Selbstbildnis, August 2012
"Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."
African Proverb (Ewé, Mina)
Ever since arriving in Salzburg, Austria almost two weeks ago, I have tried to find words and images that might effectively describe everything that is happening. Sure, a picture can say a thousand words, but words themselves are rather limited in their capacity to accurately translate, one-to-one, the richness of a direct or authentic experience. Anything, that I write or photograph will always fall somewhat short of the actual event. However, it is important that I attempt to transcend the boundaries of language (both written and visual) in an earnest effort to share with you what I have been experiencing here.
Firstly, I have never felt more alive. The air is crisp and the views are breathtaking. Clouds blend into mountain peaks which roll into lush hills lined with trees and open fields. Somewhere between all of that, narrow roads bend between humble homes and noble abodes. The entire scene is something out of a movie. Literally. (The Sound of Music was filmed here and tourists from all over the world flock the city to take photographs of locations and landmarks used during filming). The whole thing is completely beautiful and bizarre at best.
Ironically, along with the elation of being alive, comes the heartbreakingly concrete awareness of my own mortality—understanding the fact that someday, I too, will die. Perhaps this realization is simply one that develops with age. Either way, the first of only two absolute truths is this: LIFE is DEATH. Regardless of what one believes of our origins or our destinations, where we begin or where we end up, the fact is: We all live. We all die. Period.
What I find most extraordinary about the promise of death is that throughout the ages, across all borders and cultures, on all ends of the globe, human beings have continually succeeded in achieving immortality. We know their names, we know their stories, and we know them well because, in the words of Medgar Evers, "you can kill a man but you can't kill an idea." Our bodies may shrink, deteriorate, and eventually disappear, but our thoughts, our actions, and our words harbor the potential to echo indefinitely. We may never fully understand just how far the ripples of our being will travel.
Just a few nights ago, I shared dinner and drinks with people from Turkey, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Austria, Serbia, Brazil, Cameroon, and Czech Republic. And in one astoundingly overwhelming moment, I realized that something very special was happening. Something that can only be described as "indescribable." In spite of struggling to understand each other's words, we were still able to collect around the idea of a shared human experience—an experience that goes beyond words, beyond ego—something deep in our core. (See translation: Soul).
Secondly, I have never felt more American in my life. This realization has been slightly more difficult to come to terms with. Over the course of my life, I have lived in California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. I have traveled to almost 30 other states in the U.S. and have only been to a few countries in Central America and even fewer cities in Canada. Never having left the North American continent, I had always identified as a Californian of Belizean-born parents first, before ever identifying as an American. But I come to Austria with a lot of cultural baggage—A lot of socio-political influences and anxieties that are based on a very specific relationship between Native peoples of the Americas, early European colonizers, and the Africans they forcibly brought with them. Granted, Austria (and of course, neighboring Germany) has its own very complicated history that I will not delve into here due to my superficial understanding of it—a lack of knowledge I would need to resolve before making any comparisons between said histories. However, the history that I am most familiar with, most personally affected by, is American history. In America, I know quite well the sense of being the only Black body in a room full of White bodies. I am also accustomed to the way some White bodies will clutch their belongings a little tighter when my body passes by. The fear and discomfort is so thick on some White faces when I walk into an elevator, that I can smell it. And it is the most vile and putrid smell. Needless to say, I was nervous about coming to Austria for reasons not unlike these. But the looks that I experience here are not the same. They are not looks that stem from fear, but instead, curiosity—A moment of childlike wonder as if discovering for the first time that indeed, mermaids do exist. But being that there are so few mermaids here in Austria, I am faced with questions that I haven't had to answer since my own childhood. I am much older these days and I understand that here, questions such as "Can you sunburn?" are not ill-intended, but (dare I say) sincere. However, due to the particular history I have inherited as an American, these questions still sting, perhaps more than a sunburn. Ah, the price of exposure.
In addition to my own complex relationships to the implication of skin pigmentation in an American context, I have also been conditioned to regard my own sexuality with fear, shame, and contempt. At several points in my life, I have used different words to describe my sexual tendencies: curious, bi-curious, bisexual, gay, queer… This is a perfect example of how language can fail when attempting to accurately represent the fluid and ever-shifting nature of the human experience. We are not fixed beings. I have yet to settle on a proper word to describe my current state of sexual desires, tendencies, and curiosities. But in actuality, I am not so sure I want to settle on a "proper" word because definition and categorization would more likely be for the sake of another than it would be for my own. And there is something rather pleasant about being able to float between spheres, unanchored, untethered. (See translation: Free).
American. Black. Queer. I am far more dynamic than these three labels may suggest. My existence and my experiences are far more layered than what the rules of language will allow and the magnificent beings that I shared dinner and drinks with several nights ago are far more multidimensional than the words they employ (and that we ascribe) in order to exalt or relegate their experiences. This brings me back to my point about possessing "something deep in our core." It is important to keep in mind that I am by no means suggesting that our identifications and the myriad of words and terms that we use to describe them are invalid or unnecessary. In fact, I am quite thankful for them. For it is because of these words that we are able to better understand and effectively communicate ideas that, far too often, seem completely insurmountable. But regardless of ethnic origin, class status, race, sexuality, gender, age, ability, political affiliation, religion, belief, background, or any other position on any socially constructed spectrum, all humans are concerned with the latter of only two absolute truths: LOVE. Make no mistake: Every action, every word, everything that we have ever done and will ever do, is borne of the insatiable desire to love and the unconquerable fear that we might not be loved back.
To live is to die. And to die, is to have loved and lost. This is the human condition. After this, there is nothing else.
Although recounting my experiences exactly as they happen has proven to be difficult time and time again, I am realizing that the attempt to do so is paramount. The frustration and exhaustion as result of continually being misrepresented and misunderstood is trumped by the liberating powers of self-expression, for there is much at stake in recording and sharing individual and collective positions. When we forfeit the task of relaying our own stories, we grant the liberty of writing our personal histories to someone else, someone who may not fully understand, respect, or appreciate our unique positions and tendencies, ultimately risking our very inclusion and presence in history itself, ensuring our absence from the lessons that humans have so courageously fought to learn (and teach) since the utterance of our first words.