April 24, 2012 / Praxis
Kevin Austin discusses the evil of modern-day slavery in morphing persons into things, slavery’s prevalence in our own communities, and the future hope for ending slavery through the work of modern-day abolitionists.
July 20, 2015
A singing teapot interrupts the silence.
Nelle is up late, perched at her antique writing desk housed in the corner of the kitchen. Library books linger in staggering towers on her checkered floor.
From the nearby cabinet, she selects her favorite mug, the one her best friend mailed to her after purchasing it from a woman artist in Australia. To Nelle, the mug meant beauty and craft and pleasure. It meant the risk and power of a woman living a creative life. It meant connection to herself. It was a petite thing, this cup that she wrapped her writer’s hands around. But the tea, sweetened with honey, together with the blanket knit by her mother, would give her courage for the evening’s studies.
Touching the spines of books sitting on her desk, stacked a dozen tall, she scans the titles: Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith; Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self by philosopher Susan Brison; Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman; Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America by Saidiya Hartman.
With her hands resting on her books, Nelle remembers the librarian’s compassionate look the last time she’d been in. (“What do you dream about, Nelle?” she had asked, going through the books Nelle had placed on the check-out counter.) Nelle thinks, too, of her professor gently invoking her to develop a “tougher skin” in her work, to feel less in order to do more. (But was tougher skin the goal? Or part of our very problem, Nelle wondered.) And then there was Sister Janet, her meditation teacher, who talked of mysticism and the Divine, of feminism and ending violence, and of how this work will not be done in our lifetime but how the work is still ours to do.
They are all with her.
The red numbers on her desk clock read 1:17.
Nelle sips hot peppermint tea and takes the top book on the stack, an analysis of sexual violence and the European conquest of the Americas, written by the Cherokee activist and scholar Andrea Smith.
Nelle reads of horrors. She reads of women’s and men’s bodies mutilated. Of the US army founding this country through genocide. Of the most sadistic kind of rape and murder, of body parts carved up and put on exhibition. Of the seizure of land, water, and natural resources in the name of progress and civilization. Nelle reads of Manifest Destiny—the religious and political idea in which white-skinned, Christian people had fervently believed that theirs was the true way, the true religion, and the true race. That their God had given them the rightful destiny to move west across the continent and to take and kill what was in their way. To subdue the earth, just as the book of Genesis had commanded them. Her country’s founding dogma: white supremacy entwined with Christianity, capitalism, and conquest of the earth.
Nelle is thirty, and this is the first time she has studied history in quite this way. This term paper she is writing is on the history of rape in the United States, and what she is learning is that sexual violence is a specific tool of white-settler conquest, a strategy of dehumanization: it is one of the methods used to steal the land and natural resources of this continent.
Studying Andrea Smith’s writing, and learning these historical realities—and their implication for the present—shook Nelle at her core. Before, she had thought about the violence in her country’s beginnings the way one thinks about something that feels disconnected from oneself, that feels long ago, that feels past.
Into her mind now flits a childhood memory.
She is in second grade, using rounded scissors to cut into construction paper for a Thanksgiving project, her little girl mind wondering whether the Indians were happy to share their food with the Europeans. She recalls dutifully cutting into the paper, making a pair of table-top paper dolls: a happy pilgrim and a happy Indian. The pair has since faded and wilted, but they remain smiling and side by side every year on her family’s Thanksgiving table.
But why, she wonders now, do grade schoolers do craft projects to commemorate genocide? And what is this collective pseudo-memory, this American nostalgia based not on historical fact but on white supremacist myth?
Another memory surfaces, this time from when she was a college freshman, reading the historian Howard Zinn and learning that President Andrew Jackson distributed smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans as a tool of war. She remembers her shock in finding that Jackson, the so-called “father of democracy,” was among the first to experiment with bioterrorism. Nelle begins only now to make the connections between the past conquest and the present militarization: her country is fighting ongoing wars to free the world of terrorists while it fails to acknowledge the terrorism intrinsic to the founding of the republic. Its contemporary wars and invasions, drones and occupations, are reenactments. The killing of Osama Bin Laden was even code-named Operation Geronimo.
Nelle keeps reading, her mind making the connections that her traditional textbooks had not allowed. Soon, though, she becomes too tired to keep going. It is too late, and the weight of the reading makes her body heavy. So she gathers her books and takes them to bed, still feeling the pressure of upcoming deadlines, hoping to get in another hour of study. But her eyes prove too exhausted. With books still in the bedsheets, and a notebook plopped open on her pillow, Nelle sleeps.
When she wakes, she is covered in sweat, sticky and wet. She looks up at the ceiling, into the small skylight letting in the moon and stars.
Something heavy rests on her chest. She’s just had the most distinct dream. The dream seems even now to creep around her bed, slithering into her sheets.
Most of Nelle’s dreams felt like haze and light. Not this one. It had depth and texture, as though she had moved into another dimension of time. Nelle had just been in a wide-open space of prairie, with a circle of people. There were gallows. There were Indian men, women, and children. There were US military men on horses, corralling the people. Rifles hung at the sides of their blue coats.
