He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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The Flags we Fly: symbols of justice, markers of conquest

kuuhae

Kuʻu hae Hawaiʻi, University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu, November 28th, 2017

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

I can’t remember the last time I recited these words out loud. It’s been at least a decade (maybe two). But, if made to do so, I’d know every word. In fact, as I write this, the old, familiar lines come back to me:

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

They are imprinted in my childhood memories:

brown hand

over brown heart

under red and whitewashed stars and stripes.

When I think about my early education, standing in classrooms with my peers—most of us from ranching, farming, hunting, or plantation families—I realize that we had no idea what we were pledging our allegiance to. We had no idea what we were committing ourselves to: to the position of subordinate, second-class citizen, still considered “less than,” or too brown, too rural, and too uncivilized that our existence needed surveillance, or needed monitoring and controlling. We were children, and when I think about the many mornings we stood beneath the American flag, palms to chest, reciting the words of unconscious (and enforced) adherence, I question notions of freedom and justice.

How is it that a piece of cloth, attached to ropes and poles, came to have such significance? How did a flag become something worth fighting for, something worth dying for, something worth risking public reputation or social acceptance for? How is it that kneeling before a flag, burning a flag, cutting a flag, or even shooting a flag can be packed with so much meaning? How is it that we can fly flags freely in one place while people in other countries have to hide and risk their physical freedom to fly their symbols of independence?

Last week, these questions and considerations collided with my childhood memories of compliance when two particular events provided me with powerful opportunities to examine our “freedom” flags. The first was on Lā Kūokoʻa, our Hawaiian Independence Day celebrated on November 28th, and the second was on the West Papuan Independence Day, recognized each year on December 1st.

The proximity of these two days, not only in time but in symbolism, made me pause to question what we really fly: hopes and dreams, or something much deeper (and perhaps darker) than we realize?

(I’d like to recognize, at the outset, that this blog may not sit comfortably with some of you. However, what I observed last week pushed me to record these thoughts and observations, and more so, to reflect on myself and my own words and actions. I believe that we must be critically aware and open to critiquing ourselves and structures of power so that we can be more conscious of the messages that we are sending as we fly our symbols.)

Last week Tuesday, I drove to work excited that we would be able to raise and acknowledge our hae Hawaiʻi (our Hawaiian flag) on Lā Kūʻokoʻa. It was the day, 174 years ago, that Hawaiʻi was officially recognized as an independent country by dominant world powers. This made Hawaiʻi, in 1843, the first non-European country to earn such recognition. The day was then celebrated for years (decades even) as a day of independence. Despite later being clouded by incoming holidays, like the murderous American “Thanksgiving,” there has been a resurgence in awareness and with it, a renewed desire to celebrate and continue to hope and work for independence: politically and psychologically.

I arrived at work to find a small group gathered beneath the flagpole fronting our campus. We would raise our hae Hawaiʻi together, sing songs, and chant chants for a restoration of justice. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu, I am considered a “state” employee. Therefore, I was pleased to see that our “state” institution would allow us to celebrate in this way.

When the small ceremony was about to commence our chancellor ordered that the American flag be brought down. It was a small moment of pleasure, a small victory. We then chanted our hae Hawaiʻi into the sky, exchanged reflections and hopes, and sent each other into the day with smiles for freedom. I snapped a photo to capture the moment and even posted it on Facebook and Instagram to participate in a widespread acknowledgement and celebration of the day on social media.

Not an hour later, however, I was terribly disappointed when I walked through campus and saw that the American flag had not only be re-raised, but that the hae Hawaiʻi had been slightly lowered.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

It was elementary school all over again.

I stood still for a second and then became rather painfully aware of my own compliance. When I drove to work, I was happy to be allowed to raise a flag, to be allowed to celebrate our independence, to be allowed to watch the American flag come down. Such “allowance,” however, meant that I was still holding on to my subordinate, second class position, the one ingrained in my heart during childhood, while I held my hand on my chest and recited the words of someone else’s deceptive version of “freedom.”

We were allowed to recognize our history as long as it was comfortable for the institution that we work for. We were allowed to sing and chant for our freedom as long as it did not disrupt the campus. We were allowed to be and to exist as indigenous people, but with restrictions and time limits: just long enough for university cameras to capture the moment—a moment of diversity, perhaps, or a moment of symbolic “acceptance”—a moment that may find its way to a newsletter, a brochure, or a campus website in the future. We were given allowances while our actions were still monitored and controlled, and worse, while our minds were still made to believe that we had tasted independence all the while being fed scraps to keep us satisfied for the moment.

I would rather eat stones than taste the bitterness of that moment again, for it was in that small circle that we became symbols of complacency, or of being satisfied with mere moments when we deserve lifetimes.

The truth is that flags, while being symbols of “liberty and justice for all,” are also markers of conquest, colonialism, and genocide, and of historical, spiritual, cultural, and physical erasure. Reflecting on the re-raised American flag and the brief—and now brutal—15 minutes or so that we were allowed to see our hae Hawaiʻi fly independently, I remembered conversations had with my students this past semester. Just a month or so earlier, while we discussed colonialism in the Pacific, I had encouraged them to be aware of “white possession” or of the ways that possession is marked in space and time.

I shared with them, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) argues, that “For indigenous people, white possession is not unmarked, unnamed, or invisible; it is hypervisible…cities signify with every building and every street that this land is now possessed by others; signs of white possession are embedded everywhere in the landscape” (p. xiii). We spoke about our islands, the environments we live in, and the sometimes-unconscious acceptance that we give to the presence of everything from the military (and military discounts and military privilege), to imposed place names, and to other settler structures that do not truly serve us.

And we even spoke of flags.

We spoke about the flagpole fronting our campus, the same pole that I sang beneath on Lā Kūʻokoʻa, and how the presence of the American flag flying marks this space as a white possession, a place taken over and claimed. That pole is much like a stake pushed into the land, like those of the Oklahoma Land Rush of the late 1800s, where white settlers raced to assert ownership over places that were never empty to begin with, places that were valued, places that were already understood as sacred, and places that did not need to be “marked” as human possessions because they were lived with rather than lived on and conquered.

Despite such awareness, however, and despite my efforts to think critically about colonialism, our campus—one that is touted as both an indigenous-serving institution and an indigenous place of learning—was complicit in a settler-sanctioned “moment” for indigenous rights and freedom, one that I now believe may have done more harm than good. The fact that our actions that morning still required permission, or the fact that they had to be sanctioned and then limited, made me question the messages we send our students, particularly our indigenous students, the ones we claim to serve.

