I have to remind myself to continue making connections, and to look for the triumphant in the stories of disaster, to look for the survivance in them, for the ways people continue to refuse to be victims. I have to remind myself, because on the screen the stories being told are told with such potent images, of the dead and the dying, of the grieving, of those who have lost, and they are almost always brown skin people. And the people with microphones in front of their faces, telling the stories, and the people behind the camera lenses, making the pictures, are almost always beige, pale skin people. Beige, pale skin people who appear magically in these places of such pain, while they themselves appear untouched, able to leave when they want to, to smile even, in the midst of it all.
I have to remind myself because I am also beige, pale. And though my socialization is a complex thing – I was raised in a Caribbean country; my way of being in the world, my physical sense of relationship to others is both Africanized and Anglicized and both are rooted in my ancestral Greekness, Greeks from islands, Greeks who were peasants from villages and not aristocrats from the cities – I am still a beige person in a racially polarized society and my imagination is at stake. And what I know is our potential for human transformation depends on our ability to imagine.
I started the year off talking about Avatar, about this story that was an old story, and a dangerous one. A reader, Dwayne A. Bryan, wrote back to me holding me to account to the confusing nature of my own language, while carrying forward the dialogue in a critical way. He writes:
Thank you for your commentary in the Tribune on the movie Avatar. The colonial (neo-colonial) parallels in the story were impossible to miss and you explored them beautifully. But in your commentary you also said, “The idea of white people being so essentially divided from the “other” is problematic.” I would argue that the idea is not at all problematic, in fact any other conclusion is impossible, by definition.
To come to my conclusion we must first ask what is whiteness; and why have those who identify themselves as white chosen to do so? A very brief sojourn into the period that began this historical era shows that prior to contact with “non-white” (note the referent) people, whites had chosen fundamentally different identities. They were Scottish or Bavarian or Huguenot or Catholic, but never before were they simply white. Only upon extensive contact with Africa and the America’s did the former and current inhabitants or Europe, and their progeny, become White. Even more, the process took on an especial intensity when it became clear that there were vast riches located in the ground and in the bodies of the non-white people and that no single imperial power, Portugal, Spain, Britain or France would be able to subdue the whole of the “non-white” world. After that, every bedraggled “white” person leaving behind his lowly status in the “mother country” in search of riches in the new world, was anointed with the halo of whiteness and immediately owed an undying loyalty to his former betters who had financed his opportunity for a new life.
But why the change? What benefits were there in throwing off a French identity or a Portuguese one, to don a cloak of whiteness? The obvious reason is found in examining exactly who left Europe. The Lords and Ladies, the monarchy and the aristocracy of European society did not leave in search of a new start; their position was secure. It was only the poor, the persecuted, those precariously perched between life and death. It was they, who took up their belongings and mortgaged themselves for the promise of a new world and a new white identity. In so doing, the dregs of European society, its human excrement, (sic) were transformed.
Noel Ignatiev in his book, “How the Irish became White” explained the process, but not the rationale, in adopting a white identity. Further, he never explored one simple question; what is the difference between being Irish and being white?
Most people would agree that whiteness, and its yang blackness, are sociological categories not “racial” ones. As a scientific attempt to categorize human beings, the language of race is gibberish. However, in service of a social system, “white” and “black” become powerful identifiers. The names themselves evince certain characteristics and values that are meant to typify the individuals who fall within their ambit. Thus the ease at which the image of any black can be manipulated to the familiar as lazy ignorant and criminal; the ubiquitous “welfare queens” of the Reagan era immediately come to mind. Whites, on the other hand are hard working, long suffering and heroic, unless in alliance with “the other”, then they become ungrateful manipulators, agitating the natives to want more than they deserve.
These values, and others, were attached to whiteness and blackness as a shorthand way of herding whites into agreement, or at least complicity, with the colonial and financial project, offering opportunities that they never had in their homeland and in the process distancing themselves from blacks, Indians, Mexicans, or any other “non-white” group. Whiteness was a bribe, a trick to convince white people to bury their conscience, and ignore their humanity.
With this then as context, whiteness is, by definition, an identity molded in opposition to a shared humanity; an acceptance of unearned privilege. You spoke, persuasively, of the limitations of a white identity; its abortive powers of the possibility of change. But the comment is confused in that it accepts the idea of whiteness as a legitimate human identity. It is not. It is, in the words of Marimba Ani (formerly Dr. Donna Richards) Yurugu, an incomplete human consciousness which can only be defeated by “so-called” whites (rejection of this) identity in favour of full humanity. As humans, we can change and become but as “whites” you are fossilized, locked into a “make believe” identity that denies your inherent potential.
Russell Means once said Columbus had to die, so that humanity might live…. So too the Columbus of whiteness must die so that “whites” can re-claim the full measure their humanity.”
Dwayne Bryan’s words speak to the ways human experience is storied, and how our imaginations can be co-opted in the service of maintaining certain stories, all the better to continue to feed the machine of colonialism. While US religious leader Pat Robertson maintained that Haiti’s tragedies have been the result of a “pact with the devil” Caribbean scholar Sir Hilary Beckles showed us that the successful revolution of 500,000 Africans against French colonial oppression in 1804 was an act of life affirming courage. What would it look like if the world had honored that act, instead of first isolating then forcing Haitians to literally pay for it for almost 100 years? What would happen to the collective imagination if Danny Glover was permitted to raise the kind of money James Cameron did for Avatar to produce the film that could portray that life affirming act of courage, the film called Toussaint?
I think it is interesting and disturbing to note that in the wake of Avatar, thousands of American movie goers suffered from “post Avatar blues”. According to a CNN news article, an online support group was created specifically for those who felt overwhelmingly depressed that Pandora was not real, and who were so dismayed by their actual lives they felt they could not go on; one viewer claimed he wanted to kill himself. Which, of course, is exactly what Avatar’s Jake Sully did when he ‘left’ his human body to become Omaticaya. That viewer writes:
"Ever since I went to see 'Avatar' I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na'vi made me want to be one of them. I can't stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and (that) everything is the same as in 'Avatar.' " –‘Mike’ on the website “Naviblue”
What this speaks to is a crisis of imagination, and while I do not know the identity of the viewer, his words do reflect the all too common inability on the part of 'white' folks to use our imaginations in the service of our own transformation and the despair that takes over when our imaginations become “fossilized, locked into a “make believe” identity that denies (y)our inherent potential. (Bryan)”
To the extent that I desire a way through despair and sovereignty over my imagination (and to transform the old stories that show up again and again on the screen, in news bulletins, between the pages of newspapers and novels, and yes, my own stories) I have to refuse to accept racism’s claims over me. I have to keep on making the connections that I was not meant to make. I have to continue digging backwards and sideways to seek out other stories, those I was not meant to hear. And, not for the last time, I have to kill the Columbus of my own psyche who repeatedly plants his flag in San Salvador’s sand, freeing myself from the places where I have stood, frozen, transfixed in the gaze of his discovery.