America’s Original Sin: Reflections on the Moment I Lost Abraham Lincoln
We have been poisoned by fairy tales.
∞ Anais Nin
If you are just now figuring out the United States is a divided nation broken along the fault lines of race, you must be White. If you can say, with a straight face, that a media conspiracy designed to divide us is responsible for these divisions, you must be super White (aka very insulated and privileged) and unschooled in the reality of race relations in the United States.
Now, I won't say that the media isn't guilty of shaping the narrative surrounding race or that the media doesn't frame issues in such a way that it inflames existing tensions.
I will say that the tension of racial divides is something that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color ("BIPOC") feel every single day. The fact that you don't feel that tension as a part of your everyday reality is a testament to how well BIPOC control their reactions in your presence. Dark-skinned people are protecting you and protecting themselves from you. YES. YOU!
By way of background, I have written several times of late about my own experience of growing up White in a family that didn't like to talk, except in passing, about the reality that we are actually of Native descent. And just so you understand, I am not talking about some far off, distant relation. I am talking about my mother's grandmother, who was Choctaw. She was the primary caregiver for my mother when her own parents abandoned her.
Likewise, I am talking about my maternal grandmother who shared her connection to the Modoc tribe with me. I have said enough about these things. So I won't go into all of it again except to say that I pretty much ignored this truth about myself until a few years ago. Somehow Donald Trump's ascendance to the highest office of the land has a way of provoking thought! Deep thought about who you are and what you stand for!
Embedded in this personal history is a greater history, an American story of original sin.
By original I mean a sin embedded in the America's founding moments and in the American consciousness of Manifest Destiny.
Recently, I was listening to a Choctaw historian explain whiteness and Nativeness as he has experienced them both. Like me, he grew up in a household that didn't acknowledge who they were. They hid behind White faces and shielded themselves from death and the KKK with White privilege. Here is what he said,
We don't talk about that. If you can get away with it...Why tell someone you are Native if you can get away with being White. When I went to high school in Arkansas I was White. I knew I was Choctaw. But I made sure everyone knew I was White because the KKK was so active in the area I grew up in. ∞ Ryan Spring, Director of Historic Preservation for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Now I will confess something to you that will, perhaps, put us on more equal footing and put you (if you are White) a little bit at ease as we approach the precipice together: I am just waking up to this man's explanation as the underlying reason why my mother poisoned me with White fairy tales.
AND IT HURTS!
The truth hurts. The truth of why my mother poisoned me hurts and another truth hurts, perhaps even more:
My mother's poison worked!
She insulated me from what she knew of racism in America. She hid me away from the agony she must have known as she grew up in a Native family in Fort Worth, Texas. But she spoon-fed me another kind of anguish coated in the sugar of this White fantasy. She denied me an understanding of everything I have felt for my entire life: an uneasiness around White people despite my white skin, a sense that my mother was hiding something vital, a distaste for the superficiality that is only possible when you live in the White fairy tale.
I tried to explain to someone a few years ago that I simply had not mentioned being Native because I had not considered it important. I had a sense of Native America as a distant past, a dead history that had very little to do with my life or current events. This is precisely what my mother's fairy tale of Whiteness had taught me. It is precisely the kind of blindness to reality that underlies any claim that the racial divisions coming to light right now are being in any way conjured by the media.
Now I know better! And, if you are White, so do you because I am telling you in no uncertain terms. The divisions are real even if you think you are a benign presence, a good White person, a non-racist to which BIPOC can turn for an example of "not all White people."
I have learned that this consignment to the past of racial issues generally, and of Native culture specifically, is, in fact, part of the continuing genocide against Native people. It is a grand extension of genocide expressed through erasure and the denial of our present and our future as a people. As Steven Charleston, elder of the Choctaw Nation says,
There is a subtle racism at work here that wants to maintain Native American culture in a historical context, as though it were something that had happened...not something that is happening. In this way, Native American culture is ghettoized. It is kept as a romantic image in a photo album of colonial conquest and put on a dusty shelf of history. ∞ The Medicine Wheel
This is the poison my mother gave me. She reduced our Native heritage to a bit of pride about her copper skin and vague references to her grandmother. She left things unsaid that would have provided critical context for who I am.
This is the poison of denial and loss of context your white skin affords to you as well, not just about Native people and cultures, but about BIPOC people and their struggles in general. We are not in any way whatsoever living in a post-racial society.
Further, I can't actually believe I need to say this to anyone after we have all just watched a series of actual videos showing Black men being murdered by White men. Finally, you cannot readily see it, but this is happening to Native people too! The police brutality and other crimes against Native people don't make the news as easily. But even if they do, I am learning that Native pain is something that White people often deny altogether. This is more genocide by erasure.
In any event, it is against this backdrop that I wish to tell you about losing Abraham Lincoln and what it has meant to me as a Native person and as an American.
First of all, Lincoln has always been, in my White, poisonous fairy tale, a hero. He liberated the slaves. He saved America from its hatefulness.
I wish I could make a sound here like the ones you hear on a game show when the contestant gives the wrong answer so that I could properly emphasize for you that this fantasy about Lincoln is completely wrong, especially when you look at him through Native eyes.
Lincoln is, in fact, responsible for the largest mass execution in United States history. He ordered the execution of 38 Dakota people (known to you by the racist term "Sioux") on December 26, 1862 in relation to the war for survival their community had waged in what is now Minnesota. For context, Lincoln never ordered the execution of a single Confederate soldier for rebellion even though they killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers during the Civil War.
The reason? The myth of Manifest Destiny (which refers to the intended extension of the United States from "sea to shining sea") covered Lincoln like a dirty rag.
Lincoln owed his presidency to a very ugly reality.
Abraham Lincoln's campaign for the presidency appealed to the vote of land-poor settlers who demanded that the government 'open' Indigenous lands west of the Mississippi. They were called 'freesoilers,' in reference to cheap land free of slavery. ∞ Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
Imagine my insides collapsing now, my bones giving way, my sense of myself in the White fairy tale imploding so that a new inner reality can slowly take shape.
Lincoln, revered hero, abolitionist, savior of the nation, ordered the murder of Native people in pursuit of free land for White Americans; he pursued the annihilation of people just like me; of my people.
If you have white skin, you need to find this breaking point within yourself, whether, like me, you carry an alternate reality within your blood or not. You need to see what I have now seen: The best we have ever been as a nation was Lincoln and the Union Army waging war to free the slaves. The worst we have ever been was Lincoln's rotten election and the freesoilers who supported his ascension to power.
This American experiment was, from the beginning, in the most shining moments and in the ugliest, rotten to the core with slavery and genocide. Until you find the emotional point of inflection that breaks apart your White fairy tale and gives way to a reckoning so personal it breaks every facet of who you have been in this farcical fable, you don't really get to CREDIBLY say much about what is happening now or the divisions now bursting into full view.
Until you have a reckoning with history that is more than a superficial acknowledgement, BIPOC will never trust you because we know you have never really, deeply, personally considered who you are and have been surrounded by the still lingering, fetid stench of Native bodies rotting in mass graves, tossed into oblivion in the name of Manifest Destiny.
We know you have never really imagined who you became in this poisonous fantasy of the United States as a shining beacon of hope on a hill, not to mention all you have denied from within the fantasy of your Whiteness as nothing more than skin color.
BIPOC truly understand what you do not, namely that you have never honestly imagined the broken backs of the slaves upon which your privilege was forged and carried or the continuing harm that lives on when you speak but do not understand, when you act, but lack the wisdom hard won in the raging rapids of a river made from other people's tears AND your own. We know that you will not DO anything differently because people don't change based on theory.
People change based on a deep, lived experience of reality. In this reality, you come to understand that you have been robbed too. You have been poisoned with the kind of privilege that insulates you from what those with less privilege actually think about you and the behavioral adjustments you would crave to make if you could hear their truth and understand it as the anti-venom.
Do I understand all that racism does?
I cannot, as I have said in other articles, because my mother's poison killed too much awareness and shaped me with too much White privilege.
But I can damn sure say my reckoning with truth is more than theoretical. It runs bone and blood deep.
I ask of you the same gut wrenching, liberating accountability. Let the truth hit you at the very core of who you are. Let it shred who you have been.
Or else I ask of you the silence and the stillness that honors this moment in history.
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