What message am I sending when I encourage them to critique dominant structures of power and to recognize the hypervisibility of white possession (or even non-white, settler possession) when I myself participate in actions that only reinforce those structures? What messages am I sending when I allow these things to go unquestioned? What messages am I sending if I don’t point out the absurdity of these acts? What messages am I sending if I fear speaking out because my fear of the system is greater: how smart is it, after all, for the “state” employee to critique the system that employees her?

While my rather deep reflection on Lā Kūʻokoʻa may seem a bit inflated—making too much of something small—I’d argue that we have to make a bigger deal out of these things. In fact, if we use this as an example (and as an opportunity), we can begin to recognize our own compliance in other settler systems, questioning how much of what we do is because we are allowed to.

You can dance, chant, and have your ceremonies here and here and here.”

But, try to do that on a mountaintop, or a space desired by the settler state, and suddenly you are in the way. Suddenly, your presence no longer works for the dominant system—as a token of difference or a point of acceptable diversity and sellable “culture”—and you find yourself stuck. Act out and take the consequences or keep your mouth shut and be thankful for what you can get: moments of “sanctioned” freedom, which isn’t really freedom at all, is it???

I suppose this blog is proof of the choice I prefer to make. I grew up with many examples of bright, bold, and brave patriots who refused to act within systems of domination, who knew that expressions of self and identity, and yes, true freedom and independence, should not be, and cannot be, sanctioned by the state. I am fortunate to still be surrounded by people who fly their flags everyday—whether on the back of their trucks, or out their windows, or in their front yards—who still carry signs, who still protest and resist, and who still chant and pray on mountaintops, on shorelines, behind fenced forests, and in every other place that has been threatened by colonialism masquerading as the promise for “liberty and justice for all.”

I suppose this blog is evidence that I cannot sit silently about these things. To do so would be to insult the many strong and courageous indigenous warriors who have influenced my life and who have taught me, even in those early years when I was forced to learn and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, that there was another reality, one that we could create and enact and embody ourselves.

They taught me true independence! True freedom. Something worth standing for.

So, I question the system for them and for all of us.

A few days after Lā Kūʻokoa, I posted a blog for West Papua. It was written as a letter to Owen Pekei, a young student who had lost his life for daring to fly the independence flag of his country, the Morning Star. December 1st marks the day, in 1961, that this flag was raised in celebration of West Papuan independence. Eighteen days later, Indonesian authorities called for the mobilization of people into the country, which eventually laid the foundation for the forced and violent occupation of West Papua by Indonesia. Since then, the indigenous people have been victim to human rights abuses, living in a place where flying the Morning Star flag can result in a 15 year prison sentence, or worse, even death.

After learning about the ongoing genocide in West Papua a few years ago, I vowed to help raise awareness for their plight and to raise their flag whenever and wherever I could, knowing that they didn’t have the same freedom to do so. When I posted my blog this December 1st, however, just a few days after Lā Kūʻokoʻa and my experiences at UH West Oʻahu, I started to think quite critically about my own actions.

I voice opposition to Indonesian occupation and raise (and wear) the Morning Star flag regularly without having to fear consequence. I do not live in West Papua. Therefore, my so-called “bravery” comes partly from geography. While I work to cultivate the relationship between our peoples in the Pacific, and hope to strengthened ties, loyalties, and shared responsibilities to each other and to our sea of islands, I also recognize that there is a certain privilege that comes with distance.

Last week made me glaringly aware of the fact that I do not want to be one of those keyboard warriors who is willing to lend a voice to other issues—speaking and writing words for freedom—while being simultaneously unwilling to do the same when the issue is no longer distant, but close, so close in fact, that it waves in my face everyday: conquest disguised in red, white, and blue shades of injustice.

Exactly one week after Lā Kūʻokoʻa, I sit here reminded of the fact that words are not enough. I can write this blog, post it, share it, and help to spread awareness. However, if the act of writing it does not change me internally and does not influence the way I live my life every single day, then they are just words, strung together with meaning, perhaps, but lacking any true power. Words, after all, “whether delivered face-to-face or hurled at us through the Twittersphere [or, yes, even shared on a blog like He Wahī Paʻakai] are worthless unless they lead us toward action” (Gomez, 2017, p. 46).

Thinking about the flags we fly, and the flags we flew last week, I will no longer participate in settler-sanctioned university events that send underlying messages of compliance, especially while encouraging my students to think critically about the structures of power that oppress them. I would rather organize events for education and awareness, inviting students to take part in the creation—and the envisioning—of a new reality, one that encompasses all of their hopes and dreams of freedom.

That is my radial hope and my radical action. And that is indepedence.

References:

Gomez, J. (2017). Not a Moment but a Movement. In C. De Robertis (ed) Radical Hope: letters of love and dissent in dangerous times. (pp. 40-48). New York: Vintage Books.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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To give freedom a name: a letter to Owen Pekei

free west papua

Wellington, New Zealand, 2015, with Oceania Interrupted. Photo by Andrew Matautia.

Dear Owen,

You were just a young student. Eighteen years old. You rode a motorcycle, carried a noken, or a woven bag native to your home, a symbol of Papua. And with it, you carried a flag.

A Morning Star.

I sometimes wonder about you, trying to imagine what you must have been like: so young, so brave, so full of radical hope. One afternoon, on June 27th, 2016, you rode your bike, your colorful bag hung around you, and you flew your independence in blue and white stripes and one star in a sea of red.

We all bleed red, Owen.

That afternoon, your blood colored black roadways. They said you had crashed. But I didn’t believe them. Most of us didn’t. You left the world with a hole in your head: chased, shot, and killed for a star. It was your call for freedom, your hope for justice, your prayer for an end to genocide, your insistence in the restoration of human rights and dignity.

It was your song for a Free West Papua.

Two weeks later, I entered a classroom. I imagined what it would have been like to have you as a student, or if I’m being honest, what it would have been like to learn from you, from your courage, your persistence, your story. I was meant to teach a course on framing the Pacific, or a class on challenging the structures, both physical and ideological, that influence the way we view our sea of islands.

I stood before students your age, students like you—eager and motivated. Your story sat on my shoulders, your name hung on my lips, and your flag washed in red fluttered in my gut. I couldn’t let you go. So I introduced them to you.

Since that day, all of my students have heard your name and story. I start every semester by inviting them to challenge the word “pacific,” meaning “peaceful,” and to think critically about their ocean as being far more than the paradise that has been depicted to be. I ask them to come along with me as we confront the troubling reality that the Pacific is filled with both beauty and pain.

You help them to see both, Owen. You embodied both.

For most, the idea that genocide is not something to be spoken of in the past tense alone and the thought that people in our region of the world can be raped, abused, and killed just for being who they are is unbelievable. They question why they didn’t know about you before, why West Papua was a name they never uttered, why you could be chased for a flag, for a star, for a hope. While I watch anger and sadness grow in their bellies, falling from their eyes and quivering in their hands, I give freedom a name.

