The crap we go through while establishing our identity (shakes head back and forth). We often face ridicule for being different or criticized for being too much like Joe Shmoe walking down Park Avenue. You can’t win. Oftentimes people assimilate to the status quo or to what society labels as “normal.” Yeah, these people might lead fulfilling lives but do they change the trajectory of history? No, because never has an average person with average ideas and average goals ever changed the world. Nonconformists move society forward, or at least lead it down a different path.
Activist, actor, writer, poet and MTV host iO Tillett Wright is one of those nonconformists. Wright’s debut memoir, Darling Days (Ecco Press, September 27, 2016) chronicles his life in the 1980s punk culture of New York City, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “clean-up” years. I was curious to know iO’s thoughts on how cultural surroundings can play a large part in molding someone’s idea of who they are. So, I asked him an impossibly hypothetical question for our ‘One Question and Answer’ series.
Question: You describe New York City in the Punk-’80s as a mecca for ‘the strange’ and fringe-dwellers of society where the culture you grew up in profoundly influenced your identity. If you had grown up in another city or even another country, do you think you would be the same freewheeling iO we know now?
iO Tillett Wright: That’s like asking a fish what they’d be like if they’d grown up on land. I’ve been learning so much about the brain, and early childhood development lately, and I am deep into exploring how we expand our circles of normalcy so we don’t “other” people and cause damage in the world. Growing up in New York is already the melting pot of all melting pots – it’s like the American ideal on steroids, crammed into a shoe box – but then take away all the generic, whitewashed chain stores and cleaned up streets of the city today, replace them with improvised bodegas and tenements crammed with vagrants, the mentally ill, and every kid kicked out of the suburbs across the world for being too weird…and you have the place I grew up. There was nothing I hadn’t seen by the time I was eight years old, and we were friends with these people. People most kids read about in scary stories or hear about on the news were in our house, making soup, painting with me, teaching me to drive – schizophrenics, crack addicts, junkies, and so on. They were just our people, so to me, no one was expected to look or act any certain way. Once I grew up, I discovered how oppressively limiting the world outside of ours is.
Main image via darlingdays.com