Apocalypse of Whiteness

whitenessBy Jim Perkinson, a sermon for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (Detroit, MI)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. (Paul, heading off to Rome and ultimately, his death, in II Cor 13:11)

Farewell.  The entirety of the message for today.  Farewell to the world you thought you knew.  Farewell to the country.  To certainty.  To your identity.  To the expectation of progress, well-being, comfort, a good end.  And maybe, most important of all, farewell to the story we have been living in.  We live inside stories—a whole mess of stories—origins stories, initiation stories, trickster stories.  Leslie Marmon Silko says at the end of the day, when the dominators come, when the colonists come, when the supremacists come, when the humans come (if you are a fish or plant or mountain top) all we have are our stories (yes, even non-human creatures probably have stories they live).  But if we are the ones who have been doing the dominating, the colonizing, the reducing, being the “human masters over” everything else as the Psalmist unfortunately says—then what our responsibility comes down to is narrating—and embracing—an “ending.”  How do we end and end well? 

I spent part of the last week participating, with about 1100 other people around the world, in a global Zoom conference called The Wilds Beyond Climate Justice.  Two things from that gathering for this morning.

1.) I attended a number of Detroit-led sessions, including one featuring Bryce Detroit, whom many of us know: Northside organizer, music producer, MC-activist, creator of an organization called Entertainment Justice, seeking to use popular culture idioms such as hip-hop to inculcate messages of justice and galvanize action. Bryce styles himself an AfroFuturist artist—building on an entire movement of AfroFuturism, asserting, among other things, that Africans are the progenitors of our species and committed to work towards a future lead by and hospitable to African peoples.  Listening, with deep concern, and deep unease, to Bryce as indeed to many other presenters and participants at the conference, as well as to the message on the streets of protest over the last 12 nights, I am pushed to articulate my own version as a white artist/activist.  I am concluding I want to be what I am only half-humorously calling a “EuroManure-ist activist,” helping compost whiteness into a definitive brown end.  So—my response to the sharp challenge of this moment, de-centering white voices and de-colonizing white property and position: Face my own demise.  Become part of a thoroughgoing composting operation!  Digest and evacuate my own whiteness.  More about that in a minute.

But from a different angle, this ending of whiteness can be said another way. I am not only committed to a particular process of defecation.  I am also committed to reclamation—indeed, to what might be called antique ancestral innovation—the only kind of AI that I can readily embrace.  “Ancestral innovation” means resolve to work my way back behind my own formation and entanglement in white supremacist settler colonialism, to get back to what was indigenous to the lands of Europe before they became “European” and imperial, to recover what worthy fragments of ancestral earth-wisdoms created by my Celtic and Nordic and Frankish forbearers I can find.   And simultaneously work through the ancient traumas my own people suffered when, for instance,  the 14th century Plague swept through the countryside like a scythe, or the wise women of old Europe were later burned as pagans and witches, or Ireland was invaded and decimated by England as an island of savages and primitives, etc. Part of the problem with whiteness is that we too carry significant ancestral trauma—but we have more typically fled from and projected our pain rather than faced and metabolized it.

And then having embraced that double journey backwards—with that history of both indigenous beauty and “racialized” agony steeping within me and within my reality—I need to innovate with others on a similar journey, into a different way of being someone pale-skinned and proactive, giving place to and collaborative with, darker colors of people and broader agendas.  So: an ancient renovation.  There is much more that can be—and must be—said about such an ancestral reclamation project, but that is for the days and years to come.  Suffice it here to say, it is not enough to work for the undoing of whiteness as supremacy and settlement and domination.   There is need to figure out something more positive to adhere to back in the blood-and-culture line.  And that more venerable “something” is there, hidden in the memories and the mud, even if, for us as Euro-heritage peoples, it is far back and fragmentary.

2.) But another important moment in the conference took place on the last night of the gathering, in a workshop entitled “Confíagua: Practices in Prophetic Listening” (led by millennial artist/activists brontë velez and Jiordi Rosales). This particular workshop made use of a yet-to-be-released film, coming out of Oakland, CA, detailing a large-scale black-led public ritual, on the 10th anniversary of the murder of Oscar Grant in the BART station of Fruitvale by police on New Year’s Day, 2009.  The film is stunning, magnificently choreographed, almost exclusively featuring black ceremonial artists, literally smelting guns into star-molds indicative of the constellations in the night sky over Oakland when the Grant murder took place, and then returning those re-made metals back to earth and ocean as offering and transformation.  The narration of the film at one point asserts flat out, “black wellness is the antithesis of nation-state violence,” and then goes on to say, “This is not our apocalypse, this is not our apocalypse, we are already revealed to ourselves.”  “Apocalypse” after all means literally, “unveiling,” “revealing,” “revelation” as in The Book of Revelation, The Book of the Great Unveiling.

And here lies a deep quandary.  We are indeed living an apocalypse, with Four Horsemen, Four Messengers, riding in on us from the horizon.  Climate crisis.  Coronavirus.  Job loss.  And now street protest, demanding the defunding of policing and the end of white violence directed against black bodies.  Yes, also protesting violence against brown bodies (at the border) and red bodies (especially as “disappeared” Native women), and Muslim bodies overseas, in Yemen and Palestine and Afghanistan.  But especially, violence directed against black bodies, again and again and again, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.  George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and on and on and on.  A concerted demand for the end of white violence against black bodies.  But we need to be clear.  This means, effectively, as already hinted, the end of whiteness.  The death-knell for white supremacy, white centrality, indeed, white being in any of its myriad structures and assumptions and practices.   The end of whiteness.

