Shapes of our Identity: The Power of Literature

Shapes of our Identity: The Power of Literature

I am a parent and interact as you would expect with parents, guardians, and teachers. One concern we all have in common is to in the best way we can, raise children who would turn out to be decent human beings, who are confident in their skin, within their world, able to be whatever they chose to be, having and exhibiting the goals and possible benefits of education as mentioned by Perkins – citizenship, moral rectitude, comfortable social dealings, and a more capable workforce among others. Listing these, this way may look like a tall order, but they are our wishes for the children under our care whether as parents, guardians, or as teachers.

Aside from other agents of socialization, education plays a very significant role in the social and personal development of children, adolescents included. The form of education that serves the ever-changing world of today exceeds just the acquisition, retention, understanding, and active use of generative knowledge. Recent research uncovers the need for the promotion of the development of the identities of children and adolescents. By identity, I mean self-knowledge, self-concept, self-understanding, self-perception, values, objectives, direction, and aptitude for individual and social change that would be valuable in facing the challenges of today and those of the future. 

For all children, education and other agents of socialization do the job of socialization. Through the agents of socialization, children get to learn the values, norms, and customs of the society they live in, but for the children of people of colour (POC) whose parents do not originally come from the country or the society they now live in, and who may have migrated (i.e. second generation), or children who may have migrated at a very young age,  to know and be conversant with their heritage culture, which is different from that of the society they live in (host culture), enculturation must take place. This is where literature— storybooks, and storytelling becomes indispensably invaluable.

I find it rather interesting and disturbing that  Alan Meca and his fellow researchers discovered that identity development is more complicated for young people from immigrant and ethnic/racial minority backgrounds. It worries me because frankly speaking, I never really saw identity development in this light, never really took it as seriously as I now see I should. As a migrant mother, whose children were born in the UK, I just (unintentionally) assumed that with the standard education and so-called civilization for which this society is known, that my children will grow up to be “normal” or OK adults, whatever that means. 

As I write this article, I see that getting them ready for school every day, and helping with their homework isn’t enough. I now see the need to do that part that the school may not be able to do for my children. I must, going forward make concerted efforts, take practical actions to help in the development of the identities of my children. Actively participating in making sure that their self-beliefs, self-concepts, in essence, self-identity is as clear as it can be, by making sure that their and cultural identity is clearly defined is for me now a necessity.

To quote Hakim-Larson and Menna, enculturation means “being socialized into the language, behaviours, identity, socio-political historical knowledge, and values of one’s ethnic group.” Some people may wonder if it is necessary for children to be enculturated into the heritage culture of their parents, but backed by valid research findings, I say it is extremely important for the development and formation of the individual (self) identities of children from immigrant and ethnic/racial minority communities. Identity and indeed self-identity cannot be explained or formed outside of cultural identity. This is because, as Rogoff presents, people develop as participants in cultural communities. Their development can be understood only in light of the cultural practices and circumstances of their culture ….” Identity provides or seeks to provide answers to the questions “who are you” or “who are we”. I agree with Luis Urrieta who stated in his Cultural Construction of Identity that identity initially focuses on the individual and more so on the self-understanding of the individual, and is never independent of the external “reality” of social and cultural forces among other forces. 

James Fearon made a good attempt at expounding the complex meaning of self-identity, highlighting through his explanation the unique relationship between self-identity, self-esteem, and membership to a social category —cultural heritage. Self (or personal) identity is what marks a person out in socially significant ways be it attributes, beliefs, desires, or actions; that gives or does not give the individual special pride. It defines, determines, or influences the individual’s behaviour and at the same time is that part of an individual he/she is unable to change even if they wanted to. Our cultural heritage is that part of us that we cannot change even if we wanted to. It is part of what marks us out and defines us whether we recognize it or not. Actually, how we handle matters relating to our cultural heritage sums up to define us and our identity, and ultimately forms the foundation of our self-esteem. 

It is a given that children form identities as humans and in various ways. However, rather than go through the task and process of identity reformation/reconstruction later in life, I think it’s best we, beginning with young children, influence, assiduously, and knowingly participate in the formation/construction of their identities, and most importantly in a well-balanced way. Making sure not to fall on either side of what Aimé Césaire referred to as “walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal” thereby, having our children “losing” themselves. Becoming true agents of identity formation for children under our care as parents, guardians, and teachers, and not unreflective agents of social forces who just practice conventional routine child-rearing practices expected to replicate extant social identities. Part of being agents of identity formation for our children, armed by the understanding of the indispensability of cultural identity in identity formation, involves ensuring cultural identity clarity. 

Schwartz and his colleagues see cultural identity as awareness or cognizance of what one’s ethnic and racial group and membership means to the person as an individual. It is essentially how you and I characterize or describe ourselves with reference to the cultural groups we belong to. It is according to Taylor and Osborne, identification with a particular cultural group.

Culture as we know it incorporates elements such as language, history, norms and values, art and literature, ideas, beliefs, and customs, etc. Individuals learn, are acculturated and enculturated by being exposed to these elements. I put forward that exposing children to the literature of and about their (heritage) history and culture, whether oral (like storytelling) or written such as storybooks is one assured way of participating in the formation of the self and cultural identities of children.

Literature through its varied functions has the unique capacity to incorporate all the other elements of culture and at the same time can function as a mediating tool and a conduit through which these other elements or components of culture (and their functions) are exposed to people. 

Literature entertains. Literature has ideological functions, shaping the way people perceive things and experience the world from the perspectives of the writer, the characters, or the culture or people being represented in the literary work. Literature performs social, political, moral, and linguistic functions, as it preserves a language, and through which a language can be learned.

My fondest memories growing up were Sunday evenings. Once it was 6: 30 pm, children ran from different directions, some to their homes if their parents were well enough to afford a TV, while those whose parents were less fortunate ran to the windows of the fortunate, scrambling for a space to stand, just to be able to watch the Tales by Moonlight (a dramatized collection of African folktales) by peeking through people’s windows.

Accordingly, Sunday evenings displayed a clear dividing line between the haves and the have-nots, and yet it was a unifying factor for us children who between 6: 30 pm and 7: pm, only cared about Tales by Moonlight, whether watching it through people’s windows, in a friend’s house — if their parents were kind or in the comfort of our homes. That’s the power of literature, that’s the power of the stories of our people. Like a blanket on a cold night, it covers the many divides and divisions in our society as it unifies us, changing and forming us in the process.

Most crucially, the imaginary and empathetic function of literature is relevant for identity formation especially for children from ethnic minority groups who due to the times and place they were born may not have the privilege of experiencing the history and experiences peculiar to their ethnic groups. Literature offers them the ability to imagine and to (re)live the lives; in the times different from and far away from theirs, teaching and informing them in the process. This is what Percy Bysshe Shelley referred to as the “moral imagination”, “a capacity to occupy another mind and feel the emotional pulse of another heart”.

Literature is commonly said to perform a didactic function (i.e. teaches morals). Tim Gillespie rather puts it interestingly differently. He argues, and I agree that literature undoubtedly teaches morals, but does not teach morals in a didactic way; rather it offers us an opportunity to experience moral dilemmas. The process of learning or acquiring morals through experiencing moral dilemmas is very crucial in the construction of personal identities. He argues further that disparate from life portrayed on TV, which he says is commercialistic and consumerist, facile, insincere, and quick-solution, literature depicts lives with convoluted issues and hard choices and urges us to engage with them, to imagine, reliving life’s niggling and exasperating dilemmas along with the characters we meet. With its true representation of life’s complicated moral choices, literature pulls us into a story, making us identify with the characters. It is in going through this process of imagination, of occupying the bodies, lives, and times of characters that identity is gradually shaped and formed. 

If we are ‘at least in part, what we read’, then literature plays a role in the development of both cultural and personal identity. And since cultural identity is important for the formation of a well-balanced sense of self (self-identity) and optimal development especially of children, then exposure to the literature about, by, and proceeding from a particular culture, in this case, the culture of the ethnic minority communities or People of Colour is part of the development of cultural identity and ultimately self-identity for our youths.

Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. This is why the way we see ourselves matters a lot. A clear sense of self that is rich with a clear sense of one’s cultural heritage produces a well-balanced perspective on life and the world, influencing our attitude and interactions with others. Beyond that, a clear sense of self leads to reduced internalizing behaviours and symptoms like anxiety and depression as well as reduced externalizing symptoms (aggressiveness, inattentiveness, noncompliance, and criminal behaviour), making children more averse to be involved in risky behaviours. Developing a coherent sense of self helps people make rational and reliable life choices such as careers and relationships. And because having a clear sense of self produces confidence in children, it dispels the fear of differences and the need to put others down in other to feel good about oneself.

Finally, researchers like Osborne and Taylor have found that having a clear sense of one’s culture (i.e. cultural identity clarity) leads to having a clear sense of self; and having a clear sense of self has mental health implications such as self-esteem and psychological well-being. In agreement with that, Yoon and his colleagues discovered through their research that adapting to one’s ethnic or heritage culture and also to the host culture, referred to as interactionist acculturation or biculturalism according to Berry’s model had more beneficial mental health outcomes in terms of life satisfaction, anxiety, and depression. I definitely would subscribe to anything that would yield advantageous outcomes for my children more so if it touches on psychological and mental health.

Below are links to some children’s storybooks that highlight the culture of ethnic minority groups, and through which children can learn more about these cultures.

Written by Priscilla Okoye

Links:

African children’s books

Asian children’s books

Indian children’s books

References:

Aimé Césaire, A. 2010. Letter to Maurice Thorez, Social Text 103, vol. 28, No. 2, [online] Available at: https://abahlali.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/153945859-Aime-Cesaire-Letter-to-Maurice-Thorez-1956.pdf [Accessed December 31st 2020].  

Fearon, J. D. 1999. What is identity (as we now use the word)? [Online] Available at: https://web.stanford.edu/group/fearon-research/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/What-is-Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf [Accessed December 31st 2020].  

Gillesp, T. 1994.Why Literature Matters. The English Journal, Literature, Queen of the Curriculum, vol. 83, no. 8.,),pp. 16-21, [Online] Available at: http://www.unife.it/letterefilosofia/llmc/insegnamenti/letteratura-inglese-ii-llmc/materiale-didattico/programma-bibliografia-calendario-lezioni-modalita-desame-e-materiale-didattico-letteratura-inglese-ii-laurea-interclasse-anno-accademico-2012-2013/Tim%20Gillespie-%20Why%20Literature%20Matters-%201994.pdf [Accessed January 1st 2021].  

Schachter, E. P. and Ventura, J. J. 2007.  Identity agents: parents as active and reflective participants in their children’s identity Formation. The Journal for Research on Adolescence[Online]Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227531140_Identity_Agents_Parents_as_Active_and_Reflective_Participants_in_Their_Children’s_Identity_Formation/link/5bf52c07299bf1124fe26223/download  [Accessed December 31st 2020].  

Meca, A., Meca, C. and Farrelly, C. 2017. Personal and cultural identity development in recently immigrated Hispanic Adolescents: Links With Psychosocial Functioning. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. American Psychological Association , vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 348–361, [Online] Available at:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308780562_Personal_and_Cultural_Identity_Development_in_Recently_Immigrated_Hispanic_Adolescents_Links_With_Psychosocial_Functioning [Accessed December 31st 2020]. 

Piqueras, J. A., Soto-Sanz, V., Rodríguez-Marín, J. and García-Oliva, C. 2019. What is the role of internalizing and externalizing symptoms in adolescent suicide behaviors? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol., 16, 2511, [Online] Available at: https://www.google.com/urlsa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjLoNGywLLuAhWkQxUIHVUACmQQFjAOegQIIxAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mdpi.com%2F1660-4601%2F16%2F14%2F2511%2Fpdf&usg=AOvVaw2BIpC3dwvaNEVYYjFtOOGi[Accessed January 23rd 2021].  

Pulido-Tobiassen, D. and Gonzalez-Mena, J. 1999. Supporting healthy identity development excerpt from a place to begin: Working with parents on issues of diversity, [Online] Available at: https://www.teachingforchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ec_supportinghealthyidentity_english.pdf [Accessed January 1st 2021].  

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bijaya Limbu

    Great blog Pricilla.

    1. Priscilla
      Priscilla

      Thank you Bijaya.

Leave a Reply