…and forgetting their names

Posted on April 22, 2009


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from the “about this video” section on the TED talk website:

Chris Abani tells stories of people: People standing up to soldiers. People being compassionate. People being human and reclaiming their humanity.”

the spectrum of emotions through which his speech takes you is rivaled only by the depths of humanity he explores. he touches on compassion, community, courage, tragedy, maturation, equality, history, darkness, and hope. his storytelling is potent for his honesty, underscored by his brevity, and carried on the backs of rhythm and pace. even a cursory reading of his biography before listening to him speak, I think, provides enough context for anyone to conclude that Chris Abani is speaking of and from conviction born of experience, not fluffy ideas grown from let’s-all-just-get-along rhetoric.

a few hours have passed since my initial viewing, and i’ve watched this three times and read the transcript of the speech twice since, gleaning something new and left with more to think about each time. there’s a lot to process, and I feel like even the stories that I first thought were speech equivalents of throwaway jokes have something to teach.

accordingly, it is way too early to even try to write down my thoughts and reactions. rather, here are two selections that continue to echo in my mind.

In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. But if you’re like me, my humanity is more like a window. I don’t really see it, I don’t pay attention to it until there’s a, you know, like a bug that’s dead on the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it’s never good. It’s usually when I’m cussing in traffic at someone who is trying to drive their car and drink coffee and send emails and make notes. So what ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. It’s really very simple, but really very complicated.


The Igbo used to say that they built their own gods. They would come together as a community, and they would express a wish. And their wish would then be brought to a priest who would find a ritual object, and the appropriate sacrifices would be made, and the shrine would be built for the god. But if the god became unruly and began to ask for human sacrifice, the Igbos would destroy the god. They would knock down the shrine, and they would stop saying the God’s name. This is how they came to reclaim their humanity. Every day, all of us here, we’re building gods that have gone rampant, and it’s time we started knocking them down and forgetting their names.

if you have the time, watch or listen. what do you think?