Friday, May 8, 2009

What is Social Justice to a Slave?

"For those living with some comfort in the First World, the future no longer exists as a common reference point. Yet for human beings, being sane depends on the acknowledgment of a continuity between the long since dead and those waiting to be born. The richer societies are being increasingly deprived of a temporal dimension essential to any spiritual life." --John Berger, “Foreword: To Try and Understand,” in The Algebra of Infinite Justice, by Arundhati Roy (London: Flamingo, 2002), xvii
In the U.S., we've fallen into the dangerous habit of speaking of slavery and segregation as though the words represent some Time Long Past. Slavery as that Troubling Matter of whips and cotton and bent backs and Roots which is thankfully behind us now. Segregation as those hoses, dogs and embarrassing Southern ignorance we finally got rid of (as though Jim Crow was purely a Mississippi Delta phenomenon and racism existed solely below the Mason-Dixon line).

We hardly speak of chattel slavery as the foundation of our economic system, social inequalities, and political radicalism. Of slaves as the first freedom fighters, activists, and community organizers. Of Freedom Riders as part of the legacy of that activism. Of Rosa and Coretta, Etta and Fannie. And these are the well-known names.

We've moved on to More Important Things. Our histories have become stories have become myths mumbled out of obligation to our predecessors instead of out of a recognition that the ghost of the plantation (and the workshop, and the mill, and the kitchen) sits right over our shoulder. We invoke Ann Nixon Cooper as a symbol of a life lived and then ignore those who question the very role and relevance of what that life might mean. We seat a Sojourner in our Capital and celebrate our journey from slaves to citizens, but ask the welfare queen to put her tiara back on because this stimulus is only for "those who did everything right" and you ran your credit card balance just a little too high.

As the recession deepens, words and statues should accompany public policies that consider a legacy of unequal distribution of resources and acknowledge a history of violence and of resilience. But few economists extend their analysis of the current crisis further back than the last decade. Which means the importance of houses--of land itself--to a long since distressed African-American community is dismissed in the scramble for better credit plans and harder stress tests. Which means that black farmers--yes there are still black farmers--continue to clamor for change they can believe in.

Our forgetting extends with each monument and each moment because we desperately want to believe a page has turned and the past is finally presenting us with a clean slate.

But even our blank sheets of paper are bloodstained.

In the meantime, the past roars in the silence.


The UN Special Focus Report on the demolition of Palestian neighborhoods in East Jersualem begins simply:
"In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and unilaterally
annexed to its territory 70.5 km2 of the occupied area, which
were subsequently integrated within the Jersualem municipality. This annexation contravenes international law..."
Appropriation of land for "green areas," exorbitant legal fees and fines on Palestinan men and women attempting to block the demolition of their homes or plan construction of new ones, and re-re-zonings of pre-1967 neighborhoods all amount to a systematic effort to displace Palestinan landowners.

The report reads like a lesson in 1930s urban redlining. (Or perhaps "predatory lending in reverse").

"In 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA and Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) launched the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA. Their purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan resistance to the Soviets and expand it into a holy war, an Islamic jihad, which would turn Muslim countries within the Soviet Union against the communist regime and eventually destabilise it."

The birth of the Taliban as we know it today.


On June 12, 1967, Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia:
"This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment."
Overturning the original trial judge's contention that:
"Almight God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with this arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
An uncomfortably familiar argument. And yes...he said malay.


This should not even be up for debate (you're a Jack Bauer kind of girl?)


It is our responsibility to remember, to research, to honor and re-honor our own dead. But the forgetting? That part isn't entirely our fault. Revisionist history is as American as fried chicken and apple pie. Black people in the U.S. manifest the best and worst of what this country has to offer. Its determined hope, drive and ambition for the future. Its self-centered and viral xenophobia. Its radical love and sense of global citizenship. And its selective amnesia to any and all facts that might restate, reshape, reimagine the case--whatever the case of the moment might be.

This existence, with all of its contradictions, has galvanized us but also threaten to tear us apart by blinding us to the truth.

And what is the truth?

What is social justice to a slave?

To struggle on a daily basis--

to love who we wanted when we wanted, to claim family despite the caprice of market prices, to love the land and hate the lash, to love our children and hate their father, to worship fire-breathing gods and goddesses whose power screamed through our skin that we were the chosen ones

--to live "while we are alive" not after we are dead.

It is our responsibility to remember our dead and to shape a politics that honors the struggles
of our ancestors. Only we can teach our children how to move forward because only we best recognize the potholes our labor pains left behind.

We can't learn from our experience if we are consistently forgetting it.

We can move forward human, sane and full-bodied if instead of relying on ideology or the caprice of this theoryexpertcounselorpoliticianacademic who happens to be center stage right now (yes, even Barack; yes, even little ole me) we rely on the whole of our experience in the modern world. All fraught and fragile 400+ years and of it. And conduct ourselves accordingly.

No comments: