“Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are? See we one another clearly – do you know who we are?” These questions are from Harry Belafonte’s lively song “Turn the World Around” (#1074 in Singing the Journey). When he was the guest star on a season 3 episode of The Muppet Show in 1979, he explained the inspiration for this song before he performed it with various Muppets in African garb. Fozzie Bear had asked him about the writing of the song, and Belafonte said:
“I discovered that song in Africa. I was in a country called Guinea. I went deep into the interior of the country, and in a little village, I met with a storyteller. That storyteller went way back in African tradition and African mythology and began to tell this story about the fire, the sun, the water, the Earth. He pointed out the whole of these things put together turns the world around. That all of us are here for a very, very short time. In that time that we’re here, there really isn’t any difference in any of us, if we take time out to understand each other. The question is: Do I know who you are, or who I am? Do we care about each other? Because if we do, together we can turn the world around.”
There is another famous trio of questions that ask us to probe our understanding of identity. In 1897, French artist Paul Gauguin titled one of his paintings by inscribing in the upper left corner the words: D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. Translated into English they provide the text to another hymn in Singing the Journey, Brian Tate’s “Where Do We Come From?” (#1003) — Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
The issue of identity is complex. I often lift up the example of there being eight first-person singular pronouns in Japanese rather than English’s one. That’s because Japanese culture recognizes that there is no one “I” – that in a very real way the “I” I am when I’m with, let’s say, a parent, is different than the “I” I am when I’m with a friend, or when talking to my boss. Do you know – can you know – who you are? Who the “real” you is? Many religious traditions consider the uncovering of the “true self” from beneath the overlay of the “false self” to be the fundamental purpose of the spiritual journey.
“Identity” is also used as a tool to clarify who is “us” and who is “them.” When Donald Trump signed the executive order that banned entry to the United States of people from seven specific countries, it was clear that what he was really doing was attempting to ban the entry of Muslims. He was trying to keep out people with a certain identity. And there would be no need to assert and affirm that “black lives matter” if for hundreds of years people who were identified solely by the color of their skin hadn’t been continually and systematically brutalized. The word “intersectionality” has been coined to describe the way people’s multiple identities intersect and interact with the systems of oppression that pervade our world. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are? See we one another clearly – do you know who we are?” These questions are exceedingly important for us – all – to consider.
One more thought about identity: 74 years ago this month – on February 29th – Ms. Carrie Baker and Mr. Floyd House organized the “Unitarian Society,” the precursor to our Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist. That means that next year – February 29th, 2018 – is our 75th anniversary! Where did we come from? What are we now, today? Where are we going in the future we have yet to chart? Our exploration of “identity” this month is really the beginning of what will be a year-long adventure of trying to answer these questions together!