Nelle was there against a wooden fence, forced to be there, to watch. Forced to witness the genocidal murder on which this country was built.
And it was only a dream, but it was still unspeakable the death she saw. Unspeakable because it was total horror but also unspeakable because she suddenly knew she had no right to speak on behalf of those who had felt in their own body and soul this American terrorism.
What, then, is it to study and write about someone else’s pain? Nelle wondered, looking up at the ceiling. And what is it to speak to what one has witnessed when that witnessing is only a nightmare?
Nelle desperately wants to scream. Her body contains a scream that echoes back more than a century to a violent prairie in the Dakotas. But she doesn’t know the ethics of speaking this scream. Whose scream is it? And why is it residing in her body?
She curls up in the fetal position, desperate to comfort her body. She tries praying in words, but that doesn’t work at all so she just weeps instead. And she is grateful for her new comforter—it had been a splurge on her tiny graduate student income, but its pressure and softness makes her feel swaddled, as she cries into the morning, as the moon slices the darkness.
And she begins to mourn, for the first time, how her country began—with genocide. With white supremacist genocide, in the name of God, money, and Manifest Destiny. She weeps all night, and she feels empty and fractured and undone by this grief. But somehow, also, Sister Janet was right: because she also feels her soul cupped, like there is Spirit sensing her, near her, as close to her as the cells of her being, holding her with an ancient connection. As though she was not ever alone.
Nelle finishes her term papers. She comes home for the holidays. On Christmas day, her aunts, cousins, second cousins, and cousins once removed were all at the dinner table eating ham and turkey fried in oil and her aunt’s sweet potato dish that everyone loved. And the news was in—the oil wells on the family’s farmland in North Dakota were about to be fracked. Even NPR was doing news stories on the upcoming hydraulic fracturing business. What had been a longtime family myth—that there would one day be oil money—suddenly became national news.
Theirs was a large family so no one knew how much each person would receive, if there were even money to receive after the oil company took its profits. But the details didn’t matter. What mattered to her family, the descendants of hard-working Western European immigrants, was that their old farmland, the farmland that had helped feed her grandmother through the depression, had stockpiles of oil under the ground, and there was a chance that the American Dream had finally hit.
But as Nelle hears the news, she pictures the soil of the Dakotas soaked in the blood of genocide and now penetrated for oil. She recalls the famous Homestead Act of 1862 in which this land was stolen, divvied up, and given to European settlers.
“Nelle,” someone says while eating shrimp cocktail, “Maybe one day you’ll end up with enough to pay off your student loans? Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Nelle’s eighty-six-year-old grandmother, who grew up poor, dreams of using her share of the money to finally get to travel. She speaks, too, of all the people in need whom she will give generously to—like the women’s shelter near her church that collects diapers and food. Her other relatives talk about the repairs they want to make to their house, about sending their kids to college, about how they may now be able to retire one day, about how nice it might be to not worry about money.
Nelle wonders what this all could mean.
What if time itself were never linear but always layered? And what if we are living there in the layers, and all our timeless moments are folded together with us—all of time and creation fused to one another and to the stars, all things and all peoples? What if there is no such thing as a history that is past and gone? What if we were never, actually, separate—either from the stars or one another, from the past or the present?
After all, even NASA scientists tell us that earthly life is reincarnation, that we are all ancient starshine, our blood and bones and skin made from dead exploded stars. We are stars looking up at stars.
Nelle starts to wager, tentatively, on a different cosmology: what if this past-present logic, this binary and compartmentalization, is only a Western myth? Maybe what is and what has been are always with us—reenacted, re-formed, reincarnated. Maybe indigenous cosmologies, which know time to be cyclical, understand existence as it actually is.
And maybe, thinks Nelle, there is a violent amnesia to our Western concept of time, to the way in which we keep history as past and tolerate forgettings, to the way in which we perpetrate contemporary violence by distancing the past. For if the past is something only vanishing, not the essence of the present, we can still drill our oil, drive our cars, and fight our wars of occupation to get more oil. The earth bleeds, oil barons get rich, and a few other people maybe make enough to send their kids to college, just barely tasting that American Dream.
But the shadows of Nelle’s nightmare still remain, here and now. We are only a few generations from Western genocide, and the cycle still repeats. Many of the descendants of the survivors live on reservations, such as in the Dakotas, and are struggling for access to basic resources. They are poor because their communities, culture, and the land they loved were violently stolen from them. And now, their water quality will decline after all the fracking, and their babies may grow up with new illnesses. But who will fund the research, who will make sure that those babies aren’t taking in new toxins after their water supply is ruined by the oil companies?
Nelle then wonders, if history’s violence is not linear, and has never been confined to the past, what will stop these reenactments? What truths will convince us that we are not ever separate from each generation? What forms of living, believing, and knowing will heal this violence and stop the cycle?
This story you have read—Nelle’s story—I wrote to help me make sense of what it feels like to begin to sense the interconnectedness of our historical and contemporary violence. I am, in many ways, the character Nelle. I had that dream, and I wept into the night. I study white-settler colonial violence as a part of my graduate studies. I am myself white. My family has land in the Dakotas that is being fracked and drilled for oil.
