23 May 2008

Stepping Stools to Finding a True Self

Here's JAYA4PLRA, making up some work from last semester:

This course has helped me battle some critical issues concerning my own identity, as well as bringing to light the issues of Race and Ethnicity. Experiences shape our lives and create an individual through common existence. Throughout the winding paths of adulthood I have faced many experiences that have shaped my personality, character, and overall identity. This evolving process has leaded me to reflect on not only my individual placement within the world but also my commonality with American and world culture. This second phase of the identification project is designed to elicit a more in-depth look at Race and Ethnicity, while analyzing our growth throughout the semester. My life has been a constant search for truth and I believe that my experience at college, and abroad has lead me to find some answers.

“My father is from Ghana” is the first thing I say to most people I meet. This shines a light on a crucial aspect of my collective identity. When asked in seminars and classes to say something special about yourself that’s what I usually reach for. This truly is the “Me” generation, focusing on individual achievement rather than group success. The honor that I have come from a distinctive background has been lost in a sea of common identity. This was clearly presented by our various outside of class research.

In the summer of 2007, my personal identity was changed drastically, with the visit to my father's native land of Ghana, West Africa. The experience was faulty at first with an uneasy feeling in the air about the trip. Whether it was money, our age, or the fact that the trip was long overdue in general, my older brother Addaie and I were worried. We described this tension feeling as “the stars are not aligned, or something.”

The trip to Ghana opened my eyes to what I have been preparing for my whole life. A world of stories and what I believed to be fairy tales now began to take physical form. The whole flight over I was sick with worry and anticipation, forcing me to spend much of my time in the cramped airplane bathroom. Landing in Ghana I was able to smell the hot moist air and see the moist green grass. To be honest, I was upset by the level of development, in terms of infrastructure. I always believed that the cities would be more developed than the stereotype of “backwards” African nations. It seemed that this country had not made as much progress as I previously believed. Upon the first time of arrival my identity was immediately in question. Being of lighter skin tone than most native Ghanaians, I would have to revert to offering my middle and last name, almost as an offering of acceptance. My experience in Ghana brought me closer to what it was like to live in this culture, while giving me physical evidence into my genetic makeup.

Our long rides to various destinations across the American landscape gave my father and me a chance to reflect upon, and learn about our common ancestry and identity. That is were he would tell me tales of Ashanti Kings draped in gold, powerful Gods, and personal tribulations. I was one of those children who never got sick of hearing the line “You know, when I was a kid....” I could learn about American identity and culture talking about the full gambit of race, religion, and politics. I reflect on the car rides as a modern parental seminar, instilling in the child the necessary skills for survival. The issue of race came up often and sometimes was followed by a demonstration. By demonstration I mean flashing sirens signaling our vehicle to pull over. Every time we got pulled over going fishing, on vacation trips, or just around our rural neighborhood, the issues of race, identity, and class were ingrained into my psyche. Growing older has given me the opportunity to realize that racism is real while granting me the opportunity to accurately confront racial issues.

As youngsters it is not hard to tell what is different about each other. I believe this instinctual observation is a natural evolutionary process. Looking around the room in the small rural classroom my peers were all so similar, but rather also uniquely distinctive. You learn early to relate your creation with the direct source of your creation, your parents. Looking at my father's nose, and my mother's hair I began to piece the body parts I obtained in the birthing swap. It was all too similar to my Mr. Potato Head. During those confusing times, I often went to my parents for spiritual and life guidance. I remember my Grandma telling me that I wasn’t “black.” See, I could always count on my Grandmother to tell me how it was, and she has always been close to me in spirit and physical location. Right up the street was all the cookies, popcorn, and “Sunny D” you could desire. It was always a place of learning, reflection, and the occasional gossip. Jovial Grandma was always the connection to my mother’s side of the family or my “white” side. Her unique perception on race, class, and society was mixed with my mother’s often-optimistic approach to labeling.

During our semester we were able to see the confrontation between politics and race and ethnicity. I was immediately able to compare my life and the upbringing of Senator Obama. The obvious clash between his racial identity began to take arise when everyone began there introduction as “No offense but you look just like Barack Obama.” I didn’t ever take offense to this comparison, but it made me analyze our discussion on race and ethnicity. His racial upbringing and experience is so similar to mine, even having similar genetic makeup. It made me revert back to our school's convocation event where we were able to compare and contrast our genetic makeups. This experience has moved my position to believing that ethnicity is real, and race is a flawed human construction based on genetic make-ups. The politics of race and identity is felt everyday in society. The battle is if we want to buy into this designed scheme to rank individuals, or if our stock is already purchased upon birth. There is a struggle between who I have created in society and what society has created of me.

The duality of my citizenship has lead me to be confused and often conflicted. A friendly conversation about perceptions of race lead my roommate and I to a discussion on how you would characterize my race. “Well, I am not totally white, and not black, so what am I, grey?” I sarcastically commented. Through the analysis we were able to relatively construct my race: African American Ghanaian Caucasian black white…American. I guess this may not be scientifically accurate or politically correct, but it reflects many issues in American identity. My mobility in American society is affected by the perceptions of race. These perceptions in many cases can be damaging and often misleading.