On the first day of class, we call it Owen.

You do for my students what I never could: you bleed for them, for their awareness, and for their hearts. You make sure that society does not strip them of their right to care, to think beyond themselves, to love. I give freedom your name so that it can have a face and a story, something they can connect to, something they can fight for.

Yesterday one of my students wrote: “I have been thinking […] if humans, at our root are completely self interested. This idea started when I learned about the genocide in West Papua and how not much is being done by [those] who have power to do something and how many people who are informed about the problem still chose to do nothing.”

He questioned our humanity, how we could live in a world where you could be killed, Owen. You were just a student like him: young and eager and motivated. So, he vowed to speak your name, to raise a voice for your country, and to do what he could—no matter how small—to share your story.

However, some of my students get wrapped up in notions of smallness, thinking that their actions are too little or too insignificant to create any real change. They say, “What can I actually do?” Enraged at the injustice suffered by your people, I find them equally frustrated in feeling unable to help. So, I teach them about agency, or about the idea that no one is ever completely powerless. You lived in a country where flying the Morning Star can result in up to 15 years in prison.

And you chose to fly it anyway.

So, I remind them of you, Owen. And I remind them of the impact that your life—your single life—has had on me, on them, and on so many around the world, so many who were unwilling to accept a false story of your death and who choose to honor your memory by raising a voice for freedom.

“Write a poem, share a message, talk to your parents and families, raise a flag,” I tell them.

Raise a Morning Star. And give freedom a name.

“Use your body and your words because sometimes that’s all we have,” I say.

And I tell them to never forget you, to never forget your country, and to never forget your call for justice.

If we remain silent about the things that matter, I explain, our silence can be mistaken as consent. And as I was recently reminded, “our silence serves as the perennial grindstone sharpening the amnesia” of your oppressors (Moraga, 2017, p. 98). Therefore, we will not forget and we will not let them forget you, Owen.

We will lift a voice, raise a flag, sing a song, march, compose, and protest for all you stood for.

FREE WEST PAPUA.

Standing in solidarity,
Emalani Case

For more information:

Free West Papua Campaign: https://www.freewestpapua.org/
About the Morning Star Flag: https://westpapuamedia.info/2012/12/02/a-history-of-the-morning-star-flag-of-west-papua/
About Owen Pekei: http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/307624/conflicting-reports-over-papuan-teen-death

References:

Moraga, C. (2017). A “Holla” From the West Side. In C. De Robertis (ed) Radical Hope: letters of love and dissent in dangerous times. (pp. 92-101). New York: Vintage Books.

 

 

 


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Take a deep breath

“I nui ke aho a moe i ke kai.”
Take a deep breath and lay in the ocean.

Photo Nov 13, 3 16 25 PM (1)

Prophets were said to be “he poʻe makaʻu ʻole,” or a fearless people. Not only did they have the courage to utter their prophecies before chiefs, no matter the consequence, but they were also brave enough to follow those prophecies, even when they spoke of their own demise. One such person was Kaʻōpulupulu, the prophet of Kahahana, a reigning chief of the island of Oʻahu. According to 19th century scholar, Samuel Kamakau, Kaʻōpulupulu knew when he would die. Having been accused of being disloyal to his chief, he consulted with the gods. He prayed. And his fate was revealed:

Both he and his son, Kahulupue, would be killed.

Before facing his own death, however, he uttered one last prophecy to his son and to all who could hear him:

“I nui ke aho a moe i ke kai. No ke kai kā hoʻi ua ʻāina.”
Take a deep breath and lay in the ocean. This land belongs to the sea.

Many have pondered the meaning of these words, not just in the context of Kaʻōpulupulu’s death and Kahahana’s reign, but even in the generations following. Today, I ponder them still.

I write this from the kai, seated at the edge of the sea. Taking deep breaths, my toes buried in sand.

Exactly one year ago today, I stood at the base of a mountain, Taranaki. The summit was cloaked and concealed in clouds, but I knew it was there. I could stand at the base and picture it. I could feel it. It was my birthday, the day two genealogies combined to create me in the physical world. The day my mother labored for my existence.

I stood in awe of what this life had provided me: the chance to stand at the foot of a mountain, thinking of my own sacred spaces back home, connected across oceans. I was humbled to be there, at that moment, feeling the chill in the air and the wind at my face.

I quietly prayed.

And through it all, I was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness.

The one who took me there—one who was born in the shadow of that very mountain—opted to stay at the car. He opted to fill his head and lungs with smoke. He opted to reach heights with the help of a rolled joint, pressed and created carefully between his large, brown fingers. He opted not to share that moment with me.

He refused to acknowledge that it was my day of birth, refused to even utter the words. Upon reflection, I wonder if there was something about my very existence that was too difficult for him to handle. I was too large, too emotional, too driven, too intense, too everything he wanted to quiet down. My dreams were too big for him. Despite being together for nearly three years at that point, I realized that he found it hard to celebrate almost anything with me or about me, including the day I took my first breath.

So I quietly celebrated with that mountain instead, sending my love to it, sending my gratitude to it, asking that it help me to stand strong, to clear the clouds shrouding my own thinking, to show me my path.

Little did I know that the path planned for me would be rough, as rough and cold and rugged as the mountain’s terrain.
Little did I know that path planned for me would be one of heartbreak, one of death.
Little did I know that the path planned for me would be one of taking deep breaths and lying in the ocean.

That night, as we returned to our small, city apartment, I lay in bed with the vision of mountains in my head, my then partner snoring softly next to me. As the minutes ticked into hours, I lay there, staring up at the ceiling until being shaken by one of the biggest earthquakes I have ever experienced.

I was rocked to life, stunned into awareness. Everything within me trembled. My partner ran out of the apartment, yelling at me to do the same. But I lay there for a few brief moments, just feeling it.

It was my prophecy.

No words. Just tremors.

I was not on the right path.
I was not with the right person.
I was drowning.

And I knew it.

Today, exactly one year later, I sit in quiet reflection, thinking about how the past 12 months of my life have taken me from standing at the base of a mountain—lonely and lost—to sitting at the edge of the sea. I cannot say that I am any more “found” than I was a year ago or that I am any less lonely. But I can say that in the absence of that “someone” who once occupied my space, heart, and mind, I am finding something else, some one else: me.

I’m learning to breathe on my own. And I’m finding strength in the ocean.

Today I wonder about the fearless ones, those poʻe makaʻu ʻole, those willing and daring enough to reveal their truths, to accept them, to own them, to voice them, to make them known.

