Amidst the hustle and bustle of today, tomorrow, and everything in between, a group of individuals represent a fascinating phenomenon. It is a notion that on many levels, becomes lost in the general societal standards we have set. I believe that in order for me to be happy, I must always strive to be who I am. But who is that person, and what does that really mean? How does the way I see myself, or how does the way in which you perceive yourself, quantify the way I live my life? Or does the way I see myself mean anything at all?
When asked this question, my husband answered me, “it just depends on your filter”. Interesting. I prodded further, questioning him in regards to what that filter is, exactly. Ironically enough, in his opinion, it is our differences that mold our individual filters.
I pondered this, and I concluded that the moral to my proverbial story is that language serves as our guide to realize that it isn’t about being defined by something. It’s about being defined. Our labels do not have to be our enemies, and I have found five people that prove this statement to be true.
The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) is an online database of video, audio, and text contributions made by an immense variety of individuals. People with all sorts of histories, cultures, and traditions utilize this forum in order to provide a historical narrative of the “literary practices and values of contributors, as those practices and values change” (DALN Home).
In order to take advantage of this project, I wanted to dig into DALN as deep as I possibly could. After watching at least 20 videos, I decided on five final narratives, and they are:
Keith Dormick …………………………..Getting Called A Fag
Hazel Williams …………………………Language as an Expression of Culture
Anonymous ………………………………Literary Narrative of a Deaf Korean Student
Nick Neary ……………………………….Stage Fright: The Nick Neary Story
Kevin Anthony Howard ……………….My Voice Through Writing
Each narrator embodied a sense of unique confidence, and each proved to be different from the next. The subtle thread of cohesion among all of them is that language should have been a disadvantage, but it proved to be the opposite of that expected result.
Keith Dormick – Getting Called A Fag
Keith Dormick was 15-16 years old during the 1950s in Glendale Heights, Illinois when he was first called a “fag” by a group of neighborhood bullies. His first reaction was to think, “how do they know?”. His second was to realize that he was “not the only one”. Dormick recalls that when those bullies called him “those names” he realized, “Oh my god, I’m not the only one […] and that’s totally cool; That is in fact liberating”.
Dormick went on to receive his MA and PhD from the University of North Chicago. During his time there, he and a colleague were discussing the concept of naming, and what people are called, and “the implications for naming as an act of rhetoric”. During this conversation, Dormick instantly recalled his own name-calling experience, and he determined this exposure to be the first time he ever acted as a rhetorician.
Ultimately, Dormick concluded his narrative, stating that “naming and language is what makes us who we are” and that “we are the ones who name”. He alluded to the fact that those who name are artists, concluding that “naming is what we do in our lives for metaphor”.
Interesting Naming Examples provided by Dormick:
Bible → God instructs Adam to give names to all things nameless
The word, human = “the man who laughs” or “the man who plays” (etc.)
Hazel Williams – Language as an Expression of Culture
Hazel Williams comes from a Southern background, and explains that her family were sharecroppers by trade. She explains that many children had to drop out of school early to help with family affairs, and gives details about the exposure she had to language, growing up in an African American community. Williams comments on her relationship with “ma dear” (her mother), and proclaims that it was her mother who, “by design”, saw to it that all of her children graduated college on academic scholarships. Williams’ mother, whose formal education ceased at ninth grade, kept books of “academic nature” in the home that included texts ranging from the bible to scholastic journals to world book encyclopedias. She adds, “and of course we had to go to the library and read books and write reports for her. So it was very, very important for her for us to read and to read well”.
The following are a selection of quotes in which Williams elaborates on the topic of language as an expression of culture:
“A lot of people assume or think that one with a limited formal education would be inarticulate. It is so interesting. My mother is one of the most articulate people I know. In terms of her use of words and language; she has a great stage presence as well…she and her sister were actually famous for performing plays as teenagers and then carrying that forward into the community […] it’s so interesting that she did that”.
Earlier in her narrative, Williams touched on the idea of “knowledge is power”, emphasizing that in her opinion, applied knowledge is power. Later, Williams entertains the idea of education as a form of freedom, attesting to her own parents’ belief in this very notion. She states:
“My parents clearly understood that education was freedom. Simply put, education was freedom. And I don’t mean education for the sake of saying that you know something, I don’t mean that kind of education. But education that could be put to use, that could be practical, that would serve a way of negotiating the world to achieve a positive result” (Williams).
