Two noted scholars of indigenous and black culture and politics Jodi Byrd and Justin Leroy sat down to dialogue about #MonumentsMustFall.
By Jodi Byrd and Justin Leroy
Justin Leroy: Since white supremacists clad in hoods of free speech descended on Charlottesville and clashed with the “alt-left” (i.e. those who aren’t Nazis or Nazi sympathizers), Confederate statues, plaques, and memorials have come down across the country. Good. By any means necessary. Our White-Supremacist-in-Chief disagreed—after blaming the rally’s violence on “both sides,” he lamented “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns, and parks.” Typical neo-Confederate fuckery so far. What he tweeted next was meant as an ominous warning: “Who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” But sometimes the right goes so far off the rails that it circles back around and starts making sense to the left. Like when pro-slavery ideologue George Fitzhugh described Northern factory capitalism as “a war of the rich with the poor, and the poor with one another,” one might be forgiven for taking Trump’s question seriously (after the initial shock of taking Trump seriously wore off). What exactly is the difference between Lee and Washington or Jefferson? There is no kinder, gentler slavery, and no good Virginia slave owner.
This question has vexed me for a while. When Yale students mobilized to change the name of Calhoun College I was supportive [See also “The Student Demand” here on Bully Bloggers. -ed]. No black student should ever have to address the head of a residence hall named after a slave-owner “master.” But I was also frustrated. Why Calhoun? Why were other, arguably equally compromised figures able to escape the symbolic purge? Why do Confederates seem to be the only line in the sand well-meaning liberals can recognize? As far as targets go, they’re a low-hanging fruit, since condemning Confederates lets Northerners feel good about pointing out how bad and racist Southerners are without having to confront the skeletons in their own closet. But the question of Confederate exceptionalism remains.
Do I think the Founders are morally superior to Confederates when it comes to race and slavery? No way. Jefferson inflicted tremendous physical and sexual violence on those he enslaved. Washington devoted tremendous resources to capturing runaways. And yet, actual history notwithstanding, Confederate symbols are exceptional for the way they mobilize white supremacists in the here and now. Figures such as Jefferson are too-often sanitized so they can be used to represent universalism, progress, and American “founding values,” but this strikes me as a distinct—if closely related—problem. The best analog to Confederate symbols might be Native mascots, which normalize and produce amnesia around indigenous genocide and ongoing colonialism, rather than Columbus, who we should recognize as a horrible person historically and not celebrate, but does not get mobilized as a contemporary symbol of white supremacy. That being said, these kinds of observations should be our ending point, not our starting point.
Jodi Byrd: I like the way you parse out the symbolism and the stakes in what you’ve written above, especially as you articulate the similarities between how Confederate symbols and native mascotry mobilize investments in antiblack settler histories. I have been trying to come to these questions from the other side, thinking that there is a way that this debate normalizes Washington and Jefferson, and by extension Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, in order to ultimately demobilize any critiques of them. Washington and Jefferson were slave-owning Indian-killers and Abraham Lincoln not only served in the Black Hawk war in Illinois but is responsible for the largest mass hanging in US history when he authorized 38 Dakota men to be hanged in Minnesota. These figures do not necessarily mobilize white supremacists, but they do produce amnesia around the scale of their genocidal complicity.
JL: Yes! I was mulling this over all day because as a matter of history I have no interest in defending any of these men or elevating some over others because they weren’t “traitors,” but there does seem to be a real difference in terms of how they function in our present.
JB: Right? Because Abraham Lincoln for all his Indian killing does not will never inspire Confederate support, though here I think many progressives might rally to his defense. There is this nagging sense in the back of my mind that many of these debates signal a presumption of some investment in civility or something equally moderate that elevates Washington and Jefferson over Lee. Or, maybe it is down to this sense I have: If the South had won, they would have likely claimed Washington and Jefferson as founding fathers too.
