(Trying) To Understand Each Other

Books lined up in the high school library. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

“I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Central to many of the discussions about identity that happen in liberal private schools like GDS is the question Can we really understand the life experiences of people who do not share our identities?

That question can have to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status or any number of other identifiers. It can be answered with a yes—which is true—with a no—which is also true—or with something that falls in between or combines the two—which is probably the safest bet. At GDS, I’ve heard all of those answers in a variety of contexts.

One way to write this article would be to make the case for the third answer—to theorize about the different ways that we can and can’t understand each other with regard to identity, wonder about the reasons why and end up settling for it’s complicated.

But it might be better to take up an entirely different question that can be answered decisively. That different question—one that seems to lurk perpetually in the periphery—has more to do with action than ability: It isn’t about whether we can understand people who are different from us but about whether we should even try to in the first place.

There’s an increasing doubt about what the answer should be—at GDS and in the world beyond:

In an interview last year, American filmmaker and actor Mikey Alfred said that his new movie, North Hollywood, was turned down by investors multiple times before its 2021 release because the race of the main character did not match his own: “They also told me, ‘You’re psycho for trying to make the main character white, and you’re Black.’ And it’s like, what if we just want to make a movie?”

In an inverse of that example, American documentarian Ken Burns was asked by New York Times writer Kara Swisher, “You’re a white filmmaker telling the story of Muhammad Ali. Should people be concerned that the story of one of the most iconic Black Americans is being told by a white guy who lives in New Hampshire?”

In 2020, the Sundance Film Festival announced new guidelines for projects backed by its documentary fund: “We will now be requiring all applicants to tell us about their connection to the story and to the specific communities of their projects. We are curious to learn about the type of collaboration that will happen between the creative team and the protagonist and are foregrounding questions around authorship and representation in our reviews.”

A push for similar guidelines is taking place in the literary world, too.

In a 2019 New York Review of Books article titled “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” Zadie Smith describes a new philosophy “popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.

“The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”

Smith suggests that the idea that art can transcend barriers of difference, or make you feel and understand someone else’s life experience as if it were your own, is regarded as laughably naive among many of her students. That rather than decentralizing their own perspective and stepping out into new territory, they feel an obligation to stay standing in their own shoes. 

Artists in all mediums, regardless of age and identity, are facing skepticism about their creative motives and abilities. That skepticism is often healthy, with concerns about representation at its heart; the question posed by Swisher is an important one. Artists should not cede responsibility when it comes to diversity in the arts or act as if the answer to such a question doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. And there are, of course, major differences between the examples of Alfred making a film about a white skater and Burns making one about Muhammad Ali—the historical context of one cannot be interchanged with that of the other.

But still: Should Alfred and Burns be expected only to make movies about characters who share their races? What happens if a documentarian isn’t sufficiently “connected” to the story they wish to tell? Should everyone, from here on out, just stay in their lane?

Increasingly, people seem to believe that we are all too different from one another for art—and its creators—to be trusted, that it’s no longer really necessary (let alone possible) to tell stories about people who are not like us. In trying to limit the potential missteps of artists, we have somehow stopped believing in the special, vital power of art to bring people together.

Given that, in the lives of high schoolers, English class tends to be the ground zero for such debates about authorship and identity, it seems like a good idea for me to employ the opinions of writers. There are three in particular who are in conversation with each other when it comes to this topic, one from each of the past three centuries including the current one: Walt Whitman, James Baldwin and Zadie Smith.

What they all agree on, most fundamentally, is this: We need to get over ourselves.

“All storytelling,” Smith writes in the New York Review of Books article, “is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you.” (Not you are the key words.)

She writes about Alex-Li, a character in one of her novels: “He doesn’t look like me. We don’t share the same gods. We don’t share the same race or gender. But he is a part of my soul. And fiction is one of the few places left on this earth where a crazy sentence like that makes any sense at all.”

In a relatively little-known essay about his relationship to the work of Shakespeare titled “This Nettle, Danger,” James Baldwin defines the goal of a writer: “In any case, it is the writer’s necessity to deal as truthfully as possible with his own experience, and it is his hope to enlarge this experience to contain the experience of others, of millions.”

But Smith and Baldwin don’t just discuss who can identify with who as a storyteller—they also provide examples of how readers can empathize across differences in identity. 

“I felt I was Jane Eyre and Celie and Mr. Biswas and David Copperfield,” Smith writes.

Even though they don’t share the same autobiographical bullet points, Smith has experienced the same feelings as those characters. She has been sad, alone, confused, happy and in love. When she read their stories, she was “feeling with them, for them, alongside them, and through them.”

Baldwin writes: “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.”

I’ve heard it said that if someone writes a novel that is read by 10,000 people, they have really written 10,000 novels. Each reader takes different things from the same text, identifies with it in a different way. The subject of a story is never restricted to the people in it; in many ways, the subject is us, the reader.

“The greatest poet in the English language,” Baldwin says of Shakespeare, “found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love—by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.”

There it is, in that last line—that mysterious idea that so many artists (and so many writers especially) share: that the singular self is nothing but a construct. Or: that the borders to the self are not rigid. Or, to use Smith’s words: that personal experience is not “inviolate and nontransferable”; that it can, in some way, be shared. 

Both Baldwin’s and Smith’s essays include callbacks to Whitman—Smith mentions him by name, while Baldwin sneaks in an allusion in his use of the word “contain” to Whitman’s famous line “I contain multitudes.” And for good reason: At the core of much of Whitman’s most famous work was an exuberant, boundless compassion for complete strangers.

One of Whitman’s poems that best exemplifies his concept of the democratized self, as some scholars have called it, is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856). The poem is 147 lines, and his objective with nearly every one of them is to expound his connection to other people, to those who have also traveled on the ferry:

“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,

Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.”

In the fifth stanza, he arrives at the question that we are still trying to answer today:

“What is it then between us?”

In this poem, Whitman is asking explicitly about the “the scores or hundreds of years between us,” but he is also implicitly asking about any other barrier between him and someone else, like gender or race or the neighborhood in which they grew up, identifiers which, in the context of his effort to expand his experience to include that of people who didn’t even live during his lifetime, seem to matter less. What connects him to others are, as Zadie Smith offered, feelings. 

He answers the above question with this line:

“Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not. . .”

Whitman offers an interesting way to flip the equation: Whatever it is that’s between us is not availed—not helped or benefited—by distance or place. 

“Closer yet I approach you,

What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,

I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?

Who knows but I am enjoying this?

Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”

We all understand the fundamental contradiction that nobody shares our exact individual identity because nobody is us, and everybody shares our inexact human identity because we are all human.

Whitman suggests that our differences matter less than our efforts to transcend them—that empathy for others is the surest way to understand them, ourselves and the world around us. His work makes the case for the primacy of the heart, not the self. 

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he writes. 

So: Should we try to understand people who do not share our identities? No—we must try.