The apocalypse we are living is, one way or the other, the apocalypse of whiteness.  Blackness, indigeneity, color from light tan to midnight brown has already been revealed as beautiful, bountiful, and not going anywhere.  As both our ancient beginning and our ultimate end.  We began in the warm amniotic darkness of the womb; we will end in the vast galactic night of outer space.  We began, three million years ago, in the Mother-Root of our species as African people—even those of us now melanin-deprived in our development of lighter pigmentation as we migrated away from the tropics, hoping to drink in more vitamin D in less sunny northern climes.  And we will end as fleshy seed in the loamy underbelly of our Humus-Home called Mother Earth.  The end that is being revealed in our hour is not of blackness, but of whiteness.  Whiteness has been a tiny blip of destruction on the screen of history, whose sole purpose as a marker of identity was to license plunder as supposedly superior.  And that whiteness now is going to disappear—either cooperatively, or with a huge explosion of narcissistic petulance and obscene violence and massive extinction.  And the only question for those of us who look like me is how we will collaborate in its demise and succession.  Yes, there is another identity for us to reinvent in part by recovering what was worthy in our deep ancestry, before whiteness became the watchword of colonial supremacy and thievery 500 years ago.  But for now, how do we aid in the undoing of white centrality?

This is but a sermon, so I cannot spend the next 100 hours outlining what all might be involved.   Undoing police culture and policy is certainly one piece of the pie.  So is undoing foreclosure practice.  Ending fossil fuel subsidy.  Eliminating capital gains loopholes and corporate tax giveaways and offshore tax shelters and CEO salary inflation and labor organizing constriction and public education evisceration and health care elimination.  And.  And.  And.  In a couple of big words: such an end of whiteness means decolonization by giving the land back to Native nations.  Reparations to black communities for unpaid labor beginning with slavery and coming forward.  And amnesty or asylum along with practical support to re-start their lives for any immigrants coming from any of the more than 153 other sovereign territories we have invaded with military bases to ensure extraction enterprises siphoning local goods into consumerist markets filling U.S bellies to the point of obesity and world oceans with plastic and soils with garbage and airs with chemicals rapidly catapulting us into collapse and extinction.  The apocalypse of whiteness.  Its unveiling and its ending.  Involving all of the above.

But in order to end this rant sometime before tomorrow, I want to focus for just a moment on one other piece of the agenda that is more interior to whiteness and more personal in our experience in a way that answers to what we are witnessing on the streets.   At one level what we are seeing in almost every major city across the country and in the world at large is liturgy.  It is not just policy demand.  It is outpouring.  Ritual—on a massive scale!  “What” is being expressed in black vernacular terms is a Haint.  A Haunt.  A Presence, materialized in tens of thousands of bodies, giving hands-and-feet expression to the ribald energies of countless disappeared, murdered, eclipsed, silenced, buried persons who will not stay dead forever.

Biblically, this is Abel, speaking back to Cain, from out of the soil that swallowed his blood.  The “I can’t breathe” of Floyd repeating the “I can’t breathe” of Garner, ventriloquizing the “I can’t breathe” of a thousand million disappeared indigenous and enslaved Africans and raped women and abused children whose skin tones of darker color do not exclude representatives of pallor and light-skinned-ness in their midst over the course of the last 5,000 years, but whose modern constituency for the last 500 years, is overwhelmingly populated by those who are not white.

What is being expressed is big emotion.  Deep anger.  Volcanic rancor.  And most of us who are white, are not capable of channeling such with any degree of integrity.  We have been socialized into a reduced identity, a fragile subjectivity, a thin emotionality that has not on average had to engage in titanic wrestling as its very mode of being day-in and day-out, as have people of color whose very bodily surface has been made an inescapable warzone every moment they are forced to live in and deal with majority white societies.

The summons of the hour is for those of us white to hunker down into a long and paradoxical journey in which we become simultaneously smaller and bigger.   We are summoned to reduce the space and time we take up in public gatherings and our footprint on the planet, even as we do the on-going psychic and spiritual work necessary to open out a hospitable and muscular inner capacity to host and carry and when appropriate express big feelings, without embodying grandiosity or dissolving into guilt and shame and fear.   Communities of color have had to develop such capacity simply to survive.  What happens in the streets needs to answer to their psychic depths without judgment or challenge or appropriation on the part of those of us whose skin is light.  But we dare not simply stop there in awe or admiration or mere imitation.

The example needs to be embraced as a summons to go back into our own ancestry, retrieve what we can of a similar capacity wrestling similar levels of suffering way back in our own history, and then craft the murk and miasma, the inner vortex of uncertainty and struggle, into a growing ability to feel “large” even while content to act small and ordinary and in second-line support of leadership of color.  We must not continue to be small inside, settling for a corporatized prosthesis that offers that smallness mere commodities and position as compensation.  Or now, by way of big media, invites activist support and affirmation of the eruption of deep black passion.  We need to engage the work necessary to invert the equation.  And here I am as much a novice as any, as confronted, and called out, and queried in the dock as everyone else.  But it is time to work and recreate an honorable way of taking up space on the planet.  Whiteness is at an end.  All hail the vibrancy of color.  May we learn to contribute our own particular hue in the mix.

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