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There is pain, and there is ache.

Pain overwhelms the mind, body, and spirit. Pain pins us down and presses its slimy foot into our throats. It leaves us gasping for air and desperate for reprieve. Pain demands a response from us (we usually don’t have one), and pain does not like to be kept waiting.

Ache is different. Ache does not demand a response from us. True, ache will claw at us from time to time. But we know how to soothe it back to sleep (at least temporarily). Certainly, we would like ache to stop. However, we would rather not be bothered by the trouble of addressing ache’s root causes, and decide to simply carry it with us.

Why? Because, to open ourselves to the roots of our ache, facing them without ducking down or shying away, is inevitably painful. We will allow ourselves to endure a lifetime of ache in order to avoid even a small instant of the full, unbridled pain bubbling beneath our consciousness.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for this timidity. After all, it goes against human instincts to jump into a fire. Then again, perhaps it’s time to go against what comes naturally. Because as long as some of us continue to carry our aches in order to keep away pain, those among us who don’t have this choice in the first place, who live in pain already, will struggle to find relief — children will continue to die, the planet will continue to burn, everything that makes us human will continue to disintegrate.

It’s time to demand that those of us who have this choice, between the ache we carry and pain we avoid, to square up. It’s time for us to face reality, not because doing so will make our lives better in the long run (it probably will make our lives worse), but because it’s right the right thing to do.

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“Welcome Home”

I recently returned from a delegation to Palestine/Israel led by Interfaith Peace Builders, an organization that prides itself on “[exposing] people to the daily realities facing Palestinians in their quest for justice.” On our second of two flights, from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, members of our delegation found ourselves surrounded by a (much larger) group of undergraduate students from Harvard and Brandeis also about to embark upon a journey, but one of a far different nature: a 10-day long tour of Israel known as “Birthright.”

As we approached the coastline and caught glimpse of the Tel Aviv skyline, the students around us buzzed with excitement. Our plane touched down, and a few of them attempted to start a round of applause, eliciting grins and laughter from those too embarrassed to join in. As we exited the plane and climbed down the steps toward the shuttle to the airport lobby, one member of the Birthright group threw his arm around another and exclaimed, with what seemed like sheer relief, “we made it.”

As a white Ashkenazi Jew, I breezed through Israeli customs. “What is the purpose of your trip?” the customs agent asked me. I recited the half-truth my group leader had instructed me to deliver: “I’m a tourist, here to visit the holy land!” And with that I had my entry visa and was through to baggage claim. The students in the birthright group, also white Ashkenazi Jews, had a similarly quick and easy passage through customs. In contrast, customs agents sent each of the three Arab Americans members of our delegation to a waiting room and then subsequently to a back room for questioning. (This is, apparently, standard practice when Arab travelers arrive into Ben Gurion Airport).

Customs held the three Arab American members of our group for about an hour each, before allowing them through. While the rest of our group waited for them in front of baggage claim, I noticed four Israeli soldiers in full uniform approaching the Birthright group. One of the soldiers carried a pretend inflatable sword, one held a pretend inflatable firearm, another wore a red clown-nose. Upon reaching the Birthright group, one of the soldiers reached out his hand one of the Americans in the Birthright group and said “welcome home.”

I had heard and read a good deal about Birthright prior to embarking on this trip. I understood how Birthright is funded, and I recognized the political interests of the funders. I knew the narrative about Palestine and Israel that Birthright promotes. I would, this is to say, not have expected that witnessing the arrival of a Birthright group into Ben Gurion would have elicited any sort of emotional reaction from me at all.

But it did. What I saw left me deeply saddened, sorrowful even. I was saddened by thought that the Americans in the Birthright group looked so young. I don’t mean to patronize. Rather, I found myself reflecting back to how vulnerable and malleable I was at that stage of young adulthood. They were so young. And yet there they were, greeted by a display of militarism so brash it seemed a painfully unsuitable for its audience, yet so thoroughly infantilized that perhaps it could pass as suitable after all. And the soldiers who greeted them looked even younger.

Welcome Home.

While I have Jewish ancestry, I was not raised within the Jewish community. I was not raised to believe that Israel is my home. But what if I had been? What if I had been raised to believe that upon landing in Ben Gurion I had arrived in the one place in the world that belonged to me, the one place in the world where my religion is the norm, where the ancient language I had worked so hard to master every week in religious school covers the buildings and the street signs, and where my principal religious symbol is emblazoned onto the national flag?

Had my upbringing been different, would my heart have sunk when I caught a glimpse ominous the wall that snakes across Palestinian land in the West Bank? Would I have objected to the the Jewish-only settlements implanted upon hilltops throughout the over 60% of the Palestinian land in the West Bank that is under full Israeli control (Area C). Would my lungs have swelled with anger when an Israeli soldier stationed in the occupied part of the Palestinian city of Hebron declared without remorse “Muslims cannot walk on this road.”