I can only hope to one day be as fearless. I am not prophet. I cannot read signs or predict the future. I often have trouble just listening to my own naʻau, my own gut instincts. But I am trying: trying to quiet myself and trying to pay attention.

Today I sit at the sea receiving stories in salt sticking to my skin and I wonder what it all means. I think about Kaʻōpulupulu and the wise ones and how their words never cease to have meaning, not in the past, and not now.

When Kaʻōpulupulu uttered his prophecy, for instance, he may have been referring to his own death, or as some have speculated, he may have been speaking of times to come: the “death” of our people, our nation, our culture. Or, he could have been referring to the eventual coming of “others” from across the sea, others who would come with their plans to take over, to control, to colonize, to extinguish. He could have been speaking of our demise.

Or, he could have been speaking far beyond that.

Perhaps when he told his son to take a deep breath and to lay in the ocean, he was truly telling him to lie in wait until the time came to rise, to leave the sea, to walk upon the land once again, reconnecting and restoring himself and others. As my dear friend and mentor, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, “We cry and sweat salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood.” Therefore, perhaps like her, he knew that we were one with the ocean and that we could find life there as we re-learned how to breathe, or how to hold our breath through moments of pain and sorrow, and then how exhale it out. Perhaps he knew that the sea was where we could find our strength, cleansing and clarifying. Perhaps he knew that it was there, in and of salt water, that we could be empowered.

Today I will dip my head below the surface of the sea, washing the hurt of the past year away while keeping all of the lessons. I will hold my breath, sink to the bottom, lay for a moment, and then rise to walk anew upon the ʻāina.

Today I will promise to be a bit bolder, a bit braver, a bit more willing to rise above my fears. Today I will embrace the ocean in me, the ocean in you, the ocean in us. Today I will take a deep breath, hold it in, and then share this breath with you through story.

Here’s to 34.


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Changing the Narrative: When the stories we tell no longer help us

“The work of a contemporary warrior is to take the responsibility to be a self-actualized individual.”

– Cornel Pewewardy

DadPicBlog

With my dad, my self-actualized, indigenous warrior. Waimea, Hawaiʻi. 

There are many things I’m not good at.

My dad often talks about my intelligence. “If I had your brains,” he often says, sighing and shaking his head, “I could’ve done so much more with my life.” On the top of his “much more” list is usually, “I could’ve been the governor.” I usually smile and laugh at his attempt at a joke. Though, deep down, I actually believe he could be a far better governor that the current man in office. But, hey, he’s my dad. So I may be a little biased. (Just a tiny bit.)

When we get into these types of conversations, he has the habit of listing all the ways he believes he is somehow deficient: “I can’t speak Hawaiian. I can’t write. I don’t know how to use the computer.” He holds up his fingers, some long and some stubby, as if to count the shortcomings. (If you know my dad, you’ll get the stubby finger reference.) Time and time again I remind him of his own intelligence, how I could never do so many of the things that he can do, so many of the things that he does. Every. Single. Day. In a crafty way, though (because he is intelligent like that), I think our exchanges are meant to remind me—and not him—about the kind of knowing that really matters!

My dad is a self-actualized individual. He is the kind of indigenous warrior that Cornel Pewewardy describes in the forward to Winona LaDuke’s critical book, The Militarization of Indian Country. To be self-actualized is to recognize (and act upon) your own talents and potentialities. It is to understand what you as a unique human being have to bring to your family, to your community, to your nation, your region, or even the world. A friend of mine recently summarized this concept by saying, profoundly and simply: “You have to know what you know and you have to know what you don’t know.”

There is power in both. I truly believe that when we recognize what we don’t know we are in a better position to truly understand our kuleana, or what our roles and responsibilities may be. We are able to better appreciate what our contribution can be to a particular cause or issue. We are able to tread a bit lighter on lands that we may not be as familiar with. We are able to determine when and where our voice or our presence should be (and when and where they shouldn’t). And further, we are able to discern when our efforts, no matter how well-meaning they may be, could actually be more detrimental that helpful.

I have an example.

But before I get into this story, I’d like to state that while there are many things that I am not good at and while there are many things that I do not know—I would most likely perish if made to sustain myself from the ʻāina, for example, and I would certainly get lost if left in a forest alone, and I would probably get kicked off the waʻa (canoe) if made to steer it—there are certain things that I do know about myself. And this is part of the process of self-actualization:

  1. I believe part of my role in life is to tell stories.
  2. I believe that I have a responsibility to tell critical stories, especially when they impact those I care about.
  3. I believe that I am an educator.
  4. I believe that I can draw upon my talent to present stories as a means of inspiring conversation.

(I’d like to also state that this story is not at all meant to demean the people involved but rather to highlight something that I hope we can learn from.)

Last week I attended a workshop. It was on historical and cultural trauma. I had recently read an article entitled, “Positioning Historical Trauma Theory within Aotearoa New Zealand,” (Kia ora Aunty Leonie) and therefore thought this would be an important workshop to attend. Pulling on previously published scholarship, the article states: “Historical trauma is collective, cumulative wounding both on an emotional and psychological level that impacts across a lifetime and through generations, which derives from cataclysmic, massive collective traumatic events, and the unresolved grief impacts both personally and intergenerationally” (Pihama et al., 2014, p. 251-52). I certainly believe that any effort to better the condition of our indigenous lives and futures must take into account the historical trauma imposed in the processes of colonization. (Thus, again, my interest in the workshop.) I was ready to be a student, to absorb, and to learn more so that I could determine if this was an area of study that I had any real place in. I wanted to begin to consider trauma in the context of Hawaiʻi.

On the morning of the workshop, I arrived to a group of people sitting on mats. The environment was comfortable. The breeze blew through our open hale (house) and we chanted to greet the day. After initial introductions to each other and to the content, we were then led through a visualization exercise. The instructor, a Hawaiian woman, explained that she was going to take us through Hawaiʻi’s history, from the past to the present. We were asked to close our eyes, to settle down, to imagine, and to essentially put ourselves in the place of our ancestors.

Like common narratives written and told before, she started in pre-contact Hawaiʻi and spoke about an unspoiled paradise, an abundant oasis, a place where people lived in complete harmony with nature and with each other. Life was joyful; it was idyllic. As listeners, we were meant to ease into the beauty of such a time, a time before “outsiders,” a time before disruption.

The woman next to me sighed, settling into what must have been the most picturesque scene: harmonious, peaceful, without worry, without fear. With my eyes closed, I could almost sense the satisfied smile on her face, the slight glimmer in her cheeks.

