A friend of mine recently told me that the reason I’m struggling to learn how to speak Czech is that, in their language, any sentence combining a verb and a noun contains an incidental truth: the form of action actually alters the form of its subject. And this even includes names! So – when you change the conjugation of the verb, you change the way the noun is spelled, pronounced, everything.
Maybe, in my endless search for meaning, I attribute more to this fact than it deserves, but I cannot stop thinking about it. I guess it’s a fairly straightforward notion; actions change those acted upon. Perhaps I am reaching, but I can’t help thinking that, if even your name itself is changeable… what does this mean about the notion of identity?
In childhood, we often lose ourselves, trying on new bodies, new ideas, new identities. Sometimes, the one we were given doesn’t fit, and we move towards another – gender, emotional life, overall mindset. But at some point in my life, I lost that ability, and I think that happens to all of us. Indeed, one of my own great regrets is my impulse to hang on to my choices no matter what. I decided to become a designer at 17, and 25 years later, found myself completely adrift, gifted with a successful career and tearing myself apart over the very act of questioning my entire professional existence. The night before my first wedding, I stood in the shower thinking, “Well, maybe one day she’ll do something crazy and die, and I will be single again.” It took an act of great emotional violence on my ex-wife’s part to convince me that maintaining my commitment solely because I had decided that being her husband was my fixed identity was completely idiotic.
In Prague last week, a child put on a VR headset, and, losing sight of their body, asked their parent, “Do I still exist?”
This utter consciousness of the fungible nature of self – what power it must have! Culturally and socially – how much freer would we be if we allowed new ideas and experiences to truly reframe and re-imagine those touchstones upon which we base this fragile notion of “I?” And what if we could re-imagine our very cultural identities as well?
In “We Were Eight Years In Power,” Ta Nahesi Coates lays out, in a clear, thoughtful and well documented thesis, the truth of the impact white supremacy has had on every person living in the United States, over the course of eight deeply researched essays, each with a contemporary commentary. And, of course, as I read his book, I did felt immense regret for not understanding this all more and sooner, but, more importantly, I began to understand so many of the false assumptions upon which we have based our society. To put it in language that Christians might understand – we are still suffering from the burden of our nation’s Original Sin, and that sin is tainting every aspect of our society.
We see it in every morning’s news. Which shooter assaulted which community before you read this post? I’m writing this on August 5th 2019, so, for me, it was killers in El Paso and Dayton, as well as those at a pool party in Philadelphia, a playground in Chicago, and a game of dice in Detroit. We are all dying from the seeds of the sins of slavery and the land-grabbing mythology of redemption through violence. Even the vaunted Second Amendment, the prime defense of gun ownership, was created to reassure Southern slaveowners that they could maintain militias to round up slaves seeking freedom.
Many authors suggest that the violence streaming off of white males shooting up crowds and that bubbling out of the black community, often towards itself, are somehow different. That our national gun-culture, our anger, our loss, and our confusion come from failing mental health systems and bad parenting. From video games or Hollywood, rather than from a rotten foundation. Because if we truly acknowledged the damage that Slavery and its hideous offspring White Supremacy have done to our culture we would be forced to accept our complicity.
The action of slavery changed the definition of humanity. Dehumanizing enslaved people from Africa created the idea of racial superiority. In order to swallow the notion that it was acceptable to beat, rape, own other humans, the inhabitants of our country changed our identities – creating a group that could be enslaved and a group that could not. This poisoned not the soil, but our very souls, and the result of that poison is strong within our systems. We call these killers crazy, or maladjusted – but haven’t they simply absorbed that deadly notion that some humans are worth more than others? That lives are expendable? Not only that black and brown bodies have less value than those of lighter hues, but that anyone we can think of as different from ourselves can be turned into lifeless piles of meat with no hesitation.
But, after my weeks in the Czech Republic, I refuse to be hopeless. Because if the action of slavery changed the way we defined humanity, we have an option. We can take a new action, and change our relationship to violence. I don’t know what verb could be as powerful as “to enslave” – what action could be as strong as to build an entire nation’s wealth ($97 trillion dollars is the best estimate I’ve read) on the backs of untold millions of slaves. I know it’s not as simple as dialogue or love or legislation.
I just know that, if we don’t manage to redefine ourselves, and soon, our final definition will be determined for us. We will destroy ourselves, our culture, our children, our future. The Great Experiment will end, and while there is great shame in some aspects of our history, the horror of where we’re going, if we don’t change, will outweigh that all.
We must take action. We must change.