Resist and Redefine

img_1026Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him.  He is real for me.  This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.

It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life.  Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment.  It is wholly repugnant.

When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some.  But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important.  They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine.  Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”.  If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.

Names taken from the will of Elijah Ratliff, Anson County, North Carolina, 1861

1. Big Ellick
2. Wesley
3. Laury
4. Graham
5. Bukugan
6. Anthony
7. Julyan
8. Dina
9. Lucy
10. Caroline
11. Wallis
12. Bone
13. Sallie
14. Washington
15. Tom
16. Harry
17. Martha-Jane
18. Bill
19. Johanna
20. Rose
21. Warren
22. Betty
23. Anna
24. Isaac
25. Mary
26. Anderson
27. Stephen
28. Harriett
29. Zacy
30. Willy
31. Silva
32. Anderson
33. Lize
34. Elbert
35. Tommy
36. Sass
37. Little Ellick
38. Ann
39. Frank
40. Peter
41. Stephen
42. John
43. Nealy
44. Nance
45. Sam
46. Hannah
47. Buck
48. Lane
49. Lewis
50. Luke
51. Abram
52. Henry
53. Jim
54. Peter
55. Peg
56. Robin
57. Jesse
58. Perry
59. Katherine
60. Peter
61. Jesse
62. Carolina
63. Reubin
64. Jacob
65. Jon
66. Tilla
67. Big Frank
68. Mary
69. Peter
70. Richmond
71. Poll
72. Alph
73. Jam
74. Riley
75. Alice
76. Riley
77. Ellen
78. Mary
79. Mike
80. Tempy
81. Molinda
82. Patience
83. King
84. Sam
85. Ellen
86. Ben
87. Sis
88. Riley
89. Harriett
90. (child)
91. Charity
92. (child)
93. George
94. Allen
95. Sarah
96. Vina
97. (child)
98. Isaac
99. Mitchell
100. Margaritt
101. Charles
102. Lisa
103. (child)
104. Vina
105. Ephraim
106. Matt
107. Frank
108. Harriett
109. (child)
110. Lizzie
111. Jane
112. Cindie
113. (child)
114. Emaline
115. Anderson
116. May
117. Jefferson

Family Wall

I keep hearing the story, mostly from my non-POC friends, about family members or people they are close to who voted for the incoming administration. These friends are all struggling to navigate feeling as if the world has been swept from under them, while having to face the people who did the sweeping on Facebook, on weekends home, and over the coming holidays. They are asking tough questions: when do you argue; when do you sit silent at the table or “just not talk about politics because…well…family”; when do your actions or inactions enable the violence that is steadily marching back into the norm of life in the US? Christina Sharpe wrestles with this question in her article for THE NEW INQUIRY titled “Lose Your Kin”…check it out!

When I consider this situation, I can’t help but think about the many people I know who were thrown out of their “families” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think of families divided and ripped apart by war or extremism. These are people who have had no choice. They had to pick a side, just to survive. And they chose “family” that will always unabashedly have their back. We are taught in our Western democratic world that life should not be about choosing sides but about compromise. But the current “compromise” trades on the basic ability to survive for too many of us. It is not just that we are being asked to wait for another election cycle, we are being told to watch our communities get torn apart; we are being told that our lives matter even less than when we have been shot in the street; we are being handed an aggressively paternalistic message that says inequality is entirely justified by skin color and chromosomes. As a result, for those of us in the crosshairs, family cannot first be about blood. It must be about who we see in the mirror standing next to us. Liberals are woefully unprepared for the painful decisions that are needed to make the “beloved community” we so loftily talk about. “We did this to ourselves” is a tepid, inadequate and inaccurate response in light of the fact that so many seem to know someone they may call brother, or father or spouse who did this and did it proudly. We must be more.

There can be no easy answer to the question “what is family” but we must ask this question boldly and with a new sense of urgency. How has the desire to justify and make excuses for “kin” fed the growth of fear and hatred on the other side of family walls of denial?

