Who Do I Want To Be? Art, Literature and Choosing Your Own Identity (Part II)

In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement  – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.

And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslines and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchantsdemonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.

One of the many exhibitions at Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality

Choosing Who We Are

Over Memorial Day weekend I attended an inspirational exhibition called Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality. In this lab a group of artists, chefs, and historians gathered in a collective space (the newly re-opened Arts & Industries building) revealing various ways in which cultures support and build upon each other. This exhibition sought to reveal commonalities between cultures, from the work of Jason Lujan whose graphic design work melds the textiles of Native American and Asian cultures, to Oakland’s The People’s Kitchen which asked visitors to write down home remedies in exchange for another remedy.

Other installations examined issues of cross-cultural intersections. In this project by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew (who I interviewed a few years ago) “the Virtual Immigrant draws on the experience of call centers workers in India. These Virtual Immigrants become Americans for a workday but remain physically in India. To work in these call centers, Indians study American culture and either neutralize their Indian accents and/or adopt American ones”

Similarly, in this beautiful piece Anjal Chande uses Indian classical dance to connect social justice issues in the United States and India – specifically Gandhi and the American Civil Rights movement.

The different ways in which cultures interacted with one another is what made Crosslines powerful. Some installations asked visitors to examine inherent bias, while others looked to link to social justice issues such as #museumsrespondtoferguson. In short Crosslines answered the question of “Who do I want to be?” by illustrating the various ways in which individuals shape and mold themselves out in the modern world.

Shakespeare and Identity
That power of choice and self-identification was never more clear than in the play District Merchants at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As an adaptation of Merchant of Venice, this show dealt with race, religion, and identity during 1870s Washington, DC. It is an enormous achievement, making a play that I have never really loved into something entirely prescient and relevant. In this production playwright Aaron Posner discusses persecution and choice through the eyes of the rich, the poor, individuals who are Jewish and Christian, and those who are freedman and former slaves.

In the infamous trial scene, Antoine (Antonio in the original Shakespeare), a freedman, is asked to pay his debt to Shylock, the Jewish money lender, with the promised pound of flesh (his death). Portia, disguised as a lawyer (WHIT below) seeks to use the newly enshrined 13th amendment as a means to prevent Shylock from “owning” a part of Antoine’s body. Antoine disagrees:


WHIT Ummm… I’m sorry?

ANT I said No. No. I refuse that… interpretation.

WHIT Good sir, do you misunderstand / what—

ANT I understand perfectly and I refuse to be delivered in that manner.

[SHYLOCK stands and stares at ANTOINE is shock and disbelief…]

That great law—that… invaluable and overdue amendment to our imperfect Constitution—was meant for far bigger things than saving my ass from this vengeful Jew. I was not a slave. I was born a free man of color. My father earned that freedom through his sweat and bravery and I have proudly lived my life every day since I understood what it meant in relation to it. I will not live the rest of my natural life beholden to a law that was never meant for me. I am not a slave in heart, mind or body. I never was and I never will be. I was blessed to be born free, I have lived free, and if I must I will die free. (Act 2, Scene 6)

In the same scene, Shylock, who is trying to answer why he is so vengeful points to a member of the audience and asks what his name is – on the night I attended the name was Fred.

“What is your name, sir? Fred. This is Fred. Fred. A fine name. A fully acceptable name. A good a name as any other. Let’s tarnish it, shall we? [All of this is with as much hard-edged hatred, scorn and contempt as possible…] Fred. Fred. Fred. “What a Fred”. “Did you see that? Such a Fred!” “He cheated me! What a typical Fred!” Fred. Fred. Worthless Fred. Stupid Fred. The Fred’s killed Jesus. Fred’s are vermin.Want a better world? Round up all the Fred! Awful, evil, wretched Fred. [Quiet, intense] Fred. Fred. Fred…

And that was about 20 seconds of it… How did it feel? Tell me, honestly, how did it feel? [He gets the audience member to answer, hopefully… If she or he does, SHYLOCK repeats her or his answer… Then:] Very good. Only by talking?”

In both cases both Antoine and Shylock try to explain why they have chosen to be a certain way, influenced by words, names, stereotypes and expectations. This theme plays out time and time again in District Merchants through Shylock’s daughter Jessica who runs away and Portia and Benjamin Bassanio who both disguise themselves (as a lawyer and as an African-American passing as white) in order to live the life they want. None of these choices are easy. They are fraught and painful, and while the choices in District Merchants are fictional they are based off real choices made by real people.

For historians this is a question about context. Building a narrative foundation for individuals both from the top down and the bottom up. The evidence we collect allows us to build a frame to understand who we are and how we, as a society got to a particular moment in time.

I think I wanted to write about all four of these cultural pieces because of how they made me feel amidst current events. In more ways than one there are questions about race, individuality, and identity floating around us. And these questions and events are making many of us (myself included) feel helpless and paralyzed – uncertain about what to do next. In watching and reading I realized that it is a paralysis of choice. A choice of knowing what is right and wrong but being unable to figure out what actions to take to prevent disaster.

Is it enough to choose what path is best for ourselves? To try and live an authentic life – where we answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” for ourselves? Or do we all need to think more broadly?

Three of these four pieces look at an American reality through art and fiction. Taken together Roots, District Merchants and Crosslines draw a simple progression – from slavery, to cross-cultural hate and resentment to an interconnectedness of life – making the oft stated point that while history and powerful forces seek to divide us, it is in working together in full acknowledgement of our differences that we are stronger.

But even with that knowledge, the impacts of the past are still playing themselves out on our homes and city streets and I know the decisions we make will impact on our daily lives for years to come (long past a single election where for my part, that choice is clear).

This year many of us are feeling disoriented, unsure of how we got here. But as Pero says in Children of the Earth and Sky

“It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk in a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying….”  Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (via this tweet)

We are in the midst of a drama right now and our truths are on display for all the world to see. It’s up to us to decide who we ultimately want to be.

*Thanks to Aaron Posner for permission to use quotes from District Merchants.

5 thoughts on “Who Do I Want To Be? Art, Literature and Choosing Your Own Identity (Part II)

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