowed for so much more.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Gibran. I’m intrigued by your verbs — transcended, included, shifted, loosening!

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