Your family sits in the other room.
They have been there for a very long time.
It used to be easier to see them
…for them to see you.
There used to be an open space
where your room ended and theirs began.
It contained the support
that held the house together.
There you saw pictures and mementos
of the many lives before yours
that added up to who you are
…your birthright, your heritage.
Then someone thought
“French doors would be nice”
still letting light in from either side
but something to keep the sound out,
some privacy
while you learned to dance to music they didn’t enjoy.
Then you woke up one day
to the glass painted over
(did they do that…or did you do it in your sleep?)
You could still hear,
but couldn’t see them any more.
The doors still swung both ways
occasionally
until over time the hinges grew rusty
in one direction from lack of use
and the door was no longer safe to open.
The door was as good as a wall.
That’s when the lock came
…and the lost key.
Then you forgot altogether there was a door
let alone that it had ever been open
behind the shelves and the couch.
Occasionally, you heard them
your “family”, in the other room
claiming more mementos and taking pictures
of all that had come after you
…the noises of life.
They heard your sounds as well.
What a peculiar price to pay
when no one seems to care enough
or have the courage or the lack of pride
to shift the furniture and find the key
or just pack up all the memories and finally move away?

 

Afraid of the Dark

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief
this new uncharted place
this reflection where there is no light.

Is this the loss of a parent?
the death of a child,
a suicide,
a life with AIDS?
Is it cancer?
No, and it could never compare.
Those moments are the anchors reminding us
that to do more than just survive
we must thrive.
This is new darkness for some…
and all too familiar shadow for many.
But for everyone in this moment
it is a windowless room,
stifling, close.

There is no way out.
Do not pin your hopes to a symbol.
If you have to broadcast to the world
“I am safe space”,
you are not.
Live the symbol.

There is no way out.
Do not think you can outsmart the system.
If you are working with the rules
to win “the game”,
you are the system.
Learn a new way to play.

There is no way out.
Do not ask which action you can take.
If you are questioning what to do
and looking for direction,
you are doing nothing.
and really “we must do everything…”

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief.
It is a new uncharted place,
it is a reflection where there is no light.
You must hold on
because the goal is not to be outside
but instead to finally face your fears inside.
Learn how to love the beauty, the richness, the power
of what is nurtured in this dark.

-ALD

This poem is inspired by the relentlessly prophetic words and work of Rev. Elena Rose and the army of Trans* Activists teaching us all what it means to live truth.

The Edict of D.C.

This is what it feels like to be amidst a crumbling empire. It feels like a gaping hole where your sense of security should be. It feels like the realization that it is not a “few bad apples” but the whole rancid orchard. It feels like being told to remain “nice” to protect someone’s fragility while they kick you in the groin. In short, it sucks. And as with any empire’s collapse, after the pain of implosion, something must fill its place. As I watch the latest shift in the stolen earth beneath the wobbly edifice of the White (man’s) House, I am reminded of an earlier time in history when a reviled and much feared fringe movement stepped in to fill the vacuum left by a another collapsing empire. That empire was Rome and the fringe movement was Christianity. What are we supposed to do if white supremacy is our current empire’s Christianity? What if the President-Elect is a modern Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor and the one who legalized Christianity in Rome) and what if he has normalized white supremacy, not just as a legal or systemic framework, but as a spiritual ideology?

We are a spiritually skittish culture, and we are not equipped to fight that kind of battle…the one where white identity functions like religion. There is a specific reason I am willing to float the difficult comparison of the evolution of white supremacy with the history of Christianity. In our current society, we have no legal recourse against a “religion” based on whiteness yet the current environment is ripe for exactly that kind of movement to take flight. As ISIS has coopted the space of Islam among radicals, so might white identity step in where Christianity has come up short for white supremacists. Some would argue that this scenario already exists and that what we are seeing is just the same old monster of Christian-sanctioned bigotry rearing its head again. There is significant scholarship on the Christian justification of oppression of non-whites (the Pauline epistles say a lot about slaves obeying masters). But I disagree that this is a cycle. I think Christianity may have helped shape white supremacy and white identity, but I do not believe they are inherently synonymous; nor do I believe that Christianity or any religion is inherently evil. What we are seeing is an evolution of white supremacy beyond Christian roots and more extreme than the most doomsday oriented theologian’s imagination. This is a spiritual nuclear weapon.

In order to fully understand my point about evolution and Christianity, one must first consider the history. Christianity answered the thousands-year-old prophecies set out in ancient Judaism. The post-crucifixion, proto-Christianity then simmered for 300 years before the Edict of Milan. In that time it developed structure and sacred text and saints and a complex hierarchy of belief/non-belief that engaged Christians from around the Mediterranean/North Africa as it grew. Christianity didn’t just spring to life one bright day in A.D. 313. There were great ebbs and flows of its strength and weakness then there was a tipping point that came with Christianity’s endorsement by a powerful ruler.

Now consider that the concept of ethnic supremacy is older than the United States, but it took the creation of “race science” in the 17th and 18th century to give it a name and a specific target: non-whites. You might say that the enslavement of Blacks and genocide of Native Americans was the white supremacy “Jesus moment”. While the noble anti-oppression struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries say a great deal about the resilience of the non-whites and their allies, racists didn’t just go away after slavery and Jim Crow. With the language of “race” becoming a global standard, they would always have a tool for future use in an emergency. Over time, some white supremacists suppressed their own beliefs. Others have obviously found like minds with which to organize and to make the occasional public statement in a society built on the social covenant of free speech. Unfortunately, the benevolent tolerance of the magnanimous operating system called the US Constitution has allowed white supremacy to run like a piece of malware in the background. It could now be our total undoing.

Human beings seek grounding. Even without religious community, or explicit “spiritual” expression, people across the globe seek meaning in their world. They find it in like minded companions and expressions of life that help them make sense of challenges and joys, birth and death. What we call spirituality is one way that we make sense of our lived context. Champions of white mono-culture are seeking grounding and it stands to reason then that if white identity is the center of their context it will become the primary means through which they will wish to see the world.

I am not sure what to do with this analysis today. I do know, however, that it will be important in the coming time to understand the increasingly aggressive acts of white supremacy as expression of a spiritual nature. They will require entirely new ways of looking at human motivation and what we call “spiritual” grounding. Answering them will stretch our concepts of “pastoral” care. We may find personal comfort in our traditional religious frameworks (including Christianity), but they will be useless to influence an ideology that sees racial identity as a surrogate for God.

Fragments from a colossal statue of Constantine

Fragments of Constantine the Great Colossus (C) Getty Images

#DearAmerica

Thanks for reminding me who your really are. I had forgotten the degree to which you value white skin and a penis over pretty much everything else. It had somehow slipped my mind that words are not in the least bit important to you and that deeds and actions mean even less. I guess I had ignored how tightly you were still clinging to ideologies and mythologies about brash, unflinching men in golden palaces full of silent, submissive women under the eye of a vengeful God who would only reward an obedient and privileged few. Yes, I had forgotten who you really are.

And now that you have reminded me, I don’t think I will ever rest again. You see, you claim that your government was “broken” and that you needed to take back your country. But what you saw as broken was not the mistrust, the inaction, the intentional blockade of government or the sickness of capitalism run amok. What you saw as broken was the presence and the power of too many  women, Jews, Muslims, Indians, chinks, japs, niggers, spicks, trannies, faggots and aliens…folks who didn’t look like you, talk like you or worship like you. Too much control in too many hands that didn’t look like yours. You were having to wait in line for folks to pay attention to your needs and no one was listening to your tantrum. So instead of playing nice with the rest of us,  you have shattered the system into a million pieces. Despite your claims of defending the “founding fathers”, you have now ended 240 years of U.S. government solely to justify a narrow world order that you saw was in danger of being outshone by the very words “all men (people) are created equal”. You believe that by smashing the system to bits, you will remain safe and empowered without ever having to look in a mirror or see yourself as one equal among many in this human race.

Well, America, you are wrong.

What you have actually done is given the rest of us justification to play completely outside of the box, and to create a game that you don’t understand and that you will never be a part of. You will try to go it alone, but you will fail.  You have salted your fields and they will now lie fallow for years to come; and because you are alone, you will have no one to help plow it when (and if ) the land is ever healed again. Your crops will rot and fester in the sun as a reflection of your soul.  You’ve signed your own death certificate. So thank you America, for reminding me who you really are and most of all for reminding me that I am not you.

Love and good luck,

Adam