Historical Agency

Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him. – Frantz Fanon

I have just written a paper in which I explore what I call the “potential for whiteness.” I am fascinated by how the struggle for balance, power and survival has manifested between different races, classes and cultures in the United States. That paper is part of my expanding scholarship on the relationship between white identity and liberal religion. But it is the quote above that has stopped me in my writing today to reflect deeply on a specific part of the struggle that continues to present itself to us in our racialized society.

The quote above from Martiniquais philosopher Frantz Fanon reminds us that Africans did not come to “America” of their own free will. They did not come here as equal partners in the expansion of their own world. They did not come here seeking to gain a place in the equation of what was emerging as a land of “opportunity.” They did not come here seeking refuge from oppression and persecution. Africans were brought here against their will. Interestingly enough, I am also reading the works of St. Augustine right now and he has an awful lot to say about the divine nature of man’s free will as a gift from God. The irony of the fact that Augustine was African is not lost on me.

The big difference between most other non-white immigrant transplants to the United States and people of African origin is that blacks didn’t choose to have their culture erased in the context of whiteness. They didn’t choose to assimilate, to adopt new ways. The essential differences between being a forcefully abducted captive and an immigrant are choice and personal agency. Africans in “America” were/are an unwillingly conquered people.

But it is impossible to speak of conquered people without also speaking of the indigenous people of this continent. Similar to the African, the indigenous people of this land didn’t choose or invite the European settler. They didn’t choose to have their world shaped and their people penned in, rounded up and marched off. They didn’t choose to have their numbers decimated by foreign disease or their women producing bastard mixed offspring as the result of rape by “soldiers of the church.” They didn’t choose to have their way of life redefined by systems and ethical structures that completely deny the foundation of their spiritual lives.

Many are quick to claim that all people in “America” have suffered. They point to how Jews escaping the Russian Pogroms had no choice or that the starving Irish had no choice. The political and agricultural situations faced by these groups were horrific and devastating and deserve their place in our consciousness. But I would argue that anyone who has historically been classified as an “immigrant” did/does have choices as to where and how they can go.  They were not chained and moved here, neither were they invaded by force. Admittedly, many immigrants faced certain death if they remained in their homelands. We see this today with the Syrian refugees and with others escaping human trafficking. These concerns desperately need our attention, compassion and effort to address.  But we must also consider that even death is a choice that Africans and indigenous people did not have; they had no say whatsoever in their destiny. Both were presented with completely new realities of existence without options. Again, this is not in any way to diminish the very real struggles that Jewish, Irish and other early immigrant populations and even today’s immigrant populations face. Rather to point out that they are different historical struggles that need very different approaches to considering. The point here is that blacks and indigenous people have a unique affinity in the early development of this nation in that both populations lack historical agency in their presence including the ability to have chosen life or death.

What I am calling historical agency here is the reference point from which we can now look at the continued challenges facing certain people in this nation. Indigenous and black populations continue to sit at the socioeconomic and educational bottom of our society. Both groups are plagued by disgusting health outcomes. Both are overrepresented in the prison system. Both groups maintain precarious influence at best in our government structures despite numerous pieces of legislation to protect them and despite there being a man of African heritage in the Oval Office.

Last week, I was exposed to some of the most powerful thinking and action around rewriting the dialogue on inequity in the United States. Powerful leaders from all walks of life, ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds came together at the national Equity Summit 2015 to look at how we move forward into a world where all are able to thrive. There were several sessions at the summit that spoke to the effect of trauma on outcomes for people of color in our society. But the conversation about trauma cannot be limited to physical or even mental health outcomes. And it cannot be broadly applied to “people of color.” The most crucial location of trauma in our national discourse on equity is the political and cultural trauma that results from a lack of historical agency. I believe that this is what sits at the root of the continued poor outcomes of indigenous and black Americans. It is this trauma that creates such a gross discrepancy between those who carry it and those who don’t; what is more is that the reality of this trauma seems evident in the resistance and complication of every conversation about reparations for both groups.

We must look forward. But in order to look forward, we have to have a reference point to know that we aren’t actually moving backward. Writers such as Frantz Fanon and Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks have the right idea in keeping us grounded. But the time has come for us to publicly identify the reference points that will give us better language and more honest dialogue about how the past shapes our present and future. We begin to discover this language by looking at the real impact historical agency, or the lack thereof has had on blacks and indigenous people.

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