What makes real people?
Before I was seven years old I asked my father that question.
"What's the matter with you?" my dad asked in response. "What kind of notion is that--real people?"
"People that live in houses," I tried to explain. "People that stay together in towns."
I was expressing in a child's blunt language the basic questions of theology, philosophy, and psychology. What is human? How do people become what they are? And the original questions of sociology. Questions of social organization and disorganization. How and why do people form groups? How and why do they get disconnected? How can they get together?
My family was among an original American homeless category, called migrant workers. We traveled in a battered car throughout the western half of the United States, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and peddling novelties from door to door.
I was born in the hopyards of Oregon, and with the seasons and years we followed the crops over routes later known as "migrant streams." We slept in the car, or in a tent. Sometimes there were rows of one-room shacks provided by the growers, and sometimes strictly supervised government camps.
I saw my mother stand at the edge of a field with a dead baby in her arms. Someone reported us to the sheriff. He said he would try to get a federal agent to help us. He couldn't give permission to bury the baby in his county because we were nonresidents. I knew there was big depression, and every town was trying to keep the bums out. I heard my Dad say the government is full of graft, that rich people work the poor to death and then kick them in the teeth; and a poor man's got no chance. Sometimes he said he was just fed up with doing the rich man's dirty work, so we made willow baskets and paper flowers to sell. The earliest thing I can remember is selling baskets and flowers. Dad told me to go up one side of a street and back down the other throughout the neighborhoods, knocking at each house and entering each place of business, saying, "Would you like to buy a basket? They are 25 cents apiece."
Up one side of a street and down the other. Going systematically through the towns I learned about urban patterns. Gradually I learned the buildings that were not houses, and stores might be called public buildings. I was fascinated by the schools, libraries, and churches, and began to understand that these were shared and often provided through community cooperation and taxation. So basket peddling gave me opportunities to observe life in a settled community, and to become aware of the contrast between this and my own lifestyle, dress, language, and total condition. I heard people call us gypsies, tramps, migrants, bums, farm labor, transients, and oakies. The designations so obviously set us apart that I began to conceive of the townsfolk as real people. I asked, "What makes real people?" because I had sensed the vital concepts of being and belonging. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to belong?
People have asked these questions in the contexts of religion and philosophy for as long as we have records of human thought. When we began to use scientific methods to ask these questions, psychology was born. At about the time I was asking them, the same questions were being examined from another viewpoint, far more sophisticated, but remarkably like my own. It was the viewpoint, growing out of the relatively new academic field of sociology, that persons are to a great measure shaped by their society. And people who are placed on the outside of social life because of circumstances or factors such as race or gender are likely to be acutely aware of social patterns that people inside the society take for granted.
At the University of Chicago, where American sociology became involved more with people than with methodology, Robert Ezra Park developed the idea of a marginal personality (Park & Burgess, 1921). He postulated that the loyalties that bind persons together in primitive societies are in direct proportion to the intensity of the fears and hatreds with which they view other societies. This concept is developed as theories of ethnocentrism and in-group/out-group propensities. Group solidarity correlates to a great extent with animosity toward an out-group.
With expansion of communication and transportation came the transformation of primitive societies into a wider and more rational social order, what we call civilization. Movements and migrations that accompany this process bring about a mixture of peoples and fusion of cultures, with the result that some persons find themselves in ambiguous positions, caught between, not belonging solidly to an in-group, and therefore confused as to relationship with an out-group.
Park (1921) then added his own theory of what he called the marginal man, described as one who lives at once within two or more different and often somewhat antagonistic cultures. The marginal personality type arises at a time and place where there is a significant merging of cultures and people. Such persons find themselves always on the margins, rather than comfortably integrated. The positive aspect, Park noted, is that marginal persons are by definition the more civilized human beings. They can observe their own and other groups with considerable objectivity. Because of personal detachment, they can learn to accept differences, develop wide appreciations, and make mature adjustments.
When I read of the marginal person, I recognized myself. I tell some of my experiences as kind of parable. You may find in it some special meaning in these days when all boundaries seem indistinct and, perhaps more frequently than at any time in history, people live on the margins.
