April 15, 2014
Am I “the only one”?
Last weekend, my husband and I were invited to our friends’ house for a barbecue. We happily accepted the surprising, spur-of-the-moment invitation: great people and the first BBQ of the spring season. And, frankly, I didn’t have any ideas for dinner nor did I feel like cooking that night. So, we texted back our acceptance, bought a dessert, and went to their house for a great evening of good barbecue and great conversation.
When we arrived, we discovered that there were many more people than we had anticipated. We knew them all from school, sports, or work so it was a nice surprise. Everyone started the evening in one big group discussing vacations, exercise, Tesla test drives, and work. Although we were speaking English, I noted that we were a mixture of various nationalities: American, Swedish, Japanese, Norwegian and Dutch.
Within minutes and very naturally, the usual split happened: the women drifted away into a separate group and started discussing kids, movies, teachers, and work. (I was not privy to the men’s discussion but I can imagine that they were equally scripted.) When asked about my work, I discussed writing about African American history, current events, and the difficult but joyful life of a writer. My good friend from Japan discussed her work as an artist; my American friend mentioned her work as an economist, and my Norwegian host updated us on her life as an at-home mother to four boys. The evening went well and smoothly.
Then I discovered something that I had not noticed for a long time.
I was the only African American at the party. Hmm.
(My husband is the Swedish person that I mentioned earlier.)
It made me wonder: how did I feel that I was the only Black person present? How do I feel that I am (almost) always the only African American in the room?
Did I feel uncomfortable? Unwelcome? Misunderstood? Outside?
Did I feel different?
Yes and no.
I got my first twinge of feeling different when talking about African American history and the movies dealing with the African American experience. All were familiar with (though none had seen) The Butler, Twelve Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, or even The Help. However, I had not only seen the movies but also read the books.
Although I do believe that they were interested in the subject matter, I realized that I had monopolized the conversation with talk of slavery, civil rights, racism, and even the outrageous picture of the Obamas recently shown in the Flemish newspaper. I am passionate about these issues whereas they might just feel a mild interest. I feel that these issues might involve life and death for me (and my son) whereas they are simply news events for them. There is a difference.
I was the only one.
On another level, I didn’t feel a strong difference at all. Everyone had his or her own history of injustice, unfairness, or mental, physical or emotional suffering. Everyone had worries and fears for their children as I discovered when we started discussing bullies, bad teachers, overpriced schools, and even child molesters. My female friends felt (at times) objectified or disempowered as women and mothers, which was portrayed in the movie, Her, that my Japanese and Norwegian friends raved about. I had not seen it but fully intend to see now!
I was NOT the only one.
That evening, I truly did not feel that I was “the only one.” I felt only welcomed, entertained, and engaged. I did not always feel understood, but I always felt that there was understanding.
I learned a lot that evening–about others and myself. And I discovered a new truth: Each of us is “the only one” in some way.
- Someone can be the only American, Swede, or Norwegian at a party.
- Someone can be the only person of color in the room.
- Someone can be the only person that speaks Mandarin, Swahili, or Spanish.
- Someone can be the only person with a 190 IQ. (Too bad, not me!)
- Someone can be the only person who loves history, chemistry, or Halo 4.
- Someone can be only person with a peanut allergy, with heart disease, or with cancer.
- Someone can be the only person whose ancestors were slaves, whose parents lived under segregation or whose birth certificate labels her as a negro.
- Someone can be the only person in the room with a law degree, a doctorate in Economics, or an advanced degree in art.
Every one is “the only one” in the room.
Yet we all were connected by that uniqueness, individuality, and, even our exceptionality.
This idea was captured best by Muhammad Ali in a speech at Harvard University. When asked by the audience to create one of his legendary poems, he said simply,
I think that says it all!