Absence or distinction between people of different ethnic groups.
Who or what a person or thing is; a distinct impression of a single person or thing presented to or perceived by others; a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others.
- Two (of many) definitions of “identity” offered by the Oxford English Dictionary [emphasis mine]
For the past month, our Poetry & Social Justice course has discussed work by June Jordan, the BreakBeat Poets, Audre Lorde, Randall Mann, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and Khaled Mattawa, among many others. A commonality present in these writers’ poetry/prose is an exploration of the complexity of identity, of where they come from and of who they are, in all the messiness and difficulty that entails. June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights,” for example, asserts:
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of myself
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
While reading this poem, alongside others exploring identity, students in our class also have been learning to write about their own identities through class introductions, writing prompts and exercises, essays and speeches from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and personal reflection. (Check out Ayesha Shibli’s article, “On Writing the Self,” Kennedy McDaniel’s article, “Audre Lorde on Black Girl Magic,” and Brandi Randolph's poem, "The Essence of Self Expression.")
For me, writing about where I come from often becomes a source of inner dissonance. I am from a multi-ethnic family, and I am not always sure where I stand with myself. Identity, as I see it, is a social phenomenon: some aspects of our identity we choose for ourselves; other aspects (sometimes for better but usually for worse) we find attributed to us. It can be exhausting and confusing to correct strangers’ (and even close friends’) arbitrary attributions that do not align with our own, and so I am often ambivalent on how to (and how I feel I am allowed to) write about my identity. During a writing workshop in February, Tony Medina (a contributor to The BreakBeat Poets and professor of creative writing at Howard University) asked us to write and present a poem about where we are from. (You can read about Diamond Pollard’s experience in her blog post, “Embracing Discomfort.”) Put on the spot, my explanation of myself became a question of terse (micro-aggressed) Q&A. A stanza of my poem begins:
From where, really?
From Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
From where before?
From Mass General.
From where before?
From my mother.
From where before?
Other times, in my own time, I find myself writing poetry that is more self-disclosing and rooted in my parents’ childhood experiences that have been handed down to me through story. Below is the beginning of “Ovulation,” a reincarnated draft in response to the where-I’m-from prompt:
It is a joke between us,
my mother and me,
to put our eggs in conversation
like Matryoshka dolls.
Between girl- & womanhood
we establish the following:
I was just nineteen when
the university closed becomes
We were just nineteen when
I was with you, in an egg.
I remember the rice paddies
on the path home becomes
I too miss the old days
And I too miss the old food.
I was born in central Massachusetts to a mother of Iranian origin, and a father of Polish and western European heritage. I am American, middle class, racially white, ethnically mixed. I have been compared to a mutt. At some ages, I have identified primarily as being of middle-eastern descent; at other ages, I have “felt” entirely and wholly American—as if these two could ever be a mutually exclusive binary and as if “middle eastern” or “American” could ever be easily definable labels. Yet, despite the varied ways in which I have chosen to identify and have been identified over the years, regardless of my presentation (both by self and society), I often have felt like an “other.” And I have just as often let myself be other-ed in silence.
Because I am shy. Because I consider myself “polite.” Because speaking up is difficult. Because writing feels immensely permanent for a self-concept that for me is fluid. Because I have not wanted to give an inaccurate impression of myself when I myself am not sure as to what an “accurate” impression might look like. Because I am confused. Because I do not have all the answers I would like to have. Because I have been discounted for who I am, but I have not understood how to react to that prejudice. Because, June Jordan, I too have been treated differently in some ways for being “the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic / the wrong sartorial” no matter where I am (“Poem about My Rights”). Because somehow, sometimes, that prejudice has made me want the “right” hair, different hair, darker hair; a different nose, a different skin—some other’s face. Because I have been angry. Because I am angry. Because I have not known how to make that anger valuable. Because I am angry, but I was taught to be cool-minded and polite, and I had taken this to mean that I ought not offend my offenders with negation. Because I am angry, but I am also, in so many ways, privileged for reasons that are wrong, and so I have felt my anger and my experiences as illegitimate in comparison to the anger and experiences of others.
But, Audre Lorde, this instant, you are the great force pushing me on. Because you are right to say in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” that “[w]omen responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation” (Sister Outsider 124). Because you are right to say in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” that “[y]our silence will not protect you” (41). Because anger has the potential to fuel proactive change, if only the angry speak. Because anger is both vulnerable and strong; it is genuine and human and appropriate in response to attacks of identity, which is an inherently political attack because it is a personal attack. Because we cannot allow our fear of our own anger translate to fear of our own words. Because I have muted myself for too long.
In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde asks, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” (41).
She is asking this of me. She is asking this of you. Find the words you have hidden from yourself. Find them. You know where they hide. Say them. Write them. Create them. Do not be silent.
"identity, n." OED Online. Oxford UP, Dec. 2015. Web. 6 March 2016.
Jordan, June. “Poem about My Rights.” Poetry Foundation. N.d. Web. 6 March 2016.
Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. 40-44. Print.
---. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. 124-133. Print.