Tuesday, May 13, 2008


(Liberia, filming for Communication for Change, photo by Eve A. Lotter)

The Utne Reader has a good article up, Through Their Eyes, about how refugee women who are assaulted (sexually and otherwise) in West Africa are making videos expressing what it looks like through the eyes of the victims. I'm posting this to encourage you to donate what you can to the non-profits who are sponsoring this project and the community viewings/speak-outs afterward, American Refugee Committee International (ARC) and Communication for Change. Woman-created videos are also being made about forced marriage and wife beating.

But I also want to take this opportunity to comment on the language used in writing this article and how it contributes to dilution of feminism and clear thinking about what is really going on. The tag at the top reads "Victims of gender-based violence fight back with video" and the lead-in states "The crime is all too familiar for many women and girls around the world, especially those living in refugee camps where gender-based violence has become endemic: Rape is a weapon of war, forced sex a currency exchanged for food or safe passage."

But this is not, strictly speaking, gender-based violence. It's woman-hating. It's ONLY aimed against women and girls, not against a generic "gender". I mean, the corollary would be to sanitize lynching by referring to it as "race-based violence" instead of community murder of black people.

I believe this semantic shift is underway to make discussion of crimes against WOMEN somehow more palatable to the mainstream, less feminist and more "gender-studies" friendly: For all those who have difficulty facing the fact that sexism is second-class status and hatred of WOMEN AND GIRLS (and anyone else who can incidentally be shoe-horned into the NOT-MAN category.) "Gender-based" should be reserved for those statistically rare instances when the oppression is clearly being aimed against all "not-men", instead of specifically targeting women and girls. The conflation of terms does no justice to the different expression of oppressions as it is experienced by different targets. Those of us in the belly of the beast deserve to not have our struggles lumped together into academically polished and distancing language.

Recommended reading: Rape in Liberia at Womanist Musings

(From the Middle Passage drawings by Tom Feeling)

A couple of weeks ago, there was a fascinating article in the Boston Globe online about new research from a Harvard economist which "suggests that Africa's economic woes may have their roots in the slave trade" (hat tip to Jesse Wendel of Group News Blog for sending this my way). This is not an original idea -- the theory has been around for a long time. But Nathan Nunn has created innovative (and still untested) measures to verify his argument "that the African countries with the biggest slave exports are by and large the countries with the lowest incomes now (based on per capita gross domestic product in 2000). That relationship, he contends, is no coincidence. One actually helped to cause the other."

The article, Shackled To The Past, by Francie Latour, is detailed enough that you need to go read it yourself.

However, I want to address a couple of ideas within it. One section reads:

"Nunn's research also comes at a time when the most fervent calls for reparations have come and gone, but when international calls for Western apologies for slavery still draw attention. The United States has never apologized for slavery, although five states - Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, and New Jersey - have done so recently, and Congress is poised to consider a resolution of apology this year. With much of the world's trade policy heavily skewed to the West's advantage and Africa's disadvantage, some say apologies carry little if any value. In any case, it remains to be seen whether the United States will ever face the role it played in one of history's worst crimes."


"The echoes across time are fascinating, and seem undeniable. But many practitioners say that ultimately, looking at Africa's problems through the lens of slavery is self-defeating. Calestous Juma, a native of Kenya and one of the most influential voices on African economic development, falls squarely into this camp.

'The legacy of slavery cannot be denied, but if you push the argument too far, it becomes a fatalistic argument," said Juma, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. 'Because you start to say, "Well, what can we really do? We can't undo the past, and therefore, Africa will always remain poor."'

I've thought about the idea of reparations and apology from different angles for decades now. In the 1980s, I dated a woman who was active in the African People's Socialist Party. Their platform then, and now, included reparations for African slavery in this country. While I was behind it in principle (and, I have to say, most of the other planks in their platform), I didn't think it was a realistic demand and that its quality of being "far-fetched" would detract from the other goals they were pursuing.

I've changed my mind since then. To begin with, the labeling of a goal as "far-fetched" is always soaked in cultural and target versus non-target group assumptions. Given my radicalism on so many other issues, I think it's safe to say my willingness to see reparations as "out there" arose from racism more than sudden rationality.

