Wounded Knees

Forgiveness Ceremony

Forgiveness Ceremony at Standing Rock Casino (c) 2016 Josh Morgan/ Huffington Post

The poet in me can’t resist the significance of knees in this week’s episode of America: 400 Years of Racial and Ethnic Culture in Conflict.  First there is the gesture itself: kneeling.  This is what people do when they propose marriage, what they do when they surrender, it is a universally accepted gesture of homage.  It is also an image that is depicted of European colonizers when they landed on the shores of this continent, often being described as kneeling in Christian prayer.  When I read Eric Reid’s Op-Ed reflection on why he and Colin Kaepernick landed on this gesture and not something more dramatic like turning their backs, I’m reminded that, like the history of resisting racism in this country, there are many different layers to how it actually works and what it all means in real time.

The poetry continues when you consider the fact that so many people today associate the playing of the national anthem at sporting events with honoring the armed forces.  A colleague of mine reminded me the other day that no one ever asked if anyone minded this association (which saw a big boost post 9/11).  The national anthem isn’t explicitly a battle cry (it is based on a drinking song).  But looking at the origins of the practice of playing the anthem which was recorded as first happening during a WWI era baseball game, it is very easy to understand the association.  Just in case you forgot, until after the end of WWII, both baseball and the US Military were segregated specifically against blacks.  Anyone who tells you that sports, race and military service have nothing to do with each other, tell them to read a book.

A final (but certainly not the last) piece of poetry that resonates with me is anatomical.  When I think of kneeling and conflict in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Wounded Knee.  In Western US culture and history, we are aware of the name “Wounded Knee” because of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek.  This slaughter of Indian people (including children) may have taken place nearly 130 years ago, but the battle is ongoing.  The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered by American historians as the last armed conflict between whites and Indian people.  But these historians forget about the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973.  And of course one just needs to think back a short 12 months ago and remember that descendants of the same Lakota Sioux people who were targeted at Wounded Knee were the same people under threat and ultimately forced off of Standing Rock.

Anatomically, the knee is a pretty amazing joint.  It is designed to absorb the most incredible forces that our bodies sustain.  Its strength and suppleness is the key to evolutionary human survival, allowing for us to run fast, jump and climb.  The knee allows the human body to dance and to create shapes and movements.  It is an incredible juncture within the body.

And human beings have also learned to thrive without knees.  Paralysis, injury, amputation have always opened up different ways to comprehend human movement without the knee.  You don’t need knees (functional or otherwise) to have a beating heart or a brilliant brain.  Even the name of the creek “wounded knee” (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) honors a warrior who has lost use of this joint.

The knee can be used to great advantage by human beings.  It can allow us to reach heights that we cannot reach without it.  At the same time the knee is not essential to human life.  It can be immobilized, absent or even just wounded and we will still survive.  These are parallel lessons that people of color in the United States have demonstrated time and time again in the face of oppression.  Today’s battles are not new, the protests are not novel.  This is the perpetual state of things in a nation built on the obliteration of one people and the monetized subjugation of another.  The resilience of people of color in this country, with and without knees in the face of this status quo speaks to our permanence here and across the globe.

If you are flummoxed by the current state of affairs in this country, maybe you need to consider more deeply where your body can bend to have more leverage in the battle or how you can adapt without that joint altogether.  Some of us prove that both are possible every single day.

These Times

Some folks are in agony wondering
“What can we do and how should we feel ‘in these times’?”
Yet, while they’ve been busy
Creating ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces
And learning about ‘diversity’
And pondering what it means to ‘dismantle’ racism in ‘these times’,
‘These times’ have been the entire context for Africans in “America”
‘These times’ have been the human history of rape
‘These times’ have been the ongoing Indian genocide.
Across the globe, right here at home, historical and modern, physical and social
‘These times’ are and have always been right now.
The only reason one could possibly see any of this as either new or shocking
Is because of  the highly evolved, totally unique United States Brand™ privilege.
It is not just a simplistic privilege of skin color
But the complex construction of an entire privilege culture
Based on race, fueled by fear, multiplied by greed
Locked in systems of opportunity, loaded in government
And fired down the barrel of a very specific social order
Laying waste to everyone in its sights.
The only way to truly deal with ‘these times’
Is to admit that ‘these times’ are business as usual
Face all the signs that say we have to start from scratch
And begin the experiment entirely anew.

Reid Kaepernick

Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the National Anthem (c) 2016 Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP

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