Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Making Connections

It’s taken me a while to get back here. To continue to make connections between the stories I’m telling, the stories I’m reading and watching on the screen, and the actuality of disasters taking their toll on human beings, from the continued oppression of Palestine and Gaza, to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the earthquake in Haiti that has deepened Haiti’s pain exponentially, and sent shudders of grief across the skin of our planet, so that with every breath I take I am aware of how connected we are, even when we aren’t intellectually aware of such a connection. Even if we are adamantly opposed to the idea of one. Or intentionally blind to it.

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:

Dear Helen,

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.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Avatar: Another Neocolonial Story

I am here on the second day of 2010, in this Greek Bahamian womanish body, at this worn kitchen table in a studio in Oakland, pieces of 2009 still nudging at my awareness: a Christmas tree I will have to dispose of soon, stacks of books and papers and unopened letters from fall semester in need of sorting, loose ends of a season of teaching online and writing that caused me to fall in love with storying in a way I have never experienced before.

Inhabiting the story more fully than I have since my childhood (when finding the story and witnessing to characters' lives came easily, was not a cerebral task but an embodied one on the fuchsia carpeted floor of a room of my own) I began to see story from the inside. Story as choices. Story as vision and talking back and asking again and again, what if? Story as medicine. Story as transformation. The power of story to create again and again our lives. The framework of our awareness. Of how we get to see ourselves and the beings with whom we share this planet, this universe. I think again of Leslie Marmon Silko saying “Don’t be fooled. Stories aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight against illness and death.” And although she may not have been speaking specifically to me, I know she is right.

So, when my girlfriend and I sat down in a darkened theatre for three hours to watch James Cameron’s story Avatar in downtown Oakland yesterday, I wasn’t fooled. Yes, the visual effects were beautiful, stunning. All 350 million dollars’ worth of them. But the story is clich├ęd, dangerously so, because while it appears to call into question colonialism’s devastating effects on the colonized, it ultimately reinforces a colonial worldview: the colonizer’s transformation into enlightened savior depends fundamentally upon the initial devastation of the colonized.

Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) story begins with the ‘Sky People’s’ invasion of Pandora. There are sufficient references to a US social system (the military, Sully’s mention of “these economic times”) to connect the ‘Sky People’ with America and an American owned landscape, one in which natural resources have been so completely used up that corporations seeking new wealth have had to expand their reach beyond planet earth. On the planet Pandora is the hope of mineral wealth and the only thing standing in the way of getting it are the indigenous Na’vi.

Sully is a physically challenged white marine who will be used to infiltrate the Na’vi. He is also, we are led to believe, the intellectual inferior to his dead brother, whose place he must now take on a mission into Pandora by way of his Avatar. (The mission is at once military and scientific: the two arms of a colonial enterprise in space. In futuristic models, science takes the place of the church). Perhaps Cameron meant these qualities to create a sympathetic character, however I can’t help but observe the similarity here to historical colonial projects in which men of inferior standing in their own European countries could become ‘lords’ of small empires in the countries they colonized.

Sully’s story proceeds in a familiar way. His brutish arrogance and curiosity get him into trouble quickly in a forest he has no understanding of or connection to. He escapes near death in that forest and is spied by a ‘native’ of Pandora, Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana) who saves him from yet another close encounter with the forest’s four footed inhabitants. Why save me? He asks. Because you have a strong heart, she replies. And so we begin to see signs of his chosenness. (Because at least if he is ‘chosen’, we can argue that he isn’t like the other invaders, and if he is chosen, all this was meant to happen, it was destined to take place – the invasion and destruction of the Na’vis’ Hometree, and Sully’s avatar’s rise to ‘savior’ of Pandora.)

Once introduced to Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya, Sully’s avatar is allowed to live with the Omaticaya and ‘learn our ways’, and predictably falls in love with Neytiri, and she with him. He also falls in love with the forest and the Omaticaya way of life and commits himself to fighting on their behalf. But he doesn’t just fight on their behalf. Instead, remembering the story of Neytiri’s grandfather who brought the clans together by riding a large flying creature, the Toruk, and using that story to gain trust and, importantly, power, in the Omaticaya’s imagination, Sully’s avatar mounts the Toruk, bonds with it and flies down into the gathering of the Omaticaya by their sacred tree, the Tree of Souls. In a scene that was starkly unselfconscious in its imperialistic arrogance, Sully’s avatar becomes the Omaticaya’s new leader, as they kneel and make a pathway for him, awed by his newfound status.

