All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes: A Journey to Berlin and Amsterdam
Maya Angelou’s story is one of upheaval and suffering, but ultimately of triumph and a persistent journey to liberation. Growing up in poverty in 1930s America where slavery had only been abolished officially a century before, she was confined within a racist segregated society, subject to atrocious discrimination. Within the community as a whole, there would definitely have been a deeper sense of coming to terms with belonging and disconnection from identity.
Times of turmoil often draw from people the deepest of treasures in terms of insight, wisdom and humanity. Angelou’s life saw her work take her to Egypt and Ghana before arriving back to the country of her birth where she joined Martin Luther King in the efforts for Civil Rights for African-Americans. In her autobiographical “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes” Angelou wrote:
“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
This sentence speaks to me on so many levels, and is so relevant to the world unfolding around us.
We live in a dynamic civilisation where from one generation to the next; social, cultural and geographical paradigms are in constant flux. We indeed all need travelling shoes, though not necessarily of the sort with laces and ankle support. Though we are witnessing an age of migration, refuge and travel opening the world up as never before, I think we are experiencing the teething pains of a shift in consciousness, which will birth a truly more interconnected global community. The travel to prepare for is internal.
Humanity is going through an identity crisis. The rapid acceleration of technology is forcing us to question our sense of ethics, and modern phenomena such as Brexit and renewed nationalism are rising. This crisis involves the notion of nation states and identity being pulled ever more into doubt. We have created a world around us in which imaginary lines, ideology differences and religious inheritance defines nation. I believe our shifting paradigm will eventually see humanity come to comprehend that these perceived differences are less and less significant as we confront new terrains and unknown territory of our existence and purpose.
Each one of us, whether we admit it or not, have either felt or still do feel a need for belonging or acceptance. We all desire to be welcomed into a greater collective, that has our well-being at its core. Surely we all want and strive to live in a society where our needs are meet and we are supported to live, grow and thrive. When we sense that this is not the case; revolutions, uprisings, even wars ensue. The perceived realisation that our establishments are operating to the benefit of a particular, defined group brings people to a critical point. Organising into sub-populations with those that we feel we share a core value, be it ethnicity, belief system or geographical location, empowers us in numbers helping us to feel strong, protected and in control. This gives us the confidence to tackle the status quo, whether to put up boundaries or tear them down. Whilst this is obviously understandable behaviour, these movements act as a prelude to social revelation and a greater sense of collective identity being grasped. It is no coincidence that post-war Germany has been one of the country’s accepting the most amount of refugees in the last few years.
On account of her Christian faith Angelou spoke of humanity as the children of God.
Indeed, if the universe originated from a single point, then all of us share the same essential origin.
If the intelligence which created all life has culminated in us being here together, sharing this planet, then surely we can assume that harmony and non-judgement are a pre-requisite for humanity to unite and meet everybody’s needs.
No man is an island, and only when we can rely upon each other can we co-create a civilisation with mutual acceptance beyond labels. Only then can we become integrated to see the boundaries dissolve and the possibility of our entwined potential and destiny begin to form.
Those who have read my writings before may know of my grandmother’s story. As a Jew in Austria during the 1930s, life became very dangerous for her family with the arrival of Nazism in their homeland. Though there had been problems brewing, this sudden rhetoric that the (mostly) integrated Jewish communities in European countries were no longer welcome meant rapid decisions had to be made. Many Jewish families sought refuge in the initially safe Dutch capital city Amsterdam. My grandmother had to learn Dutch in school and settle in a new country, a new culture. When the Nazis invaded Holland, my grandmother’s family again had to take drastic measures and went into hiding in the attics of homes across Amsterdam. This was the case for the Frank family too, with Anne Frank; the famous teenage writer of a diary written in hiding, targetted by an ideology on the basis of the religion she had been born into. Both families, of course, were captured by the Nazis and taken to concentration camps where the extermination of ‘the other’ had been planned.
This month I joined my grandmother in Berlin to participate in the opening of the new exhibition at the Anne Frank Centre, as well as the reopening of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
She was invited to speak in the Nelson Mandela International School, where more than 50 countries are represented by students. I was also invited to take the stage with her to give my insight as the 3rd generation.
It was incredible to share the stage with her and Patrick Siegele, Director of the Centre and hear questions on the nature of the human journey through the void of genocide, belonging and also looking forward to a future beyond division. For me, as the grandson of refugees arriving in London in the 1950s, with a mixed connection to various countries including the UK, Norway, Israel, Germany and also Austria I grew up not fully aligning with any nation state.
London is my home but even so I grew up with families of mixed heritages: Indian, Nigerian, Greek, and all finding themselves in the mixing pot of arguably the world’s largest metropolis. My connection to the native culture was tenuous. Although the city is on British land, the extent of it’s culture is, for me, mostly mirrored in the food brands, football teams, TV shows and existence of a Royal Family. The country where curry is the national dish, has been influenced so much by other cultures and I find being around such diversity truly nourishing. My view of the human, of identity and belief systems was greatly expanded by my environment and allowed me to see that whilst there are nuances in our languages, food and music, our deep longings are the same, taking root in a place embedded within the exterior, somewhere difference cannot be found. The essence within all of us is the same. The longing for that place called home which Angelou speaks of, to be understood, accepted, a longing for expression, family and peace, we all share. The abode of acceptance and integration is far more profound than a physical location or country, or a political system.
The real destination is a place of unilateral inter-connected consciousness, where we are able to transcend the prejudice and expectation which we ascribe each other because of what we see and judge when another stands before us. When we make these judgements on others and ultimately on ourselves, we subjugate and imprison our minds and spirits. This will always lead to conflict and separation, according to J Krishnamurti:
“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
I appreciate that for the contemporary human it is extremely difficult to move beyond the constructs of nation and identity which we have worked so hard to build, enforce and preserve. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting we create a uniform culture devoid of beauty or idiosyncratic charm. Far from it, what I suggest is connecting with that deeper essence which we all carry and which isn’t British, Jewish, Muslim, African or male. It is the human spirit. What has kept us moving forward through the ages, which drives us through the pain and suffering, inspires us and moves us to make progress, to create, love and care for others. This is our true identity.
And so I feel that we are all nomads traversing the path, and whilst we walk at different speeds and with a different gait, the sooner we see that we are on the same path, the sooner we will reach the destination.