photo by Alex Lear
I MET MYSELF
I met myself coming around the corner one day, and I almost didn’t recognize me.
We so seldom see ourselves as we actually are. Even in a mirror we often see what we hope to be or what we fear we are, exaggerating both flaws and beauty. But when we see ourselves in the faces of others, then we really see.
Would you know yourself if you saw yourself the way others see you?
Of course, when we are young—or at least when I was first moving beyond my teen years—it never occurred to me that the past had anything deep to do with me personally. My father was from the country. I was from the city. I didn’t really see how his life was shaping my life. One African proverb says you can’t truly judge the man until the man has reared a child. So when can you truly judge the child?
Somehow, in the way most of us in America have been acculturated, I thought of myself as distinct from my parents. I did not consciously know their ideas about life except by inference in terms of what they encouraged and/or discouraged in me, and therefore I was blissfully unaware that much of my own ideas were shaped and influenced, if not outright determined, by the ideas my parents held.
When my mother was battling Hodgkin’s disease, she would have her three sons take turns driving her across the city to the hospital that was located in the next parish to the west of New Orleans. During these long drives for chemotherapy treatment she would talk to each of us, not about anything in particular, but many years later I realized she was consciously spending her last days conversing with her sons.
I’ll never forget how well she knew us, how after hurricane Betsy hit my mother had written a long letter to her youngest sister, my aunt Narvalee who was by then living out in California, a single mother with one child, my first cousin Frieda. My mother was a college graduate and a third grade school teacher. I knew she could write, but she opened her letter saying if she could write like Paul in the bible or like me, Lil Val. Wow, my mother admires me as a writer.
That was in 1965 three years before I joined the Free Southern Theatre and became a professional writer. By 1973 she was dead. If she saw me now, would she still admire me; would I remind her of the young man she loved; or would I be so strangely changed that she would know who I was but not know the me who came to be over the intervening years between now and when she last saw me back in the early seventies? I wish I could see me the way she would see me if she looked at me today, she who knew me before I knew me.
Have you ever had a long talk with someone who knew you well but had not seen you in over ten years? Say, you’re having a quick drink with Gilbert after seeing him at Walgreen’s; he was purchasing a prescription for diabetes medication and you were getting a refill of blood pressure medicine. Gilbert was your best friend from elementary school with whom you used to share lunch. You and Gilbert had even planned and literally started to run away together just for the romanticized adventure of two adolescents exploring the world away from the dictates of parents.
Or maybe you are hugging Eric and laughing with your arm still around his shoulder and he is playfully punching you in the chest the way y’all used to do while playing sandlot football games on the crisp autumns of weekends decades ago, and Eric would laugh at something you said and retort, “boy, you still talking all that shit.”
Or maybe it was Woodrow you encountered. He was coming out of Picadilly’s, and you were going in planning to meet your wife for dinner. Woodrow was someone you used to laugh with pulling pranks in high school and now, even though he walks with a cane and has only half a head of hair, Woodrow gains your admiration as he tells you about the business venture he’s started. His enthusiasm is contagious as he describes all the wonderful skills and information he’s learning. His eyes are animated as he leans into you, one hand familiarly resting on your right shoulder as he describes the joys of getting into a whole new area and keeping up with thirty-year-old guys who are not even half his age.
Or you see Sandra in some office hallway, she who could outrun a cheetah back in eighth grade. She is still slim and vivacious. She greets you not only with a girlish giggle and bubbly “hello” but waves a well-manicured hand at you while balancing a cup of steaming coffee in her other hand; she’s married and has a beautiful diamond ring that literally shoots off a flashing rainbow of refracted lights as she waves good-bye. Seeing her brisk walk and the swing of her lithe hips makes you self-conscious about all the weight you’ve gained.
I temporarily quieten some of my concerns about who really knows me by insisting people who have not seen me in years can not really know me. The two questions—who knows me and do I know me the way other people know me—take turns as the focus of my mind. Then I wonder how much of me today is the old me that friends knew decades ago.
The old folks say it’s easy to change your mind but hard to change your ways. Is the way I am today more or less the way I was way back when, and if so where did that constant part of me come from? Was I born the way I am, or are all of us shaped by our interactions with and responses to our nurturing environment? Over a life time do we remain essentially the same or is it possible to fundamentally transform ourselves?
The things we think about can surprise us. Where did that come from, we ask ourselves while looking around to see if anybody saw us thinking these crazy ideas.
I remember riding a subway in Manhattan. I hallucinated for a minute and thought I saw my mother and father at a train stop, standing close to each other. My old man handsome, with a dimpled smile and a seriousness dripping from his eyes, his dark head held high; my short mother looking up, her eyes shining. He had one hand lightly on her waist, and she was leaning into him, two hands caressing his chest. I had never seen my mother touching my father like that, never thought of them as head-over-heels infatuated with each other. But there they were.