While reminiscing, Williams mentioned a particularly interesting concept that her mother had instilled early on. Williams’ mother believed that ignorance was a form of prison, and therefore, she would always keep her kids out of prison. I found this statement to be uniquely profound. Ironically, the conversation topic soon became focused on stereotypes lurking behind race. She discusses her high school years, labeling them as the first time in her life where she experienced racism:
“My first encounter with racism [was when] one of the white instructors seemed to be taken aback by the fact that we were articulate, that we were good students, and perhaps even sought to diminish our desire to learn. I remember being discouraged from pursuing certain things”.
She continues, pointing out the irony in one notorious stereotype:
“People talk about racism in the South but I would think that it’s just as prevalent. For instance, in my experience, I experienced no racism in the South but that’s because I lived in an all black community. But, in moving to Ohio and being exposed to that type of environment, racism is still an institution in the United States“.
Williams served to be my most powerful video narrative, for I truly felt her culture, radiating through her words and through her stories. Thus, Hazel Williams proved that her belief that language is an expression of culture, holds tremendous merit.
Anonymous – Literary Narrative of a Deaf Korean Student
(Note: the anonymous contributor of this narrative shall be herein referred to as “Jane”.)
Jane was born in Korea to a disciplined, tightly-knit family, as a “normal girl who couldn’t hear”. Well, that’s who she was to her parents, whom accepted the fact that Jane was deaf but refused to refer to her as such. Jane describes this intriguing phenomenon as her sole motivation to excel in school, in order to keep up with her classmates.
Jane began reading books, journals, and newspapers, memorizing them along the way. Jane had to “excel” in order to keep up because she could not hear what the teachers were saying, and she didn’t know that sign language even existed until she went off to college. Organically, Jane “compensated” for her deafness by reading and memorizing, always keeping the following goal in mind: “to become comfortable with books”.
While Jane’s Korean culture accepted deafness, her family did not. Not because being deaf was a bad thing, but because it was simply, a part of who Jane was, not something that should be used as an excuse for failure. Thus, again we can see the juxtaposition among language, culture, and the “sub-culture” of family life.
Nick Neary – Stage Fright: The Nick Neary Story
Nick Neary, high school valedictorian and college student, provides his interesting take on how language and culture intermingle in the most subtle of ways. His high school valedictorian speech was about “taking advantage of opportunities” and was to be made in front of several thousand people. He recalled thinking that he would throw up, for he had never spoken in front of this many people, but reports that the speech “went really well,” despite his initial bout with nausea.
After his speech Neary pondered, “why was I so nervous?”. He concluded that it was “the concept of performance and being judged” that “sets people off”, particularly when put in some sort of spotlight. The simplicity of this statement is what made it profound. I feel that Neary quantifies stage fright most accurately, for it is the performance that we put on every day that can define us, inadvertently or directly.
In order to become comfortable speaking to larger audiences – audiences that expand past our close friends and families – we must expose ourselves to an immensely mysterious shmorgishborg of cultures, and what we say must be somehow, universally understood. As humans, we are compelled to represent ourselves as accurately as possible. If our fear of being incorrectly judged overthrows our ability to effectively represent ourselves, we internalize that as failure.
Kevin Howard – My Voice Through Writing
Kevin Howard, writer of poems, songs, and sports reports, discovered that his voice was more powerful through writing rather than through speaking. He figured out that he had a speech impediment when he “started talking and couldn’t get anything out”. Howard describes the impediment as similar to dyslexia, but as more of a “timing problem”. Howard’s teachers were aware of his impediment, and while they seemed willing to assist him, he never really asked for any help, and was rarely unable to speak clearly in class.
While Howard admits he was made fun of when growing up, but he tells the interviewer that his speech impediment is “part of who I am, it makes me unique, and I enjoy it”. To say that he enjoys his speech impediment seems rather odd, based on what society’s stereotypes indicate. However, similar to the other literacy contributors, Howard demonstrates the ability to transform a perceived weakness into an actual strength.
My most interesting realization is how getting called a “fag” should have cause Keith to retreat; Hazel should have shut down when her teachers instilled doubt and suspicion in her; Jane’s being deaf should have held her back; Nick should have broken out into a cold sweat the next time he set foot on stage; and Kevin’s voice should have dissipated into fear. All of these people prove that it is our differences, coupled with a healthy exposure to language, that can create a sense of wholeness, even when the stereotypes try to shove the opposite notion down our throats.
“Never let the dealer call your hand.”