The words, thoughts, and actions which make up this essay were cultivated on Muscogee Creek, and Cherokee lands on the continent of Turtle Island, currently occupied by the United States of America.
And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
To think of justice as anything other than the result of collective self-determination… is a hypocritical disservice to the goal of liberation which has kept us dreaming, kept us fighting, kept us alive.
Toni Morrison provided me refuge in Montgomery, Alabama. Refuge from the terrors endured by those who could have been, and are, my ancestors. Refuge from the extractive gaze of those who do not know, and I wonder if they care to know. Exiting the gallows of the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, her words met me. There was neither at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. What can Peace or Justice look like for the 4,000, the countless, lynched by this country and its people. Each one of those infinite 4,000 died a death as brutal as the one described to us at the Albany Civil Rights Museum, brutal enough to have me keeled over for some notable period of time. A woman, pregnant, hung upside down by her feet, her clothes doused in gasoline, set ablaze, her stomach cut open, her baby ripped out, smashed. Multiply that by 4,000. Multiply that by the unknown. We still don’t approach the totality of this country’s atrocities, of the western world’s atrocities, and all of those who perpetuate them. Guided by Professor David Hooker’s workshop on restorative justice, I know there is no justice to be had with the creation of this memorial, much less peace. Professor Hooker asks us to interrogate what the harm is/was, what will make said harm “right,” and who has the means to do so, in the search for justice. In contrast, Professor Churchill raised the possibility that “justice can never be obtained” in a system which positions itself as superior. Dionne Brand, an Afro Canadian author, declares that she “does not write toward anything called justice, but against tyranny and toward liberation.” Brand and Churchill share similar sentiments regarding justice, that a tyranny which is ongoing, cannot provide refuge to its own tyranny. To think of justice as anything other than the result of collective self-determination, which Professor Churchill tells us it should be, is a hypocritical disservice to the goal of liberation which has kept us dreaming, kept us fighting, kept us alive.
But you said there was no defense. “There ain’t.” Then what do I do? “Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.”
She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
New York Times coverage of the memorial says it “is meant to perturb, not console — and to encourage truth-telling far and wide. “Nationwide, the opening of the memorial and its museum has been met with widespread acclaim as a necessary confrontation of our past.” Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot writes that
the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present…The past — or more accurately, pastness — is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past. (1)
It is an exercise in futility to simply confront our past. We were told that history without usability is just mythology – that history with usability can be both a weapon, and a means to heal wounds centuries deep. (2) We must then see our present as not only a continuation, but an evolution of our past not yet past. Saidiya Hartman calls today the “afterlife of slavery” where, “skewed life chances, limit- ed access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” are the barometers of Black life. (3) The accompanying Legacy Museum was a blueprint for seeing our past reanimated into this present through the contemporary horrors of incarceration, but what do we do when this creation of the Equal Justice Initiative does not, and maybe cannot, grapple with the full reality of our present? Am I wrong to be unable to separate the horrors of the US American south and US America at large, from the horrors perpetrated by the US in Congo or Yemen? Among the first images in the main room of the Legacy Museum is of a Malawi prison, where Africans lie stacked on top of each other. It is more than reminiscent of the slave hold on the slave ship; it is its continuation. And these are the people who were not kidnapped. Those who were, were put in chains not prior to entering the slave ship, but in Africa’s heartlands, forced at gunpoint on a death march to the sea. If, miraculously, they did not die then in pens along the Gold Coast of modern Nigeria and Ghana and Guinea were next — cacophonous and suffocating — similarly horrific to those of Leesburg and the warehouse where the Legacy Museum is now located. If, miraculously, they did not die, then came those ships, and there starts the stories we are often, yet not often enough, told. That is where the story starts in the Legacy Museum. Today, the inverse is true, “boats” packed impossibly beyond capacity flee, and drown, and capsize across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. Africa bleeds itself because Africa has been carved. The dirty work has already been done; the clearing, kidnapping, killing; this is just maintenance.
Africa bleeds itself because Africa has been carved. The dirty work has already been done; the clearing, kidnapping, killing; this is just maintenance.
This is without mentioning that the wealth and capital which built the institutions we see as infallible today. JP Morgan Chase or Harvard University, they do not exist as they do contemporarily without massive and unimaginable — if only it were not imagined and acted out — exploitation which goes well beyond the US American south. It may be said that this memorial is just the start of a healing process well overdue. Out of love for my people, dead and displaced, out of love for those memorialized by the EJI, out of love for the EJI, and out of frustration with the totality of our past and present, I will not apologize for not being content with a start.
I come from a lineage of dreamers; who am I to stop dreaming, to be content? Professor Ward Churchill relayed to us the urgency of “refusing the paradigm,” in the quest for liberation and self-determination. It is refusing the tyranny of the United States of America, which does not exist without slavery; it is refusing the dominion of the United Nations, which does not exist without the United States of America, it is refusing the hegemony of the nation-state, which does not exist without the United Nations, for all are complicit in the subjugation of the global south. Professor Hooker showed us the importance of envisioning the world we want to live in, and how we would live in it. To do so we must come to a fuller understanding of the world we live in, we must tell the truth: a truth far more horrific and pervasive than what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice would have us see, even if it is a start. And we must imagine worlds beyond our comprehension, to imagine “against tyranny, and towards freedom.” (4) To do so we must do as Baby Suggs tells Denver; as Toni Morrison — who provided me refuge in Montgomery — tells her readers, we must “know it, and go out on the yard.” It is in the yard, outside the confines of comfort, where we are subject to the full horrors of the world and its history, however, it is also in the yard, aware of those horrors, where we can cultivate the ability and the desire to both refuse and imagine.
– Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes — short film by Kahlil Joseph
– Bob Marley, Zimbabwe
A Requiem for Tongues United
that perpetual rage
for the black dead and dying
for we are still dead and dying
for we have always been dead and dying
for, to be born black is to be dead and dying
is this hair texture
born out of colonial desires for black flesh to be nothing more than black flesh
coarse enough for waves but loose enough
that the kidnapping of Africans was not the beginning of globalization.
that the Oil which my mother country bled was necessary for what we call modernity
the same Oil which coated my uncles tongue before he could unlearn the colonizers;
how do you count to 3 years old in our tongue?
that our mothers march to the hospital with you strapped to her still beating heart to get that oil
sweet oil, out of your stomach and back into those lamps, is symbolic of subhumanity.
that to walk back
baby — still — on chest
oil — still — in a now lifeless stomach
and place that — still — body in the still earth is subhuman
if you are human then i don’t want to be.
that my cousin who died in this country’s uniform did so for freedom
even if it was harry truman who watched us starve
and jfk who torched us with napalm.
that lynchings are a thing of the past.
that prison complexes are not literally plantations
that the millions of black prisoners in america aren’t legally slaves
to pretend that this is not a call to action but a play for pity.
To pretend that it has to do with hair at all.
- From Michel Roplh-Trouillot’s “Silencing The Past”
- Thank you, Rachel 🙂
- From Saidiya Hartman’s “Lose Your Mother”
- This quote is from a lecture I watched on youtube given by Dionne Brand titled “Writing Against Tyranny and Towards Liberation”