I Am Who I Am Because of Other People
Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to talk with a group of high school students about the concept of Ubuntu: an African Philosophy that I truly believe embodies a humanitarian approach to approach to social justice.
A point that I feel as if I did not stress enough was that to me, Ubuntu means having an understanding that we are not “islands” isolated from others. It means that we cannot do everything on our own.
The saying “I am a person through other persons” resonates very deeply with me. “I am a person through other persons” means I am who I am because of other people.
In retrospect, I can see ways that I have been helped my entire life. From my parents encouraging me to cultivate my interests from my childhood, and their sacrifices in raising and supporting me, to the teachers who believed in me when others gave up on me. In challenging times, I have been privileged to have had people who believed in me more than I may have believed in myself, or saw things in within me more than I may have seen in myself. The encouragement I have received has helped and continues to help me move forward.
Every now and then, time seems to slow down, and I am able to take notice of the things that are going on around me and reflect on them. For example, I was in a restaurant the other day waiting on my food to come out from the kitchen. I was one of only a few African-Americans in the place, and the remaining customers were predominantly white.
In those moments before my order arrived, I began to think about history and race relations in America. I was reminded that, not too long ago, I would not have been able to walk into this restaurant let alone become a customer. However, that day I was able to sit in the restaurant, order my food, and enjoy my meal peacefully with no harassment.
Make no mistake, although many gains have been achieved, much more work needs to be done. Racism is still deeply rooted and prevalent in our society, and continues to manifest itself in subtle and overt forms across many areas of experience.
However, I can see that without the many sacrifices of African-Americans and their allies throughout history who were willing to suffer in order to create change for themselves and their children; to hold America accountable to its ideals of freedom for all, I would not be able to enjoy my meal that day. I am who I am because of other people. I have been able to go as far as I have up to this point in many ways because of the actions of others.
Their courage inspires me and reminds me of the responsibility I have to make good on the sacrifices made by those who came before me, as well as the charge to reach back and build up those who will come after.
Because of those sacrifices and being helped and inspired by others who have impacted me positively throughout my life, I feel as if I have a debt that can only be repaid through using what I gain to help someone else as I have been helped. This “debt” is a good debt that has served and continues to serve as a form of inspiration for me when I feel as if I’m losing my way. It is my hope that my actions today will make life easier for future generations, as others have done for me through their own sacrifices.
I think Dr. King had it right when he said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”. I hope to be able to continue to work toward keeping the dream of equality and social justice alive, while being able to continually expand my focus to be even more inclusive, and to use whatever power or skills I have or will gain to improve the human condition.
As Nelson Mandela said:
“Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins