Friday, March 20, 2009

The Lawino Letters



I am in dialogue with a good friend of mine on some serious matters. Here is the back catalogue:

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

And here is the new shit:

Nick,

Thanks for the response.

Just so you know, I don’t think you have a problem expressing yourself. Expression is a process. And since we are not having a conversation in person, but rather yapping in text, things that would come across in body language and tone are very often lost when our thoughts hit the blog. Maybe if we hung out more than once every five years, we would be good. Ha ha.

Anyway, on to the style.

I am glad that you let go of the thoughts that you are worthless because you are white. Racial makeup, quite simply, does not necessitate any type of worthiness. But I don’t think that p’Bitek would want you to draw this conclusion anyway. When Lawino talks about the activities and actions of the colonizer, she is not making claims about their racial makeup. She is making claims about their actions and their ideology. About their beliefs and the things that they value. On this account, you should feel bad because you have been harboring a harmful ideology. Just like the colonizers in Song for Lawino. And it doesn’t matter what race you are, which is why Lawino sees Ocol as such a problem. He is a native, he has access to the culture as a native, yet he has given over to another suckier way of being, one that negatively evaluates his wife.

The primary harbinger of this way of being, according to Lawino in this fictional work and in history as we understand it, is Jesus. And Jesus is white. In my last letter, I didn’t properly communicate what I meant when I said that the white man is also God. I meant simply that the image that set in front of the people whom the missionary converts is of a White man. So, it doesn’t matter really, whether you think that God has no racial identity. He is given one by the people who are responsible for the images in the first place. People from Europe. So, the icon of supreme value in a culture of dark-skinned people is lily white. His picture adorns church walls and there are statues of him in the public square. Some may find it easy to make light of this fact. But I, like others, believe that this is psychologically damaging. Frantz Fanon has an entire book on the neuroses that strike the native as a result from the presentation of whiteness as the supreme value in a colonial society. Under the foot of colonial power, brown people come to desire to be white, which they can never do, of course. So some live their lives in constant pursuit of an impossible ideal, which they see as a way to escape the material and psychological poverty of their situation. When I was in Uganda, a guy that I met confessed that he wanted to marry a white woman. He told me that some priests said they would try to find such a woman for him. Perhaps the priests were joking. But it really doesn’t matter. They played into the cycle of whiteness as supreme value just like images of white Jesus do. Black churches in america have become hip to this and replaced such images with black jesus. But in most african countries, brown people were given a savior who doesn’t even look like them and this image stands as a testament to who it is that holds power.

You seem to think that Colonialism and Christianity don’t deserved to be grouped together. I suppose that, technically, you are right. But history is replete with tales of Colonialism and Christianity working together to economically and socially dominate a group of people who were not previously Christian. Christianity has been a primary vehicle for Western expansion and domination ever since Constantine had the notion to convert his empire. I think you are resistant to this fact because you reject categorically the possibility of a Christian doing something bad. Like, yo, they are no longer following Christ now that they are doing bad stuff. This perspective is problematic. It prevents you from seeing yourself in history, on the continuum of people who self-identify as Christians and still do grimy ass shit to other people. So then you don’t feel like you are capable of bad things, because, clearly, you are following Christ, unlike these pretend Christians. You abstract yourself from history and what I would like you to see as your possible complicity in the colonial effort. Thus, you are in a good position to become the type of believer that you reject. And I am not claiming that those who self-identify as Christians are doing grimy shit on purpose. I am making no reference to the Crusades, though I suppose I could. I am sure those cats who put up that statue of white jesus right next to a damp IDP camp thought they were doing great work. But the fact is they have a particular understanding of the world and relations between people, an understanding that has very often been very different from the people that they have encountered. And they haven’t really cared about respecting those differences, because they have a mandate to minister to all nations somewhere in their authoritative collection of 66 or so books. A collection of books from which they interpret instructions that can hurt people. Recently the Pope made negative claims about condoms while flying over a continent that has a ridiculous AIDS problem. I guess he also can’t see the possibility of doing something Christlike and having it negatively effect people.

So no, I don’t think I am scape-goating well-meaning believers. You have to not be responsible to be the scapegoat. But I am also not placing myself outside of the possibility of wrongdoing. The fact is, so long as any of us hold fast to one ideology concerning the structure of the world we risk destroying it. We don’t let the weight of different interpretations affect us, since they don’t fit our picture and we see our picture as being the only one. We refuse to amend it. So we amend the world instead, trampling people and their customs underfoot. Even if we think our shit is all happiness and joy that should be shared. Maybe this is a bad methodology. Maybe it is best for us to spring into action and “help.” Maybe we should just leave shit the fuck alone. But either way, we need to know what things were like in history to know our place in this mess. We can’t eschew the past and its dark corners in favor of our ossified worldview.

Our presences in Africa can’t not be disruptions. The whole history of Africa and Europe is one of disruption. We weren’t around for it, but we inherited it and acting as though we are not tied to it is an invitation to suck. Rachel and Olivia, the midwives, feel this. So they are not in Uganda trying to convert anyone. They are not offering moral prescriptions. They are not importing their way of life. They are simply trying to stop women and babies from dying in childbirth. And they are not exclusively using Western methods, incidentally, because it is those methods that have been responsible for the increase in infant mortality in the first place. But whatever. My main claim is that a project of religious conversion is necessarily a colonial project, since it seeks to replace a native way of believing with a largely European one. And it does this for no good reason, other than the converters can’t not believe in the superiority of their perspective. And I think that if one is to change anyone’s mind, it should be because of an exchange of good reasons. Which is what Rachel and Olivia are doing. They are giving and asking for good reasons to adopt particular practices. It doesn’t matter where they come from, so long as they work. But they aren’t doing anything different than what they do here. They don’t have a “heart for africa” (which is, by the way, a deeply problematic and colonial concept). They are health care workers trying to find answers to globally agreed upon problems in places that need it. Whether it be Uganda, Brazil or New York City.