So, like you, I think there is absolutely a normalization of the Presidency as somehow above historical intent and complicity. Nowhere is that more evident than in how Lee and Stonewall are vilified as traitors while Andrew Jackson and Jefferson are not. Of course, there’s the Civil War (and fascinatingly, Andy Jackson’s political career falls between the Revolution and the Civil War no matter what alternative history Trump has tried to construct), and then there is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
What has been on my mind—along with the recent news that another jury has yet again ruled in favor of Cliven Bundy and his sons —are the ways that we staged these debates even a couple of years ago with the movement to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill with Harriet Tubman. It is clear that the US Treasury under President Obama hit a nerve and there is some deep-seated seething that has been given license to surface under 45. That “replacing” also underlies the “you will not replace us” that the neo-Nazis shouted in Charlottesville a few weekends ago. The irony, of course, is that Andrew Jackson is the author of the Indian Removal Act and responsible for carrying out the displacement of Indians that both Washington and Jefferson anticipated and longed for. The US has, in other words, a history problem. It keeps looking to Europe for signs of some genocidal nationalism that it can name and displace so that it does not have to confront the very core of its own creation. When the genocide of American Indians can be recast as dispossession or conquest, when slavery can be reframed through kinship and labor, and when the struggle between North and South can serve as a sign of some exceptional atonement for the original sin of chattel slavery, then the United States has managed to resell a narrative of purity rather than transform the foundational conditions of its creation.
What if we understood the faces of those marching in Charlottesville as the face of US settlement as well as through the broader European context of fascism? What if we understood the problems of race and colonization as endemic to the nation and not solved through the rearrangement of statues. Geraldo Rivera tweeted out “If #RobertELee is to be erased from history, why not erase #ChristopherColumbus whose arrival ignited genocide of Native Americas?” I still refer to such discursive moves as a cacophony of histories, but it is clear in the competition that Columbus is a bridge too far, and that settlers continue to use Black and Indigenous experiences to silence each other. Still, why not Columbus? Many states and cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Do we need these historical signs to serve a past? Supporters of Illinois’ racist mascot Chief Illiniwek still insist that without him dancing every halftime and without their beloved “war chant” and “Oskee Wow Wow,” people would forget that Indians ever existed at all. But in “retiring” him, he only became stronger. Like Obi Wan Kenobi—the structures of white possession that propel the creation of Confederate moments and dancing Indian headdresses as remembrance don’t go away when the monuments or mascots are removed. And that is for me is also part of the stake in this conversation.
And evoking Illinois in this conversation just brings us back to civility. And the presumed savagery it opposes.
JL: OMG don’t even get me started on Hamilton and the idea of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. I get that the soundtrack is cute, but Hamilton represents the problem we’re discussing in microcosm. Why actually reckon with histories of slavery and genocide when we just can cast actors of color in the roles of slaveowners and Indian killers and pretend the problem is solved? I think your idea of the Holocaust as the only legible genocide in U.S. political discourse and European fascism as the only legible model for authoritarianism shows us how deeply entrenched the redemptive vision is, even among progressive thinkers. I was frustrated, horrified, angry at the response of several black scholars —and it must be said, particularly those at elite, private institutions. Despite respecting their work in other contexts, the failure of failure imagination among these scholars was telling. Fantasies of federal intervention against white supremacists (which has never worked—both in the sense that the government has never had the will to protect substantive black rights over white “rights,” whether in the 1870s or 1960s, and for the way in which black rights are staged as the extension of a federal authority that further erodes indigenous sovereignty). Others expressed surprise that we were still dealing with white supremacy or stressed the need for civilized discourse is of even greater importance in these trying times. All I can say is “LOL.” Considering that all are experts in black history, this is a problem of ideology, not knowledge. Even when we admit that white supremacy lay at the foundation of the United States and continues to be its primary operating feature, we still can’t imagine an outside to it—even some of our most radical visions are inclusionary and assimilative rather than revolutionary. What we think we’re condemning as a fatal flaw is actually not fatal because deep down we believe it can be redeemed. If not redemption, then what are our other options? This failure of imagination is why I think we need to engage ideas of decolonization much more robustly. Drawing on the intellectual history of the black freedom struggle, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has said, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” The idea being that if we were to truly address the problem of anti-black racism in all its dimensions, we would necessarily make the world better for all people. I don’t bring Garza’s slogan up to critique or appropriate it, but to suggest a parallel (or perhaps a corollary in the interest of expansiveness). In this post-Obama moment, when we have seen that even at its greatest heights of success the assimilative model cannot save us, what would it mean to take sovereignty movements seriously as a way of thinking beyond the redemption of the U.S.? To say “When indigenous people get free, everybody gets free”? It seems hard to imagine in practical terms. But we live in a world where a jury twice failed to convict armed white men who faced down and threatened agents of the federal government for trying to take away “their” land, while those same agents of the state had no qualms about forcibly removing and suppressing activists at Standing Rock or in Ferguson. Why is it any harder to imagine a politics grounded in principles of indigenous sovereignty than the reformation of a white supremacist government? I’m curious if debates in queer theory can help us out here. Non-identitarian, anti-assimilationist queerness is one of the most generative tools for imagining new political orientations. I think it’s telling that one of the central tenets of queerness, antinormativity, has recently come under suspicion by ostensibly leftist queer thinkers [See also responses on Bully Blogger, here and here. -ed]. So there’s not only a failure of imagination, but the active effort to police political imagination. Obviously there’s been much work on queer theory from a Native studies perspective, but I wonder if there’s a way to integrate discussions of indigenous sovereignty with non-identitarian and anti-normative forms of queerness to begin thinking about responses to white supremacy that are not bogged down by an inability to think beyond the continued legitimacy of the United States.
