My book began as a question about ancestry: Whose child am I?
This query had multiple dimensions. I was trying to write my way through the trauma of my father's verbal and emotional abuse, and the disintegration of our nuclear family. If being my father's kid meant existing in dysfunctional relationships without any effort to change, I didn't want that association. Blood be damned. I knew there were other ways of building families.
This personal quest for family/father connections on an emotional level was intertwined with the confusing question of my cultural heritage, which was also connected to the religious.
My mother was a Protestant Christian and my father was a messianic Jew. Jews and Christians share many of the same religious texts and stories, and a degree of theology, but they are also quite different in many ways. They are two children born of the same mother. The share commonalities, but they have gone down different paths and developed their own distinct ways of being (and even these broader religions have many distinct iterations).
Culturally, theologically, and in terms of ritual praxis, we were closer North American evangelical Christians than Jewish. But even saying that is too simple: we had practices and traditions that were distinctly Jewish, intertwined with our Protestant ways. It was that complexity that gave rise to the book--I couldn't just say I was Christian or messianic Jewish or evangelical or just one thing. I was many things woven together.
The question of whether or not I was "really" Jewish (which I wrestled with since I was a kid) led to the bigger question of what "really" means. I realized that this question is everywhere and never satisfied. It has been used as a weapon to exclude people and perpetuate legal and social discrimination. It has resulted in violence, people being forced out of their homes, abuse, enslavement (and on and on). An explanation as to why my neighbor isn't my self is often the preface to exclusion: "Here's why I am entitled to something and my neighbor isn't."
The obsession with the essential, authentic self--the "real me"--isn't an abstraction. It's the mechanism that fuels racism, sexism, classism, and all the other -isms we can generate. For example, on the legal plane (in tandem with the social), the founding documents of the U.S. draw boundaries around authentic personhood by creating legal classifications. As Mark Charles has explained in detail in this and numerous other articles, the definition of "all men" in the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence excludes Native peoples. In this case who is a "real human" is what's at issue.
These legal examples can be found in abundance. For example, Trevor Noah writes on South African apartheid about the government's racist legal classifications:
Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there wasn’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
In the instance above, white = human, and then each person's degree or level of humanity is defined by their proximity to whiteness, which affects their legal and social standing.
The quest for the "real" insists that the self must be just one thing--just white, black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, male, female. Not Jewish Palestinian. Not Israeli Muslim. Not a white cisgender Italian American woman. Not African-Irish-American. Not Filipino-Pakistani-Danish. Not these many complex combinations of nationality, citizenship, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and gender identity. Identities that seem to compete with one another in the same body--at least when we buy into that these identities don't belong together. No, give us something easy. Something boxable.
The elusive "real" self is concerned with setting borders and boundaries. It is preoccupied with what is "me" or "my group" and what is not-me.
This was what my book wanted to be about (even though I didn't know it at the start).
To the question of my own ancestry (and all its dimensions: ethnic and cultural, spiritual, social, religious), I must give many answers and none at all. I am no one, so long as "one" means this-and-not-that: "Me my essential self, me alone." Me without naming the identities and influences that have and do shape me--that's no one! That is not a relational, sentient animal. That person does not exist.
The long string of qualifiers to one person's identity isn't an exercise in futility or vain loquacity. It is a necessity in a globalized world that is becoming increasingly aware that we are all connected to one another, and that absolute borders don't exist. No one is "pure." We have multiple overlapping identities. If these identities can be embodied in a single person, there is hope for the world. If one person can live peaceable with herself, with all her many names living together on the same sacred site of the body, then it means peace with our neighbors is possible. We can live together on this earth if we realize that our neighbor is our very self.
To declare these names together is to map (and continually re-map) your self into the world--to chart your location and relationships and honor the communities that have formed you.
It may be that some of the religious Nones are more on point and community-oriented than many who stake their claim in one particular religion or identity without qualifications. By embracing the "None," you are both affirming and need for naming, but also declaring the futility of a single name.
The Nones know that one moniker will not do, at least not anymore. People are ancestrally rich, in need of perpetual unpacking to get at who we are together. If we are to embrace names, it must be a conglomeration of qualifiers, an unending series of names that each tries--through their juxtaposition together--to do some kind of justice rather than being subsumed by the one-that-isn't-many.
This is not a step away from history, lineage, solidarity, community. It is a giving up of the supremacy of a single name to be renamed by the many. We aren't just the name our fathers bequeathed to us, but an abundance of names held together in a single house that can only be one when it is many.
So that's what my book wants to be about. Let's hope I finish it at some point.