I have always claimed that my father is from Africa, and I am not an American “black” brought here from the evils of slavery. I have tried to resist many aspects of formal census categorization and placed my own stamp on myself. I say that I am not black not only from watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film but also from rejection of classic societal identification procedures. I know where my “blackness” comes from, and the history of my direct ancestors. The questions is does this make me any more elevated, or distinctive? It all is based on perceptions because I cannot wear the black star on my chest. My mother’s line also: working with the family members we traced our blood back to American civil war veterans, England, and Wales. This “Caucasian” theme is greatly stressed in our readings and discussions. Being able to experience the journey of slavery while visiting the castles of costal Ghana gave me direct insight into this connection and plight.

I have various stories due too my distinctive upbringing. I spent many nights grieving with my hands cradled over my face. I asked myself, could I have been anyone other than me? Compare my identity to the American “melting pot” theory. I always like to do the mirror test. It brings me back to a sense of reality and awakens me from my disillusionment. The image I have created of myself reflected back into my pupils doesn’t reflect the one that I have created in my mind. The common phrase after taking the mirror test is “Oh that’s what I look like” or the occasional “I look weird.” That doesn’t mean that I am excluding the good days--we all have them.

Creating my identity is an evolutionary process. The most turbulent of times was in grade school; I adapted to my surroundings, trapped on the Galapagos Islands of Weedsport Central School. Like a chameleon, I cloaked my personal image to match and imitate my surroundings. Of course there was always my brother, MTV, and seniors around to influence me, but other underlying factors like American marketing, class, and race, all were present. My experience at Fredonia was able to grant me the opportunity to step out of that shell, while reflecting on my personal experience.

My identity is made up of so much more than my race or my biological background. I have found that the things that might be most crucial to you may not be so important to others. The way that I identify myself may not have the same weight with someone less conscious. I often wonder if this created identity or outfit is even noticed in society, but it is. When you walk into a room or see someone in a grocery store you notice a lot about an individual just by their appearance. Your human instincts categorize the person into a specific and trained phylum. It is only natural to identify individuality, but applying specific trained reactions to them is a result of experience.

We were able to challenge this debate with our various guest speakers. One who captivated and even annoyed me was able to leave a lasting impression. He believed that race is real, among many other controversial stances. His ability to debate gave him a tremendous advantage to prove why “blacks were better at sports” or “that whites and Asians were naturally smarter.” I look back at that early morning in discussion, not at his comments, but rather the fact that I didn’t speak up. Being my mother was the Val Victorian and my father achieving his master's degree while knowing limited English and American culture, I wanted to offer my experience as rejection, not to mention my sporting ability is less than par. This professor's conclusion did not prove to me that race was real, but rather that this individual had personal motives for his philosophical conclusions. He proved this to me when he stated “My mother thinks I’m some racist, or in the KKK, and I guess she might be right.” This type of scholarship is evidence in the existence of racism, and the continuation of this discrimination through academia.

That is why my goal is to change people’s perceptions of race, and identity. Growing up in a very racist community I was able to get an interesting look into the minds of these altered individuals, as well as there effects. Our class discussions on perceptions of race have left me with some interesting questions.

To be honest, I have always felt like a fraud. I feel that I cannot accurately claim an absolute connection to my Ashanti heritage without going to Ghana and living there. This summer gave me a better grasp on what it is like to connect to the Akan culture. It seems that when I boast that my father is from this place, the first question asked is “have you been there.” When other individuals with no lineage connection to Ghana, but have visited or lived there speak on it, they are honored and listened, too. My multiple identities are constantly challenged with events like these. Being at Fredonia, with a strong Ghana study abroad program, and a visiting Ghanaian percussionist, furthered my connection and almost sense of ethnic pride. Differentiating my self from the stereotypes was hard, while giving me more insight into my personal journey.

Since taking my first college class, where we watched Independence Day, the issue of what it means to be an American has been debated in my mind. The true American identity has always been hard to find. The truth is that America is truly a melting pot, of ideas cultures, races, and identities. It is difficult to put a finger on how to define your personal identity.

This idea was further expressed when I took an Intro to African American studies class here at Fredonia. I unfortunately was banned from taking the final examination due to my “failure to comply with the project.” Our goal was to take different perceptions and stereotypes of African Americans in society and compare and contrast them. We were asked to do this by studying the classic stereotypes and find pictures that fit these negative images. I thought it would be interesting to choose my various constructed images of my self identity in relation to the stereotypes. For the “black brute” I showed myself in oversized “hip-hop” clothing posing in an aggressive stance. I showed myself as an “Uncle Tom” by wearing Abercrombie clothing associated with upper-class suburban “white” society. I also challenged my personal identity as an African American by showing the tragic mulatto. This tragic mulatto is trapped between a world of black and a world of white, not knowing wear he/she fits in, if they even do. I thought this analysis was drastically accurate and impressive, on showing the diversity of my own identity as well as American society. This shows a person’s identity can change; it can be molded and shaped due to the circumstance. I find myself doing this all the time, finding the right times to apply these characters and painted faces, while learning the right time to challenge the power that be.

Your identity can only take you so far, and it is up to the individual to create and construct a desired personal identity in contrast to society’s theorization. America is a melting pot, or even a salad bowl of different identities. I believe that as you get older, and eventually in death you will find your true identity, not as black or white, Muslim or Jewish, but as a soul and a spirit. The hints of revelation point us towards the direction of commonality as connected brothers (good or evil). My identity was challenged constantly throughout my college experience on multiple fronts, and I believe that this my multiple classes on race and ethnicity were additional stepping stools to find my true self.

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