Oh, Didn't I Ramble!: The Function of Tradition and Traditional Functions

There's a tradition in New Orleans that accompanies a burial that is very similar to those in sub-Saharan Africa, and especially South Africa. In this tradition the mourners form a long line alongside and following the casket or hearst of the deceased to the cemetery, wailing and moaning and crying, singing hymns and dirges, or simply walking silently with their heads down. Once they get to the cemetery and the funerary rights have been rendered and the casket or urn placed in the crypt alongside the rest of the deceased's ancestors, the mourners turn to leave the cemetery but this time filing out singing joyful refrains, dancing, and playing jazz (for a characterization of this that Louis Armstrong performed for his wealthy patrons, see here). The soul has left, the body is gone, the mortal remains have passed on and so we mourn these in due fashion but then remember ourselves and that we are still alive to continue on. And so we rejoice, for ourselves, and for our deceased, that their remembrances help make the living who they are; we celebrate because life goes on and we must accept this and face it and, in spite of it, thrive.

For places like the United States and other former colonies whose current histories have been so thoroughly grounded in terrorism and oppression, the spirit of this burial tradition creates (in my opinion) an opening for positive change and development. Taking a frank and candid look at the "modern" history of the United States (and here I say "modern" in the same sense that Senegal or Iraq or China or Peru- any place you can point to that at one point in history was the standard for modernity in its own right- is considered modern now) is a very painful venture indeed, and should be accompanied with wailing, moaning, and crying alongside moments of inspirational awe at the ingenuity and resilience of those who have had to suffer the brunt of such a rapacious legacy. Such an honest approach to our history, and to how it is linked to U.S. foreign policies and how this ties into historical and current sentiments domestic and abroad about the United States, Whiteness, and Eurocentrism unearths multitudes of negative feelings akin to when something that you hold dear passes on. For whether or not you adhere to the myths of American nationalism, exceptionalism, and unity that have been aggressively pursued since before the turn of last century, the fact remains that merely by living within the United States you have been enculturated into a certain mental schema that aligns itself to varying degrees with these party lines. Facing facts about the United States as they are, then, causes a situation where an integral part of how the American thinks- it could be said an integral part of who they are, depending on how strongly they align themselves with the nationalist rhetoric- becomes deeply, sometimes mortally, wounded.

This is not a terrible thing. However, it can lead to terrible reactions. However, rather than labouring under disillusionment, anger, depression, escapism, or any number of other adverse reactions akin to what Beverly Daniel Tatum outlines as reactions to learning about the reality of race in her book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, I believe that an approach like to that of the funerary processions of New Orleans is more à propos. As horrific as our current history has been, there have been amazing lessons and inspirations to draw from it- not from those who we have been taught until now to regard with adulation and awe but rather those who have survived in spite of those mythic "forefathers." And because our history is so horrific, we are indebted to learn from the tragedy of our past to promise ourselves what each visitor to Elmina Fortress in Cape Coast, Ghana, is required to vow at the end of touring the slave dungeons: Never again. We are indebted to learn of our history before colonialism and also the truth behind the founding of European colonies along the coasts and the violent spread towards the interior and the West. We are required to learn of the inhuman conditions slavery and colonialism imposed on indigenous populations and then on imported African populations and how theories of Whiteness and Eurocentrism arose as means of perpetuating and justifying these practices. We are required to learn of how Orientalist rhetoric arose from economic lustings after the wealth of the various Muslim Caliphates, Indian monarchies, and the possessions of the Chinese empire. We should also keep in mind how Islamophobia and hateful misrepresentations of those "from the East" are not founded in ignorance per se, but on concerted efforts to undermine the humanity of people from these areas and so justify their conquest and subjugation, similar to the case of indigenous American and sub-Saharan African tribes. We are required to learn how the rhetoric of nationalism helped to forcefully integrate and alienate from their roots large swathes of immigrants to the United States and so more easily direct them into binary tracks- "us," or "White" versus "them," or "Black/Savage"- that still form the basis of social interactions to this day (and note how this rhetoric is successfully implemented by Zionist politicians to justify the apartheid state of Israel-Palestine).