Would I have recognized these and other brutal realities everywhere around me for what they were? Would I have noticed them at all?

I do not mean to make excuses for Americans who, upon returning from Birthright or from any other tour of Israel, rationalize Israel’s human rights abuses and violations of international law. I mean, rather, to reflect upon the questions that perplexed me and many of the other delegates throughout our trip: “How can anyone treat people like this?”, “How can any American support this?”

We might answer such questions by noting that after leaving Ben Gurion Airport, participants in Birthright were to follow a 10-day program that the Israeli government and the other communal and private donors funding their travels had carefully and meticulously designed to promote their favored narrative. But this explanation is not quite sufficient. There are so many cracks and contradictions, falsehoods and obfuscates, in this narrative. That so few thoughtful young Americans would not at least question it does not seem to make sense.

But before our flight even touched the ground, the American students around us had been thoroughly emotionally primed, throughout their respective childhoods, to experience the 10 days in front of them not as an adventure in a new place but as a return to a place they knew intimately well. Whatever cracks and contradictions might have emerged in the narrative the leaders of their trip were to promote, the vast majority of these young Americans surely would not notice. How could they? They were not searching for objections to what their leaders had to say. They were finally home.

“Why are you Singling Out Israel?”

“Why are you singling out Israel?”

Those involved in the struggle for Palestinian human rights often face this accusation. “Yes, Israel is not perfect,” we are told, “but there are other countries who violate international law, other countries who use military courts and prisons, other countries who encourage their populations to illegally settle on neighboring people’s lands, other countries who detain children without charge, who blockade borders, who have laws that discriminate amongst their citizens on the basis of religious and ethnic identities.”

“Why,” we are implored to explain, “have you decided to single out Israel? Why not focus on any one of the many other nations that abuse human rights and violate international law? Why do you advocate boycott, divestment, and sanction of individuals and corporations that uphold Israeli human rights abuses rather than those that uphold human rights abuses in other parts of the world?”

I’d like to offer my thoughts on how those involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights might respond to this accusation:

First, we might explain why the accusation that we are “singling out Israel” is simply false. Those of us involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, more often than not, devote considerable time and energy to a multitude of other pressing human rights issues, both domestic and international. Take Syria and Saudi Arabia, two human rights abusing nations our critics most often highlight to back their accusation that we are unfairly singling out Israel. Here in Boston, where I am based, it was the same people and groups most consistently vocal on Palestinian rights who did the groundwork to mobilize 500 demonstrators to gather on the Boston Common in November 2015 to show our opposition to MA governor Governor Baker’s attempted limitation of the resettlement of Syrian refugees within our state (a google search of the organizers quoted in the linked article will confirm this fact). It is advocacy groups link Codepink who regularly speak out against Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights that have also been working tirelessly to mobilize grassroots resistance to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

We might, moreover, press our critics to explain what work they are doing to resist the human rights abusing regimes they claim deserve more of our critical energies. It is my experience that, when pressed, these critics almost always concede that they themselves do nothing to oppose the violence propagated by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other brutal regimes, nor do they take any actions to support the people who live in these places. In my experience, it becomes clear through this line of inquiry that our critics invoke the suffering of people living under these regimes only when doing so suits the purpose of delegitimizing criticism of Israel; they are otherwise indifferent to these people’s suffering and unwilling to take action to rectify it.

Second, we might point out the uniqueness of 150 Palestinian civil society groups, including nearly every Palestinian trade union, coming together around the call that the international community to engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions in order to compel Israel to stop abusing Palestinian human rights and start abiding by established international law.  We call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of individuals and corporations that uphold Israeli human rights abuses, because Palestinian civil society has resoundingly called upon us to do so in order to support their struggle. If and when the people of another nation put out a similar resounding call, international advocates will undoubtedly take it up as well. And indeed we have: the only comparable example of a civil society coming together around a call for the boycott, divest, and sanction of a government occurred in the 1980s, when Black South Africans called for a boycott of the apartheid government — a call the international community took up with vigor.

Third, we might explain that not only is the accusation that we are singling out Israel with criticism false, but that, if anything, the opposite is true: our government and our representatives are singling out Israel with financial support and with protection from criticism. No other nation is slated to receive anything close to the $38 billion in military aid that the United States has promised Israel over the next ten years. That is how Israel is being singled out. There is no other nation that the U.S. so consistently shields from criticism over violations of international law, no other nation in whom’s defense U.S. representative in the UN Security Council so frequently veto or abstain from resolutions critical of violations of international law (often with every other nation represented in the Security Council voting yes). That is how Israel is being singled out.

Finally, we might justifiably turn the accusation of “singling out Israel” back upon those who make it. Only when it comes to Israel are advocates derided not merely to the veracity of what we have to say (which would of course be perfectly fair), but to the very fact that advocates choose to speak up on an issue in the first place instead of choosing to speak up on another issue.

Allow me to offer an example. In the lead-up to the November 2016 election, I spent many nights phone-banking for the campaign against Massachusetts Amendment 2, a proposal to lift the cap on the number of new charter schools that could be created in the state each year. Many people I spoke to on the phone vehemently disagreed with my position on the amendment and told me so. However not one person objected that I was “singling out charter schools.” Not one person felt justified to implore me to explain why I was “focusing on charter schools rather than focusing on unemployment or infrastructure or health care,” or anything of the sort.

The same can be said about American discourse on every other political issue — except for this one. Those who accuse us of singling out Israel would never think to shield any other person, any other group, or any other nation from criticism in this manner. That is entirely unique. That is how Israel is being singled out.

Palestinian Bedouins: The Citizens of Israel Who Live Under Israeli Occupation

A week ago, I took part in a rally to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the (Syrian) Golan Heights, and Gaza. I have been thinking about how we can mark this salient anniversary, while also honoring the fact Israel’s occupation of Palestinian spans beyond these four territories and that has existed for far longer than 50 years.

I recently returned from a two-week long delegation to Palestine/Israel. We spent most of our time during this delegation traveling through the West Bank and East Jerusalem, two parts of Palestine that, along with the Golan Heights and Gaza, have been under Israeli military occupation for 50 years. During our travels in the West Bank and East Jerusalem we witnessed the home demolitions, the denial of building permits, the subsidization of and political support for Jewish-only settlements and outposts on Palestinian land, and the daily violence settlers and IDF soldiers commit against Palestinians, almost always with complete impunity.

While these features of the occupation were moving, jarring, and devastating to witness, what most surprised and shocked over the course of our travels was the daily oppression and violence endured by the Palestinian Bedouin communities living in the Naqab Desert, who we visited during the next to last day of our delegation. Prior to visiting these communities, I believed that they and other Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel lived in far better conditions than the Palestinians living under the official military occupation that just turned 50 years old. The reality, however, was far different.

A little history: Prior to Israel’s ethnic cleansing in 1948 of 750,000 Palestinians from the land within the borders what was to become the state of Israel (what Palestinians call the Nakba), Palestinian Bedouins living in the Naqab numbered 110,000. After the Nakba, Palestinian Bedouins living in the Naqab numbered just 11,000. After the Nakba, from 1948 until 1967, members of these Bedouin Palestinian communities who managed to remain on their lands lived under Israeli military rule, as did all other Palestinians who remained on their lands within the state. This military rule included the military courts, unfair sentencing, home demolitions, settlements, and other features of occupation that exist in the West Bank, East Jerusalem the Golan Heights and Gaza today.

Today, Israel no longer imposes military rule over Palestinians who live within its boundaries, and Palestinian Bedouins are citizens of the state. However, citizens or not, Israel continues to demolish the homes of these Palestinian Bedouins. Israel continues to refuse to recognize Palestinian Bedouin villages. Israel continues to deny Palestinian Bedouins equal access to essential resources including water and electricity. Israel continues to displace Palestinian Bedouins by imposing new villages for Jewish residents, archaeological dig sites, national parks, and military bases upon the lands upon their lands. And Israel subjects Palestinian Bedouins, along with all other Palestinian citizens of the state, to over 50 laws that discriminate against them simply because they are not Jewish.

It struck me that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians who live within the borders of the state is in many significant ways not so different from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Indeed there were many moments on the day we visited the Naqab when I forgot that we were inside the state of Israel at all, and not still in the Occupied territories through which we had been traveling for the past week.

As mark this anniversary, we must recognize that Israel’s occupation is not only 50 years old. We must recognize that Israel’s occupation does not only exist in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza. We must highlight the Nakba. We must highlight the Mandate period beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, through which the British government legitimized the construction of a religiously and ethnically supremacist state on top of an indigenous people’s land. We must highlight the many histories, spanning back  far more than 50 years, of the nearly 8 million Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons, who Israel to this day denies the internationally recognized right to return to their homes and lands – all while folks like me, who have some Jewish ancestry, are granted the “birthright” to visit their land and even to move onto their land as citizens whenever we so please, under Israel’s Law of Return.

All of this is to say, we must expand what we mean when we talk about Israel’s “occupation.” We must expand what we mean when we talk about this occupation to include not just the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza, but also the entirety of historic Palestine and every member of the Palestinian diaspora who, because their land is occupied, are not permitted to return home.

We must expand what we mean when we talk about Israel’s “occupation,” even when we know that doing so will make many people around us “uncomfortable.” Because we have to speak the whole truth when we talk about this occupation, even when we fear that this whole truth may not always be well received. Because the truth matters and carries weight. And a movement built on truth has the potential to win, while a movement built upon keeping the privileged comfortable will not win.