Meanwhile, I could feel my nose scrunch, my eyelids tighten, and the familiar “thinking lines” on my forehead begin to surface. For a second, I considered fixing my facial expressions. But, considering that everyone’s eyes were supposed to be shut, I took my chances and remained in a visual state of bewilderment.

The story continued. From paradise, we jumped (or were pulled rather abruptly) to the arrival of the missionaries. Suddenly, things began to fall. Literally. We started dying. Temples were destroyed. Customs were outlawed. Then newspapers were established to spread the agendas of the missionaries. Our people were led to believe, through speech and print, that they were inferior. They were depressed. They were hurt. They were helpless. Hopeless. They were doomed.

The woman in front of me sniffed. With my eyes still closed, I assumed she had shed a few tears, completely taken by the emotion of such sudden destruction. I imagined that she was then living the trauma of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to the same place as that woman. My face continued to show signs of consternation as I continued to analyze the narrative.

The story continued. Jumping from the arrival of missionaries, Hawaiʻi was overthrown and then annexed. Hawaiians were further depressed. Lands were taken, and as a result, Hawaiians lost everything: their health, their connection, their freedom, their dignity. Hawaiians died physical, cultural, and psychological deaths.

The woman in front of me continued to cry. And while I heard those familiar stories, complemented by her now frequent sniffs, I was still troubled.

Finally, the story ended. Hōkūleʻa was built and later sailed around the world. Hawaiians began to dance, chant, and sing again; they began to speak their language again. Hawaiians were proud. Hawaiians could look forward to the future. Hawaiians could return to the ways of their ancestors. They could return to the past.

At this point, I opened my eyes. I wanted to gauge the audience, to see how people were responding to the visualization. I had so much to say: there were so many gaps I wanted to fill, so many clarifications I wanted to make, especially to the students present, the students who were now crying over the so-called perfect pre-European past, the fatal fall after the missionaries, and the modern-day renaissance. As a teacher, I wanted to challenge the narrative. I wanted to complicate it. I wanted to fill in the holes to show them that no era was perfect, and more importantly, that no era was without hope.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t say anything to the audience. Instead, I listened to the instructor and to the comments of those around me. Then I left, carrying something heavy on my shoulders. I did not want to disrespect the instructor or to undermine her. However, more than a week later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s still troubling me.

If I understand anything about kuleana it is that it can present itself as a burden, something heavy to carry on your back, something to shoulder for you, for your family, and even for the next generations. Contrary to what some may think, we don’t always get to choose our responsibilities; sometimes they choose us. Therefore, I thought about my dad’s often-comical yet always quite deep-set acceptance of what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and I realized that it is a responsibility to write about these types of experiences. It is a responsibility to challenge old narratives that no longer serve us. It is a responsibility to provide alternatives. And it is a responsibility to do what I believe I can do to take the conversation forward.

Thus, in order to do so, I will present what troubled me (what brought confusion to my face and stress to my pinched eyelids):

The instructor’s story was outdated. It represented what I have recently come to call the Imposed Narrative of:

  1. Pre-contact Peace,
  2. Post-contact Peril, and
  3. Present-day Promise

What’s problematic about such a story is the assumption that peace only existed before contact, that destruction was the single result of contact, and that promise and hope for the future are contemporary constructions. What’s problematic about such a story is that it does not account for the fact that peace, peril, and promise exist in every era. Every. Single. Era.

In her story of the missionaries, for example, the instructor neglected to mention the intellectuals who used the new technology of print to produce thousands of pages of Hawaiian language newspaper text. She neglected to talk about the pages that recorded our moʻolelo (stories); that were filled with sentiments of aloha ʻāina, or love for the land and love for the nation; that printed articles supporting the Queen before and after the illegal overthrow; and that essentially gave people hope. So consumed by the common (and yes, outdated) narrative of “fatal impact,” she neglected to mention strength and resilience.

Now I’m not saying that all Hawaiians were staunch aloha ʻāina, dedicated to the Hawaiian nation. (That story would also be far too simplistic.) There were Hawaiians who supported the overthrown and the eventual annexation, and who tried to encourage their people to abandon their beliefs, and to leave certain cultural customs behind. There were many, some of my own ancestors included, who believed America was the way forward.

What I am saying is that it is extremely dangerous to tell a single story, a single narrative that presents our history in such simplistic ways: pre-contact peace, post-contact peril, present-day promise. We owe it to our ancestors to complicate the story, to recognize the messiness of our histories, and to not romanticize the past, but to greet it, head first, nose to nose, for what it can teach us.

In one of her Ted Talks, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) talks about “The Danger of a Single Story,” or the reduction of an entire group of people to one narrative. In her powerfully poetic way, the late Teresia Teaiwa (2015) echos these sentiments, stating “you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation and say that’s who they are.” To do so is not only irresponsible, it also strips people of their humanity. It ignores diversity. It flattens our stories. And it depletes our ancestors of life.

That’s what upset me.

That’s why I couldn’t sigh in delight at the idea of a pre-European paradise, or cry at the thought of “fatal impact,” or some immediate fall from grace at the coming of the missionaries. I had been taught to challenge these ideas.

In his seminal essay, “Towards a New Oceania,” Albert Wendt (1976) challenges such notions. When I first read his essay as an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (Mahalo e Seri), I was forced to confront my own romanticization of the past. I did think it was perfect. I did think my ancestors were faultless. I did believe that the coming of the missionaries ruined everything. Thanks to his work, and to the work of so many other inspiring intellectuals, however, I have been able to complicate that narrative and to understand, as he states, that “There is [and was] no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness) from which there is decline… There was no Fall, no sun-tanned Noble Savages existing in the South Seas paradises, no Golden Age” (p. 76). There can be no epic “return” to the past because, as he expands, there was no “pre-papalagi [or pre-European] Golden Age or utopian womb” (p. 76). There was no complete state of “Pre-Contact Peace.”

The instructor’s story, however, fell into this exact trap: the trap of the simplistic narrative. As historian Kerry Howe (1977) articulates, it is the story of “fatal impact,” or the idea that there was immediate demise at the time of first contact. The problem with such a story is that it paints our people as passive, as inactive, as helpless, and as devoid of any real agency. When I stand in front of my own students, I am aware of the responsibility I have to disrupt that narrative, to give them examples of agency, of action, and of choice. As Howe (1977) explains, so many of the stories written about our peoples “are really about Europeans and what they did. They are the subjects. The islanders are the objects, often just in the background, slightly out of focus, having things ‘done’ to them” (p. 146). They are drawn as poor, noble savages. And as justified as we may feel in grieving or lamenting the dying, disappearing, and helpless indigenous victims, a simple fact remains: the assumption that all of our ancestors were passive and inactive is based firmly in the supposed racial superiority amongst Europeans. It’s the “You-couldn’t-do-anything-to-avoid-your-own-demise” mentality. Or the “You-poor-things-didn’t-stand-a-chance” approach.

