“Who am I?”
It seems that most people don’t ask themselves, “Who am I?” Most people know who their parents are—and their grandparents and even their eight great-grandparents. So it seems that they’re sure of their ethnicity, religion and nationality. So it seems if you ask most people whether they know who they are, they’ll suppose it’s a trick question, and they’ll answer you unabashedly, “Sure, yes—of course I know who I am!” But some people are not so sure.
One of my coming novels—Susanna’s Tale: The Dirt Farmer’s Daughter—deals with this issue: “Who am I?” The main character, Susanna, is a “foundling”—she was literally found by a couple on their back porch, having been abandoned during the night by an unmarried mother. They adopt her and love her; but as Susanna is growing up, she wants to know who she is—who her mother was and why she never came back for her.
But not only adopted children want to find out who they are. Two supporting characters in my novel are “passing.” That is, they’re passing for white, having appropriated the identities of two deceased friends. After years of pretending to be someone else, they’re no longer sure who they themselves really are. And when their four children discover that their parents are not who they are pretending to be, each child has an identity crisis: “Who am I? … I’m not who my parents say I am, because they’re not who they say they are. … So who am I?”
Two other supporting characters in my novel have their own unique identity problems. One of these characters is a Mexican-born, Aztec-looking young lady, who has to use her “one drop” of black blood from a long-forgotten slave ancestor in order to get a teaching job in a “colored” school. When her boyfriend wants to marry her, he has to give up his Protestant “Anglo” white identity and become a member of her extended Hispanic Catholic family.
“Who am I?” she asks herself each day, as she stands before her African American class in an all-black school in “Colored Town.” “Who am I?” he asks himself each Sunday, as he is attending mass in Spanish in “Mexican Town.”
There is also the problem of what new word to use in order to tell the world who I am. An article in the L.A. Times (April 4, 2019)—“Brush up on your vocab list”—highlights this problem:
“Many [neologisms] come from discussions of culture, identity and social justice. Among these are ‘Latinx,’ a gender-neutral term defined as ‘of or relating to people of Latin American descent,’ and ‘colorism,’ which refers to ‘differential treatment based on skin color, especially favoritism toward those with a lighter skin tone and mistreatment or exclusion of those with a darker skin tone, typically among those of the same racial group or ethnicity.’”
A large segment of American society is comprised of immigrants, who have identity problems of their own. Many immigrants make every possible effort to assimilate—throw off their identities from the “Old Country” and become 100% Americanized—which includes unlearning their native languages, completely changing their cuisine and manner of dressing, and so on. But if immigrants come to this country past a certain age, the accent remains, mannerisms remain, cultural interpretations remain—and deep down, they ask themselves … consciously or unconsciously … “Who am I?”
Another segment of American society is comprised of people who question their gender identity. Or rather, there are people who won’t answer who they are by the traditional binary terms of “male” or “female.” A recent article in the L.A. Times (April 4, 2019)—“Giving students power over their own names”—highlights this gender identity issue:
“[T]he University of California system … now allows students who are applying for undergraduate admission to identify themselves from at least seven choices under gender, including gender non-conforming, genderqueer, transgender, trans man, or trans male, trans woman or trans female. Students also can mark heterosexual/straight, bisexual, gay or lesbian on their applications.”
Finally, more and more people are asking for DNA tests to discover more about their ethnicity and genealogy—typically “Only $99!” But be careful what you ask for. One very white philanthropist socialite matron, who had always been assured by her socially prominent New Mexican family that she was “pure Spanish,” discovered that her DNA showed she is more than fifty percent Native American, specifically Navajo and Apache. A politically active matriarch of a large African American clan, who sends out daily #BlackLivesMatter tweets, was informed by her DNA test results that she is sixty-five percent English. And of course there is Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Based on family stories she heard growing up, she was so sure of her Native American ancestry that she infamously had her DNA tested. The report showed that there was “strong evidence” of one Native American ancestor “approximately six to 10 generations ago.”
So it turns out that “Who am I?” is not a simple question with an easy answer. While it may be true that most people have no problem with their self-identity, there are quite a few people who are searching. … I hope my novel, Susanna’s Tale, will resonate with these people.