 

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On June 14, 2017, the Israeli army demolished the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Araqib. Israel has now demolished the village a staggering 114 times over.

REFLECTIONS ON MY DELEGATION TO PALESTINE/ISRAEL WITH INTERFAITH PEACE BUILDERS

REFLECTIONS ON MY DELEGATION TO PALESTINE/ISREAL WITH INTERFAITH PEACE BUILDERS

Background on Interfaith Peace Builders: “Interfaith Peace-Builders fosters a network of informed and active individuals who understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States’ political, military, and economic role in it. To build and nurture such a network, we lead delegations of people from diverse backgrounds to Israel/Palestine. These delegations emphasize listening to and learning from those immersed in the reality of the conflict, and advancing the work of Israelis and Palestinians committed to nonviolent struggle and peace with justice.” Visit http://www.ifpb.org/about/default.html for more information.

Reflection 1: Beyond Displacement – May 18, 2017

As our delegation traveled around East Jerusalem yesterday, my heart repeatedly sank with grief. My heart sank with grief as we learned about Israel’s persistent efforts to expel the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem from their homes and neighborhoods, in an attempt to create more space for Jewish-only settlements well beyond the internationally recognized Green Line (that is meant to separate Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories).

We learned that to drive Palestinian residents out of their homes and communities, the Israeli government employs a meticulous program of outright house demolitions, the denial of building permits to Palestinian residents (94% of Palestinian applications for building permits in East Jerusalem are rejected), and the positioning of the so-called “separation wall” in such a way as to bisect Palestinians communities, making movement so arduous, costly, and time-consuming that Palestinians will self-select to relocate.

We learned that Israel uses intimidation and criminalization of non-violent protest to chill Palestinians who attempt to speak out against these and other abuses into silence (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully). We learned that Israeli media outlets misrepresent or simply do not cover Palestinian resistance efforts, ensuring that most of the Israeli population will remain pitted against them.

As we traveled around East Jerusalem yesterday, I felt my heart sinking with grief for the Palestinian residents and former residents of this land, who endure and have endured so much injustice for so long. However, I realized that the grief I felt stemmed also from my recognition that the horrifying reality I saw around me was, in so many ways, not so different from the conditions that exist right now in predominantly Black and Brown communities across America.

Boston Massachusetts, my hometown, is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. My father, who lived in Boston himself back in the 1980s, told me that a Bostonian real estate agent once asked him directly and without remorse “do you want me to show your property to Black people.” I do not know to what extent such blatant and unapologetic racism continues to exist today, in conversations conducted between Bostonian home buyers, sellers, leasers, and renters behind closed doors.

I do know that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) recently passed a rezoning plan called “Plan JP/ROX” over the expressed wishes of the mostly Black and Brown community members who will be most impacted by the plan. Plan JP/ROX will increase the amount of land available for new residential developments in neighborhoods presently sought out by predominantly white and predominantly middle/upper class newcomers who are hungry for high-end housing in what has become a red hot market. Plan JP/ROX’s weak affordability requirements for new developments ensure that an enormous proportion of current Black and Brown residents, who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades and who have put their hearts and souls into building strong and mutually supportive communities in the face of persistent public neglect, will soon be priced out and forced to start anew somewhere else.

The actions Israel uses to displace Palestinians from their homes and land may be more direct and more extreme than those America uses to displace Black and Brown people from their communities. (It should be emphasized that Israel’s actions are by no means more extreme than those America has used and continues to use to dispossess our own continent’s indigenous nations from their land.) It strikes me, however, that the intention and the impact undergirding these action are largely the same in Israel and in America: One group of people want land, so they do everything they can to drive away those who live on the land now.

And the parallels between the United States and Israel go beyond displacement. From the intense patriotism conveyed by countless Israeli flags staked into nearly every building and landmark imaginable, to the outspoken contempt Israeli passersby expressed for our Palestinian tour guide. From the pervasive and ostentatious militarism on display by the Israeli Defense Force soldiers positioned at every entrance and major intersection of Old City, to the towering wall (positioned East of the internationally recognized Green Line) that separates Palestinians from their families, friends, and places of work.

In all of these respects, what I saw in East Jerusalem yesterday struck me not because I had never seen anything like it before, but because I began to recognize that I had seen it my whole life. The flags, the disdain for difference, the militarism, the walls and fences and borders meant to limit movement. Perhaps I needed to travel across two oceans to truly appreciate the state of my homeland. What I witnessed yesterday in East Jerusalem served as a grotesque hyperbole of my own country, a concaved reflection of what America is today, and a warning of what America could more fully become in the not-so distant future.

And throughout our tour of East Jerusalem, I held in my mind that these similarities are not incidental. We, the American people, fund the Israeli military through our tax dollars. We send our police commissioners to Israel to learn how to carry out upon Americans the violence that the Israeli military has honed and refined through decades of everyday operations on Palestinian land. And I held in my mind that effective resistance is urgently important, even when the personal cost is high, because justice and survival are never guaranteed.

Reflection 2: With Steadfastness – May 25, 2017

We will return. That is not a threat, a wish, a hope, or a dream, but a promise. –Remi Kanazi

Over the course of our travels this past week, members of our delegation repeatedly questioned whether or not true change bringing justice to the Palestinian people is possible to achieve. Israel, after all, boasts one of the world’s most powerful and well-funded political lobbies, not to mention their support on the international scene from (as Noam Chomsky once put it) the biggest thug on the geopolitical block, the U.S.A. Is there anything Palestinians and international advocates can do to bring an end to Israel’s ongoing colonization of the West Bank, to abolish Israel’s apartheid legal and criminal justice systems, and to compel Israel to respect Palestinian human rights?

I noticed, however, that the Palestinian people we have had the opportunity to meet over the course of our delegation so far have not paused to raise such questions. For them, the struggle for justice, it appears, is one undertaken not as the result of a measured calculation of the likelihood of success but out of sheer necessity. Cynicism and doubt, it seems, are simply not a luxury they can afford.

As one example, when we had the opportunity to speak with prominent Palestinian human rights defender Issa Amro, one delegate asked Issa, “What can people in the U.S. do to support your struggle?” Issa responded, “Get your representatives speak to out on Israel’s abuses of Palestinian human rights.” When I quietly mumbled, “that would be nice,” Issa promptly turned to me and exclaimed: “No. You have to work at it.”

Issa is not naïve. He knows as well as I do how challenging it is to get Palestinian human rights on the political agenda in the United States. But Issa cannot afford to resign to the belief that such challenges are insurmountable. Issa insists upon the efficacy of this struggle, regardless of what stands in the way, because his community and his homeland hang in the balance. And he expects nothing less from internationals like me.

Issa’s resolve is not exceptional among Palestinians. From the 1,700 Palestinians prisoners on hunger strike for the basic rights Israel’s military court and prison systems deny them (for 38 days and counting at the time of this writing); To the Palestinian refugees living in the Dheisheh camp who have continued to believe, for 69 years, that they will return to the villages from which Israel forcibly expelled them in 1948; To the residents of occupied Hebron, who refuse to leave the city even in the face of daily harassment and violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers that is meant to make their lives so miserable that they abandon their homes.

The attitude and ethos of the Palestinian people is perhaps best encapsulated by the Arabic word sumud. In English, sumud means steadfastness. The Palestinian people we met over the past week embody sumud in their persistent refusal to give up and back down in the face of Israel’s constant efforts to break their bodies and their spirits.

Israel and their allies abroad may outmatch the Palestinian people and those who struggle with them when it comes to lobbying power. Israel and their allies abroad may have the funding and resources to send countless internationals on free propaganda trips that promote a false and malicious narrative about Palestine/Israel.

But the Palestinian people have the sumud to continue fighting. And bearing witness to this sumud, internationals like me will continue to find new resolve to more fully commit to the task winning support for the struggle for justice in Palestine in our respective communities. When I find myself doubting the efficacy of this struggle or fearing that change is impossible, I will remember Issa’s prompt and unflinching response to my expression of doubt two days ago: We have to do the work, with steadfastness, because too much is at stake.

IMG_2770Our delegation visited a former Israeli prison in the West Bank, in which Palestinian prisoners were once packed with as many as 15 other prisoners into cells with dimensions of about 10×4 feet. One prisoner carved the word sumud (in Arabic above) into their cell wall. Photo Credit: Steve Pavey, IFPB Delegate

you will not weaponize my family’s history

you will not weaponize my family’s history

i will not let you

you will not tear my grandfather’s story
from volumes of intergeneration memory
and paste it down
to fill the holes in your synthetic narrative

i will not let you

put up your rhetorical dukes
summon your band of vigilante ventriloquists
to force-feed your territorial ambitions
down my grandfather’s posthumous throat

just know

that i will bleed out
line after line
onto this discursive battlefield

just know

that these stories you’ve displaced
will always haunt you
fighting to return
back to their rightful volumes

just like

the people you’ve used these stories to displace
will always haunt you
fighting to return
back to their homeland.

I Grant You Permission

i grant you permission
to strip sisters and brothers
of homes
and loved ones
with rezoning plans
and fences

i grant you permission
to throw neighbors
in cages
for crimes
i committed too
in college

i grant you permission
to dump bombs
on civilians
in yemen
in palestine
in philadelphia

i grant you permission
not because i like it
[haven’t you seen my twitter feed!]
but because i know
what they do
to honest people

i grant you permission
because my blankets keep me warm
because my breakfast keeps me full
because my loved one’s sit beside me
and because i’m afraid
they’ll take it all away

so i grant you permission
to rip apart
lives
families
children
maybe even my children

everyone but me

Your Own Best Thing

Early in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D recalls Mr. Garner’s typical response to other white men who questioned his willingness to call and consider his slaves men:

I wouldn’t have no nigger men round my wife.”

It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for. “Neither would I,” he said. “Neither would I,” and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law or whoever it was got the meaning. Then a fierce argument, sometimes a fight, and Garner came home bruised and pleased, having demonstrated one more time what a real Kentuckian was: one tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men. (Morrison, 12-13)

The white men with whom Mr. Garner speaks express the belief that black slaves empowered to the status of manhood would be sexually dangerous to white women. With the response “Neither would I,” Garner expresses complete agreement with their sentiment. Yet, of course, Mr. Garner does allow black “men” to live in the presence of his wife. Mr. Garner’s response, then, carries the assertion that he possesses the capacity to control and remain dominant over black slaves considered men. He verbally indicts the other white men for their incapacity to do likewise. Through this comparison, Mr. Garner establishes a sense of selfhood elevated above that which he conceives to exist in other white men. He is a tough, smart, real Kentuckian man, a self-conception from which he surely derives immense pride and happiness. However, Mr. Garner is able to establish this positive understanding of himself only through the imagined control of his slaves, leaving him completely dependent upon them for this treasured sense of identity.

Whereas this account suggestive of the nature of Mr. Garner’s subjectivity is but a brief detail in the novel, Sethe’s subjectivity is a matter of concern throughout it. One section of text in which different characters’ voices mix together contains a series of verses that touch upon the nature of Sethe’s selfhood: “You are my face; you are me/ . . . / You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine/ . . . / You are my face; I am you” (Morrison, 255-56). The merging of voices in and around these verses makes it challenging to confidently assign one speaker to any given phrase. However, these verses can at least be read as being spoken by Sethe, or if not by Sethe alone, by Sethe along with one or more of the other characters.[1] Sethe characterizes Beloved as the embodiment of her (Sethe’s) face. We express internal states and characteristics—the unique attributes that together constitute personal identities—through movements of the mouth, the eyebrows and other facial muscles, to form smiles, frowns and other expressions. In this respect, Sethe’s twice-repeated phrase “You are my face” can be taken to mean that Sethe understands herself as a unified human subject only by virtue of her connection to Beloved.

To facilitate the conception that her selfhood exists through Beloved, Sethe imagines herself and Beloved to be inextricably connected. With the repeated claim “You are mine,” Sethe asserts total possession over Beloved’s existence. This assertion implies Sethe’s conviction that Beloved cannot claim independent possession of her own subjectivity. Sethe expresses this belief more directly with the phrases “you are me” and “I am you.” Each of these statements implies that Beloved and she are so completely joined that Beloved cannot exist as a coherent human self apart from her. Sethe forces Beloved into precisely this position. By murdering the child eventually reincarnated as Beloved rather than allowing that child to live in slavery, Sethe defines Beloved’s humanity entirely by the love she receives from Sethe. That this reincarnated being takes on the name “Beloved” further speaks to this point. Naming brings people into subjectivity. Beloved is named by Sethe’s love for her. This naming further establishes that Beloved’s selfhood is entirely reducible to her reception of love from Sethe. With Beloved’s sense of selfhood completely dependent upon Sethe, Sethe and she are indeed inextricably connected, allowing Sethe—upon Beloved’s reincarnation—to form her own sense of selfhood entirely through Beloved.

Sethe’s dependence upon Beloved for her own identity stands in striking similarity to Mr. Garner’s dependence upon his slaves for the sense of selfhood he establishes through a perceived dominance over them. This similarity is noteworthy in light of Morrison’s choice of the surname “Garner” for the slaveholding couple. Sethe is a fictional recreation of the historical figure Margaret Garner. Like Sethe, Margaret Garner murdered her child to keep that child from a life of slavery.[2] Together, this choice of last name and the similarity between Sethe and Mr. Garner’s modes of identity formation figuratively pull the two together. Mr. Garner and Sethe become interpretable through one another, adding new layers of meaning to each.

One implication of this link between the two characters lies in the ultimate consequence Sethe suffers as the result of her creation of her sense of selfhood through Beloved. The following section of dialogue appears late in the novel, once Beloved has disappeared: “(Paul D:) ‘You your own best thing, Sethe. You are.’ . . . (Sethe:) ‘Me? Me?’ ” (Morrison, 322). Without Beloved, Sethe is utterly incapable of understanding herself as a coherent human subject. Interpreting Mr. Garner through Sethe, it follows that Mr. Garner might experience a similar loss of the selfhood he established through the Sweet Home men. Mr. Garner, however, dies a relatively early death, possibly precluding the occurrence of such loss. Yet, perhaps Mr. Garner’s character can be extended outward and read as emblematic of any and all white men who define themselves through perceived dominance over and control of the mythologized dangers of black masculinity. One could make the case that most if not all white men in America understand themselves in this way. Sethe’s ultimate fate is not only her own but serves also as a warning of the imminent personal catastrophe awaiting such white men and as an appeal for their departure from this deleterious mode of self-definition.

