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Various notes on identity (11/29/2009)
By Janet Lewis Burns
Sharing family picture albums down through the years can be uncanny. You can’t read between the face lines nor distinguish a cheesy smile from a sincere one.

Freeze frame: Photographs that aren’t posed are the most enchanting, an attempt to capture serenity in one shot, and perhaps the cruel and ugly face of madness in another. From life’s scenic route, a photo of a field of black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace immortalizes one solitary breath of God.

Writings by other characters and novelists with clever wit are so addicting! Frequently bringing to mind quotes I’ve cherished have made me possessive of them. Though we’re advised to broaden our horizons whenever possible, we must be careful not to go off the deep end. One must be cautious not to entrust our instructions exclusively to one professor or source, nor to allow beliefs and convictions to be influenced by a solitary poet, philosopher, or a so-called expert, including yourself.

One of those treasured quotes: We don’t stop laughing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop laughing. Woody Allen plays the part well, a classic nerd, an airhead, an otherwise dorky kind of guy. I love his whine, “The only thing standing between me and greatness is me.” Help! I’ve been held captive by overbearing wise guys who force-feed my vulnerable gray matter to distraction! As I broke free from “Secrets of a Recovering Vegetarian and Other Off-Plumb Fruitcakes,” I had vowed to dummy-up my reading material, something consisting of only 2% common sense, 5% truth, 25% BS, and 68% plain and simple (wabi sabi.) I failed!

People could lose their identity if they’re not careful. Yesterday I saw myself gliding past a store window, and at a glance there was Jack Kerouac in my body, mocking his untimely death in 1969 at the age of 47? Last week I dreamed about hanging out in Greenwich Village chatting with faceless bohemians. Broken words identified Allen Ginsberg…and there’s always background ranting from Whitman! When I woke up, a tattered copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit And The Pendulum,” splayed across my slumber, was all that remained of the night.

On the serious side of others’ creative juices some powerful words can smack with reason. The late African American novelist James Baldwin wrote a blatantly candid letter to his nephew in 1962, concerning their ancestors’ Harlem experiences in New York’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Baldwin speaks from a time-honored mind “…if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived.” “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason.” “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.”

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.” Of the white race, Baldwin further declared, “They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.”

“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them.” The danger the white man faces, according to James Baldwin, is their loss of identity by being trapped in a history they don’t understand.

Final remarks to his nephew: “And if the word ‘integration’ means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” Said by many…at various times…in countless ways. .

As we chart our lives, we’re writing our own eulogies. To thine own self be true…the rest is fiction.

Janet Burns’ articles may be flawed by brain overload. Read with caution. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com.  


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