That’s what I find so offensive about the often-told narrative, the narrative that I believe we should had moved past by now, the narrative that I was asked to sit and visualize just over a week ago. As a teacher, I refuse to give my students one story. I prefer to give them options. I prefer to show them how we may have been depicted and then to give them the tools to paint new pictures, with new, complex brush strokes. I believe that ignoring the agency of our ancestors, or their ability to make choices and to act upon those choices—whether to their own betterment or detriment—is to strip them of their dignity.

Now I must explain that I don’t hide the wounds of the past. I acknowledge that our high incarceration rates, our dismal health, our homelessness and houselessness, our poverty, our poor education, our drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse are indeed related to historical trauma. I believe that working towards health, healing, well-being, and even sovereignty requires a critical examination of the intergenerational pain that exists in our families and communities. Colonialism was cataclysmic in many ways. It still is. At the same time, however, I choose to also talk about the ancestors who, despite all odds, maintained hope, a radical hope for a future that could somehow be better than their present. I choose to give my students examples of both the trauma and the triumph because I believe that any promise for tomorrow was inherited from those past generations who refused to be silenced; who refused to lay down, helpless; who refused to paint their ever-evolving and complex stories with a single brush.

We must complicate the story; we must make it messy. We must present it with more colors, more textures, more highlights and shadows. We must talk about the complexities so that our people, especially our youth, can be moved by the beauty and the pain; so that they can see the destruction alongside the strength; the colonialism with the resistance. Just as we inherit the pain of our ancestors, we also inherit their hope. In fact, I believe that renaissance movements are born from something internal, from a deep-seated knowing within us that we are much, much more than we have been depicted to be.

When I look at my own family, for instance, I see the impacts of historical trauma everywhere. I grew up a witness to alcohol and drug abuse. I grew up as another obese Hawaiian, another statistic. I have family members who suffer poor health, family members who have been incarcerated for a variety of crimes, family members who still struggle, every day, to cope in a society that continues to threaten their livelihood: their land, their homes, their ability to sustain themselves, their relationship to sacred sites, their ability to ground, their faith in their language, in their customs, in themselves. This is our everyday reality as Hawaiians. And although these struggles often move me to tears and continue to find expression in my own personal life, I cannot end the narrative there. I will not end the narrative there. Like every generation before me, I am also surrounded by examples of strength, resilience, and hope and I choose to recognize that as part of our collective healing. I choose to tell those stories too.

My dad is my example. He is my self-actualized warrior. He is my indigenous hero. My dad still carries wounds, deep historical wounds, from the past. He was born with a brown face and an English name; he was stripped of his language, his mother opting not to speak to him ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi; he was exposed to alcohol at a terrifyingly young age, a substance that would play a role in the larger part of his life, an addiction that he would eventually conquer; he was told time and time again that he could not go to the forest, could not hunt, could not feed his family from the land he loved, the only land he has ever known; he has witnessed so much change, change that has, and sometimes still does, bring him to tears. He has fallen many, many times. But he has also risen. He has risen. Every. Single. Time.

He knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know. He may not be the next governor of Hawaiʻi. But he will continue to do what he does best: giving to his family, his community, and his nation in all the ways he knows he can. And like him, I will do what I know, drawing on my recognition of what I can (and can’t) do. In this case, I will challenge those stories and those outdated narratives when I know that they may do more harm than good.

I do not consider myself a fully self-actualized indigenous warrior. But, I do know that I’m on my path, a path towards recognizing my roles and responsibilities, and the possible contributions I have make to my people, my nation, my region, and the world. The quest for self-actualization and a true sense of indigenous warriorhood are things that I will add to the story, the story I will tell as we continue to heal as a people.

__________

References:

Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. Ted Talks  https://www.ted.com/talks/
chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en

Howe, K. (1977). The fate of the “savage” in Pacific historiography. The New Zealand Journal of History11(2), 137-154.

LaDuke, W. (2012). The Militarization of Indian Country. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Pihama, L. et al. (2014). Positioning historical trauma theory within Aotearoa New Zealand. Alternative, 10(3). 248-62.

Teaiwa, T. (2015). You can’t paint the Pacific with just one brush stroke. E-Tangatahttps://e-tangata.co.nz/news/you-cant-paint-the-pacific-with-just-one-brush-stroke

Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a New Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.


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My Pacific (Studies)

teresia

Teresia Teaiwa and I, Wellington, New Zealand, 2016

She leaned toward the microphone, looked out at the nearly one hundred new students seated before her, and in an introduction to Pacific Studies, she said, in her poetic way—a way that only she could—

“I eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.”

She wasn’t lying.

I never knew a woman with a greater dedication, a greater love, a greater sense of belonging to our sea of islands. Teresia Teaiwa was a force, pulling; she was a song, inspiring; she was a fire, igniting passions and responsibilities.

She pushed and pulled me into tides, sang to my soul, and fed my flame. She feeds it still.

I think of her often, especially when I stand before my own students. She taught me how to stand:

To stand for something.
To stand for someone.
To stand in the wisdom of our ancestors.
To stand in song and story.
To stand in strength and hope, no matter how radical that hope may be.
To stand because to do so is to maintain our space and place in this world.
To stand and ground my feet into sands and soils, waters and wetlands, forests and fires, not for me, but for all of us.

A few months ago, one of my students asked, “Don’t you ever get overwhelmed?” There is so much pain in the Pacific, she had learned—from people being killed and lands being bombed, to islands being swallowed by the sea, to oceans and waterways being polluted and homes being devastated, to minds and hearts being separated from their lands, their histories, their futures.

“Of course I do,” I answered honestly. My mind cannot even begin to grasp the vastness of our region let alone the diversity of our languages and cultures, the breadth and depth of our stories, seas, sounds, and skies, and the legacies of our pain. “Sometimes it’s unbearable,” I told her.

However, I try to remind myself, as Albert Wendt once said of Oceania, “…only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain. I will not pretend to know her in all her manifestations. No one—not even our gods—ever did; no one does…whenever we think we have captured her she has already assumed new guises—the love affair is endless” (p. 71). My love affair with Oceania is, and will always be, endless. I love it through pain and I love it out of pain.

That’s what Teresia meant when she spoke to her students. She loved every part of our moana, every part that she could grasp and attempt to understand, every part that she could mold with her own hands, every part that she could speak and sing into existence, every part that she could stand for. And although the Pacific shifts and changes in every instant, her dedication to our sea of islands never wavered. We will never know everything there is to know about our ocean for as soon as we think we have mastered it a new wave enters, sweeping upon our shores, washing the sands that we dug our feet into just moments before, making our footsteps obsolete. But that’s the point; it’s what keeps us captivated. It’s what moves us body and soul. We are here to be part of the change and to inspire transformation in the process.

