Collective identity refers to the sense of belonging among individuals in a group. Everyone belongs to a group and he adapts himself and is subjected to its culture and norms.
This sense of belonging is crucial in that one’s membership provides for him his identity, an important element in survival. W.H. Auden’s poem The Unknown Citizen and Bessie Head’s short story The Deep River explore how collective identity could affect the individual, in both good and bad ways.
In Auden’s poem, collective identity is defined by expectations set by the community and which members are expected to follow. The poem praises an Unknown Citizen for conforming to these expectations. He is one “whom there was no official complaint/ and all the reports on his conduct agree/ that, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.”
The society, called the “Greater Community”, by which the unknown citizen lived in, dictated his actions. He worked in a factory until retirement. He was a Union member and “paid his dues.” He went out to drinks with friends, bought the paper everyday, had insurance policies and a Health card, and paid in installment basis. He owned home appliances that were just like everyone else’s. Even his reactions to advertisements and opinions to issues were that of the majority, also known as “proper opinions”.
The Unknown Citizen’s daily habits are common, average and expected. In wartime years, when it is considered the responsibility of every citizen to protect and preserve the sense of other concepts that his society invented (Democracy and Patriotism) the Unknown Citizen joined the army. Finally, he was “married and added five children to the population.”
If the poem details the collective identity of the average modern American, The Deep River is a folk tale about another civilization, the old Monemapee tribe of Central Africa. It is notable to point out that like The Unknown Citizen, the tribe members were “granted no individual faces.” The collective identity of the Monemapees was centered on their food source, the planting and harvest activities. They were a tribe because they had to work together to plough the crops, harvest and ferment.
A main function of the chief was to give out orders when each activity is to be carried out. His words were binding and definite in that no member would plough the field unless he orders for the activity to begin. Sebembele, the main character in Head’s story, however, disrupts the peace and harmony of the people when he falls in love with his father’s wife and bears a child with her even while his father was yet alive. When his father dies, Sebembeloe assumes the position of chief being the eldest child, and confesses the truth behind Makobi’s parentage to everyone. This news is received with alarm by the people and it troubled the “river of their lives”. His brothers and the tribe counselors lose their confidence at his leadership which, in turn, causes disputes among the people.
The collective identity of the tribe is challenged when their new leader attempts to change it because he lets himself be governed by personal feelings instead of the collective interest, contrary to old beliefs that “A ruler must not be carried away by his emotions.” The tribe members also feel that by being stubborn and fighting for his love for Rankwana, Sebembeloe was allowing himself to be controlled by his wife. According to one member, “A man who is influenced by a woman is no ruler. He is like one who listens to the advice of a child.”
Most often, the collective identity of the individual defines his personality, beliefs and value systems. He goes through life with a set of guidelines as to how to fulfill the social expectations of the group and how to face every situation and decide on every problem that arises. However, sometimes the usually consistent relationship between the individual and his sense of collective identity is challenged by unique circumstances.
In Sebembele’s story, for example, he falls in love with his father’s wife and even bears a child with her. The conflict in situations like these is on whether to follow one’s conscience and not to disrupt the collective identity of the group or to follow another voice which tells the individual to be courageous, follow his heart, and opt for a change even if it would cause the disapproval of other members of the collective group.
This challenge usually presents itself when strong feelings govern the individual and what is at stake with the decision considered “wrong” by the community is personal happiness. The final lines of Auden’s poem ask the following questions in reference to the Unknown Citizen: “Was he free? Was he happy?” It should not matter, according to the poem.
Collective identity do become a burden when it comes to personal freedom and happiness, supposedly basic human rights every one are entitled to enjoy in life. Auden does not give a clue as to whether the Unknown Citizen was happy with his life or not and whether he felt he was free or dictated upon by the expectations of his group. When the poet answers these questions by saying “The question is absurd”, however, one cannot help but notice that there is a note of irony in the lines.
But by following all the rules, the Unknown Citizen kept his society going. He dies and another generation takes his place to continue the lifeline of the community and its cultural identity. In contrast, when Sebembele chooses to leave his tribe with his wife and child, everything changed for the kingdom of Monemapee. He “completely won over his camp with his extravagant romantic gesture.”
The event, a rebellion against what the tribe has long been used to, marks a change in the cultural identity of the people and this change would eventually lead to the beginning of the end for the Monemapees. Placing importance to the collective identity of one’s social group is good when the aim is to keep the balance and harmony within the group but it becomes a negative attribute when it encumbers the freedom and happiness of the individual member.