My definition of identity. So far as I am concerned, it is mainly the way I think about myself. I very seldom think about how others view me. They can accept me or not accept me. I just let it pass. If you don’t mind, this will be very, very personal, an autobiography of how my view of my identity is constantly changing. And just what is that identity anyway?
I am African American because my ancestors came from the place called Africa. I am a woman because my body characteristics say that. I accept both, but I believe I am so much more. And I am not sure what that is.
Some family background to begin with. I am the great granddaughter of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, a Congregational minister in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who was chaplain of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the Civil War. Check out the statue by Augustus St. Gaudens across from the State House in Boston, showing the men marching off to war. I didn’t know of the statue until I moved to the Cambridge/Boston area as an adult. I am not sure that I even knew about Harrison’s role during the Civil War. My life centered around the family very close to me.
There were a lot of us—my parents with four children. My mother was the church organist and a visiting nurse. My father was a janitor, who composed and published his music, and sang in local choruses. My brother began piano lessons, probably at the age of five or six, I don’t remember just when. He became a kind of local celebrity at a young age, and went on to become a concert pianist and music professor. I had 2 younger sisters. One would become head of the physical therapy department at an area hospital. The other would become the only parent amongst us. Then there were four cousins and their parents down the street, and other aunts and uncles with their children, a grandmother and grandfather. And we were the only what was known as “colored people” in an Italian and Irish neighborhood. How did that happen? It ws because in 1857, Reverend Harrison had built a house on Third Street in Pittsfield, and Italians and Irish in large numbers had come later. From historical and political reasons the colored community lived in what my family called “the other side of town”. And my family, on “this side of town”, only saw them Sunday when we went to church. I was just “me”, whatever that meant. People have told me that when I was three or four years old I would sit on the front steps going down from my house to the street and greet anyone walking on the street. I still have the tendency to greet anyone walking by me. My siblings and cousins and I went to the neighborhood elementary school, only a block away from home, obviously we were “colored”, but no one treated us as not fitting in. We played in the schoolyard with all the kids in the neighborhood. In junior high school there were still only my siblings and cousins and myself with color. I was one of what was called the “the principal’s pet”. This meant that I was often called out of my class to take a message to another class. My grades were good enough so that I could afford to take time out. From my point of view, it only meant that the principal liked me. We didn’t have cell phones and texting and all the technology that we take so casually today. In high school, I began to meet more “colored” young people my age, because there was only one high school in the city, and they had to come from “the other side of town”.
It wasn’t until I attended college that I was faced with being part of the “Negro problem”. In other words, how do we relate to or what do we do with this person of color in our midst. As I have told you, I had always been part of a well known and respected family. I was now on my own. It was only “me”. I have to present myself to the world. What am I doing in this place? Wo am I? Just take it a day at a time. One of the first things that came up was a dormitory room. Until I arrived on campus, they really didn’t know that I was “colored”. At that time in this country, a black and white student certainly would not have been roommates. It took a little of what I am calling “magic” on the part of the college authorities, but through some behind-the-scenes moves I was given a single room.
One of the first things that I leaned about myself was that I was not a good waitress. As a scholarship student, I worked in the dormitory dining room. I don’t recall how long it was, but after I had dropped a number of trays, and broken many dishes, I was asked to find another job. And I did—in the college library. If I dropped a book, it didn’t break. That was a part of what led to my working in a library today. My first job after high school, and before I went away to college was in the local public library. I learned to mend books with special paper an paste. I never dreamed that I would work in a library again. But I did.I worked in the college library for four years learning about cataloging books, and was offered a job after graduating. And I was good enough that the “ cataloger offered to send me to library school. I accepted and later paid her back. As it turned out, the whole undergraduate college atmosphere was like having a new family. My closest friends were Polish and French and otherwise. I no longer thought about the “negro problem” or my “identity” in one way or another. I was just “me”, whatever that meant.
I attended library school at Simmons College. Ad it was during my time at Simmons that I met a Harvard student who a couple of years later became my husband. I know it is hard to believe, but although we both were graduating, we never took each other’s home address. I lived in Massachusetts and he in Ohio. In the fall we met again. This time we were both at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Somehow it never occurred to me that metting again like this might be rather unusual. It was kind of “of course”. We continued the friendship that had begun during the previous academic year. He was in New Haven only for three or four months and moved back to Cambridge.
I continued with my job in New Haven, then went on to another one in New York City. That place was not right for me. I was not a fast mover, nor did I like being around so many people that I didn’t know. The hustle and bustle was overwhelming. Whatever my “identity” was, it seemed to need a “family”. After a short time, I moved to Cambridge, without any job. I found one at the Harvard Business School, and a few months later go married. This time we go to New Haven together. My husband was a student, and I was a librarian. And my “identity” is changing again. I have roles as a librarian and as a wife. Howe do I blend them? Or perhaps I keep them separate. As it turned out I pretty much did that. After a few years we moved to Pittsfield, into my great grandfather’s house.
Here the “identity” question really came down hard on both of us. This was before the time of the women’s movement, and the freedom that it brought. My husband stayed home and wrote plays. I went to work full time at the public library. I was constantly asked why my husband didn’t have a job, and why I didn’t stay home. I was always saying that we liked the arrangement, that it suited us, or we wouldn’t live in that manner. I was a pretty good cook, and that may have helped persuade people. It took some time, but people eventually accepted us as we were.
After ten years in Pittsfield it was back to Cambridge, with an invitation from Harvard Divinity School for my husband. We will say that I tagged along, but I also found my own professional niche in the Harvard library system. I have held a variety of positions, including heading one of the libraries. And I still work in the system. My husband gradually developed a career as a storyteller, taking the name Brother Blue. My public “identity” was that of a companion, though we both knew I was the organizer, the one who made everything work as it should. Until my husband’s death, most people did not know that I had a career. It is kind of fun and funny to see the shock on faces when people come to the realization that I am a person in my own right, that I have my own “identity”.
I still sometimes question what that “identity” is, because it is constantly changing. But I guess it all comes down to “me” being myself, “me” being “me”, whatever that is.