“I know I’m Not the Only One” : How Black Panther and Meme Culture Taught Me About Individuality

Am I the only one who [insert typically unoriginal idea here]?

No, you are not. The fact that you even ask this question shows how unoriginal you are. Ironically, we typically ask this question because we are looking for confirmation that someone else agrees with us. In fact, agreement on certain topics often becomes the seed that blossoms into friendship. However, this question is not an invitation. We don’t ask “Does anyone else _______?” Instead we emphasize “only,” hoping that the answer is yes.

Yes, you are the only person that puts their cereal in the bowl before the milk. You are an anomaly. An American Hero. The messiah that has been selected to spread your teachings of cereal preparation to others.

We find ourselves constantly hoping that we have stumbled upon some originality in a world that seems to be lacking.

Despite the constant desire to feel interconnected, we tend to take pride in the belief that there is something about ourselves that makes us unique from the herd. After seeing Black Panther, I kept on telling my boyfriend how some scenes reminded me of The Lion King. I didn’t think that it was an astute observation, but I did think that it demonstrated some intellect on my part to make the connection. That is, until I logged onto Twitter and saw a tweet that mirrored my exact observations (to further my point, here are images taken from two different posts on two different sites, neither of them being Twitter):

 

Now, I know what you are thinking, my assigned FBI agent must have relayed the information to the NSA, yet this was not the case. My agent is sleeping on me because I have mentioned several golden gems (that’s right, I am giving you the go ahead) and have yet to seem them blossom into fruition (*cough* plan your own movie ending *cough* {for serious inquiries on this, please contact}). I remember watching Shark Tank and becoming frustrated over the fact that someone stole MY idea for an invention (yet mine would have been more fashion-forward). The idea that was sparked over the need to make walking with my phone and umbrella a little easier. The idea that was ignited because I had a difficulty with just keeping my phone in my pocket as I held my umbrella. The idea that was probably thought of by thousands of others since I am not the only person that has developed an addiction to my phone, so much so that I would rather have my umbrella blow every which way than to keep my phone in my pocket.

200_d

“And I know,  And I know, And I know, And I know, And I know, And I don’t know”

The fact of the matter is, we are not entirely special – despite this mindset being instilled upon us from an early age. We inhabit the same place, engage with the same routines, so we will naturally have the same responses to those interactions. We like to believe that we are all unique. That there is something about us that makes us different – in a good way. That we are all our own little Ruldophs (which is a problem in itself – when we are the ones that are different, it is positive. When others are different, it is often the opposite).

Not everyone is the exact same, but we all possess the same traits and habits, just slightly altered. We are essentially all cut from the same cloth yet the seamstress can develop many different shapes and sizes to fool us into thinking that different patterns exist. Like when you go to Old Navy and see one pattern used for a dress, skirt, shirt, shoes, and bag (don’t worry, I worked there), I am sure that you can talk to any person and discover at least one similarity. Yes, I am aware that this is not a complex concept, but it needs to be said.

 “And so we are all connected in the great circle of life”

– Mufasa

Surprisingly, it was not until recently that I discovered just how mundane my entire life is. This is all thanks to meme culture. Ironically, memes are defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” As nothing in life is truly original (after thousands of years, how can it be?), we develop copies, sometimes exact, others with modifications (interested in this topic? Enroll at Queens College and take a course on Simulacra). The term history repeats itself is less metaphorical than we would like to believe. Although we all possess the same innate desires and instincts, we tend to believe that our experiences are what make us unique. However, memes have proved that this is simply not the case.

