I recently read Hans Christian Andersen’s original telling of “The Ugly Duckling.” Through the years, this tale has been an object lesson for children, aptly teaching that people who seem different from the norm can turn out to be beautiful and even stunning. Point well taken.
Studying this tale with our national struggle over racial inequalities as a backdrop, it became more to me than a childish reminder of the uniqueness of every person. “The Ugly Duckling” labored mightily to unearth his significance and to outlive fearsome, toxic and depression-inducing conditions.
The duckling — actually a cygnet inexplicably transported from an unnamed, unknown place and hatched in a stranger’s nest — quickly realizes he is dissimilar from the norm. He looks different than his presumed siblings, and is treated contrarily by his adopted culture. People who knew or should have known better looked askance at him, bullied him and relegated him to a lower social stratum.
As the fable progresses, Ugly Duckling helplessly accepts loneliness and bitterness as his inevitable plight. Misery swallows him, even to the point that he devalues his very life. Hans Christian Andersen writes, “it would be too sad to tell of all the hardships and wretchedness he had to endure” as Ugly Duckling trudges through a dark, wintry season. Emptiness, isolation and homelessness, whether literal or figurative, envelops him.
Just as Ugly Duckling reaches the nadir of despair, imploring a gathering of swans to kill him, “he bowed his head down over the water to wait for death. But what did he see there, mirrored in the clear stream? He beheld his own image … He himself was a swan!”
There was a time when general convention held that all swans, spectacular creatures though they are, are white. According to simple logic, swans are white. This bird is a swan. Therefore, this bird is white. But in 1697 Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Australia, and they were indeed striking. Their irregular white wing feathers are overwhelmed by a silky black background.
Thanks largely to scholar, mathematician and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we often refer to outlying instances of immense significance as “black swan events.” These incidents impute great import and capture a dynamic role in history. Black swan events are difficult to predict and equally difficult to interpret. Black swan events upend lives. Black swan events upend time.
George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others once lived among us but perished because someone perceived they were Ugly Ducklings. Did these improbable heroes see themselves as Ugly Ducklings? All people bear the responsibility of coming to terms with those internal traits differentiating us from one another. Different need not mean insignificant, or clumsy, or ugly. Different should not invite mockery, or prejudice, or dominance, or relegation to the fringe by the powers that be.
As Hans Christian Andersen concludes this extraordinary tale, he tells us the erstwhile Ugly Duckling “felt quite glad that he had come through so much trouble and misfortune, for now he had a fuller understanding of his own good fortune, and of beauty when he met it.” But rather than gloat in the realization that he was not ugly but wonderfully made, the Swan “felt very bashful … He felt so very happy, but he wasn’t at all proud, for a good heart never grows proud.” Overcome with emotion, the once displaced cygnet “cried out with a full heart: ‘I never dreamed there could be so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling.’” We should all be made ugly so we can experience the joy of discovering beauty.