Me… We

I’m a me person.  It sounds egotistic; I don’t mean it that way (although an honest person could argue it’s true).  What I mean is the story of my life is mine alone.

It’s true, like Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses, I am a part of all that I have met.  I have, like most of Americans of my generation, lived my life steering by stars I could see clearly.

For a while, those constellations took me into community organizing, to towns that were targets of corporations looking for places to put things no one wants – dumps, incinerators – despoilers of air and water.  People talk about throwing things away, but they never say where “away” is.  Towns that are “away” are poor with high concentrations of people of color.  As you’d expect of people who live “away,” they don’t have much money or power.

On an early visit with local activists, we’d arrange a thought experiment.  “What does the other side have going for it?” I’d ask; the butcher paper list always included “money,” “lawyers,” “lobbyists,” “political power.”  “And what do we have?” There was a pause as people silently despaired.  Eventually someone would say something like, “each other.”  Then “our families,” “our kids,” “neighbors,” “our community.”

Seems counterintuitive, but this was an empowering, if sobering, exercise.  Truth told, we lost more battles than we won (we won a few), but the point was that if you’re going to take on a bully, it’s best to know what you’re about.  The folks in those communities were and are my heroes and the irony was not lost on me that I wandered the country in a rental car, sleeping on couches, preaching a gospel of community and had none of my own.

I addressed that eventually and settled into a community as profound as I’ll ever likely know.  Some are native Vermonters, but others blew in from Poland, New Jersey, Switzerland, Canada and Michigan.  We all have our me stories.

I’m in San Francisco this week, hanging out with my friend George.  George is a we person.  He’s from St. George, an island in the Bering Sea, where his family’s lived for two hundred years.  His story is bound up in a particular place and a continuum of ancestors and generations unborn he mentions as frequently and casually as I do my wife and daughter.

Let’s not fall into a trap of weepy magical Native worship.  George’s family was dumped on the desert rocks of St. George as seal-clubbing slaves by the Russians.  It’s true today that when people from off island (i.e., white people) show up, it’s because they want something.  Unlike the towns I worked in, the money people want to take good things away instead of leaving dross behind.

That’s not the only difference or the most important one.  Being a me person means my outlook is created in my life, whereas George is heir to a worldview that sees through the eyes of two centuries.  Again, let’s not get mushy – his heritage gives him burdens I’ll never know.  I won’t get to meet many of his fellows, because they don’t get off very far off the island.

Whether immigrant-born American mutts in the rust belt or Natives in the Pribilof Islands, the common and enduring theme is community, which is just a secular word for family.

Muhammad Ali put it succinctly – and spontaneously – years ago when Harvard students demanded a poem from him: “Me… We.”

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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