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My interest in studying the North American continent comes from a place of both loyalty and frustration. I am loyal because I am from here, which i will elaborate on later. I am frustrated because of the imperial nature of the United States. I call various parts of the United States home and have been a part of this society for the majority of my life. This translates into the kind of loyalty one might have to a family – not within a nationalist framework but more in honor and solidarity with the long, rich history of antisystemic movements this land has seen. I believe for white folks living and learning in the United States, especially those who were raised in this country, we must take a hard look at what our connections have been through family and history so that we may be here today, with the time to read blogs or be in school.

I see myself implicated in the functioning of this country’s institutions: I pay taxes so I can legitimately work in the federal work study program, I have relied on the infrastructure of this country to enable my mobility between California, Colorado, and Massachusetts, I have found/been given work and educational opportunities within a white supremacist society that sees a blonde female-bodied, friendly person as non-threatening, and finally I recognize ways that my family has been able to have social mobility in various social arenas and eras. This feeling of deep implication in the functioning of this society’s structures fuels my interest in both critical inquiry and social action.

From there I wish to proudly associate myself to anti-systemic movements. I think it is worthwhile for us all to uncover and respect the daily or organizational acts of resistance that we are somehow connected to, either through our family history, community/cultural legacy, or personal actions. I derive strength and inspiration from my paternal grandmother, Anne Burlack Timpson, also known as the “Red Flame.” Born in Pennsylvania in 1911, she was the oldest daughter of a Ukranian family with 4 children and needed to start working for wages at age 14. Her father worked in the coal mining and railroad industries before moving to Pennsylvania to work at Bethlehem Steel. All three industries at this time in American history were incredible sites of danger and conflict. At the coal mining town, the wives and mothers of workers rushed to the mine every few days at the dreaded sound of a bell ringing: accidents in the mine were frequent and fatal. I would have had two older great uncles or aunts had it not been for the stress that caused two miscariages for my great grandmother during this time. By the time the family arrived in Bethlehem, they had experienced a lot and my great grandfather was openly and strongly pro-union. This was the context my grandmother inherited. When she started working at the textile mill and experienced gender based discrimination and trying work conditions, my great grandfather was supportive of her trying to organize her peers. From there she led a lifetime of persistent, courageous, and edgy political organizing. Her children, my father and my aunt, did not carry the union organizing torch, but did hold onto and pass along values and history to my siblings and I. This connection to such a strong woman in my family is really important to me. Just because I am related to someone very involved in struggle by no means diminishes the ways in which my family has aided the growth of US empire or white supremacy, it merely deepens my understanding of how my family has envisioned their roles in this society. The work of preserving histories, especially non-dominant stories, is crucial in connecting people at a deep, emotional level to movements for justice.

I started the first paragraph here by referencing the “North American continent,” but I want to put out there that even conceiving of the Earth in terms of north and south is a product of European expansion where map makers believed Europe to be the center of civilization, superior to others, and the consensus was that it would also be visually above the “Orient,” Africa, and later South America. This conception of the globe is false: we are spinning rapidly through space which knows no up or down. With that said, I find “North American” studies somehow more appropriate to speak of than “United States and Mexico relations” because I see these two countries as inherently linked on so many levels that dividing them everytime I speak of my interests also seems to strengthen the border(s) that exists physically, economically, linguistically, and culturally. Now is the time to think spatially about our communities and future and to question our acceptance of how citizenship and nation-states work, namely to recognize that they operate through exclusion and domination respectively.

Given all that I have said about some kind of loyalty to the United States, I want to further that notion to an honoring of all of North America. This honoring and recognition of centuries of life and resistance in these lands is all the more pertinent as the mainstream/whitestream society gets increasingly frantic about immigrants and migrants. The transborder realities for millions on this continent have been getting more and more dangerous because of economic and military policies. Blurring and counteracting borders and hierarchies necessitates both political and cultural action, and is underway all over. We must connect the history of slave labor making possible the industrial revolution to today’s profitable base the United States’ economy: cheap, deportable labor from Mexican indigenous communities. I have two points to make about connecting these eras of racialized labor. The first point is about how similar laws like Arizona’s SB1070 “Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Communities Act” (or some bs jumble of words like that) are to the Fugitive Slave Act. These kinds of laws are put in place when there is an economic imperative to maintaining a certain labor pool, with a complimenting, vehement denial of cultural or political citizenship.

The second point I wish to draw out between the legacy of slave labor and Mexican immigrant/migrant labor is one of historic racial solidarity. At the US Social Forum in Detroit I learned that along with cities like Detroit, the underground railroad also had destinations in Mexico. This legacy is not one taught in schools. It is one of innumerable key pieces of information that we would do well to disseminate as an example of linked histories in racial and social justice. The integration of the economies of the United States and Mexico alone is reason for me to think about the continent and not just the United States nation. Add in surprising and exceptional histories of resistance, I can only be inspired and energized by our proximity to other worlds – the “third world” to our south in the present, and the ones we want to see collectively.