To illustrate my point, other reparations movements (such as Jews claiming damages from the Holocaust) meet with far more public (i.e., white people) acceptance and respectful airplay. However, the turd in the punchbowl is that the wealth of the United States is utterly founded on theft of land and labor. There is a prevailing myth to the contrary, especially among white people, that America's "greatness" is the product of hard labor. Labor by men, this means. White men. The work of women is taken for granted, and the resources of others is considered the property of white men by manifest destiny and Christian-backed racial superiority.

Relinquishing this myth to reality would do more than flood the foundations of white supremacy and woman-hating. It would also remove the chief delusion propping up white working class compliance with rule by the power elite: The fantasy that their own hard work will lead to class advancement and stability. Forcing the white lower classes in this country to face the truth that their status, however shitty, is never going to change through their own efforts and, even so, they are advantaged in comparison to the people of color living around them would lead to revolution.

If we took a zen approach to undoing the past -- we can't really time travel, but we can undo the effects of the past manifested present-day -- we'd have enormous opportunity to level economic prosperity on a global level. Since America currently stands squarely in the past of this progress, anything which would address the cultural and psychological pathology supporting such obstruction could help jiggle it loose.

For this second-tier reason, then, I'm also in favor of pushing for reparations. Bringing the actual source of our economic advantage into the clear light of day would be immensely tonic for my class, and enable us to (possibly) step around the racism which keeps us doing the dirty work of standing on our sisters' and brother's necks. I can only hope.

Likewise, governmental apologies have been applauded by everyone except Republicans and their ilk. In its honest form, an apology says "I see what I did there, I feel badly for how my action hurt you, and I'm going to take steps to make sure I don't do it again." Apology is an adult skill, arising from a blend of developmental attainment and responsibility -- to others AND to self. Which explains why it is beyond the reach or comprehension of conservatives and evangelicals, but we have to not let their limitations be our lowest common denominator any longer.

The article states:

"Juma and Nunn may be working toward an eventual meeting of the minds. The Kenyan sees slavery's lasting scar as a deeply psychological one - an attack on the self-confidence of a continent, and by extension, its human potential. Until that legacy is conquered, Juma said, Africa will not advance.

"Nunn, now at work on Chapter 2, has another name for this legacy: He calls it the trust channel. He can't prove it. But using household surveys of Africans over the last seven years known as the Afrobarometer, he is finding that ethnic groups that had the most slaves taken in the past express the most difficulty trusting people within their group, and outside their group. It may be that as it ravaged populations and crippled institutions, the hunting down and handing over of their own kin also robbed them of an innate ability to trust, all the way to the present day.

"Measuring this kind of collective feeling, and correlating it to events so far in the past, will likely put Nunn right back on slippery ground. But he doesn't seem to mind. 'The idea of the transmission or evolution of trust over generations, and this being affected by these large historic events,' Nunn said, 'is definitely not mainstream in economics.'"

I was fascinated by the introduction of this word, trust. (As was Jesse, hence his recommendation to read this article.) Trust of course arises from relationship, and dysfunctional/damaging relationships erode trust backwards and forwards along the temporal plane. I think it is possible that this is perpetuated not just through conditioning and culture -- i.e., we raise our children to distrust because of a devastating betrayal in the past. I think it is possible that this erosion of trust is making its way into biological expression via epigenetics: The way in which rearing and environment (nurture) alters our very biology, either temporarily (during our lifetime) or in a more long-lasting fashion (altering the genes that get passed on).

The plasticity of our genetic expression as is currently being discovered, daily, through epigenetic study is where the hope lies in this revelation of centuries of distrust. It's a reversible condition.

But apology will be the first step in that healing. There's no way around it. It will be good for us, good for the world, good for future generations. When you write your elected representatives or speak to the powerful, I ask to you add this to your list of requests: That we learn how to apologize, and do it (on every scale) when we have transgressed. It's not enough to sing "Amazing Grace" any more (as if it ever was), marveling at that which "saved a wretch like me" but not moving emotionally to the next step. We have to reverse the Middle Passage, in whatever ways we can dream up. Wouldn't you rather live in a world which took on this task?

1 comment:

Liza Cowan said...

Yes I would, Maggie. Indeed.