A Search For Identity Reading short stories, poems and extracts of novels by such a diverse group of authors as Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Michelle Cliff, June Jordan and Octavia Butler one would not at first glace expect to find a common thread to these stories. And yet, while all women use other ways of expressing their concerns, they all speak about a search for identity. This search for identity is conducted on different levels and in different settings. For example, while Zadie Smith’s Irie is a teenage girl in North London, Michelle Cliff’s text discusses the fate of a whole people in Jamaica who are faced with slavery and the subsequent sacrifices this entails. If one were to organise the different texts on a graph, ranging from personal on one end to general and abstract on the far end, White Teeth by Zadie Smith would build one extreme while “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler is at the other extreme. The texts by the other authors are evenly distributed on this graph, with the two chapters of Michelle Cliff’s Abeng ranging in the most general area. This categorization is by no means qualitative but only serves as a help to organise and group these varied texts. It is also not to say that one text or the other is better or worse, but it shows how a search for (lost) identity has many different layers. Many of the authors treated in this exploration of a set of different texts are concerned not only with the rights of women in general, but with black women’s identity in particular. Toni Morrison omits a definition of which one of the girls in her short story Recitatif is white or black. Rather than laying it all out for the reader, she shows how our identity is shaped by our actions and the decisions we make in life. Did Twyla push Maggie? Was Maggie black? These questions are never answered and the narrator herself is not even sure of what is the truth anymore. However, these actions in her early childhood had an influence on her later life, be it her estrangement with her former friend Roberta or the sudden active engagement in a protest. In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, the search for identity is most obvious and easily accessible, since the protagonist, Irie, is a teenage girl who faces all the problems of puberty, a time in life all women (and men for that matter) go through. In her attempt to change her looks fit more conventional standards of beauty, Irie learns how to come to terms with herself. Through the traumatic incident of losing her hair, she is forced to learn how to love herself for what she is. Changing her looks for her crush, Millat, did not have the desire effect, but the outcome might be beneficial after all. Identity in this text is brought to the surface, i.e. your exterior shows to the world who you are, who you want to be. “Sometimes this other family became more familiar to them than the people they were closest to. The people they were part of.” These two sentences seem to summarise the concerns with identity in Michelle Cliff’s Abeng, chapter two and three. A people was literally ripped apart by slavery, families separated and estranged, to an extent where another, previously unrelated family becomes more familiar. Cliff brings up the question of how to define one’s identity in slavery. To be considered less worthy by others who assume a superior position and see it as a given certainly affects the image of the self. Even more so if it’s not a personal problem but a horrible event in history influencing the lives of many. Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” is situated at the far end of the graph since her story is the most difficult to relate to. Set in an utopian world, in a preserve where aliens and humans live together in a kind of master-slave-relationship and putting into question the concepts of pregnancy and childbirth, it is not as easily accessible as for example White Teeth. Nevertheless, Butler, too, attempts to define identity and in doing so, takes apart concepts that were previously more or less unquestioned in society. Biologically, men are not able to get pregnant. By assigning them the role of “child” bearer, Butler forces the reader to go beyond what is known and rationally acceptable, even more so since the men are not actually carrying human babies but alien parasites. What does it mean to be a woman, to be at the mercy of another being in a more powerful position? Is
motherhood our choice or our fate? Ntozake Shange is not so explicit in formulating a concern with identity. Yet, in her poem “With No Immediate Cause” I also see questions about who to be, how to live with the knowledge that women around you are being physically abused “every three minutes every five minutes every ten minutes every day” and the possibility that the man next to you on the subway might have hurt his wife before leaving the house. Worst of all is the knowledge that the authorities might choose to close their eyes and blame the women for what is happening to them. These facts force us to go beyond the definition of our own identity and to look for ourselves in others. Their fate could be my fate; we are different only because so far I was able to escape the violence you’ve had to suffer from. Identity in this poem is not so much a question of personal issues of beauty and self but of identification with the fate of others. To some extent, it can be read in a similar vain as Toni Morrison’s Recitatif: our experiences make us who we are. June Jordan concludes this search for an identity in her “Poem about My Rights”. She makes herself part of the history of Africa, of America, of her family and after taking a panoramic sweep of all the exterior forces that influence her, she ends in saying that “My name is my own my own my own”. This emphasis on the self, on the personal connected with everything that is going on around her summarises what can be read in the other stories. No one has the right to say what is wrong or right with you, the only person who can decide this is you. From what I have read in these texts, it seems to be a daily struggle especially black women seem to go through, since there are preconceive notions in our society that predetermine how we are to see ourselves. Be it Irie Jones, who struggles to define herself, being both Jamaican and English, in a predominantly white city or Twyla and Roberta who are shaped by their childhood experiences. There are many unanswered questions in this text, just as there is no right answer to who you are supposed to be, but the search for this answer, for some kind of explanation, runs through all these texts, without ever coming to an end.