Stagnation in a realm characterized by water is impossible, and like our waters, we cannot be stagnated: made to stand still, made to cower and give-up, made to hide when it all just seems like too much to handle. Instead, we “eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.” We taste it, we touch it, we dream it into life. We look at the beautiful and the profoundly ugly. We address the hardships. We smell the stink of our histories, uncovering the hidden, kicking up dust, and scrubbing grime. We pray. We dance. And we cry. We cry a lot. We orient ourselves to the ocean that unites us, the ocean in us, the ocean that is and will always be our pathway to each other. We find our mana there.

And everyday, when I feel overwhelmed by it all, I think of our dear Teresia, the fierce and fiery canoe, and I ask myself, “What would she do?”

She would stand, smile, and yes, even shit the Pacific when it requires such cleansing (and flushing).

 

References:

Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a New Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.


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From the Courtroom: Reflections on Justice

kapolei_exterior_sign

“How old are you and what’s your level of education?”

I secretly wished he had asked me that question. No, I did not want to boast or throw my title at him. I did not want a congratulatory tap on the shoulder, a nod of acceptance, or any sort of smile that might indicate, “Oh-wow-you-are-an-exception.” All I wanted was to take the pressure off of the poor girl in front of me, the one who, before a room full of people, was forced to say:

20. High school, I guess.

The judge had already decided what he thought about her, and in my opinion, what he thought about all of us. We stood in a long line, all there to either plead guilty to our crimes, to contest them, or to discuss further processing and scheduling. I stood behind the young 20-year old. From the moment she stepped forward to have her case tried, she was judged, and I’m not speaking in the legal sense.

She was young.
And, she was brown.

In fact, at least 90% of us were. Brown, that is.

I’ve been living in the Kapolei area for a few months now and I must admit that this was one of the highest concentrations of brown people that I’ve seen in one public place: a courtroom. While I may not have been able to determine each and every person’s exact ethnic make-up, the color was obvious. In fact, white stood out.

The poor girl put her head down. I silently wanted to hug her, or to at least stand next to her as the judge pushed further:

“I’m assuming you can read, write, and speak English, right?”

Yes.

“And you haven’t had anything to drink this morning? You haven’t taken any drugs?”

No.

She was there for driving without a license. This was her second offense, and after waiving her right to a pre-sentence investigation, one that would take her background, education, and family income into consideration before sentencing, she simply said she would pay whatever fee was decided.

“You understand that the maximum penalty for driving without a license is a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail?”

Yes.

“You understand this?”

Yes.

I quickly glanced around the room. This was my first experience in courtroom setting like this. (I was there for swerving around a pothole. Yes, I swerved around a pothole and when I was pulled over and asked about it, I did not have my current insurance card in my car. So, I was summoned to court for two traffic crimes: swerving and not having the correct card in my car. Despite taking my card and proof of insurance to the courthouse the next day, I was told that I had to appear in court, in person, if I wanted to avoid a bench warrant for my arrest. My arrest! I’m never swerving around a pothole again! But I have digressed.)

As the judge continued to bombard the girl with questions, I looked around the room wondering if anyone else was as disgusted as I was. In fact, despite my silence I’m sure my face read: “Are you fucking kidding me? $1,000 and 30 days in jail?!? She’s a child. And what a huge waste of government money!”

Those who know me well know that I cannot hide my facial expressions. Therefore, I’m sure that’s exactly what could be read in my scrunched nose, my narrowed eyebrows, and my occasional (or, if I’m being honest, constant) eye rolls. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the judge then tried to play games with me when it was my turn (yes, games is what I will call this):

“Since you have provided proof, we will dismiss the charge for not having insurance. However, in regards to your first offense, do you plead guilty to crossing over a solid yellow line?”

No.

“You plead not guilty? You didn’t cross over a solid yellow line? That’s what the officer recorded.”

I will plead guilty to crossing over a dotted white line, as that is what I did. I did not cross over a solid yellow line.

“But that’s what the police officer recorded.”

What he did not record is the fact that he had to have a second offense to write me up for. He even explained to me that he would have let me go if I had my current insurance card. But, he had to show that there was reason for pulling me over in the first place [“other than the fact that I am brown, apparently,” is what I really wanted to say]. So, he wrote that ticket. There’s no law against crossing over a dotted white line.

*quizzical look*

“Well, since there are no further notes here, I’ll dismiss your case.”

And despite my relief at not having to pay for swerving around a pothole that I (just this week) see is now being fixed on a road that is now being repaved (but I’ve digressed again), I was troubled by the entire morning, by the entire experience, actually. Now, you must forgive me if what comes next is a bit far-fetched. Actually, on second thought, no need to forgive. It is a bit far-fetched.

But perhaps that’s necessary.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2011) makes what some may call a “crazy,” “absurd,” or even inappropriate, and yes, perhaps far-fetched comparison between the criminal justice system and (as you’ve probably guessed by now) Jim Crow, or the laws that enforced racial segregation in America since the 1890s. Slogans like “Separate but Equal” and signs blaring “Whites Only” may sound familiar to you. We may not have the signs and slogans anymore. (Note that I wrote this blog one day before the white supremacy march, Unite the Right, in Charlottesville,Virginia, a march that proves there are still people who hold fast to such racist ideologies.) Even after Jim Crow, it is obvious: “America is still not an egalitarian democracy” (p. 1). We may not have Jim Crow, but other systems have taken its place.

(I should pause here to state that an article was published today entitled, “Jim Crow tactics return with Trump’s ‘election integrity’ commission.” It states, “The same sham justifications used to prop up voter suppression tactics during the Jim Crow era—claims that such measures to preserve the integrity, efficiency, and sustainability of elections—are being unapologetically recycled today [as Trump has asserted that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters].” So you see, Jim Crow really hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just taken on new names and disguises and new, although not at all surprising, sponsors.)

As Alexander states, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (p. 2). Now, I won’t look at all of the points of her argument here, as I would much rather suggest that you take a look at her book and take some time to watch the documentary, 13th, which critically examines the criminalization of people of color in America and begins to expose the racist origins and motivations of the prison industrial complex. Rather, I would like to make a few comments about our context here.

Before doing so, however, a few clarifications: I am not implying that the situation for Hawaiians and other “brown” people in Hawaiʻi is at all like those of African Americans in the continental United States. We have a different history. On top of that, I am not trying to take anything away from the overwhelming discrimination and racism still experienced by African Americans. I simply use some of the arguments made in those contexts to begin to think about our own. I also use the word “brown” knowing that it is problematic, especially when you consider ethnic diversity in Hawaiʻi.