Once located on their stage beneath the Tree of Souls, in a position to speak to the Omaticaya as their new leader, Sully’s avatar directs them as to how they must call on all Na’vi clans of Pandora to fight together to resist the Sky People, an idea that any of the Omaticaya could have articulated as well or better. Claiming an understanding of how colonialism works, (people come in and just take what they want) he then refers to Pandora as “our land”, and the Na’vi ‘masses’ are roused to fight with him in determined resistance. To Cameron’s credit, Sully’s avatar does ask Eyra (the ‘All Mother’ – the Omaticaya’s source and lifeline to their ancestors) to search through Grace Augustine’s (the now dead leader of the science arm of the colonial mission) memory of the Sky People’s world in order to use that information to fight them. But the point is that once again, the colonization of the indigenous population is the background story to a colonizer’s story of transformation. Of course the Na’vi fight back and win. Of course Neytiri helps kill Colonel Quaritch, and saves Jake Sully from dying so that Sully’s avatar will live. And, in the climactic last scene of the film, Sully lets go of his human body to become fully Omaticayan.

I am certain that many viewers saw in this final act of relinquishing his human self a triumph. In fact, when I was there last night, the audience applauded as the credits began to roll. After all, here is a white American marine whose job was to infiltrate, gather information and persuade the Na’vis to relocate so that the corporation could mine the mineral wealth underneath their Hometree, who instead becomes “a traitor to his race” and colludes with those whom he set out to trick and colonize. But he doesn’t just collude with the Na’vis, he claims leadership of them and we are led to believe that without him the Na’vis would have perished: a regurgitation of the neocolonial narrative of the ‘Great White Hope’.

Far from symbolizing hope, when Jake Sully relinquishes his human body, Cameron symbolically gives up on the possibility of transformation for human beings, and, I would argue, white people within a racially polarized society. In Avatar Cameron creates a world view that is fundamentally dualistic: a white dominated military force invading an indigenous population of blue people (people of color). He shows us that one is essentially monstrous and the other is essentially good. And that ultimately, in order to become what is good, the monstrous (a veteran marine, in a damaged body - a metaphor for the ways human beings have damaged themselves and the earth, are crippled by their own values) must be transformed by giving up himself. The suggestion then is that white people are not capable of transforming ourselves as white people, and instead we must take on the identity of the ‘native other’ to heal ourselves of ourselves.

The idea of white people as being so essentially divided from the ‘other’ is problematic. The idea of white people as being so implicitly alienated from what is ‘indigenous’, aligned with nature and an earth-based spirituality is also problematic, to say the least. ‘White’ Americans were indigenous people of somewhere before they became ‘white’ in a land where they were not indigenous. In the places where Europeans were indigenous, we also had earth-based spiritual world views which we relinquished, (many of us, but not all) as the religion of the ‘sky God’ took over. In our collective colonizing projects, we erased our own memories of these spiritual world views, then looked for them in the people we colonized. And though it may morph here and there, we are still telling (and living) that story.

For Cameron to end his movie with the human beings (the majority of whom are white) being called ‘alien’ by the now transformed Jake Sully is not triumphant. It is a sad commentary on the possibilities of the imagination in these times. It gives white people permission to a. imagine that people of color are responsible for teaching us to be more ‘humane’, and to b. opt out of imagining transformations of our own communities and the inheritance of a colonial and imperialistic and racist world view that keeps us trapped in stories like this one (and, dare I say, binaries like 'white' and 'people of color'). And, it feeds into the seductive idea that if white people ‘disappear’ (or at least all the bad ones) balance will be restored.

As a white woman, specifically as a Greek Bahamian woman who grew up on more than one story, I am not reconciled to any of these options. As a storyteller I know it’s in my power to imagine new stories; to ask myself questions like "What would a white American man’s story look like if the predictable plot were interrupted? What if the journey to Pandora was interrupted and Jake Sully’s story rose and fell and rose again on different soil, on the soil the Sky People left behind? What if white people’s enlightenment and transformation did not depend upon the devastation of people of color? What would that story look like?"

Leslie Marmon Silko’s words resonate in the walls of my kitchen, in the aloe plant and yellow hibiscus blooming on the linoleum floor beside me. Stories are medicine, and they can be poison too. As a storyteller - as a white woman who crafts stories - I am aware of the large responsibility of storying, of the risks involved in the work of imagining - the need to discern medicine from poison, and how, perhaps, to make use of both.