Video script. The text of a video edit of a conference paper for the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Denver CO, November 17-20, 2016. Running time: 20:53.
Black bodies. Indigenous bodies. Male. Female. Queer. Trans. Other.
Military occupation, invasion, relocation, genocide. Abduction, slavery, torture. Forced assimilation. Segregation, lynching, criminalization. Homelessness, unemployment, predatory lending, foreclosures, debt. Surveillance, harassment, detention, arrests, incarceration. Mass incarceration. Police killings. Sexual violence. All the while, sexual violence.
1 in 2. 1 in 3. 1 every minute. Hour. Day. Month. Year.
Post traumatic stress disorder. Except the trauma is ongoing. Transgenerational. A future foreclosed. A past vacated. And we can’t find a way to talk to each other about it.
Your slavery, my lands. Our bodies. Fodder for social media and corporate news that trim it down to fit neatly between commercial breaks as commercials of their own. Images of our death and dying, pain and grief, pleading for a life worth living. Pleading for a life worth.
And the really fucked up thing about it all is that we are reassured by the attention. Are made to compete for it. Humanized only within the terms of the sensational. Humanized by human interest stories that render us human only in the final, worst moments of our lives. Ending.
It is false recognition. An ideology par excellence. Marxist theory calls it false consciousness. Statistics and likes and shares tell us nothing about who we are or what our experiences have been. They invite us to misperceive our relationships to one another in a way that serves our domination — to accept the terms of capitalism’s gospels: greed is good, money is life, exploitation is normal. We cannot see the oppression game we’ve been thrown into – one in which the losers are the winners.
The work of racist ideology and practice can inform our theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. We refuse historical and social comparisons as anti-blackness, we deflect solidarity as a compromise of Indigenous sovereignty. We have been pitted against one another by discourses aimed at subjugating us to the lies of humanist recognition.
How do we address the violences of anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity as co-produced social forces of the U.S. imperial formation without rendering the violences against Black bodies and Indigenous bodies less relevant, less significant on their own but also to one another?
I don’t know exactly how to get there, but I do know I need to begin somewhere else, with something else:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. — Audre Lorde (1993)
So, I am going to begin again.
The Twelve Little Women
In the cliffs, amidst the caves, at the mouth of the Delaware River was the home of twelve little women. When any man sailed by, the women came out and struck up a conversation. If they received a kind reply, the man would go on with good wishes. If he was impudent or disrespectful, they would run him down. If they caught him, they plucked out every hair on his body. If they were unable to catch him they would call upon their uncle, the great serpent who lived in a deep in the ocean, just beyond the mouth of the river. Their uncle always came. He would raise his head above the water, draw in a deep breath, and pull the insolent man into his mouth.
Afterwards the women made bags of the hair they had taken from the men. They took the bags with them to the shore where men were fishing. They asked each one for something to put inside. If the man gave willingly, he caught so many fish afterwards that he didn’t know what to do with them. If he complained or refused, he caught no more fish. When the women returned home and emptied their bags, the fish – which, on going in, became so small that thousands of them would fill a little bag – returned to normal size. The women were never hungry.
There were many stories of resentful, grumpy men whose hairs were plucked off or fish given to the women. In all of the stories, to all of their complaints, the elders refused to punish or exile the women. “They don’t hurt good people,” they would say. It was a way of telling.
One day, after a number of men came home bleeding from the loss of their hair, they sat alone together and complained. “We must get rid of these women.” “I can put an end to them,” said one. The next day the man passed by their home and was rude to the women. They chased him all over but could not catch him. So they called upon their uncle.
The man had already made up his mind to be swallowed by the serpent, so he yielded himself to the serpent’s breath and went in. Inside the man cut his way out. In pain the serpent thrashed about, creating large channels off the river where he fell to the ground. Finally the man freed himself and ran.