But Nelle is also a character. I created her and write about her to help make sense of my own process of grief and transformations. I am not her. She is art. She is fiction. But she is generously stitched from my own lived experiences. I write her for my own therapy: to weave together moments of my life with narrative art and with the academic theory I read every day as a scholar. I write Nelle to try to communicate my work and why I believe we must attend to historical violence to understand and change the present injustices.
Even as I write this piece, tell Nelle’s story, and search for ways to conclude, my head is spinning, my body aching all day as I type. I cannot write about this kind of violence without my body sick, without becoming profoundly disoriented. I get dizzy. I take deep breaths to still my heart rate. I feel the sunshine on my skin, letting it soothe me. I send text messages to friends who understand how difficult it is to study trauma. Every day I wear gentle textures—anything to remind me of comfort. Anything to stay grounded, to stay connected with my own body, because I’ve found that violence rips us from our bodies and one another, even when that violence is not our own direct enfleshed experience.
Let me speak here, more particularly, to writing this piece as a white woman: Studying Western and white supremacist violence spins my sense of what I had known to be true. When I started engaging this history, it was like waking to a nightmare—a reality I didn’t have to even know about before, because white privilege is foremost the privilege of illusions. Keeping the past in the past is one of those illusions.
To truly begin to understand systemic trauma within the United States, I believe we must foreground these stories of history, the violence of whiteness, and colonial conquest. And through these stories, we must then question our cosmologies and systems of education. We must ask ourselves what it means that those of us who hold white privilege settled on land not our own at the expense of entire communities of people who had been here for thousands of years? What does it mean to be the citizen of a country that presumes itself to be a city on a hill, a beacon of freedom, a country that seems to have forgotten how it began with genocide, theft and abuse of the land, an unprecedented massive slave trade to create its wealth, the exploitation of labor from Asia to build its nineteenth-century infrastructure, and the continued exploitation of immigrant labor today? What does it mean to live in an increasingly militarized country where police routinely shoot and kill black and brown people in the streets while the government conducts ongoing wars of occupation, killing hundreds of thousands of brown folks in the name of the War on Terror?
Historical, domestic, and ongoing instances of imperial violence are interconnected, though we so often try to keep them separate, compartmentalized, and dissociated in our dominant practices of thinking, feeling, and learning. Why such gaps? Trauma theory, as produced in Western academia, has emphasized that trauma is actually characterized by these very omissions and absences, by unlanguaged and forgotten gaps. Early researchers, like Sigmund Freud, described this phenomenon when they first investigated the relationship between mental health and trauma in the early part of the twentieth century.
It was in the 1980s when trauma theory took hold as a convincing mode of scholarly inquiry, taking clinical psychoanalytic observations into literary theory. At its inception, it focused on examining narrative, trauma, and psychoanalysis, as applied to the Holocaust. The Holocaust seemed to force us to rethink how we used language to represent the horror of reality. The Holocaust (or so many thought) had interrupted the entire modern idea of Western “progress” and “reason.”
But that interpretation was ahistorical. The Shoah was not an interruption. Its horror was that it was a continued reenactment of Western modes of power, control, and philosophy. Postcolonial theory tells us it was the colony come home to Europe: death and systemic murder had already been perfected by Western powers in their attempted conquest of the globe. Trauma theory in the North American academy did not begin with that realization, though, nor did it begin by examining the systemic violence on its own soil. Thus, we find that even as trauma theory emerged as a mode of critical academic inquiry, there was disavowal. There was forgetting.
Why this failure to grieve, to name, to perceive? What would shift in our production of knowledge and educational practices if investigating white supremacy was the first frame to any trauma theory in the United States?
These are not questions centered in our traditional US education. But these are the kinds of questions that trauma asks of us.
Like Nelle, I conclude this essay struggling with what it means to witness to trauma that is not my own, but of which my life is enmeshed as a white, American woman.
I specifically wrestle with how to use the texts I study—such as the writing of Andrea Smith, which pulses at the heart of Nelle’s late-night creative reflections—without appropriating knowledge or screams that are not mine. As a scholar, I prioritize the work of feminist writers of color, who have led the way in perceiving, theorizing, and articulating interconnections. It is thus writers like Andrea Smith who are helping to dismantle in my thinking assumed Western logic, false separations, and binaries. But there is an ethical issue here: for I have used the immense intellectual resources of a writer like Smith to do the work of interrogating white supremacist violence. It is her labor, and the labor of her community, from which I benefit as a scholar and writer. And thus, like the car that I drive, my life is layered in the very violence this essay tries to name. I write from inside the system, benefiting from white privilege, even as I hope to witness to its violence. To do this work is thus always to wrestle with my own enmeshment with the very reenactments of historical violence that I have hoped to name here.
Georgiana Eliot is a pseudonym who pens first-person stories infused with scholarly reflections. The writer is a doctoral student in the United States. Contact her at Georgiana.Eliot@gmail.com. “A Story of Stars & Violence” is an excerpt of an in-progress book that takes up questions of epistemology, feminism, and the interconnections between historical and contemporary violence.