This morning I tied plastic-covered strips of paper to each of the signs in “Beyond the Chief,” an installation by Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois, in Urbana. The strips read:
On May 17, 2009, the artist Edgar Heap of Birds was quoted in The News-Gazette:
“[This is] really a memorial to the tribes that are gone….When natives make memorials to themselves or their losses that’s more important than a college mascot or other issue. Everything doesn’t have to be about the dominant white culture.”
Indeed, everything is not about the dominant white culture, but it is always a challenge to confront that dominance without simultaneously centering it. The most recent vandalism to “Beyond the Chief” (the sixth by my count, on May 20, apparently during the day) of course saddened and angered me, but I was also torn about an effective response. Would expressing outrage satisfy the vandal(s)? Could I respond creatively and respectfully to such acts of intolerance? (The vandalisms are acts of intolerance.) Are we inching forward, away from the toxic past of that mascot, toward a culture of respect? Or are we backsliding? Will it always be a push-and-pull between people’s hateful actions and words, and calls for conversation and dialogue? How to get past the irony that Mr. Heap of Birds’ art is property, with an assessed value, that comments on land that is stolen property, which wasn’t initially viewed as property, but rather as a gift to be held in sacred trust? Where do we begin to heal the many breaches of trust?
For a start, we must apologize to the artist and to the students, staff, faculty, and alumni who have worked so long and hard to make a (theoretically) safe space for indigeneities at UIUC because we have not been able to provide a safe space. Who is “we”? Ideally, “we” is the institution and its official subgroups, but I’ll say this now:
I am sorry. Out of that regret and sorrow, I will act with love, to the best of my ability.
Not a cursory sorry, not an unhelpful guilty sorry, but an apology that acknowledges from my heart that I share in and have benefited from a legacy of genocide, theft, greed, and hate in which John Iryshe, bastard son of an English mother, and all of his descendants from 1629 on, including me, participated, directly or indirectly.
I hold that sorrow together with joy, for my life, and for the variety of lives around me. I reach out from that joy as best I can. While I have long admired the work of Edgar Heap of Birds, I felt joy walking down Nevada Street to work everyday, before the vandals struck, and struck again, and again. For me, the public artwork of Heap of Birds goes to the center of vital issues, ideas that prompt questions and honor others. It is about respect.
And what else?
We must buy this work of art, to continue the implicit conversations among us, to continue to honor those who came before, whom we long dishonored.
And what else?
Retire the name “Fighting Illini.” Find a new mascot and new music for sporting events.
And what else?
Make this mission statement on the official “Illini” website real:
“To have the highest quality athletic program in all sports that allows the University of Illinois teams to compete for championships in the Big Ten Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association…with integrity and a caring community.”
See another post other for possible actions.
I was reading Patricia J. Williams the other day: Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1997). She’s a lawyer and theorist who attended the recent Feminist Futures conference here at the University of Illinois. Here are the parts of her essay, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that rang bells for me:
[T]he dilemma of the emperor’s new clothes, we might call it—is a tension faced by any society driven by bitter histories of imposed hierarchy.
…The ability to remain true to one self, it seems to me, must begin with the ethical project of considering how we can align a sense of ourselves with a sense of the world. This is the essence of integrity, is it not, never having to split into a well-maintained “front” and a closely guarded “inside.”
Creating community, in other words, involves this most difficult work of negotiating real divisions, of considering boundaries before we go crashing through, and of pondering our differences before we can ever agree on the terms of our sameness.
Perhaps one reason that conversations about race are so often doomed to frustration is that the notion of whiteness as “race” is almost never implicated. One of the more difficult legacies of slavery and of colonialism is the degree to which racism’s tenacious hold is manifested not merely in the divided demographics of neighborhood or education or class but also in the process of what media expert John Fiske called the “exnomination” of whiteness as racial identity. Whiteness is unnamed, suppressed, beyond the realm of race. …[T]he majoritarian privilege of never noticing themselves was the beginning of an imbalance from which so much, so much else flowed.
…[T]he creation of a sense of community is a lifelong negotiation of endless subtlety.
…[T]hose marked as Having Race are ground down by the pendular stresses of having to explain what it feels like to be You—why are you black, why are you black, why are you black, over and over again; or alternatively, placed in a kind of conversational quarantine of muteness in which any mention of racial circumstance reduces all sides to tears, fears, fisticuffs, and other paroxysms of unseemly anguish.
…I believe that racism’s hardy persistence and immense adaptability are sustained by a habit of human imagination, deflective rhetoric, and hidden license.
We must RE-imagine ourselves.
I went to a brownbag talk by historian Ray Fouche this past week. He commented that he’d like to find more ways to communicate with “everyday folks,” rather than addressing academics all the time. So I asked him if he blogged. Then I inwardly laughed at myself, because I blog, but I don’t do it in order to “communicate with everyday folks” or many people at all. There are so many fascinating blogs out there that I don’t read, even occasionally. I can barely find time to write here; I think about blogging more than I do it. This blog serves as a sort of placeholder for thoughts that I might want to develop further, but I’d like it to be something more than that. Ray’s discussion about his own personal shift in the last year, prompted me to reflect on my changing habits as well: he now reads online rather than printing out documents; he now collaborates more online with other scholars; he feels less proprietary of his intellectual property. Many historians have been superceded by Wikipedia, he noted, and amateur historians or folks who have a deep expertise in one technology (like railroads) have erased a lot of academic “authority.”
As for my own changing habits: I edit online almost exclusively; I never use a pen and paper to write longhand if I can avoid it; and a lot of initial drafts of ideas end up in email “conversations” that have unrelated subject lines! Still, I am very attached to books and articles: somehow e-journals and wikis are uninviting to me because they force me to read or write onscreen and I spend hours and hours in front of a screen everyday already. I want to take a book and lie on the couch. I want to see what I write in published, hard copy. Blog rolls, wiki updates, and digital bookmarks–there is too much e-information out there for me to absorb during screentime. There’s a kind of materiality I need. I find highlighters, sticky notes, marginal comments, and colorful bookmarks very satisfying. Indeed, some part of myself finds print, or stone, or steel, or clay as validating and real. Virtuality is unembodied and ultimately ephemeral.
Ray also talked about using binaries–what he calls analog-digital synergies–to explore interstitial spaces. In these spaces, we can query how we invest ourselves in technologies, in terms of our identities and cultures. Ray said that technological change is also a crisis of identity. Clearly, giving up books would be a crisis for my identity, in so many ways. I’m sure there are hybrid ways of being; the whole point of binary oppositions is to bust them. Books AND blogs, not books OR blogs.