My training as a basket peddler gave me almost unique advantages. I was compelled to talk to strangers and walk into strange buildings. I knew I was different and did not belong in the way of real people. Yet I had a kind of claim, as the homeless do, to the streets and public areas. I examined buildings and school grounds, tried out the swings, peeked into the windows. I was more curious than afraid. The paradox was that while I did not belong I was in a better position than most children to understand the concept of community.
I discovered for myself the free public library, the church with its marvelous Sunday school, and schools. I wanted to go to school to learn to read and get a town job and live in a house. Schools were free and attendance laws made me feel I would not be turned away. Finally, two years later than most children I had my opportunity.
Ironically, after I started going to school I became even more alienated. Now I was a kind of traitor to my own people. My parents, threatened in their position as I made ideals of the teachers, scoffed and ridiculed and even punished me. I was scolded for saying "thank you" in that highfalutin way, trying to act like those nasty nice school teachers. I was slapped for saying "ain't" was a wrong word, and sent to bed for putting ideas into the heads of the little ones. The migrant kids called me smarty and stuck-up because I liked school and would not join in picking up cigarette butts.
At school I was a curiosity. Older than my classmates and accomplished in some areas beyond any of them, I was behind where it counted most. I had to guess at the material they had covered before I arrived. They told in oral reports of music and dancing lessons. They baked cookies, competed in talent shows, drew pictures, and knew the names of movie stars.
In my early years I knew nothing of life in a house. Constantly I stumbled over such terms in lessons and tests as: windowsill, curtain rod, cabinets, highboy, lavatory, drawer pull, mantle, casters, ladle, light switch. We had no electric lights except in government camps, where they were turned on and off from a main switch. We never had a telephone, vacuum sweeper, washer, toaster, refrigerator, radio, or floor lamp. We never had a private bathroom, or a kitchen sink, or an oven. I never owned a tricycle, bicycle, or pets. We did not go on vacations, have company, take lessons, or pack luggage. We had no front yard, back yard, next door, or neighborhood. We did not sweep or shovel walks. We had no shelves, attic, cellar, or basement. For years I owned no hairbrush, toothbrush, nail file, or pajamas.
At about the time I was trying to find myself between the migrant camp and the town, one of Park's students, Everett Stonequist, was writing The Marginal Man--A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (1937). He described the marginal man as "one who is poised in psychological uncertainty between two or more social worlds, reflecting in his soul the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions of these worlds." Stonequist's study examines representative types of marginal persons. Among his references are autobiographical writings, such as The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois, and My Life as German and Jew, by Jakob Wassermann. From the literature and extensive investigations of factors of race and social conditions, he generates a kind of marginal personality profile. Stonequist characterizes marginal persons as painfully self-conscious, excessively sensitive to others' opinions and actions, and "ambivalent in attitude and sentiment." Feelings of inferiority arise out of social situations where they are stigmatized as inferior or made to feel unacceptable. They look for ways of proving themselves, constantly striving to find situations in which they might excel.
Stonequist (1937) did not emphasize personality traits as problems. His main point was to show how marginality, like migration and fusion of cultures, can affect social experience in periods of rapid culture change. "Population intrusion," he says, "sets in motion a process of culture change that breaks down old cultural forms, releases individuals from their domination, and so gives rise to periods of creative activity and advance." Then he quotes the historian, Teggart: "While historically advancement has been dependent upon the collision of groups, the resultant response has taken place in the minds of persons, so we are led to see that all transitional eras are alike in being periods of mental awakening, and of the release of initiative in thought and action." Persons who learn to adjust themselves, Stonequist concludes, can contribute to the solution of the conflict of races and cultures. I paraphrase here from closing chapters of his book: Marginal persons may become pioneers and creative agents in a new social order that seems to evolve as narrower group interests give way to larger human values. The marginal man is the key personality in the contacts of cultures. It is in his mind that the cultures come together, conflict, and eventually work out some kind of mutual adjustment. He is the crucible of cultural fusion. Thus the practical efforts of the marginal person to solve his own problem lead him consciously or unconsciously to change the situation. His interest may shift from himself to the objective social conditions and launch him upon the career of conciliator, interpreter, reformer, or teacher. It is in the mind of the marginal person that the inner significance and driving motives of culture change are most luminously revealed.