When we come across a meme we like, we typically adhere to the three archetypes. (1) We laugh, write “I’m weak *cryface emoji”; (2) “I’m dead *skull*”; or for the more poetic: (3) “MEEE!” The fact that our responses tend to boil down to these three options is telling as well. We find the meme humorous because there is a ring of truth to it. This universality is the basis for comedy. Comedians are storytellers – the only difference is that they report life rather than fantasies. When I was in Atlanta, I watched an Open Mic, and I can easily recall the joke that made me laugh the most. The comedian was referring to the fire drill implemented during elementary school: Stop, Drop, and Roll: “Kids nowadays, they don’t practice that shit! In the 90’s catching on fire was such a problem that we had to invent a whole system for it, but today, kids have discovered that all they have to do is not catch on fire.” The audience responded well, but would the same response be present if the joke was repeated to a newer generation that never had to roll around putting out imaginary fires? Or if the audience were home-schooled and they practiced changing the batteries for the fire detector?

This leads us back to meme culture. We reblog, repost, retweet, or share because part of us is excited that there is a community of others like us. A tiny part of us feels slighted, maybe even robbed: You mean other people did this as well? What does that mean about me?

individualitySuddenly, that one experience that tokened our individuality is revoked. As much as we want to feel like we are part of the collective, there is another part of us that wants to be the one happy yellow smiley-face in a sea of unhappy blue (if you can immediately recall the image, my point is proven once again). We want to be like everyone else, but we also want to be the one in the group that is slightly (only in a good way) different.

And that is just it. We are so fixated on differences that acknowledging similarities seems like a removal of self. We can only identify ourselves through the existence of an other. We feel like we have been robbed when we should really feel like we have gained. Yes, you may be special – but so is everyone else.  It may seem like I am contradicting myself since earlier I stated that we are not entirely special – so let me clarify, we are not entirely, but partly. Special can be defined as “better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual.” We are not better or greater than others, but we are different from what is usual since normalcy is a myth. Why then does acknowledging others as special makes us feel less than? It is only this notion of uniqueness that we feel is reduced once more is identified. A rose is still a rose despite being packed with eleven others.

Perhaps it is best that we are not entirely different from everyone else. To go back to Ruldolph – yes he was different, and he was a hero, but he “wasn’t allowed to join any reindeer games” until he proved that his differences made him valuable. The truth of the matter is, in a society that praises individuality, we simultaneously frown upon it. We only like differences once they are shown to be practical, and once that happens, we replicate those differences until they seemingly lose their practicality. Constantly replacing the Mufasas with Simbas, until they are one in the same (have you seen Simba grown up next to his father?)

 

You’re Present, But Are You Here?

If you could be a superhero, what powers would you have?

A question that we all know, and have most likely asked at one point in our lives. There is a thrill behind this question that derives from the anticipation of the answer. For some reason, it is very telling of a person once we hear their desired power. We also love to debate afterwards, desperate to prove to the other that our power is the clear superior choice. Upon seeing this question, you probably already came up with an answer, and I will contend with you that any power other than time manipulation is an absolute waste. Unless, of course, you are that one person who has to ruin it for everyone by claiming that you would want your power to be one that allowed you to absorb the power of others. If that was the case, take your non-imaginative self elsewhere.

I am a firm believer that time manipulation is the most superior power because it obviously trumps the other powers available.  It is clearly a jack of all trades. The other popular powers can easily be defeated through flashing forward to the future, or skimming back to the past. No matter what power, time can find a way to defeat it.

Time is the only thing that keeps us going, and it is ultimately the one thing that stops us. We are obsessed with time. Always searching for ways to do more with less.

I would love to time travel. To be able to visit my past self and grant myself with advice. Some simple: cheetah print and velour do not make a good combination for pants. Some far more complex: stock up on naked chicken chalupas because there are some dark times ahead. I would travel to the future to answer questions burning inside me: Who will be our next president? How is Scandal going to end? Will we have VR theaters?  In the Year 3000, has much changed except living underwater?

Yet if there is one thing that movies have taught me, it is that time travel cannot happen (we all live vicariously through movies so don’t knock me). In the movies, science is never the issue. After all, why should it be? We have phones that talk to us, hover boards, and we can transmit information from a computer onto a piece of paper in a matter of seconds. Time travel cannot exist because we cannot handle it. In the movies, the time traveler always realizes that there are consequences for pulling at the thread of time. Nothing ever goes the way as planned, and the hero ultimately realizes that it is not the past or future that needs changing, but the present, and how they currently view it.

