You Have to Know Yourself to Grow Yourself
I have always been a fan of novels and old movies. From my own childhood to the childhood of my kids to my current status as a grandmother, movies especially have played a crucial role in my growth and personal development by teaching me to filter out things in life that do not represent who I believe I am supposed to be as a human being. Teaching moments often lie in how the power of being human is portrayed in a film.
In my youth I would often imagine who I would be if I were a character in a story, especially a dystopian one. For example, in the 1966 British film, Fahrenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, I am convinced that I would be one of the book people, residents of a readers’ colony outside the city, way past the river, where whole books are committed to memory for the sake of preserving literature as a part of the human experience. I would be there waiting for the day when a cultureless society would turn back to appreciate literature and I could help repair the brokenness.
Or perhaps I would be the protagonist, Winston, in George Orwell’s 1984, who intuitively knows that something is dreadfully wrong in society. One of the things I admire most is how Winston devises a way to secretly write his thoughts in a diary, an action that is not only risky but downright rebellious. Then he enters into a relationship with Julia, another one with a rebellious spirit. These rebellious acts signify gestures of resistance to a system that utilizes the Thought Police, brainwashing, and drugs to suppress the mind, body, and spirit of its citizens. In the end he is caught, tortured, and forced to deny his love for Julia, proclaiming instead his love for Big Brother. Ultimately Winston dies a broken man.
Dystopian control systems are eloquently summed up in two sentences spoken by Strelnikov, a character in the film based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr. Zhivago. “The personal life is dead… The private life is dead.” I would add that the cultural life is also dead in dystopian control systems. I have seen Dr. Zhivago many, many times, yet it wasn’t until December 2019 that I saw and heard some things in that movie for the first time—I really heard Strelnikov’s statement for the first time. It seems I had shifted from simply watching it for the sake of entertainment to seeing its now glaring dystopian characteristics—propaganda, restrictions on independent thought and freedom, dehumanization, conformity, destruction of culture, and fear.
What is most interesting about Pasternak’s story is that it is seemingly autobiographical. Both he and the Zhivago character are writers whose works had been banned because of a central message that challenged the morality and ethics of sacrificing individuals to the political, economic, and social systems of their homeland. I would say that central message is this: Every person is entitled to a personal life, a private life, irrespective of political affiliation. Pasternak’s book was eventually smuggled out of his home country and printed elsewhere, ultimately making its way around the world.
My own life has been generationally impacted by the dystopian control system of enslavement, with its institutionalized racism, oppression, dehumanization, and miseducation, which still plagues my home country today. (Though, I know for certain there are those who consider enslavement to be the foundation for a utopian system, much like the residents of Omelas, whose comfortable existence was built on the abominable suffering of a child.)
Let me take you back to the spring of 1971, when I left Homestead Junior High for summer break, then in the fall entered Steel Valley Intermediate School, the first class under a forced merger (read that forced integration). I entered a new school year, as a ninth grader. Shortly after arrival, I stood outside of my new school one particular day, in a large open field, in the presence of police cars with flashing lights and emergency vehicles. Bomb threats had been called into the school, and the entire school body evacuated, all because people like me were in the building—Black students who supposedly were beneath the privilege of being in the classroom with White students, Black students being redefined by an environment that we were forced into as a result of a school merger. It was the first time I personally felt hated as a melanized human being.
Yet I realized something even more profound that day. In that span of three months between changing schools, nothing about me had changed. I was essentially the same teen I was before going to Steel Valley Intermediate. I repeat—there was nothing about me that had changed.
It was the environment that changed; it was the people around me who changed. Standing there in that field was my Sankofa moment. Unlike my ancestors I didn’t traverse the Middle Passage of enslavement to get there; yet I found myself in the same environment determined to rob me of my true identity and my humanity. Unlike my ancestors, I wasn’t greeted with whips and chains; yet the intention of the people to bring me under subjection was the same. I was simply expected to fall into my place at the back of the line. All of this meant I had a choice to make—either let this environment, these people, and back-of-the-line expectations turn me into a powerless, unrecognizable version of myself, or be like Harriet and resist.
That was a moment of raised consciousness for me, though at the time I didn’t recognize it as such. In that Sankofa moment I realized that I did not have to allow myself to be (re)defined by anyone outside of myself, to fit someone else’s definition of who they thought I should, could, or would be; that my sense of identity as a human being must and should be cultivated from inside of me, then outward into the world.
At the same time, however, I had a lot to overcome to become the whole person I am today. Over the years, I fought to be loosed from a brokenness rooted in childhood trauma, guilt, and grief, manifested later as depression, thoughts of suicide, and active self-injury. Yet here I am decades later, redesigned as a child of God, a follower of Jesus, and a change cultivator guided by the Holy Spirit, as one who sees freedom as liberation from fear.
Along the way I’ve also discovered that the things I abhor most in life are racism, hatred, violence, and fear, all inextricably linked to the very reason I stood outside of my school that day in 1971.