 

Notes

[1] Various subtleties of the cited verses and their surrounding text support this reading. Throughout the novel, Beloved repeatedly says to or thinks about Sethe “I want your face.” The phrase “You are my face,” then, seems Sethe’s response to this demand, the response that Beloved in fact is the face she so longs to possess. The thrice-repeated phrase “You are mine” can be read as being spoken by Sethe, Beloved, Denver, or some combination of the three. However, it is certainly something Sethe would say, given her feeling of possession over Beloved. It is therefore reasonable to read this repeated phrase as being spoken either by Sethe or by Sethe along with other characters.

[2] Source: “The Story of a Fugitive Mother Who Killed to Protect Her Child from Slavery,” http://www.ohiohistoryhost.org/ohiomemory/archives/876.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York, NY: Vintage International, 2004. Print.

Growth Mindset

I want to tell the black boy I serve to have a growth mindset

But the cop he passes on his way home does not want to see him grow . . .

 

I wanted to tell the Muslim girl I once served that her choices will determine the course of her future

But U.S. Drone operators were calling Muslim children “fun-size terrorists,” likening their murders to “cutting the grass before it grows too long,” as she and I spoke . . .

 

I want to challenge the black girl I serve to raise her voice

But she has seen the videos of Sandra Bland and the student from Spring Valley High raising theirs . . .

 

I wanted to tell the Latino boy I once served who came out to me that I was proud of him

And I was; but, more than that, I was scared for him . . .

 

I want to share statistics with the white boy I serve so that he might have the chance to discover, what I didn’t have the chance to discover, that actually, it’s white christian extremists who pose the greatest threat to our collective safety

But the white christians who fund my position in his classroom do not appreciate “political biases” . . .

 

And because of these barriers, I want to fix my mindset on the rationality of avoiding conversations that matter, when speaking with youth

But the black boy I serve just asked me why police have to carry weapons,
And if he’s still able to dream then I better be as well.

The “Identity Politics” We’re Not Talking About

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I first encountered the term “identity politics” while organizing with the Black Lives Matter movement through a socialist group in Boston. When one white ally from the group used the term, she explained to me that (in the context of anti-racist organizing) “identity politics” refers to the belief that Black Americans possess a unique and authoritative perspective on issues relating to racial oppression on the basis of having experienced this oppression, while white Americans definitively lack this particular perspective. She proceeded to problematize “identity politics,” understood in this way, on the grounds that Black Americans claiming unique, situated knowledge that white allies lack derails the development of broad anti-racist movements that link activists across race, class, and other identities. In later conversations, other white allies from the group raised further objections to “identity politics,” most notably that its logic implies the existence of a single, homogenous Black American experience and that it re-inscribes strict racial separatism. However, rather than blaming Black Americans for derailing anti-racist organizing by invoking their lived experiences of racial oppression, white allies might consider how we derail organizing by refusing to accept others’ challenges to our perception of the authority of our lived experiences of racial privilege and dominance.

 

In her essay “Essentialism and Experience,” bell hooks challenges Dianne Fuss’s argument that members of marginalized groups invoking this authority on the basis of their lived experiences shuts down conversations. Although Fuss and hooks are explicitly concerned with the context of the college classroom, their arguments prove relevant to that of anti-racist organizing:

According to Fuss, issues of “essence, identity, and experience” erupt in the classroom primarily because of the critical input from marginalized groups. Throughout her chapter, whenever she offers an example of individuals who use essentialist standpoints to dominate discussion, to silence others via their invocation of the “authority of experience,” they are members of groups who historically have been and are oppressed and exploited in this society. Fuss does not address how systems of domination already at work in the academy and the classroom silence the voices of individuals from marginalized groups and give space only when on the basis of experience it is demanded. [“”“”…] The politics of race and gender within white supremacist patriarchy grants them this “authority” without their having to name the desire for it. […]At the same time, I am concerned that critiques of identity politics not serve as the new, chic way to silence students from marginalized groups.

Similar to the shortcomings of Fuss’s analysis that hooks illuminates, the logic white allies cite for their opposition to “identity politics” “does not address how systems of domination already at work” within anti-racist organizations “silence the voices of individuals from marginalized groups.” White allies bring a belief in the authority of our white experiences into conversations and organizing meetings with Black Americans. The difference is that we do not, and are not often challenged to, recognize these experiences as deriving from our whiteness – our white racial identities.

