PBS ran a series called “Finding Your Roots.” It was hosted by historian Dr. Robert Louis Gates and focused on celebrities and their genealogy. Yo Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Eva Longoria, etc . . . were featured on the program. The show quickly transitioned beyond the begats of family trees when Dr. Gates added revealing blood tests concerning ethnic group composition. One guest, an African American professor, found that she was actually Caucasian, with little African makeup. The woman looked visibly shaken as she absorbed the news, clearly at a loss to define herself in this new light. It felt almost cruel to watch her grapple with the science.
Identity can be a slippery concept. For thirty three years I was known as teacher. Along with wife and mother, teacher constituted the third leg of my reality. Family concerns and lesson plans ran equally through my thoughts. I listened to my husband’s work problems, worried about classwork my own two had to complete, and prepared for my own lectures. That was my life and my identity.
Any travel, reading, or discussion usually had a connection to history. I attended seminars at Gettysburg, along the Oregon Trail, and touring the grounds at Mt. Vernon, Virginia. After years of historic pursuits, I retired and turned to writing.
The people I am meeting now, while promoting “River of January,” think that I am a writer. A WRITER! I am not settled yet with that new moniker, it feels pretentious to presume the role of author. Does taking a story that fell into my lap, experimenting with sentences to tell the story, adding pictures and a cover make me a writer? This new definition of Gail is going to take a while to break in, like new shoes, or a pair of jeans fresh out of the dryer.
Identity is a funny concept. When exactly does it happen? When does an occupation become an identity? The professor featured on PBS taught African-American studies, considered herself black and then bloodwork betrayed her foundations of reality. What has she done with that new information? Who is she now?
And that reminds me–I hated Metaphysical Philosophy in college. I wasn’t too thrilled with Voltaire, Montesquieu, or the rest of those dudes, either
At our most essential level who are we as people? If another looks to me as a writer, am I indeed what they see? I can counter that notion with thousands of kids who passed through my classroom and see only teacher.