When the women saw the serpent’s trouble they began to weep. They hurried down to where he was and stayed with him as he died. While they were mourning, the man went to their home and burned it to the ground. The women, seeing the destruction of their home and the death of their uncle, gathered their things together and readied to leave.
Many people gathered on the shore opposite where the serpent lay dead. The women cried out to them as they left. “If you had left us in peace, we would have taught you many things. We could have taught you how to deal with those who will come from across the great ocean. A hundred years from now they will come and drive you away and you will have no lands any longer. You will be poor. This is what will come of you for driving us away.” By the time the people crossed the waters to comfort the women, the women were gone. They were never seen or heard from again.
The Lenape’s story of the twelve little women is about the human need for respect – for others to hear us when we explain what our needs are and define perimeters for how we want to be treated, for others to hear our needs in our own terms. For others to see us as we are.
I’d like to re-frame my critique of the constraints of settler colonialism with the twelve little women in mind. I am going to try to show that a certain analytic within the studies has, however unwittingly, foreclosed and even chilled understandings of Black and Indigenous histories and identities in ways that derail our understandings of U.S. imperialism as a social formation and so our work with one another. One of the consequences of this goes to our ability to think through how #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #NoDAPL, and #MMIW are co-generative — even as I recognize the reasons why each of these movements have at different times demanded we respect their particularity.
Drawing from Marxist structuralism, Patrick Wolfe defines the settler colonial society through two key differentiations.
The first is between the structure and the event of invasion. Wolfe maintains that the permanence of invasion distinguishes the structure of a settler society, which originates with the withdrawal of the empire and the rise to power of a land-holding class who always intended to stay. Wolfe defines the ideology that cements this structure together as the logic of elimination. The settler exploits Indigenous labor but more importantly seeks to eliminate all vestiges of Indigenous land claims by the elimination of Indigenous cultures and identities.
The quickest way I can explain my concerns with Wolfe’s definition is to mark how it rearticulates the problematics of structuralism. It treats society as a fixed, coherent thing that can be objectively described. The descriptions are simultaneously over‑determined by the historical event of the empire’s withdrawal and the exceptionalism of a permanent invasion. We’ve been in this trouble before – we know structuralism generates all kinds of ahistorical and apolitical problems, not to mention essentialisms, even as it is conditioned by the intersectionalities of originary events and political identities.
For instance, Lorenzo Veracini argues that settler colonialism is “characterized by a settler capacity to control the population economy” as a marker of sovereignty and that this situation is “associated with a particular state of mind” and “narrative form” so powerful that “the possibility of ultimately discontinuing/decolonizing settler colonial forms remains problematic.” Veracini maintains that “settlers do not discover: they carry their sovereignty and lifestyles with them. As they move towards what amounts to a representation of the world, as they transform the land into their image, they settle another place without really moving.”
I would argue that the settler colonial is a contested and unstable concept. Drawing from critical Indigenous, race, and feminist approaches — such as those developed by Jodi Byrd, Mishuana Goeman, Jennifer Denetdale, and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers — that understand colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia as permanent features of U.S. society, I would argue that society is not an objectively settled structure to be described, nor an imaginary that travels as an integral whole around the world. It is a set of contested meanings caught up in struggles over power and knowledge.
The second differentiation on which Wolfe’s settler colonialism rests is between the settler and the Indigenous. While many assume the settler to be white – and perhaps more so to be a white heterosexual male – Wolfe, Veracini, and others characterize the settler as both white and all other non-Indigenous people irrespective of gender and sexuality. Pressed on the politics of such characterizations, particularly of figuring Blacks as settlers, Wolfe explains:
Willingly or not, enslaved or not, at the point of a run or not, they arrived as part of the settler-colonial project. That doesn’t make them settlers in the same sense as the colonizers who coerced them to participate—of course not—but it does make them perforce part of the settler-colonial process of dispossession and elimination. — Patrick Wolfe (2012)
As the work of Circe Sturm, Tiya Miles, Sharon Patricia Holland, and so many others have demonstrated, Black and Indigenous histories and identities (not necessarily distinct) are intersectional messes of racialized and gendered contestation over and within the ongoing colonial forces of U.S. imperialism. We need their analyses to understand these histories and identities and the ways we have inherited them. We need to be careful about grouping all racial, ethnic, diaspora, and immigrant communities in with settlers and pitting them and their presumably shared struggles for civil rights against Indigenous sovereignty and territorial claims. The kinds of polemics that result are not helpful. What if reparations and return are not antithetical political objectives? Who decides their antithesis?
