I have been preparing to attend the Think Tank on Global Education at Harvard University this week. I am very excited about this opportunity to learn from so many distinguished global educators from around the world. Reading their bios on the conference connection page is so inspiring, with representatives from far-flung places, such as, Turkey, Japan, Australia, China, and yes, even me from Memphis, Tennessee!!!
One assignment we've been asked to complete before arrival includes writing a short narrative about our ancestors and how they "arrived" at the place in which we were born, and how these stories have melded together to become a part of who we are as human beings. Fortunately, because my mother completed exhaustive genealogical research many years ago, long before the Internet made it easy to accomplish, I have that knowledge, not only about her family, but my father's family, too. I remember as a child dropping Mother off at run down cemeteries or County Court Clerk offices in small towns we passed through on vacations so she could scour public records in search of birth, death and marriage certificates of relatives past. She was obsessed with her search for many years and proudly framed and hung her findings on a huge wall gallery in our den for all to see, as if visually linking all of those ancient stories to our own family yarns. Her motivation evolved from a desire to be accepted into The Daughters of the American Revolution, a service organization dedicated, in part, to preserving American history. To become a member one must prove "lineal, bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence." My mother's documentation certainly proves that lineage, but sadly, her life ended before she was able to apply for membership and receive her coveted membership. (I'm not sure why, but I never took the steps to join for her posthumously.)
Her research and the artifacts it provided, however, have given me a small glimpse of ancestors I would not have otherwise known anything about. It has helped me better understand who I am, from where I came, and enlightened me to the richness of my heritage, which in turn, adds richness to my own personal stories. From her family tree I have documents detailing participation in the American Revolution, both French and English ancestors who fought against the English at the dawn of our new country. I also have letters written and "mailed" to relatives living in tiny hamlets throughout the American South and Northeast during the Civil War that outline the harsh brutality of war and the unimaginable struggles my ancestors survived.
On my father's side, I've learned about my German grandparents who came by boat in the early 1900's to the mountain in Irondale, Alabama they had bought sight-unseen. My blind grandfather grew flowers in large glass greenhouses on that mountain, feeling the leaves and petals with experienced fingers to know when to harvest and when to leave them to mature a while longer. My father, the oldest of 6 children, drove the truck while sitting in his blind father's lap, steering the harvest down the mountainside to sell their blooms to local florists. Each sibling remained in the flower business as adults, either in retail or wholesale.
As a child I would go to my father's wholesale house to "help," but would end up instead, book or notepad and pen in hand, nestled on a wooden bleacher amongst flower buckets overflowing with aromatic blooms from around the world, in the walk-in refrigerator. I remember the large plastic sheeting covering the door that slapped behind me as I entered, the magical gateway that opened my imagination to possibilities in story and verse. The wash of color met me: yellow-throated purple iris and Stargazer lily, ruffle-edged parrot tulips and the pink-tipped "Joy" rose, spikey fern fronds and spidery mums, the butterfly wings of phalaenopsis orchids and gardenias wrapped lovingly to avoid the bruise. The mix of exotic scents transported me into favorite books and became the muse that led me to write fictional adventures I hoped would transport others when they read my work. Even though I chose a very different path for my life, far outside the flower business, I cannot pass by a flower without touching its petals lightly, eyes closed tightly to imagine the sensation my grandfather must have felt every day of his life, or lean over to take a quick whiff of its scent, taken back by aroma to my father's childhood, a time on that mountain with which I am only connected to by blood.
These ancestral stories are only a tiny part of who I am as a person. Could the stories of my French and English immigrants who fought of freedom brand me a troublemaker or rebel? Could my German ancestry label me a Nazi? Of course not! Sounds crazy, doesn't it? But so many people in our world experience that kind of stereotypical judgment simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity or situation in life.
Writing my narrative for this assignment reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TedTalk titled, "The Danger of a Single Story." (Watch it here and prepare to be moved and enlightened:
Ms. Adichie's eloquent stories illustrate well the many facets of humanity and the importance of each individual life. No one has just one story to tell, and no one should be subjected to the one story others impose upon them. Stereotypes and singular or generalized groupings that attempt to define people are wrong and, yes, dangerous. They dilute and meld the richness of our world into blobs of misunderstanding, and when perpetuated, somehow become an insulting and limiting kind of truth.
-- "All" Africans are poor and starving. "All" Jews are rich. Latinos dance Salsa. American Whites hate African Americans, drink beer and drive 4x4 trucks. Muslims are terrorists. Vietnamese own nail salons. Indians own convenience stores. Germans are Nazis. The British are snobs. The list goes on and on. --
How many single stories have you head and accepted? How many are perpetuated daily on the news or social media? How many have wriggled their way into your consciousness and set up prejudice there, remaining, skewing your thoughts, tarnishing your perspective? Single stories group people in ways that both degrade and restrict the possibilities of humanity to evolve and reinvent. Single stories place barriers to positive change and opportunity. Recognition and acceptance are key. One doesn't have to like everyone, but we do need to accept our similarities and differences as qualities that demonstrate worth and validity. Each person is nuanced, unique and individual. And all of us together create the wonder of the human experience. Until we put aside our prejudices and fear, the world will not know peace.