So why in a society so fixated on time do we choose to hope and reflect rather than live in the now?

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.”

– Kiran Desai

The reason we adore the past is quite simple. The past is selective: “According to Alan R. Hirsch in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” nostalgia is a yearning for an idealized past — “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out’” (Elite Daily). When we recollect memories, we manipulate them in the process, and because of this, that one memory of our birthday is a tad better than the actual event. In fact, each time we go back to that birthday, the moment changes up until the very point that it can no longer be classified as a memory. Realistic fiction probably. Memoir, not quite. We dream of the past because it is literally a dream.

“I’m looking forward to the future, and feeling grateful for the past.”

– Mike Rowe

We already know that the unknown intrigues us, which is a huge part in the future’s appeal. Perhaps the future fascinates us because of its potential, causing an “optimistic, extreme positivity bias toward the future. . .To the point that people “always say future events are more important to their identity and life story than the past events. Talk about being nostalgic for the future” (The Atlantic).  It reminds us that despite the helplessness we often feel, we can ignite change. Today might be horrible, but if we get through it, there is a better tomorrow. When I was at the tail end of undergrad, I was working part-time, attending school full-time, and student teaching. I would rush from my teaching site, to classes, to close up the store – just to get home to grade or begin an assignment due the following week. I told myself that it was temporary and promised myself a tomorrow where my life would not be like that. Here I am, 5 years later and my life is pretty much all work and no play. Where did I go wrong? Probably when I began investing all my time in the future without distributing any to my present. I viewed the present as a means to get to my destination. Yet the question constantly burning inside me was: Am I there yet? What future was I working toward? At first it was completing my BA, then my MA, then my first year of teaching, now until I get tenure. We like looking at the future because it gives us a reason to ignore the present. In the present, time is limited. Looking at the future, time suddenly seems limitless.

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

– George Harrison

Despite our longing for the past and dreams of the future, we are constantly advised to live in the present. Yet the present is not equipped with the nostalgic feeling that we find in either the past or future. Time is cyclical but not equal. We wish for time travel without even knowing that we already are time travelers: the present is a culmination of the past and future. The present is constantly fleeting and generating. In this very moment, the first lines of this sentence exist in the past while the rest remain in the present, as my next sentence exists in the future. That is, until I have completed it, and until you read it.

Time travel cannot exist because once it is apparent that we have a hold of the past and future, we will no longer crave it – just as we reject the obtainable present. I mentioned nostalgia in this post, but I think now is an appropriate time to examine its definition:

“a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homelanda sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” (Dictionary).

It is pointless to reiterate how nostalgia and the past are linked, so let’s focus on the future. Although nostalgia is deeply rooted in what has happened, it’s connection to the future is simple. The future, since it is yet to exist, has been imagined. Notice the past tense? We will always yearn for the two, yet as the wise prophet West was once quoted: “You never know what you got ’til it’s gone, I guess that’s why I’m here and I can’t come back home.” It’s time to make the present our home while we still can.

Kindness’ Legacy

We were discussing legacies in our English class, so our English teacher accordingly asked us what legacy we wanted to leave behind. I half-listened to the responses because most of them involved being rich or becoming famous – things that did not really interest me. I also half-listened because my anxiety began to drown out voices. My response was way different. Mine did not align with everyone else. Once again I somehow managed to make myself the odd one out. I had two options, share what I truly wrote, or lie and appease my peers. I went with option A, and I regretted it faster than the time that I decided to cut my beautiful prom dress so that I could wear it during all the times that I would go clubbing (currently at a grand total of 1 time, and by that time, the dress was discarded).

I read my answer, “I want to save someone.”