Lawino is a story about a time and place that won’t ever be recovered. We should all feel a good measure of guilt about that. Not because something old has been replaced. But because the method of its replacement was coercion. And we should carry this guilt into all of our dealings with other cultures. Maybe then we will be sympathetic to projects of decolonization. But, as my professor, Kwasi Wiredu, says, there can be no decolonization without conceptual decolonization. And a big part of that project is conceptually decolonizing religion, ridding african minds of undue religious influence. Like the influence of that collection of books that you and the Pope read.

I hope you feel my status so far. Hope to hear from you soon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Road Reflections 8: Dialectic of Self



On the heels of the mechanical menagerie that was Bike Week, the homies gathered on sunday morning for the ride of rides. It was to be a tour of the countryside at the quickest pace we could manage, the fulfillment of the Daytona Zeitgeist. Riders gathered in a parking lot. The Ebony clan got there before I did. I rolled up with the GSXR lineage. We dismounted and waited for the special guest, who came from afar for just for this ride: The Green Ninja. As he took his bike down from his truck, a rider noticed the mangled edges of the Ninja’s front tire, the tattered refuse of race compound rubber that had recently seen the track. Oh yeah, this was about to be serious.

Soon we rocked exit and began the uneventful journey to the first road in question, a long and curvy road with several tight first gear turns. The appetizer. As team leader, I was the first into its corners. Th Green Ninja followed. It was lovely and the pace of the turns marked a milestone whose significance would slowly reveal itself over the course of the day.

When we reached the end of the road, I signaled to the team to rock u-turn and blitz the road one more time. And off we went. The Green Ninja and I were the first to its end. We pulled to the side of the road and dismounted. From the third, this probably seemed like the basic-ness of two cats parking. But really it was the completion of a cycle that had been spinning for several years.

Back in the day, when I could only dream of two wheels, I went to s dealership and set my sights on a machine. It was a good bike. A street bike. But the Ninja, like his brother did for him, told me that perhaps I should shun the street bike style and consider a race replica. I considered and agreed. And so began the squid-ish steps on my journey to skills. Safety classes. Group rides in which I pulled up the rear. Close calls. A wreck. All while wearing the leather off his back. I got a little better as time went on. After a moderate upgrade I hit the race track for the first time. Things began to come together. I began to get something that I had not before. And then I went to a race. From the grandstand I saw a man with a helmet made of red fire barrel into a turn faster than the speed of thought. It was as if he himself had been engineered for the task. And I wanted a part of that. So I made an upgrade. And hit the streets harder. And read more books. And watched more videos. And hit the streets some more.

So that, at the end of the road, getting off the bike at the same time as the green ninja was a landmark. The first time that we ran the same pace. The streaks of Green and Blue finally blended together and carved the same lines. I now knew what I had suspected. There had been a completion.

We looked down the road for our homies. But they did not come. We decided to go back and check, but when by the time we started our machines, they came around the corner. They parked and two of them got off and immediately inspected their machines. The road had claimed them and they both suffered low speed lowsides. We were all reminded of the danger of our sport. But it wasn’t so dangerous as to stop. We mounted once again and looked to the distance as the last addition to our party rolled up. The unmistakable growl of the Golden Triumph pulled up to us and nodded. We were now complete and headed deeper into the country for the truth of our styles.

We followed the Triumph into tight turns, over hills, and down long straights. We saw no police. We doubled and even tripled speed limits. The riding wore even deeper into the edges of my tires. It was brilliant. After a brief rest at the gas up spot, we set out once again. We were headed for the most gangster road in all the land.

When we got onto it, we were obstructed by a slow truck carrying cargo. At the first chance, we broke free and flexed down the oncoming lane to pass it. I checked my rearview for a moment and saw an indistinct blur of Green and Gold. Then I was off to the first turn.

Speed is a place. There is a point at which the air travels around you so quickly and the road comes up to you so fast that things seem to be categorically different than they were before. The scenery is exhilarating and dangerous. A previously undetectable dip in the road sends a violent jolt through the suspension and your body. Particles of sand and dirt hit you in the neck hard enough to leave a mark. Bugs shatter against your helmet, their demise marked with a powerful clap. There is a blue sky and a beautiful sun and green grass off the road but you don’t care, because there is nothing more important than your path down this road. Everything else is bracketed and set aside with an efficiency that Husserl himself could not imagine.

But as the world slows down, it also comes back into view. This is the respite of a stop sign. And here, once again, the Ninja and I looked to the rear in wait for our homies. And once again, they did not come.

When we made our way back down the road, we rolled up on a gathering around the Triumph, its Golden fairing sprinkled in pieces along the ground off the side of the road. He had gone just a bit wide before executing his quick turn. Hit a patch of grass. He had to stand it up and ride off road and a speed that is much nicer for tarmac than it is for a lawn. A mound of dirt ended his trajectory for a fence but also broke him to pieces. It is a suck way to end a ride.

Eventually, we got his bike going again. He was able to ride it home. And we followed at the pace of a tired and shaken brigade. But I did not return as I had left. I had touched a hallmark. I had seen myself in a Green mirror and had been born in a way.

Now, the bike sits in the shed. It has been cleaned; only the wear on its tires show the toil of the Sunday Ride. I have turned my gaze to a different dialectic. Or perhaps to the same dialectic in a different form. I wonder when I will see myself in this new mirror.