Our friendship is so strong, I think, that it can withstand my sharing with you some ideas that have been on my mind lately. We have actually done this sort of thing before, when we exchange comments and spur each other on in thinking through whatever is concerning us at the time. I know a good deal of who I am today has evolved from this interaction, and I am grateful for it. To that end, I suppose I simply want here to “give back” a little. Then, as is also true of our past, I have to confess that working matters out with you helps me to understand them better, so maybe there is good here for both of us. If I am wrong, then I ask you to only be my friend and stay with me as I ask a few questions and make a few statements.
In plain terms, I have been bothered by the ideas I have read in Phyllis Allen’s article, “Leaving Identity Issues to Other Folks,” mainly because that is not what Allen essentially does. In the piece she writes of how, each decade, what was going on in terms of blacks in America molded her identity as a black woman. She only is able to leave this behind today, and my impression is that she simply feels too old to be bothered. I think we can both relate to how wanting to fit in is a massive force, no matter a person’s race. I also think we would agree that being black is an experience no one else can appreciate, in terms of how important it is to hold onto a larger sense of identity, which will then strengthen who we are as individuals. I can remember times, in fact, when I thought you were going too far in following along with a social trend, and I do not doubt that I have been guilty of the same. As we both know all too well, being a minority changes everything, and the individual identities our white friends take for granted is something we have to fight for.
All this notwithstanding, Rashed, I am unhappy with even the smallest sense of “going along.” I appreciate the forces that influenced Allen in her article, but I also wonder: at what point do we not automatically resist, and for the sake of resisting? That is, I think that it is the obligation of all of us to question before following any movement or trend at all, from politics to fashion. I think that such movements as “black” cannot ever be allowed to deny that responsibility, because we are still giving up something of ourselves for the sake of connection. Ms Allen did it repeatedly, from being an activist in the 1970s to being a “mainstream consumer” in the 1990s. I do no ever want to be identified in such ways because I believe they lessen myself, and I do not want that for you, either.
It is so easy, I think, to set aside the enormous responsibility of creating our own beings. This was reinforced to me in Benjamin Carson’s article, “There Is No Job More Important Than Parenting” (you can read it online, Rashed, and you should). Carson recalls being a teenager who was swept away by his peers and after the same, trendy clothes and behaviors of them. This happened to him in spite of the presence of a devoted, smart, and caring mother, so the power of influence is all the stronger. I find Carson’s simple story of coming back to himself and working toward basic values more inspirational than Allen’s, however, because there is in his story the foundation of the truth Allen ignores. It is a truth he comes to through his mother, but it also underscores, I think, the realities of all our lives. That is, Rashed, the moment we turn to anything others are doing, and because it seems to give us shape as individuals, we are moving away from who we are.
Please do not think that I am now completely extreme, and never want any part of the social or cultural tides we face every day. A great deal of them is valuable, if not outright fun, and I think there is good in anything that brings us together as a race. At the same time, however, reading both of these articles gives me a strong sense that our first reaction should always be mistrust, or at least doubt. Allen appears to have passively gone along with every revolution in black culture; Carson slipped once, and then trusted again to the wisdom of his mother. More importantly, Carson took the path to individual identity that matters; he understood that the full responsibility for being himself was in pursuing what would be best for himself. He had, again, the advantage of a wise mother, but the path is open to all of us. We live in the world, Rashed, and we are bound to be influenced by what it tells us we should be and do. I ask you, however, to help me keep a vital distance between myself and these forces, if only as a precaution, and I will do the same for you. I can think of nothing better friends can do for one another, and it only makes sense, as well. I value you for that identity which is only yours, and never for the parts of it that may belong to somebody else, and I hope you feel the same way about me.