 

Vox contributor Matthew Yglesias arrives at this conclusion in his piece All Politics is Identity Politics when he writes, “The truth is that almost all politics is, on some level, about identity. But those with the right identities have the privilege of simply calling it politics while labeling other people’s agendas ‘identity.’” Yglesias’ conclusion rings true alongside hooks’ argument. The privilege of whiteness is that one’s experientially rooted ways of understanding pose as the norm and thereby as objectively valid. Within our dominant discourse, Blackness and other marginalized identities are identified as tendentious and thereby subject to challenge on grounds of the perceived objectivity of the dominant identity.

 

All of this being said, the aforementioned criticism that “identity politics” will fragment organizing and impede the development of formidable social movements deserves consideration. To reframe this criticism as a question: Is it possible for anti-racist organizers to challenge normative whiteness without risking the fragmentation of various movements? Many activists seem to believe we cannot, and as a result err towards avoiding challenges to the implicitly-sanctioned dominance of white perspectives. At one point last year, the socialist group I was a part of took on a leading role in organizing against police brutality in Boston through involvement in a 150 person coalition of activists. During the socialist group’s internal meetings, white alliesexpressed increasing frustration with activists of color who were pushing to set aside time for discussions on the unwillingness of white allies to listen more and speak less in order to create adequate space for Black voices. They argued that these conversations on internal dynamics would only divert energies from what they believed to be the more important objective: winning victories against police brutality.

 

Ultimately, consensus within the 150 person coalition did not allow such conversations on internal dynamics to occur in a meaningful way. As a result, many People of Color left the coalition , noting citing as their reason for leaving frustration with white allies’ refusal to create adequate space for their voices. White allies from within the socialist group repeatedly named “Identity Politics” as the factor to blame for the gradual disintegration of the coalition. They claimed that the Black activists who left were too concerned with fighting privilege and micro-aggressions and not concerned enough with fighting for systematic change. This assessment misses the mark. What actually derailed the group was the failure of white allies to do the work of listening and reassessing our opinions when Black organizers challenged our perspectives. It was not Black organizers’ unwillingness to set aside their identities and experientially-rooted perspectives that prevented group cohesion. It was white allies unwillingness to set aside our own.

 

Besides failing to account for the fact that white as well as Black Americans speak from a place of racial identity, the term “identity politics” misses the point that Black Americans speaking from their experience living under racial oppression is extremely valuable to anti-racist organizing work. There is something fundamentally formative in the lived experiences of racial oppression, that gives Black Americans a unique perspective upon how we as anti-racists must organize, a perspective that therefore makes them more qualified to speak, and to speak the most, in anti-racist organizing efforts. What is it that Black Americans understand about racism that white Americans like myself are definitively not capable of grasping? hooks explains:

I know that experience can be a way to know and can inform how we know what we know. […]It cannot be acquired through books or even distanced observation and study of a particular reality. To me this privileged standpoint does not emerge from the “authority of experience” but rather from the passion of experience, the passion of remembrance.[. . .]When I use the phrase “passion of experience,” it encompasses many feelings but particularly suffering, for there is a particular knowledge that comes from suffering. It is a way of knowing that is often expressed through the body, what it knows, what has been deeply inscribed on it through experience. This complexity of experience can rarely be voiced and named from a distance. It is a privileged location, even as it is not the only or even always the most important location from which one can know.

No matter how many statistics we can string together or how many Black activists from our nation’s history we can recall, White activists lack the ”particular knowledge that comes from suffering” that hooks refers to as ”passion of experience.” This form of knowledge cuts deep. It permeates the body. It is not reducible to any level of academic understanding of the realities of racism, but instead comes from the physical and emotional weight of living every minute of one’s life in a country built from top to bottom upon the premise of your negation, exploitation, and destruction. That Black Americans speak from this place of deeper, experientially-rooted knowledge on matters of anti-Black racism does not imply, as critics of “identity politics” argue, that Black American identities are homogenous. The nature and the extent of this form of knowledge is surely contingent upon Black Americans’ different, respective experiences and intersectional identities. Yet it is a form of knowledge that is definitively Black.Yglesias puts it best: All politics is identity politics

Decrying Black Americans who invoke their experiences as uniquely relevant to anti-racist work not only denies this fact; it implicitly re-inscribes whiteness as dominant and powerful over Blackness. Therefore, I call on white allies to consider how we derail organizing by refusing to accept the challenges of others and to challenge our perception of our racial privilege and lived experiences. I find that this is a better alternative to blaming Black Americans for invoking their lived experiences of racial oppression as the derailment of anti-racist organizing.

References

  1. hooks, bell. “Essentialism and Experience.” Teaching to Transgress. New York, NY, 1994, Routledge. Print.
  2. Yglesias, Matthew, “All Politics is Identity Politics.” Vox Media Incorporated, June 2015, Online.