These and more are all mandatory historcal facts for the modern citizen of the United States to face and learn from. Once this knowledge is incorporated into our worldview, ideally, a far more mature, inclusive, and perspicacious approach to the future should be spontaneous. However, it is finding these facts that creates the biggest challenge! Take, for instance, the myth of European supremacy and exceptionalism that still operates in a big way today. Regarding the Arab and North African influence from Andalusia on Spanish literature, Dr. Vàzquez of Florida Atlantic University notes in his article in the Hispanic Review "Poesía morisca: o de cómo el español se convirtió en lengua literaria del islam),

"Todavía después de casi un siglo de estudios sobre literatura morisca, con contadísimas excepciones, las clases de literatura obvian esta importante voz.. . .¿Cuál es la definición de literatura española- y por extensión de lo español- de la que se parte para no darle espacio a la expresión literaria de los moriscos? ¿Acaso el hecho de haber sido escritos por musulmanes les niega la atención que se merecen? Sin embargo, el Sendebar, Calila e Dimna y el Conde Lucanor (todos textos debidos al Medio Oriente), se enseñan en los cursos de literatura española medieval. ¿Por qué no entonces los de los moriscos que pertenecen a la historia de la literatura española por derecho propio?" [Volume 75, no.3, p 220]

Tariq Ramadhan, too, mentions this studied erasure of influences external to Europe on the formation of a European (and, by extension, a Euro-American or Euro-Australian) identity that is currently used to further divisive agendas of fear and persecution:

"Ce qui implicitement ressort des termes des débats revient à distinguer deux entités : « Nous, les Occidentaux » et « Eux, les musulmans. », même quand les citoyens sont musulmans et tout à fait occidentaux.. . .Des propos racistes et xénophobes se généralisent, on relit le passé en niant à l’islam la moindre participation à la formation de l’identité occidentale désormais purement « gréco-romaine » et « judéo-chrétienne », on fait passer des examens aux frontières qui testent arbitrairement la « flexibilité morale » des immigrés et les lois sécuritaires s’imposent naturellement en ces temps de peurs et d’instabilité."

These efforts can be seen both in literature historic and modern (as al-Tayyib Salih brings out in his novel Season of Migration to the North, or, موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال ) and in current visual media. The drowning out of counter voices like the few I have mentioned above by this discursive erasure of history in favor of a constructed narrative of an exclusionary homogeneous identity begins to mimic the final scene in Salih's book where the narrator discovers Mustafa Sa'eed's "treasure": shelf after shelf lining an entire house of books on Africa and the Orient in so many European languages without a single book in Arabic or any other African language- even the copy of the Qur'an he finds is an English translation and not the real deal! With such an appropriation of image, of history, and of ideas, it becomes child's play to fashion and push popular opinion in whichever direction will benefit the few that profit economically from wars, increased security measures, or exploitative contracts and deprive and divide the many. With such an appropriation, too, it becomes impossible to face the past and grieve or even to move on. As a result attempts at dialogue, political manoeuvres, and contestations of human rights all become circumscribed by an overarching rhetoric formed on those ideas I mentioned above of exceptional nationalism, Eurocentricity, and exclusion of the many for the benefit of a few. This happens because the counter-arguments and facts to the contrary are either buried from immediate sight or out of reach to the majority of the populous. How, then, can we begin to come to terms with our past in order to move forward if this is the case? And what role does each one of us play in helping along such a blind repetition of past injustices, and what role can we play in contesting this dominant discourse and changing the shape of our future? In order to find a point where we can legitimately celebrate life, we must first acknowledge the past and those who have passed; we must carry the influence and acceptance of this knowledge within us before we can carry on into the future. Else, we will forever be facing the zombies of our history and never come to terms with our present.


Putting Things In Perspective: A Beginning

A few things have occurred to me in the last twenty-four hours. One, that while it is fine to rant about injustice and demand change and so forth, it doesn't quite mean much if a large portion of the population has little idea about the terminology you're using, the ideas you're working with, or the connections you're making and how you reached your conclusions. Two, that it is not fine to insist on change and then sit back and do nothing yourself about it.

With these two points in mind, I've decided to adopt that old slogan- "Be the change"- in one of the only ways I know I'm good at: Writing. Well, writing and teaching. From henceforth I'll be making an effort to expound on many issues I frequently cite- Eurocentrism, imperialism, state-sponsored terrorism, underdevelopment, colonialism, etc.- so as to make information that I've been privy to available to a wider audience for them to draw their own conclusions from.

(Admittedly, I have a very biased opinion that comes through in all of my writing, and so any readings will have to be done through a filter, but I will do my best to include resources I draw inspiration from and cite references when possible for the benefit of the curious observer.)

Starting off, there are a number of other intellects and writers who have approached these issues in a far more astute manner than I'm able to, and it is these people and their works that I would like to begin by sharing. This will be far from a comprehensive list, but hopefully complete enough that by researching a number of those listed a little more perspective on issues I will be discussing can be apprehended.

The List:

W.E.B. DuBois (especially his analysis of the Dumbarton Oaks Treaty after WWII)
Frederick Douglass
Yuri Kochiyama
John Howard, Black Like Me
Langston Hughes
Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (along with other works of his)
Beverly Daniels Tatum, Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
James Baldwin (especially his interviews and op-ed pieces)
Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Ernest Renan, "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?"
V.Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge
Angela Davis (especially her anti-prison works)
Andrea Smith, Conquest
Cherrie Moraga
Saidiya Hartman (especially her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America)
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study
Mahmoud Darwish
Uthman Dan Fodio
Hyaeweol Choi (especially her work on missionaries in Korea)
Reverend Cho Wha Soon, Let the Weak Be Strong: A Woman's Struggle for Justice
Pak Wan-Soo (any of her novels, really)
al-Tayyib Salih, Season of Migration to the North
Michel Foucault (especially Power/Knowledge, his transcribed lectures Abnormal from the College de Paris, and Panopticon)
Tariq Ramadhan, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism
Ghassan Kanafani
Edward Saïd, Orientalism
Emile Habibi, The Secret Life of Saeed: the Pessoptimist
Jaquet Cristophe Porteous, "L'évolution des conflits en Afrique subsaharienne"
Kurt Vonnegut
Alain Mabanckou
Ahmadou Kourouma
Kwame Nkrumah
Lupe Fiasco
The Blue Scholars
The Blues

....and the documentary "Life and Debt."


How Many More Years?

Moments of authoritarian uprisings in history show that oppression becomes greatest when those in power are the most frightened for the continuation of their rule. Now, whether the recent attacks on the Sikh and Muslim communities and laws like those passed in Arizona are led by any one powerful group or are just the repercussions of satellite White Supremacist groups acting on racist xenophobic goadings is up for grabs, but either way the message is clear: those who want to remain in a state of privilege and power are afraid. Very afraid. And what it is that they are afraid of is not the messages of the religions of Islam or Sikhism, nor the "browning" of America per se, but the possibility of coalition between or among oppressed groups that has the very real potential of overturning the status quo and existing hegemony in the United States- and the world at large- if realized.

In America the Midwest and the West are rearing the ugly heads of their settler colonialist history once again, and my stomach is somersaulting in anticipation of the East Coast and the South following suit.

How many more days, how many more terrors? How many more nights of counting the hours until loved ones contact us from Iraq, from Syria, from Palestine, from Liberia, from Pakistan, from Tunisia, from Jakarta, from Pit River, from New Orleans, from Guadalajara, from our neighborhood mosque or community gurdwara, local church, spiritual place of communion or favorite temple? How long must we accept terrorism spawned by fear and ignorance to be sanctioned against us, to divide us and keep us in fear for our safety, while our communities are the ones portrayed as being born of violence and hatred? 

All of these acts of terrorism, all of these places, are linked through the shared experiences of imperialism, exploitative consumer capitalism, and racist policies that have characterized what Walter Rodney coined as the "underdevelopment" of specific communities by imperialist nations- those exploited communities who harbor the most potential resources for success and advancement whose resources are leached for the benefit of proponents of imperialism and the detriment of the rest. The terrorism we face- historical and current- has been to subvert economically, psychologically, and physically the potential strength of collusion among the exploited and break any spirit of resistance through oppression. Not only that, but by creating myths of supremacy and distributing parcel portions of benefits to handfuls of similarly oppressed peoples those in power have created de facto watchguards of hegemony who act on behalf of those in power to the detriment of their own selves, further sowing division amongst people and communities who would otherwise find common ground to stand and unite on. 

The recent attacks on the Sikh gudwara and the Muslim masjids during Ramadhan, and especially so close to elections, are painful to witness, horrific to experience, and mind-numbing to see happen again and again. However, as disturbing and heart-rending as they are, they are not surprising. These acts of terror have long histories and deep roots- the very state of what is called "Western democracy" was founded on similar premises. To understand the history that this terrorism and underdevelopment stems from is to begin to pre-empt this terrorism and imperialism in all of our communities; to understand their roots is to begin to apprehend ways of subverting them; and to understand the ways in which hegemony changes its approach so as to appear to offer concessions while at the same time consolidating its power is to unlearn its profound effects on our way of thinking while revealing new methods of existing counter to hegemony's self-serving aims. To achieve this level of knowledge is to take the first step towards fighting against the multilayered terrorist attacks our communities have been facing for centuries while at the same time working to keep ourselves from repeating the sins of our oppressors; to discern the most expedient yet prudent method of countering these mortal aggravations is to uncover the root of fear that drives them, and so to uncover the way to end them.