Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chris Abani muses on humanity

By Evan T.

In this TED talk, Chris Abani puts together a selection of stories from his past and muses on his own philosophies and philosophies from others supporting his belief that we can only be human for our humanity to be reflected back at us by others.

Chris starts off with a description of the stories that he finds interesting about people and the way people are, which prepares you for the stories that he is about to tell throughout the talk. Then he gives a nice, ironic statement that he presents with a lot of emotion in his voice. He says, “I really believe that we are never more beautiful, than when we’re most ugly.” Which I think is true, because as he says, “that is the moment that we know what we are really made of.” He then tells us that he grew up in Nigeria with a generation of students in the 80’s who were protesting dictatorship, and that he has come to learn that the world or any major issue is never saved or solved by grand gestures but a buildup of small acts of kindness and compassion. He follows that statement with a phrase from South Africa, which is “ubuntu”, which means that the only way to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me, but he then says that if you’re like him then your humanity is more like a window, and that he doesn’t really see it, until there is a bug that is dead on the window and suddenly he sees it. He says that usually it’s never good when he sees it; it shows up for the bad times, which I think is true because we glide along through life then whenever we had strong emotions, that is when we feel most human, but I don’t think that is a bad thing, it’s just normal. He then goes back to “ubuntu” and says that what it really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. I don’t fully agree with that statement because we will always be human. In fact, without other humans, I think we would be more natural humans. Without self-consciousness or education, and no help from others, we would be a plain human rather than an advanced human.

After his introduction is complete, he decides to start with stories about remarkable people. His first story is about his mother, and he begins it with a funny story about how English his mother is, then leads into a story about his mother standing up to soldiers and I found it shocking when he is saying this in a humorous way and then says that these soldiers were trying to kill them, and he does this more than once throughout the talk, where he will be saying something funny then ‘boom’ it’s about something horrible that he has experienced and seen. He goes on to tell another story about himself as a seven-year-old boy translating for his mother teaching a class of girls about birth control. He again leads out of this rather funny story with a sad story about his mother not crying through a year of terrible things and then crying when a women gives her all of the clothing and toys out of her suitcase. He gives a quote from his mother from this story, which is ,”You can steal your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror, but the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you.”

He moves into stories talking about treatment of women in Rwanda and in their government and the way men are taught to be men in ways in which to not be women. He talks about his own experiences in being taught to be a man, and that when he was 13 he had to kill a goat, and this older boy who had told him stories about stabbing people and their guts spilling out, came with him to kill the goat, and he uses what this boy did for him as an example of an act of kindness that shows humanity. Chris could not look into the goats eyes and be able to kill it, so what the boy did for him was he covered the goats mouth and eyes and Chris killed it. After killing the goat Chris cried, but even though the older boy had seen so much and killed people and all Chris did was kill a goat, he did not treat him like a wimp. He then takes this sadder story and says, “speaking of goats makes me think of sheep,” so he once again goes straight from a one thing to another, which I think adds to the impact of his stories. He then tells a funny story about his birthday being on Christmas, and that he never got any presents, but that one time his uncle came and told him to take whatever he wanted out of his suitcase, so Chris takes out and inflatable sheep and puts his finger ‘somewhere it shouldn’t have been’ and walks into the room waving it around and his uncle says, “It’s okay, I’m Scottish.” Then, once again he goes from a funny story to a sad story ; this time about his time on death row where he talks about a man named Jon James, who had two comic books that he used to teach the others on death row how to read, which is somewhat funny. Chris is then telling about how Jon didn’t know what death row really meant and how he always said they would get out and that he heard it through the grape vine, which made the crowd giggle. Once again ‘boom’, Chris then says, “They killed him,” in such a blank way, and so shocking right after a giggle. He describes how they killed him, which is very a disturbing part of the talk because of the terrible way they did it. He then goes on to end his talk with a poem that goes very well with his points about acts of compassion.

Chris Abani is a very good speaker, and his use of stories from his own life experience and his knowledge of the beliefs of the people where he grew up are mixed together very well. He spoke with a lot of emotion in his voice and in his face. He definitely kept my attention by including humor in his stories. The way he used humor in his stories, I thought was quite interesting; whether it was on purpose or not, the way he went from laughing about something to a sad event or a horrific event made his talk have much more impact, especially when he was telling about the man in death row, because Jon saying that he heard it through the grape vine is funny, then he’s dead, and there’s nothing between that, he pauses, there’s giggles in the audience and then he says, “they killed him,”. That was defiantly a good tool for persuasiveness because it’s an example of humanity showing up when something funny or bad happens and that other people help you to see your humanity.

In conclusion, I don’t fully agree with the statement about “ubuntu” because we will always be human but I do think that having others around makes humanity better and more interesting and if we forget about our humanity, others will remind us. I enjoyed Chris Abani’s muses on humanity.

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