The Seminal Readings course forms a special part of the ALU student experience. For six weeks in a student’s first year, the community dives into intense readings and provocative discussion. In the process, they sharpen their critical thinking and analysing skills and explore questions that all leaders grapple with. In the first two weeks of Seminal Readings the entire community pauses – there are no classes or other responsibilities – and students immerse themselves in the course and come together as an intellectual community. Each day this week, students will share reflections on the texts and their Seminal Readings journey.
Today marked the fourth day of Seminal Readings and we looked at Speaking in Tongues by British writer, Zadie Smith and Self and History by Gary Okihiro. I’ll talk about Speaking in Tongues in this blog. Smith, in her essay, shares the story of how she adopted an English voice “with its rounded vowels and consonants” when she moved from Willesden, an area in the north-west of London, where she grew up, to posh Cambridge in the north of London. Her Cambridge voice, epitomised the univocal literary world that Cambridge was and was very different from her Willesden voice – colourful working class. She expresses her regrets for this trade because she wanted to keep both voices as they were both a part of who she was. Her society, however, condemned the adoption of more than one voice and considered it an unforgivable act of betrayal.
Whilst talking about multiple voices, Smith introduces us to “Dream City.” She describes it as “a place of many voices, where the idea of a unified singular self is an illusion.” In other words, this is where people who, whether by birth -whose parents are from different racial backgrounds- or somewhere down the path in their lives, have adopted multiple identities, belong. She gave an example of President Barack Obama – born to a Kenyan father and a Hawaiian mother. Obama could relate to both black and white people because of his biracial origins. He took pride in being able to adopt both identities even when he felt the threat of being judged as a traitor by the black community or a fraud by the white community.
This is the biggest challenge residents of Dream City face. They are under constant pressure to choose one identity over another, to feel pride for being one person and ashamed to be another. The society that often takes the role of non-residents of Dream City, wears the prosecutor’s hat in stereotyping residents of as, in Smith’s words, “Uncle Tom,” “House Nigger” or “Tragic Mulatto.” But is it really a bad thing to be able to adopt multiple identities? Why choose to be either black or white if you are both? Why be either Christian or Muslim if you appreciate the spiritual values of both?
After reading Smith’s article, our challenge today was to identify what identities we have gained through time from our family backgrounds and past experiences, if we have chosen a particular identity over the rest or if we are able to adopt any of those identities as our own like residents of Dream City do. Residents of Dream City practice the virtue of embracing all that they are and everything they can be as their true identities. They believe in their multiplicity even when they are confronted with stereotypes that ask them to choose only one identity. Being a resident of Dream City provides us with a flexibility of voice that leads to flexibility in all things.
As we wrap up the seminal readings week, I am reflecting on how many identities I have adopted from my history, context, and perceptions. Do those identities make me a resident of Dream City? Are there times when I am the prosecutor/non-resident? When do I get defensive of my beliefs instead of trying to understand other people’s perspectives? Do I ever feel ashamed of who I am? Does that automatically take away my Dream City residentship?
We all want to belong and therefore we find it hard to find comfort in being different. But being different is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it could be the freedom to be anything you choose to be. Yet, it requires a certain amount of practice, to learn to balance our many different identities as well as keeping them, as comfort can be a treacherous thing. But first things first, we all need to first figure out if we are residents of Dream City or not.