In 1985, during a speech at the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, Lilla Watson said:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
Watson, a member of the Murri indigenous to Queensland, has said since and repeatedly that she was “not comfortable being credited for [saying] something that had been born of a collective process” and preferred that the words and their meaning be credited to “Aboriginal activist groups, Queensland, 1970s.” She thus held herself – and the practice of citing her – accountable to the community to whom she belonged. That ethic is further reflected in her — in her community’s — perspective that genuine decolonization will happen as our movements address our shared conditions of oppression. Our liberation is bound together.
“But,” Oklahoma-based Black activist tells me, “I want Indigenous peoples to take responsibility for the way they enslaved Black bodies and internalized white racism towards Blacks in the conduct of their tribal sovereignty.” “But,” Mississippi Choctaw scholar says to me, “I want Blacks to take responsibility for the way they grabbed at Indian lands after the Civil War. For the way the U.S. illegally and violently acquired the lands from us that they promised to give to Freedmen. That Freedmen and their descendants ignore this when they call for reparations.”
But… I’m still trying to figure out how in the difficult moments when the transgenerational trauma of land dispossession, slavery, and racism so profoundly precludes our perceptions and expectations of one another, we can find a way to affirm one another’s concerns and move our liberation struggles forward.
A way that rejects the “respectability” of U.S. recognition and the containment politics of financial settlement. As Glen Coulthard argues, recognition is a bullshit lie of capitalism that dresses up exploitation in liberal inclusion. As Alyosha Goldstein argues, settlements “foreclose the lineages of historical injustice” and “individualize” in liberal fashion what is a matter of collective and sovereign claims to territories and economic reckoning.
A way that rejects the kinds of legally and economically inconsequential responsibility-taking performance of church and government apologia. A way that refuses to be settled up or settled down to negligible levels of financial compensation that change nothing.
I believe we must draw from what Leanne Simpson argues are our cultural teachings for behaving towards one another. She offers compassion, generosity, and humility as the points at which genuine restoration of ourselves and our relationships are possible. From there, as Coulthard argues, we must carve a way forward through a “disciplined maintenance of resentment,” a “politicized anger” towards state oppression that refuses to accept guilt ridden, meaningless gestures of acknowledgment and payouts for genuine reparations and land return.
As a conclusion I want to think about Black Lives Matter supporting the #NoDAPL actions at Standing Rock.
I don’t think it’s an accident that it is water that has brought the movements together. As the Black community of Flint and the Lakota peoples of Standing Rock have taught us, water links us together in our struggles for life. It points our attentions to what is destroyed by military, security, and corporate concerns in Ferguson, Mexico, Palestine, and British Columbia; what highlights the illegal seizing of lands for the illegal construction of pipelines; what has been contaminated with hubris in the Delaware River basin, Flint Michigan, the Dakotas, and too many other places to name.
Melissa Nelson writes that,
Most of us find it easier to separate ourselves from nature than to embrace the liquid mystery of our union with it. As freshwater disappears on the earth, so do the water stories that remind us that we too can freeze, melt, conceive, and evaporate. We too can construct a confluence of cultural rivulets where the natural and cultural coalesce. — Melissa Nelsen
Perhaps we too can embrace the life of water to recognize the ways our movements co-generate, to find our coalescence.