She, the girl who found amusement reminding me that I did not quite fit in, laughed. She snarled her lips: “Who. Does. She. Think. She. Can. Save?”  The mere thought of me having the audacity to think that I could assist another human being caused her to laugh: “Her?” An echo of laughter followed hers, so I tried to clarify. I did not mean physically save someone the way that a doctor, nurse, firefighter, or police officer would – although I do not see how that would be amusing. I meant, emotionally and mentally. I meant that I wanted to be the person that could help someone else. I wanted to provide someone with the proper tools and support so that they could make a difference in their life to achieve their potential. I meant that I wanted to be someone who would hear a student say that for their legacy, they wanted to save someone, and I would commend them. I would protect them from any mockery because I know that children can be cruel. I would uplift them because I know that, although the bully might forget their actions, their victim will replay it over and over in their mind until they have twisted it enough to believe that they actually deserved it.

During Senior year, she was going through a rough patch. She asked me for help with something, and I remember that my gut told me to deny her. I remember that so vividly, the anger swelling up my bones, the burning in my throat, but I also remember going against my gut. I remember agreeing to help her. I remember helping her. I remember that she never apologized for the incident. I do not remember what she needed help with, but I do remember that I certainly did not regret helping her because it taught me a few things.

She probably does not even remember either event that I just discussed, but that is okay. That is actually the point. I believe that we should all help one another in anyway that we can. We are all existing and experiencing this life at the same time, so shouldn’t we

DSC_0278

I took this during the Coney Island Mermaid Parade two years ago, and I imagine this is Kindness in human form.

try to help make it easier for one another? It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, like a massive donation to charity (although those are certainly always appreciated). In fact, smaller deeds are preferred in my book because those are the ones that we often do without thinking – they are often impulsive. When driven by impulse, we have no ulterior motives, we are genuine. Think about the time where you saw someone with their hands full, struggling to open the door, and you decided to hold the door open for them. The person most likely thanked you enthusiastically. Or what about a time when you were driving yet you ushered a pedestrian to cross – do you ever realize how incredibly thankful they seem as they raise their hand, smile, and shimmy across the street? I’ve always find these moments bittersweet for it is sad that these gestures, they cannot even be called gestures because they are too small to be considered one, interactions show how surprised we are when kindness is presented to us. We show immense gratitude to things that seem like common courtesy because we have somehow found ourselves in a self-centered society.

That needs to change.

We can start a ripple effect – it is not about receiving credit for helping, it is about igniting the desire to help others. Kindness is the smartest investment that you can make. At first it may take a while to increase, but after purchasing multiple stocks, you will find that you are rich. Yet it does not only affect you. The beautiful thing about kindness is that it influences other investors and spreads like wildfire.

Colors

In elementary school I learned my primary colors,

Yet black and white were never a part of this list,

But our society revolves around these colors.

Black and white are just two more categories.

A systematic way to create sectionalized territories.

A way to reduce humans to colors that were never primary

All while making other colors appear secondary.

11:56 PM

What is at the core of our essence? What is it that makes us inherently and inevitably human?  It is actually quite a riddle because it is this very aspect that both unites and divides us. Although it creates humanity, it also breeds destruction. Do you know the answer? If not, don’t fret, it is probably because I am not making myself clear enough. Our society praises the unattainable perfection, but the reality is that we are all flawed, each and every one of us. Our flaws fuel our passions, fears, desires, temptations – our humanity. Why then do we live in a world where being perfect is viewed as absolute? We all know that such an aspiration is impossible, yet we judge others for their flaws and criticize ourselves harshly for our blemishes. Think of yourself, your role model, your loved ones, and your friends, I am sure that you can pinpoint a defect in them.  Please don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong in noticing another person’s imperfection, as long as you can notice your own. Acknowledging that flaws exist is not the issue. The issue is using this imperfection to define someone, to discriminate someone, to diminish someone. I am aware that I am not perfect, in fact, I am far from it. My imperfections do not make me any less of a woman, any less of a person; in fact my imperfections simply make me more humane.