JB: You capture the conundrum here—the desire for an inside, the impossibility of an outside, and the fatal flaw of imagining decolonization through the maintenance of a kindler, gentler United States. That is still built on lands stolen from Indigenous peoples. Because when it comes down to it, that conditional possibility of belonging is so profoundly engrained—“blood and soil!”—that land becomes the fundamental sticking point and territorial issue for all claims forged in relation to it. Land is the source of power, identity, belonging, and sovereignty. And land is in part why discussing monuments is so fraught and difficult. We can take down all the Lee, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, Cook, and Columbus monuments that litter the cities and towns of this nation, but the structural intent behind putting them up in the first place remains written onto the land. Those monuments order space, naturalize possession and dispossession, and even in their absence continue to produce the ownership of land as the only path to freedom. So in thinking further with you about the possibility queerness, antinormativity, and non-identitarian formations might offer as responses to white supremacy, I think we have to consider how such ways of being might themselves be shaped by relationship to and through land. My first thought in response to most of the liberal accounts for the rise of Trump is that it is frustratingly predictable that the critiques of identity politics come from the most transparently identitarian formation of them all—white men. But I do think that even queer and antinormative tools run into binds when confronted with indigeneity, indigenous sovereignty, and indigenous relationalities to land. In Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, for instance, a half-remembered Cherokee ancestry becomes the justification for naming a child Igasho (a name, by the way, that spawns as much from the Tauren in World of Warcraft as it does from any generic “Native American” culture or language). Perhaps that returns us to the imperative provocation of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. How might we reframe kinship and relationality away from the patria of white supremacy and its continued insistence on familial bonds that were destroyed through slavery and genocide?
JL: Ah! I definitely agree that often radical politics, even (especially?) queer politics, ignores or refuses to engage with colonization. Your work shows us that there can be no true radicalism without taking indigenous sovereignty seriously on its own terms. But this is where I think there’s actually a real opportunity for generative discussion—or maybe generative tension. Hartman and others make the case that some form of ontological loss or absence is the foundation of blackness in the Americas. And so there is a strong current in black studies today that goes against the idea that black people can heal the injuries of slavery by claiming rights or land or belonging. I think some of that same impulse it at work when queer theory embraces antinormativity—an openness to rethinking everything we know about kinship, belonging, ownership, individuality, and yes, even land. None of this can be taken for granted, and of course these kinds of theoretical linkages would have to be substantiated by a lot of on the ground organizing. But it’s the only way out I can see. I wonder if the recent ruling reversing the 2007 decision that stripped Cherokee freedmen of tribal citizenship is a small opening for this kind of politics. A fraught relationship, that began in violence, with the potential to open up new frameworks of belonging that account for both the history of enslavement and struggles for indigenous sovereignty.
JB: A fraught relationship, indeed. And I’m with you that the only way out is through rethinking what we know about kinship, belonging, ownership, property, land, and individuality. But more, we have to think about what struggles for indigenous sovereignty might mean as we untangle the stack and compounded histories of colonialism here in the Americas. The ruling on the Cherokee Freedmen is a good start, and the Cherokee Nation seems to agree. Finally. But what I hope for my own Chickasaw Nation is that we can come to an expansive understanding of grounded relationality that resists settler state modes of sovereign power and brings us back to the fundamental revolutionary idea that power and transformation can be found in the tearing down of walls as much in the building of them. In the end, the quality of our struggle against the structures of colonialism will be determined by what we chose to dismantle.