Suddenly I started wondering about what momma and daddy were thinking and feeling, how it was to be young and black in the late forties. How did fighting in two wars affect him: once in the pacific and later in Korea? Before she died, my mother’s younger sister told me why we used to alternate going by the Robinson’s on Mardi Gras one year and the Robinson’s coming by us the next. Frank Robinson and my father were best friends, and daddy asked Mr. Robinson to look out for mama while daddy was in the war. I wonder now how it was to be a pregnant woman with two small children and her man returning to war after surviving World War II.
I can’t believe how dumb I was to ignore them. How could I be so uninterested in the roots of myself. Even though in my early manhood years I served in Korea on a missile base located on a remote mountaintop, I never really discussed Korea with my father. Like most youth, I was too self absorbed to want to learn anything about my origins or any of me that wasn’t actually embodied in my physical person.
When I was still in elementary school I gave a Frederick Douglass speech and won a prize in a church contest, and later in junior high school, playing Crispus Attucks, I jumped out of a closet—well, actually from behind a curtain—hoisting a sword fashioned from a coat hangar, proclaiming “I’m a proud black man who is willing to fight and die for my freedom.”
I liked that kind of black history but ignored my father’s fight to be hired as a laboratory technician at the Veterans Administration Hospital. He wrote letters all the way to Washington. DC, kept arguing his rights and finally a directive came down to hire him. They did, but they wouldn’t promote him even though he was the best lab tech they had, so good that he was the one training the college interns, some of whom were hired after his training and even promoted because they had a degree while he languished in lower grade positions because he had no sheepskin. I never heard him complain about mistreatment—was I deaf or did he just silently suffer, nobly carrying on despite slights heaped on him?
Now that I’m old as history, now that my teenage years are on page five hundred-and-something in the American history book, the textbook someone had thrown on the floor, in the corner of our classroom; now that what I went through does not seem relevant to what teenagers today are going through; now I want to know my father’s history, I want to embrace my mother’s hardships.
There they were again and again, at each train stop. That must have been me my mother was carrying in two arms, gently bouncing up and down. I had on a funny, green knit hat swallowing my big head. I am the elder of their three sons. Should I get off and at least walk close to them, hear what they are saying to each other? Look, my mother is talking to me. What was she saying? Before I can muster the courage to stand up and go eavesdrop on my parents, the train pulls off. I am strangely more anxious about how I bungled the chance to get to know my parents when they were standing at the last stop than I am curious about what I will see at the next stop.
But the next stop is my stop. I get up and wait at the door as the train jerks to a stop. The door abruptly opens. People pour in and out of the train simultaneously. As I push through the throng, I look up and down the platform. They are not there. My parents are gone, or more likely, never were here. I feel alone, making my way in the world.
I promise I will never forget my parents as young lovers. I was so fortunate that they were my fate—Inola and Big Val. My mother, a school teacher who never forced me to do homework and who did not even try to dissuade me from taking an F in high school one trimester because I didn’t want to do an assignment a teacher forced on me. My father forcing us to grow food in the city and pick up all the trash on our block to keep it clean but who never once tried to discourage us from picking up the gun in the sixties—that was my brother on the cover of Time magazine brandishing a shotgun during the take over at Cornell University. Big Val and Inola always encouraged us to fight, and they never made us conform to anything.
It is obvious to me now, but I have not always recognized this truth: I can not fully know myself if I don’t intimately know my past, intimately know the forces that shaped and influenced me, the people who gave birth to me, and especially the culture and era within which I lived. My head was spinning as my mental fingers tapped the codes of past experiences into the calculator of my consciousness. I was literally engrossed in my own world.
So there I was coming around the corner thinking all these thoughts, totally unaware that I was about to really peep who I was; suddenly I see someone I grew up with. That person looks old as they hug me, greet me, and playfully say, heyyyy man, long time no see. They enfold me in a long, warm embrace, holding the me they remember. I am struggling to remember their name.
In that moment I see both their obvious joy and also see how much they have changed, how they have aged. I wonder what they are doing, what is their life like, what part of the city they live in, what kind of work they do, all the personal profile sort of information. That’s when I had this weird desire; I wanted to be able to fully embrace myself and know myself the way this old friend thinks they know me, and I was really curious to know myself from the perspective that my parents knew me.
I wanted to know all of me, and that’s the moment when I had a news flash: now that your life is almost over, who are you really?
Am I only who I think I am or am I really the complex summation of all that I have also been in relation to others and in response to the world within which I have lived.
As I walked to my car I had a funny thought: my mind is not me. My mind may in fact be the biggest impediment to me getting to know me. Maybe my mind is the least reliable map of who I have been, a distorting lens when it comes to recognizing the self.
All personal intentions aside, all individual desires sublimated, all intellectual self-reflections and second guesses ignored, is it possible for any of us to truly know ourselves without the help and input of others who know us? Is it possible to move beyond letting our minds judge who we are? Would it be too overwhelming to consider letting the world we live in judge who we are? Can we shed the shackles of our own mind and be both free and fortunate to see ourselves the way others see us? And if that portrait was actually presented to us, would we recognize ourselves?
—kalamu ya salaam