With all of this in mind, it seems to me that reclaiming space through cultivation is a present day actions with incredible meaning for our histories as well as building capacity and foundation for organized movements now and in the future. It is an important subversion of capitalist consumerist ideology that many of us have been raised – land is for people to survive on, not to be made endless profit off of….

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3 thoughts on “Continental Studies

  1. Jayme, I am consistently amazed at how rigorous and eloquent these posts of yours have been. I have never heard you speak like this, probably as you’ve never heard me speak like this, since I don’t think we read each others’ ‘work’ too often. Suffice to say that I am very impressed and even a bit jealous as I go through a period of back-and-forth revelation/inspiration and utter blockage when it comes to writing.

    I wanted to say a few things:

    First of all, that your description of your relationship with the United States really resonates with me. I was not born in this country, but moved to the United States when I was very young (3 years old). As such, I grew up most of my life as an American, and in so many ways, I AM an American, and I’ve come much farther than my younger self in acknowledging this and even embracing it. I have also called many places in this country my home and relate to them in that familial sense which you so aptly described.

    At the same time, I have come to acknowledge the structure of white supremacy which conditions my existence and undergirds my ability to “live, breath, and have my being” in this country.

    But even more interesting to me is how my non-American heritage plays into this. I had a sudden realisation a year or two ago when going through customs at an airport from Spain and saw that my dad had to get his fingerprints taken in this insane Brazil/1984-like post-9/11 super-advanced security technology thing. And I suddenly realised who he was and what he was to this country–an immigrant, an immigrant who should always be under a little suspicion.

    But it’s more interesting than that, even, or more problematic, because my dad is not a Spanish immigrant from “Latin America”, but from Spain. He is white, as am I. He is able to operate on this curious valence where he is often treated very differently for being an immigrant, but is also able to benefit from worldwide white supremacy insofar as he, too, is allowed to “live, breath, and have his being” in this country. Sometimes he or my mother have warned me about being careful with political organising because my father is an immigrant. And I’ve responded to them by acknowledging the very real implications this might have and at the same time with a kind of flabbergasted dismay–as in, “do you mean to imply that YOUR status as an immigrant is on par with the status of a person of color who is an immigrant?”

    Furthermore, in terms of genealogy–in the Foucaltian sense–I find it troubling that my inheritance, as Baldwin would say, traces to two of the biggest colonial powers in the history of the world, and colonial in two different ways. The old colonialism of Europe and the new colonialism of the United States. This is not merely symbolic; I firmly believe that it manifests itself in the most minute, and therefore insidious and treacherous of ways, not just in my own life, but in the lives of all Americans, but most specifically and directly white Americans.

    At the same time–to get to Baldwin again, who’s been on my mind–there is a reverse process, a process of reclamation that one can undertake. Before I had read Baldwin talking of the idea of “inheritance” and found it fascinating, but I just read Notes from a Native Son–an earlier work, mind you–and he actually makes an even more subtle distinction, between “inheritance” and “birthright”. For him, it seems, inheritance encompasses the legacy which has brought you to the moment you are living in and has constituted you as a person: it is something you have to grapple with, whether you like it or not, and you can deny it or think it away, but it will remain (we might speak of this as ‘privilege’ nowadays). On the other hand, it seems like in Notes from a Native Son he wants to also get away from what might seem like the determinism of that concept, which might rob you of any agency to change your conditions or the world around you except by merely ‘acknowledging’ the inheritance–and that is where birthright comes in. Birthright, for Baldwin, seems to be something much more universally human, something that anyone can reclaim with enough effort (or rather, it is the PROCESS of reclamation which constitutes the birthright in the first place, as it can never be completed), that ennobles you and causes you to connect to others on a more basically human level.

    But it can also be specific: in this sense, he speaks of reclaiming his birthright even “as an American”. I think this connects to a broader philosophical point in Baldwin’s work which is relevant in this discussion–namely, that even “the American inferno”, as he so brilliantly describes it, contains somewhere in it, little kernels of truth and justice, bits and pieces of wonder, and reasons for admiration–perhaps reclaiming these pieces in truth would mean the destruction of borders (I agree with you in that sense), but I think the point remains the same.

    In any case, I have found myself more and more trying to “manage my inheritance” and at the same time reclaiming both my American and Spanish birthrights. I think you have outlined very well what reclaiming an American birthright might even mean in the first place, esp. for white Americans (like I said, this almost by definition entails ceasing to think of yourself as “American”). I would like to share with you a little bit though, what my sense of reclaiming that Spanish birthright might mean, at least as far as I’ve experienced in my life.

    Interestingly–and this is something I want to educate myself more about historically–I’ve found that there is some kind of ‘greater Hispanic solidarity’ that I am able to be a part of and access. There is of course always the hesitation and the caution I find in Spanish-speakers from the Americas–Spain is the country which raped their indigenous peoples and “gave” them so benevolently the Spanish language…everyone, as Gloria Anzaldua says, is a Mestizaje of some sorts in Latin/South America. And it is obvious; it doesn’t even need to be intellectualised. The mere facts and contexts of my interactions with Spanish-speaking folks from the Americas almost always lays bare immediately the kinds of economic and racial privilege from which I speak.

    But at the same time, I’ve been amazed at how quickly one is able to find companionship and strong solidarity amongst these groups of people with someone like myself. This of course is only possible if I am constantly de-colonising myself, and not any other way, but at the same time, there is a simultaneous genealogical thread which intersects at this point, and I think it is the political history and climate of a country like Spain which has had very strong progressive/Leftist tendencies for at least a century, and which has often translated into movements explicitly calling for just such a ‘greater Hispanic solidarity’ against the colonial intrigues of their governments. Spanish radicals are interested, and care about folks in the Americas in a way that I find is almost never capricious but somehow a basic, conditioning factor of their existence, as if to say, “how could we NOT be concerned and involved in the struggle for liberation in the Americas? We are brothers; and what’s more, we are responsible for where it’s come to today.”

    And again, as Anzaldua has said, there is also something which is heretical in and of itself in speaking a non-“dominant” language in public, for example. A suzerainty covenant, instantiated in the very second that the conversation begins, where it is so understood as to almost be pointless to articulate that we are and should be looking out for each other, against the threatening world around us, this “American inferno”.

    In terms of examples in my family’s history, in the vein of what you mentioned, I’ve become more interested over the years in what my Spanish relatives and ancestors were up to over there, en ese Circo Ibérico. It’s been mixed, and I need to make more conversations happen and do more research. But I’ll let you in on two diametrically opposed things which I discovered (maybe you’ve heard me talk about them already):

    One, that my aunt’s uncle–something like this–had an argument with a Guardia Civil (repressive forces of Franco’s regime, but not like secret police, out and about all the time) at a gas station once in which he eventually cursed Franco violently and wished he would go to hell, or die, or something like that. The Guardia Civil, naturally, grew wide-eyed and was intent on turning him in. Somehow, this aunt’s-uncle got a chance to run, and fled to France immediately. He didn’t return to Spain until after Franco’s regime fell. Hurray, anti-fascism!

    Two: I was talking to my Dad once about my grandfather, who’s so wise and has so many stories to tell–I asked if he would be able to talk about the Civil War or early fascist Spain at all. He told me that my grandfather’s brother fought in the Civil War, and I swelled with pride and interest immediately. But before I could ask more questions, he informed me that my grandfather’s brother…fought for Franco. There is apparently a street in Madrid somewhere named after him. My heart sank, but still, it is all very interesting. I have to look into it all more.

    A last note on this; there is nothing that gets me going more than the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes I joke that soccer is one of the few times I feel any nationalism in me, but that is an utter lie; I feel practically nothing. When I really get choked up–weirdly choked up, teary eyed, as if it is all somehow so personal to me–is when I read about or listen to anthems from the Spanish Civil War. I feel like there is a direct blood vessel, a genealogical thread which somehow reaches from the Spanish Civil War directly into my soul, into my being, and it never ceases to inspire me and rouse me to action in the work that I do. “A las barricadas!”

    I also want to just take a second to acknowledge the very scary implications of the word and concept ‘birthright’, which as both of us know have been used and abused to support the same colonial systems we are trying to resist in ourselves and in the world by establishing some kind of ‘scientific’ or ‘cultural/political’ connection between biology and citizenship, between blood and land: this of course nowhere more abrasive and destructive than in the state of Israel today. At the same time, I am becoming interested in the idea of not letting a state like Israel rob the concept of birthright of its potential legitimacy and inspirational qualities as defined by someone like Baldwin. A project to work on, I suppose…

    “Turtle Island”, as North America is often called by certain indigenous peoples, is rife with struggle but also with beauty.

    Here’s to another world–because it is possible. Thanks for letting me post such a longwinded ramble–but I really connected with your post and needed to get a lot of those things out.

    Cheers,
    ~Alex

    • thanks for writing so much, alex. i absolutely agree that the concept of birthright is dangerously tied to nations and access to systems of domination. i find myself wary of the use of “nationalities” and “oppressed nationalities” when talking about discrimination and exploitation. that while it is a useful term (lenin saw it to include a regional tie, cultural traits, linguistic traits. i.e. not tied directly to a state) in some ways, i see it so blatantly used TO discriminate, as in the discussion of citizenship and illegality.

      David Bacon’s new “illegal people: how globalization creates migration and criminalizes people” looks good. may not have time to read it before going to Mexico (august 2) but am excited to soon.

      thanks for commenting and stay in touch! i’ll be bringing my camera down to mexico with me. 🙂

  2. Jayme,

    I very much enjoyed reading this post. When Juan Carlos Ruiz came for the panel at Amherst, he asked us, Corina, Gloria, Ari, Daniela and I, to share why we were involved in the immigrant rights struggle. It was an interesting experience because although we had all been working together, we didn’t know how deep our histories rooted us in the same struggle. And even if we all had different entry points into immigrant rights, we had histories that made more tangible the often invisible but always felt forces that dominate and exploit marginalized peoples.

    I have often heard the refrain that the personal is political, but I had never really understood it until that day. Once again, I enjoyed this post and getting more insight into what connects you to struggles for justice.

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