However, I will say that data regarding incarceration does not lie: Hawaiians have the highest rates of imprisonment in the islands. And that was reflected in the courtroom I stood in. I heard it in the names being called and I saw it in the faces of those around me, faces of so-called “criminals.” Seeing those faces pushed me to investigate further, to dig into a system that although I often assumed was corrupt, I never examined fully. (And I’m saying this knowing that I have only begun my research and have so much more to learn.)

All I knew, as I stood there, was that the idea of a 20-year-old girl going to jail for not having her license was not only ridiculous to me, but also highly ineffective. So many people are convicted of small crimes everyday, and once that goes on to their records, they are labeled. This can impact everything from their ability to get a job to their ability to vote. In more extreme cases, they become those second-class citizens—those with less rights and less opportunities—that laws like Jim Crow once made sure of. It’s not a system of rehabilitation. It’s a system intended to keep certain people down in a country that continually perpetuates the myth, yes the myth, of freedom and equal opportunity.

Suffice it to say that there is certainly so much more at play when you look at a room of people and see one color (with a few exceptions, of course). Popular rhetoric used in conversations about incarceration emphasize poverty and education (over race) and try to persuade us that those are the only factors, or at least the most important ones when it comes to crime and incarceration. What it does not explore is the system at work: the one that has resulted in certain populations of people being undereducated, impoverished, unhealthy, and yes, imprisoned. (You really should watch 13th.)

Institutionalized racism is a thing. And although people don’t always want to talk about race in a country where some have bought into the fiction of “colorblindness,” we have to talk about it. Otherwise, we will continue to, as the documentary outlines, use words like “criminal” to cover up what is very much a conversation that needs to be had about race and equality.

Now, I will fully admit that I am new to writing about this topic. Therefore, any mistakes or generalizations are entirely my own. What I know, however, is that as I continue to think about everyday social injustices—like those witnessed in the courtroom as a young girl was “judged” in every sense of the word—I will continue to write about them, if not to bring a bit more justice to the world, then to at least start a conversation about it.

References:

Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.


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Skin Stories

ema

I recently read that we are our stories. That’s all we really are: Stories.

So, these are pieces of mine, small pieces that I’ve selected to share because of an idea I came across earlier today: stories can heal and stories can injure; it all depends on how we tell them.[1]

And I am ready to heal.

So heal I will through small, skin stories.

If I lay myself bare I can only imagine the stories my skin would tell, each mark, each scar, each stretch a story of its own. I can imagine the tales that would be assumed: interpretations and misinterpretations of a life lived in some place, at some time, with some one, or some two, or some more.

Even as a lover of words—someone who grips them at night, holding them in the dark, finding the right spaces to fit them in to, the most titillating order to organize them in to, the perfect positions to drag them in to—there is something thrilling about the absence of words, the exposing of skin, the revealing of truths, the arousal of the purely sensual, before the intellectual (even if just for a moment). One exhilarating moment.

There’s something exciting and terrifying about being read in such a way: exposed, wordless, no room for intervention, for explaining, for correcting (not initially, at least).

I was read. And it was painful. But I’d probably allow it to happen again just to see my stories briefly through someone else’s eyes, to feel them in someone else’s breath against my cheek, to smell them in someone else’s sweat.

I once had a love who read me. He clawed at my heart until it bled words that he could understand, until lines pumped from my veins, and pushed out through my skin. Like a martyr, I smeared them with my fingertips, stretching them over every curve of my body so that he could decipher them easily.

I tried not to flinch as he read them, his eyes moving painstakingly over the canvas of my skin, searching for meaning. He fixated on the corner of my mouth at first, using his finger to part my lips, hoping to inspire sound. When I did not utter an audible word, however, he proceeded to trace letters, slowly, up my arms, down my legs, across my chest, at my thighs. Pausing. Pulsing.

But, as he touched each word, he wiped them away, memorizing what he thought was worth knowing and banishing the rest, sending them back into me. Keeping the insecurities. Ignoring the strength.

And I let him.

Three years later, I believed that his stories—the ones he had created about me—were my own. It took me a long time to realize that what he told himself about me, and what he told me about me, reflected him more than it did the person I initially let him see: lying bare, exposing skin.

I was lost.

In the telling of this story, however, I do not blame him. At least, I don’t in this latest rendition. Earlier versions crafted in my head were created in anger, born from heartbreak. They were raw, mean, and purposeful for me.

Tonight, though, I choose to tell a story that heals rather than injures.

I realize now that I fell victim to likability[2], opting to be what I thought could be liked. I knew no other way than to please, to mold and adjust. So, I tried to change my skin, making it smaller, hunching my shoulders, watching my face sink, as I disappeared into him. That’s the story I thought I read on his body, what I thought he wanted, what I thought could keep him from reading some one else, or some two, or some more naked bodies.

In the end, though, “pleasing” did not work. Who could like me when I wasn’t me? Who could love the vanishing?

As much I do not blame him, I also do not condone dishonesty, cheating, or conscious deceit. And that’s not just residual hurt speaking. It’s truth. My truth. My story. One of my skin stories, inked into the back of my neck: a center, a circle, a point of return and departure.

My skin has so much to tell now.

My ears tell stories: freckled with mixed-raced marriages, legacies of struggle, tiny spots marking the contamination of the noble, or the civilization of the savage, however you prefer to read them.

My hips tell stories: narrow and barren, nothing like my mother, her mother, or her mother before her, spaces that shamefully have not expanded for the next generation, or spaces that someday might, however you prefer to read them.

My legs tell stories: a lifetime spent dancing, shattered knees, and muscled thighs, calves that did not always fit into denim jeans, or calves that still try to assimilate, however you prefer to read them.

And my back, my naked back tells stories: a indention from a childhood illness, stretch marks from the weight I used to carry, and a long, tattoo down my spine: my journey to or from home, or both, wherever you believe that home may be: in space, in time, in some one, some two, or some more.

I know the stories. And today I smile keeping them on the surface, opting to show scars, to celebrate marks, to find beauty in the way my skin has stretched, because the most important lesson I’ve learned in the reading is that I do not need to adopt someone else’s story—some one, or some two, or some more stories—based loosely on me while reflecting more of them.

I can, and should, reject likability, teaching others to do the same, wearing my stories because they are all that I am, owning them, choosing them, everyday, for how they continue to cure and heal my wounds, and for how they can offer a bit of medicine to the next reader.

 

[1] These ideas come from Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A native narrative.
[2] Rejecting likability is an idea inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto.