Identity and Belonging
In the past, I have explored the connection between a healthy identity and a positive sense of belonging. I suggested that our sense of identity is under attack from many sides, and in addition if identity is described only as a material and social entity, it is then subject to the capricious whims of the natural world. As long as I am young, healthy, beautiful, wealthy and intelligent, I will belong and be in demand—a “thing” of value. As soon as any of my material currency is lost or devalued, I begin to tumble on the scale of belonging and worthiness like numbers on a stock market!
The inner identity is the enduring measure of human worth. It is based on the intrinsic metaphysical nature of the human being which is often referred to as the rational soul, the spirit, the heart or in today’s jargon the “inner-scape”. This identity is not subject to the capricious winds, worldly values and fickle fads that inform present-day society. It is gradually formed by the values we are taught, the examples we encounter and the successes we achieve. The Circle of Courage illustrates the central elements of the “inner-scape”: belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. In this article we can barely scratch the surface of the epiphenomenal relationship between the “inner-scape” and “social-scape”, which is the foundation of youth behaviours.
I was raised in a home in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant area. My mother worked two jobs: the garment industry in Manhattan and in my grandmothers beauty salon. I was surrounded by caring, loving grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles and a lot of first cousins. I was taught the value of hard work, study, respect of elders and obedience to the law. In our Baptist/Catholic tradition love was the highest ideal expressed in service to the community, prayer and the resolve to not steal or hurt others.
In spite of these positive influences in my life I began to get in a lot of trouble, such as breaking into and vandalizing our elementary school. In a first attempt to rescue me, I was sent to a residential school in North Carolina. On my return at age 11 years my mother enrolled me in the “Bluejackets Guard”, a naval cadet organization, which I really enjoyed. At 13 my buddies and I formed a social club. We organized house parties, and dances and charged admission that earned us pretty good money. We bought matching sweaters with our logo on it. We were respected by our peers and other residents in the “hood”, some of whom were members of local street gangs. Increased attention from girls felt especially good.
Around the same time street gang violence was on an upswing across New York City. Increasing violent clashes between gangs posed a threat to members of our club and our friends. We looked for protection and decided to align ourselves with the most prominent gang on the “hill” in Bedford Stuyvesant, the Corsair Lords. I became the warlord of our division. Within the embrace of the “Lords” I felt safe, secure, honoured and respected. Members of our gang were “down for each other”; meaning we would go the full distance--jail or death. In battles with other gangs young people on both sides got seriously hurt. Some went to jail and youth detention centers. A few were killed. At age15 I wondered if I would live to see my 16th birthday. Shortly after that I had an experience which compelled me to decide to leave the gang, without alienating my crew. The first test of my resolve came when I graduated from junior high and went to attend Brooklyn Boys’ High school in the territory of rival gangs: the Bishops, El Quintos and Jolly Stompers. Boys’ High track and field team became my new crew. My coach, Mr. Lewis, was a stern but fair task master who knew how to connect with me and my team members. He encouraged us to achieve good grades and to excel in track and field. At the time of my second competition, when I won my first medal, my former gang members congratulated me and I knew I was released from the gang to pursue my dream.
On looking back at my youth there were two forces shaping my identity and two directions offering me a sense of belonging. This is the dilemma facing all youth, the choice between the high road and the low road. During this time of trying to decide every young person is a youth in pain and at risk. I have learned that the “angels” in my life are those adults who took time for me and by their kindness, genuine personal interest, understanding, ability to listen and to suspend judgement, help me to lower my hard, street-wise mask and to embrace my true and evolving identity.
About Reggie Newkirk
Institute for Healing Racism Lumsden, Saskatchewan, Canada Read Reggie Newkirk’s Bio