Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ubuntu, Individuality, & Playing with Words

The leaders of our Summer Learning Institute divided us conference attendees into several groups (the SLI is a professional development program for educators interested in increasing the success of African and African American college students).

Each group lined up single file, all of us remaining in the conference space together. The leaders subtly urged each group to repeat the words, "I am because we are," an English translation of the Bantu term for "unity."  

"I am because we are. I am because we are."
After a few moments, separate groups' refrain emphasized different pauses - emphasizing particular words and enunciating the chorus in slightly different ways:

"Because we are, I am. Because we are I am." 

Within groups, chanters' voices harmonized, becoming distinct as different groups' respective refrains took on their own, pace and points of emphasis. Where its sounded like sentences began and ended shifted and changed. Some repeated the phrase as if it included stops for a comma; others spoke the lines without any punctuation at all, words crashing into each other in a long run on sentence.

"WearebecauseIambecausewearebecauseIam . . ."

Within my group, our beat and spoken emphasis changed and shifted - fitfully at first, but eventually we found a dynamic rhythm. At first we seemed to be following an unacknowledged leader or set of leaders. Paradoxically, at that point we simultaneously led and followed each other, even as the way we parsed the phrases evolved.  It's as if we communally experimented with the meaning of the words and the physicality of speaking. Playfully manipulating our voices, breath, pace, and volume, we used out bodies to create shared meaning. We manifested a  community-in-sound.

"We are because I am. We are because I am. We are because I am."

Even as we found our collective groove in my group, I was always aware of different rhythms and beats the other groups created, too. Were they experiencing the same "community-in-sound" as I did. Those voices created a dynamic wall of sound that at first agitated my ears. But gradually, as groups created their distinct rhythms and as I concentrated on staying cued up to my group, the process became almost hypnotic, that "alpha-brain-wave" state we experience when being mindful.

"Because I am, we are. Because I am, we are" .

I started to lose the sense of the individual words and sounds of the phrase I became more focused on making sure my my voice, breathing pattern and spoken rhythm was in harmony with my group.The distinct sounds and meaning of words slid in and out of my conscious awareness, sometimes focused on the words, others focused on the physical experience of breathing and using my body to make sound.

Sometimes it felt  like I was repeating a sing-song lullaby with nonsensical "baby-talk" lyrics or even chanting in a language not my own. Sometimes I understood the words - the mental content of the chant.  Other times I became more aware conscious of  air moving in and out of my lungs and the physical sensation of vocalizing.  Throughout, I felt variously "lead" and "followed" by members in my group as the chanting went on.

I was conscious of the other groups and their chorus, too. I could, at certain points in the exercise, hear the other groups' unfolding utterances. At one point, I could almost hear (or imagined I heard?) each and every persons' single voice. At another point, I heard one or two voices rising above all the others. Once, it even sounded as if each group spoke through a single pair of lips, standing alone as a single unit, seven distinct speakers at their own mic stand or podium. It was a dynamic vocal tapestry.

This  playing with words and our bodies basically "performed" the content of a short lecture delivered earlier in that day. He facilitator reminded us about the U.S. American notion of the self, that scrappy, rugged individual, who through sheer force of will, is able to succeed on his or her own. This is an American cultural value - myth that often operates on an almost subconscious level - that explains our notions of identity and relations. Think here of Horatio Alger and the "lift yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality. 

Our teacher urged us to analyze the word "individual" itself, noting that the word itself contains a paradox. If we divvy up "individual," we have "indivisible" and "dual" One the one hand, indivisible connotes the stand alone, a singular irreducible unity. And dual, of course, means two or a pair. The contradiction between "single" and "multiple" exist in the same word.  

Our word that denotes the singular unit bears traces of the multiple. I recognize that the etymological analysis of "individual" doesn't support this reading of the word. But it is interested that the "multiple," a hint of community exists in the word. Like a ghost. Like a phantom limb.  Like the return of the repressed communal values of other cultures in African and around the world. 

For me, the exercise manifested internal contraction that haunts the the American cultural understanding of the individual. I heard and felt the way the grammatical construction of "I" and "We" in the chant rested on each other. "We" and "I" are both cause and effect of the other. Repeating, in community, the word engendered a visceral understanding of dynamic interdependence between the individual and community. We brought our individual voices together, creating a dynamic, shifting whole. 

I "got" that the two, the singular unit and the community, mutually reinforce the other. I experienced, rather than merely comprehended, how we are bound up in each other, just  like the vocal tapestry we created in the space of the conference room.