Thomas Edison on loop. From the perma-installation on American Identities at the Brooklyn Museum.
Thanks to a hookup from fellow Poundling Angelica, I’ve jumped aboard the New Amerykah Badu-wagon. It’s a beautiful record, and schizophrenic just the way I like it. Everyone seems to be feeling ‘The Hump’ extra hard, but I’m still trying to listen without looking at song titles. Do yourself a favo(u)r, take the time to let it sink in as a whole, to let the pieces and patches bleed together.
It means a lot to find a piece of exciting, loving music these days. So much of my identity used to be framed and punctuated by the music I listened to, the music I was paid to write about. I don’t know what happened, but I lost that… loving feeling. Which is okay. I’ll stay bored and detached from it as long as I need to. Other things have been framing and punctuating my days — texts, images, conversations, tides, windchills, textiles.
I’ve never been able to understand identity, or taste, as anything less than fluid. My takes on citizenship, immigration especially, and other physical markers are influenced by my (family’s) own continent-hopping, and by the lessons I picked up as a kid from the other kids on the block with similar emigrant or émigré stories. Émigré. Rhymes with gourmet, betray, folkway. Segue.
Here’s an excerpt from part one of The Border by William Langewiesche. The Atlantic, May 1992:
The twin cities of El Paso and Juárez, with a combined population of 2 million, mark the midpoint of the border. This is where the Rio Grande, having flowed due south from its origin in the Rockies, snakes through a gap in the desert mountains and turns southeast. It is also where the two halves of the boundary join: to the west the line runs crisply across the deserts; to the east it rides a more ambiguous midchannel course through the curves of the Rio Grande.
As it flows between El Paso and Juárez, the river is hemmed in by levees. We drove for a time along the northern side. On the opposite shore the tin and cardboard shantytowns of Juárez sprawled over low hills. The Juárez slums are as bad as the shantytowns I know in West Africa. They are less crowded than but as bad as the slums of Bombay. A gully spewed black water into the river. Tainted upstream by agricultural runoff and sewage, the Rio Grande swallowed the filth easily. A family bathed among the bushes. Out of modesty the women washed themselves with their dresses on; the men had stripped down to their shorts. They stood in the water and watched us pass. Ahead the bridges between Juárez and El Paso spanned the river. A rowboat heavy with passengers nosed against the U.S. shore, bypassing Immigration. One woman couldn’t climb the steep embankment. Others, who had made it to the top of the levee, went back down to help her.
Sealed in the air-conditioned minivan, we crept through the crowd on the levee. There were about a hundred people, getting their bearings and watching for the Border Patrol. Though the levee is technically U.S. territory, in practice it is neutral soil; retreat to the river is easy. The crowd was mostly local — unemployed Juárez youths without border-crossing cards, going to El Paso for the day. Some were going farther; they might have come from the interior of Mexico, or from Central or South America. These travelers carried suitcases and scurried away from the van. The locals were not so shy. Recognizing the Boundary Commission seal on the door, they tapped on the roof, peered through the windows, smirked and joked. They begged cigarettes, which we did not have. Boys stood in our way nonchalantly, showing off for girls.
Gunaji seemed oblivious. He spoke about his decision to become an American citizen. His older sister objected, but he insisted. “I told her, ‘I’m going to serve India by staying out of India.'”
I interrupted him. “Doesn’t it seem odd, if you think back, to find yourself managing this boundary?” I gestured toward the crowd.
He looked annoyed. “In the United States I have always tried to participate in the workings of government. I served on the Las Cruces City Council. Now I serve as commissioner. I am happy such an honor has been bestowed upon my family. A nation needs its boundaries, no?”
I nodded yes. You need a them to have an us.
All sorts of identities are defined in this way, not just the most obvious, political ones. And when self only exists in opposition to another, in the absence of an-other, you must invent one. Is that why war is so important? Assert your own existence by destroying that of others?
I know I’ve said it before, and I know I wasn’t the first to spell this out. That: the idea(l) of a static, definable, distinct identity — one with strict, defendable borders — is dangerous and toxic and boring, and it doesn’t work. Whether it be in terms of music, nationalism, subculture, it’s not healthy. I wonder what came first, though — the border or the enemy discourse? The threat or the wall? How does one define the other?