In 1992 Charles Taylor of Princeton University wrote Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition." Taylor sees in the United States today "unprecedented powers of creation [and destruction] at the disposal of increasingly interdependent societies with diverse cultures." He says the pivotal question is whether the democratic ideal may be served by providing each separate group with identity for its members, or connecting the democratic value of diversity to the value of expanding the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual horizons of all, enriching our world by exposing us to differing cultural and intellectual perspectives.
Since ethnic groups became more interested in social and political recognition, the term marginality has been used in a negative sense not intended by the early sociologists. Rejection of the melting pot metaphor and fear of assimilation have resulted in emphasis on recognition more than cooperation. Recently, however, new terms are being used for the concept of being able to merge cultures without negative consequences for either group distinctiveness or individual identity and self-esteem. These include DuBois' double consciousness, Thurgood Marshall's double vision, and David Hollinger's postethnic perspective. Representatives of Native American, Black, Hispanic, and Asian cultures have all suggested the future of American democracy depends on respect for identity in the context of a common culture. In a psychology course I teach at a theological seminary I have several students who plan to work in other cultures. I assign them a reading authored by a former missionary. He says the psychological adjustment necessary for optimum multicultural relations is to yield part of one's birth culture to merge with another. He compares this with the initial socialization of a child, making adjustments to become a fully developed personality within a social context. He calls his model the 150 percent person. The person who is more than whole.
When I graduated from high school I still lived with my family in a migrant shack without a telephone or plumbing. I had learned to live in two worlds, supporting migrant causes, yet feeling like a real person as I gave a speech at commencement. I could move from one role to another with considerable skill, and feel a certain pleasure from the experience. I was coming to realize that not belonging exclusively to one group has a positive side. I didn't need to fight anyone in order to assert myself. I was developing the wide range of sympathies and appreciations I needed to become a bridge for my people. Now I have worked as an educator with migrant populations in the United States, and with peoples of several ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic conditions in Europe and Latin America. Psychology and sociology certainly have given me essential information and tools. My experience as a marginal person has given me that feeling of extra percentage. I began my quest for identity with the desire to be a real person. Now I see the challenge for you and me in multicultural America is to be a little more than real.
Park, R. E., & Burgess, E. W. (1921). An introduction to the science of sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stonequist, E. V. (1937). The marginal man: A study in personality and culture conflict. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition": An essay by Charles Taylor (with commentary by A. Gutman, S. C. Rockefeller, M. Walzer, & S. Wolf). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This article was originally presented as the Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at the Psi Chi/Rocky Mountain Regional Convention, held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association in Reno, Nevada, April 18, 1997.
Billie Davis, EdD, has excelled in a wide variety of pursuits and has received several professional awards for excellence in teaching, service, and outstanding achievement. Besides her work as an educator (she is professor emeritus at Evangel College), Dr. Davis is also an accomplished writer of educational materials, articles, and books. Her books include Teaching to Meet Crisis Needs: The Dynamic Classroom and People, Tasks and Goals--Studies in Christian Leadership. She is also a lecturer and consultant in the areas of education, curriculum, and social problems, as related to migrants, multi-ethnic, Spanish-speaking, and disadvantaged children and youth. Her workshops have been featured at numerous conventions sponsored by the National Education Association as well as at state and local associations. In addition, Dr. Davis and her husband George have served as missionaries in all the countires of Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
Dr. Davis's autobiographical story first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, was condensed in Reader's Digest, and then was published in several anthologies. Her story was also filmed by the National Education Association under the title, A Desk for Billie, and is now available in video.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Billie Davis, EdD, 652 S. Marlan Avenue, Springfield, MO 65802-2841.
Fall 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 28-31), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1997, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.