As Above, So Below: Building Black/Indigenous Solidarity from the Inside Out

“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.”

-Khalil Gibran

When considering Black/Indigenous solidarity, I consider ways our collective histories can serve as a magnet, for better and for worse. They can pull us together or repel us, depending on which side is facing outward at any given moment–our healing selves or our re-traumatized selves….

On any given day, I can oscillate between these less-than-distinct versions of myself. My personal traumas and triumphs dance continuously with one another–a spiral rivaling the very Milky Way in scope and scale. When I consider this, I’m reminded of RW Emerson when he writes: “Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”

When our personal dance of trauma and triumph is compounded by community, we must be forgiven and forgiving when we trip over our own feet in the quest for an intentional community.

This is often easier said than done–for when our trauma is front and center, our capacity for forgiveness is greatly diminished, if not outright forfeit. Per Maslow, when we don’t feel safe, the self-actualization necessary to forgive can feel practically unobtainable.

To complicate matters further, “safety” is a subjective, ever-moving goalpost. As any facilitator can attest to, one person’s sense of safety can vacate another’s. Our sense of safety is rooted in both individual and collective experiences. Given that we all show up with differing hearts, there is no one-pacemaker-fits-all approach.

All of this came to a head for me in the context of Afro-Indigenous solidarity as I was driving the other day. I was listening to an episode of 1A on NPR wherein journalist/host Jenn White welcomed award-winning authors Stephen Graham Jones and Darcie Little Badger to discuss sci-fi through the voices of Indigenous authors.

At one point in the interview, Ms. White, invited Ms. Little Badger to reflect on how she’d define the “genre” of her writing–noting that while they’d been using the term “speculative fiction” throughout the interview, the question remained of how best to define her work. Ms. Little Badger briefly reflected on her upcoming work before noting that she’s found the term “Indigenous futurism” helpful.

I felt my heart sink.

I found myself waiting on Ms. White to ask if there was a connection between that term and Afrofuturism.[1] In short, I wanted to feel seen. I didn’t want to relive erasure in such an audio-intimate space of exclusively Black/Indigenous folks. I wanted the contribution of African Americans to be named.

However, I was simultaneously gripped by a larger question: are a people rendered practically invisible by the West even capable of then erasing another?

Real erasure requires access to power–particularly the power to shape stories. This requires holding the levers of mass media–something Indigenous brothers and sisters do not have in this country by ANY stretch of the imagination.

I noticed my sensitivity and I immediately felt guilty. Do I get to feel like yet another cultural product is being hijacked–this time by an Indigenous author–while few so-called minorities have been rendered more visible throughout American history than Black folks (for better and, far more frequently, for worse)? And, conversely, few so-called minorities have been made more invisible than Indigenous folks.

So why was I so upset? The answer–I fear–is rooted in what I understand about white supremacy and cultural hegemony. Ironically or not, the term that comes to mind is “Columbusing.” According to NPR’s “Code Switch,”, “Columbusing is when you “discover” something that’s existed forever. Just that it’s existed outside your own culture, nationality, race or even, say, your neighborhood.” The term is both a recognition and a condemnation of the way mainstream education has for so long credited Columbus for supposedly “discovering” America. While this term can apply to anyone from any culture, it most often focuses on the financial/cultural impacts arising from the fallout when white folks engage in it.

Why?

A very astute question!

When white folks “discover” something and get excited about it, their collective access to resources can turn a relatively obscure cultural product into a multi-billion dollar, global industry–too often, without the cultural context which produced said product. Everything from Yoga, and various musical genres (i.e. jazz and rock), to avocados and gentrification are arguably examples of Columbusing.

I was upset about the lack of real-time recognition from Ms. Little Badger because I was scared that some white listener with resources would be inspired and start an avalanche of cultural productivity and industry without any of those resources going to the very people who inspired them. Paranoid? Sure. Within reason? All. Day.

However, Columbusing is not the fault of Ms. Little Badger. In fact, given the origin of the term, one could argue that she tangentially represents people who were its first victims. Therein lies my guilt. I am not ignorant of this complexity, yet my understanding doesn’t always save me from my visceral reactions.

The larger question for me is…what to do with that.

If Black/Indigenous solidarity is to be realized, how do we prepare for the inevitable oppression olympics that is bound to arise in various spaces as we come together? How do Black folks hold the pain of being both torn from the land of our origins and feeling such a challenged sense of “home” with Indigenous folks’ experience of being “home”, often without a sense of autonomy and visibility therein?

How do we set aside the very real fears of prying white whims and resources long enough to stop fighting for the proverbial scraps under the table that we’ve gotten so accustomed to and adept at preparing and consuming?

One does not get to be resilient without navigating trauma. How do we leverage our collective resilience–a resilience built upon centuries of brutality–without succumbing to the traumatic knee-jerk reactions that made that resilience possible?

How do we bring our shared fears, traumas, addictions, internalized hatreds, stereotypes, and tropes to the table and co-create an altar upon which we might place them and ceremoniously say goodbye?

I don’t know the answers.

What I do know, is that if we don’t figure this out, our destinies are bound to continue running in parallel without ever intersecting. And that would be a tragedy, for us and for the rest of the world. As long as the US media still holds a powerful role in shaping the stories we globally share, there is still time to broadcast a very different story to the world.

There is still time to envision a world wherein whiteness does not have to be centralized. There is still time to show the world that healing is possible, solidarity matters. When people come together with intentionality, we can move beyond this westernized, narrow vision of living free. There is still time to export something more than fast food, carbon emissions, and faux-freedom.

The populations of so-called “western” countries will continue to shift toward a reflection of the world at-large. In 30 years, the US will no longer be a white-majority country. White supremacy has effectively mobilized to hold onto power as long as possible in part because it’s much easier to fight “for” something than against it.

While we continue to encourage white folks to take up the fight against white supremacy, the rest of us had better put some serious thought into what we want instead. Afro-Indigenous solidarity movements make sense because they center the two largest non-white populations at the founding of the US and place them squarely in the driver’s seat for this post-white majority landscape we are heading toward.

There is poetic justice in that.

It is the full circle.

To wax biblical: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Working together to secure reparations for both populations would be a start in the right direction. Such solidarity would go a long way in embodying the sort of world we want to live in–a good faith gesture broadcasting to the world that the scarcity mentality plaguing western civilization for so long will no longer serve us.

However, if we are to send out such a message, we must first come together to heal–as individuals and communities. There is so much work to be done, but I have no doubt the world will be better for it.


[1] Dr. Grace Dillon is credited for coining the term Indigenous Futurism and credits Afrofuturism for her inspiration. Furthermore, the term “Afrofuturism” was actually coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, an author of Anglo-Irish-Scottish descent.