Born in Knoxville, my family moved 40 miles west to a rural area in Roane County, Tennessee when I was a young child. I grew up on a farm overlooking the lake, playing outside as a water rat and at the barn as a farm cat. Because my dad was a small town surgeon, I was raised in an environment that emphasized responsibility and productivity. My parents believed hard work created a level playing field, mostly because they lived that life, and achieved a level of wealth, adventure and professionalism they hardly dreamed possible.
While success translated into upward mobility in my family, I was also aware of my familial and cultural context. I grew up within 20 miles of both sets of my grandparents, none of whom graduated from high school. In my extended family, value came not from books and degrees but from devotion to the Lord, hunting early Saturday morning, reading shape notes at the family singin’, canning greenbeans and freezing creamed corn from your garden, and producing generations of kids who lived on your land and knew to come running when supper was ready. I grew up in a world where most people played an instrument, knew how to spend a Sunday rocking on a porch and drinking sweet tea, and took their guns and tobacco into church with them.
My cultural context added another level of nuance. In middle school and high school, my 3 siblings and I drove 45 minutes to an elite private school, where we learned to hang with country club kids whose family names graced buildings all over Knoxville. At the same time, we went to church and played on the lake with kids whose parents were mechanics and owned mom and pop trade stores. It would be easy, having grown up amidst so many binaries, to be a person who believes the “us” I became is better than the “us” that produced me. However, the circumstances of my upbringing instead taught me to connect with and value the rich and poor, the educated and not, the movers and shakers and sitters and rockers. I learned to see that starting a company and planting a garden required the same level of hard work, patience and attention to detail. That joining a country club and buying land on which you can build a homestead requires similar long term investment and longing for community. That a PhD has not worked harder or acquired more knowledge than a matriarch who has raised 3 generations of kids, clothing them with the skill of her hands, feeding them with the fruit of her plants, and entertaining them with the songs in her heart.
This cultural and familial context began stirring what would become my life’s work: to be a person who builds bridges, who advocates for pursuing diverse perspectives with empathy and compassion, who believes we can find connections through our shared humanity, who believes there is no them, there’s only us. I lived this perspective metacognitively while at the University of Miami, pursuing my PhD. Situated close to many Caribbean islands, Miami offered a home of sorts to many writers, artists and scholars who had experienced colonial realites. I was schooled in the beautiful work of so many who struggled to articulate their own self possession in the face of the traumatic histories of their people. Postcolonial literature drew me in, educating me to the horrors of colonial endeavors, the hypocrisy of the church and the evil of power. It also demonstrated the beauty to be found in telling one’s story, recognizing one’s past, and positioning oneself as a subject as the future approaches. The earth shifted for me as I realized the world has not been and is not fair. That people face horrible traumas and find a way to survive. That these stories of powerful people dehumanizing others to take what they want continue in my own country, in my very own city. That resistance is real and powerful. That agency can be claimed in the midst of victimization. That stories of redemption are everywhere.
In studying these heroes of resistance in the Caribbean and in America, I realized that so much evil begins when people categorize others as us and them. It is how colonialism, and slavery after it, survived and flourished for so many years. Tribes are everywhere. They help us know who we are, solidify our identities, and provide us with belonging and value. But they also draw lines of exclusion, creating easy labels and painful stereotypes as they lessen the value of those not included.
Through years of research and study, through years of living on the borderland between wealthy and poor, educated and not, black and white, rural and urban, and democrat and republican, I am convinced that there is no us and them. It is a construct, created by people afraid to encounter the perspectives of others. I believe that a culture built on us and them is doomed to fail. I believe that the basis of every us and them is hypocritical, self-serving bullshit designed to exclude others and cause pain. I believe that the best path forward is to commit—personally and as a society—to expand your us.