Thursday, June 4, 2009
LIVING IN BABYLON
The Oxford American Dictionary defines diaspora as the Jews dispersed from their homeland. In the sub definitions it continues to define diaspora as the dispersion of any people from their homeland and the people so dispersed. Why is the Jewish diaspora so emphasized in academia? The privileging of the Jews despite their status as an oppressed people is a difficult one to dissect. While Jews in Europe and early American history (until the early 20th century) were systematically oppressed, the Jewish people today receive a great many rewards for their position as such. The factors related to this are vast but the paramount factor lies in skin tone. For Jews to assimilate and pass within white America it is easy. I myself pass all the time as Christian and this is true for most Jews even those who are not of mixed ethnicity. Therefore, while Jews live within a culture of diaspora and oppression they can also escape this culture with ease.
"This is precisely what the generality of while Americans cannot afford to do. They do not know how to do it--: as I must suppose. They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Papavasiliu becomes Palmer...So, with a painless change of a name, and in the twinkling of the eye, one becomes a white American".
Due to the fact that white Americans of European decent can assume the white privilege that maintains oppression within the US that is and has always been denied to those without white skin they must work to realize their own diaspora, as well as their own privilege, so that they can move forward in working against the oppression of others.
Do all people with the exception of Native Americans in America live within a Diaspora? Throughout his introduction to The Price of the Ticket James Baldwin discusses the idea that, even white Americans are living separately from their homelands. For a person of European decent in America to live in diaspora they would have to not abandon their ethnic heritage. The ability to shed ethnic heritage is something that was never afforded to the black inhabitants of the United States. Thus diaspora is forced onto them, whether they be from Africa or other places. And the diaspora is something that is enforced by the neo-colonial structures that maintain the Black Nation as a nation within a nation.
"Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World" (Baldwin xix). In this quote Baldwin alludes to the pain of diaspora, the loss of cultural connection, a pain that I feel in my heart, and that I know Baldwin feels. But it is a pain that is ignored by so much of the country as they retreat into manufactured "American" culture. The pain of missing a language and a culture can be seen in the efforts to maintain languages, such as Yiddish or Geechee.
"The colonialist bourgeoisie is aided and abetted in the pacification of the colonized by the inescapable powers of religion" (Fanon 28). Many things create the connection between African-American tradition and religion; the syncretism of African traditions and Christianity and the adoption of the story of exodus are indicative of the roots of the connection. In the fields slaves were allowed to sing because it was believe to increase productivity and in their own time the church (or center of prayer) became a crucial meeting spot for slaves. In modern times the black church has become a crucial point in the examination of black culture. The traditions of African Diaspora often connect with the tales of Jewish diaspora in unusual, and sometimes powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable ways.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, =
may my right hand forget its skill .
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
This psalm originally referenced the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Judea to Babylon and the destruction of the Jewish temple. Throughout the years, as with other biblical stories, Babylon has become a symbol of the exile of the African American people from Africa. One of the primary ways that this adoption of “Babylon” can be seen is through the musical renditions of the song "By the Rivers of Babylon". The song, originally psalm 137, has been covered by numerous Jewish as well as African American artists. This song is extremely powerful for both the Jews and African Americans, as the "missing identity aches" (Baldwin xix), the people yearn for a connection to their land.
The random house dictionary defines diaspora as:
-noun, 1. The scattering of the Jews to countries outside of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. 2. The body of Jews living in countries outside Palestine or modern Israel. 3. Such countries collectively. 4. Any group migration of flight from a country or region; dispersion. 5. Any group that has been dispersed outside it’s traditional homeland. 6. Any religious group living as a minority among people of the prevailing religion.”
With the common definitions of diaspora predominately reflecting the Jewish diaspora the question of what then qualifies as a diaspora emerges. Diaspora is a loss of connection to a place; however, the ties to the lost land hold a great deal more weight then simply a sour real estate deal. For most, the exile from a homeland is also an exile from the guaranteed language and culture of that land. Preserving this culture then requires work and living as the other in a strange land. For Jewish Americans it was easy to avoid this painful existence if they so chose to. As Baldwin continues to explain, for African Americans this was impossible. To maintain diasporic communities those communities must remain at least culturally bound to the homeland, and remember the loss of the homeland.
The Gullah people used to inhabit the lowlands of the Carolinas all the way to Florida, but now only inhabit parts of South Carolina and Georgia. Gullah culture originated when black slaves were left alone a great deal to grow rice in the rice fields during the 1700s because yellow fever ran rampant and whites fled to the high lands leaving overseers in charge of the plantations. In this less restricted environment a culture emerged. While the slaves had been stripped of everything when they came to this country, all possessions, clothes, even names, they had not, and could never be stripped of their cultural identities and collective memories. Out of this environment a unique culture evolved, one that is uniquely diasporic. Gullah can be linked in many ways directly to the culture of Sierra Leone; which, is impacted in many ways by the city of Freetown, where thousands of freed African-American slaves were sent.
The movie, Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash, is a narrative about the migration of the Gullah people from the Sea Islands to the mainland. The Sea Islands and the mainland, while they both reflected a diasporic culture did so differently, the islands were much more secluded, and isolated from the rest of the world. The movie demonstrates a number of things about the contrast between American Culture and Gullah Culture. For one, the pacing of the movie defies the rules of most American cinema. As the film continues to take on unconventional styles as well as portray the culture, which, in itself is vastly different from American Culture. These techniques further the actuality that there is a divide between African-American diasporic culture and mainstream/White American culture.
To live in a diaspora can have many interpretations. The biggest theme seems to be strictly geographic, removal from one’s homeland. However, diasporic culture must reflect more than this, it must reflect a connection to one’s home due to a loss of one’s home. However that loss may come about, through physical removal, or colonial structures, and often a combination of the two.
In the story The Seabirds Are Still Alive Toni Cade Bambara breaks from her usual settings within the United States to demonstrate the internationalism of the Struggle. This short story about a displaced young Vietnamese girl being interrogated opens up the discussion of diaspora in numerous ways. Farah Jasmine Griffin writes about the story, “She uses a vocabulary familiar to the African Americans, the loss of home, of language, of culture-- and the creation of a new, dynamic culture of resistance in the New World”. As Griffin emphasizes throughout the rest of the piece as well, but especially in this quote, African American experience within the United States is always connected to life in the Diaspora. One need not live within the closest connection to African culture to be part of this diaspora. The diaspora is part of the collective memory; and will remain there as a part of the culture.
“From the earliest days of the colonization, white Christians had represented their journey across the Atlantic to America as the exodus of a New Israel from the bondage of Egypt into the Promised Land of milk and honey. For black Christians, the imagery was reversed: the Middle Passage had brought them to Egypt Land, where they suffered bondage under a new Pharaoh” (Raboteau Strangers and Neighbors 57-8)
Diasporic cultures that connect a people to their homeland can never be considered neo-colonial appropriation. While it is true that most African-American family trees were erased by the middle passage and subsequent slave trade, the one thing that could not be taken from the people who were brought to this continent from Africa was the collective memory. The position of the Gullah is unique in that they were able to develop a culture predominately free from white interference because they were isolated and left behind in the rice farms. For many, the collective memory drew out certain elements of culture that contribute to what is now termed African American culture; the roots of which lie in what can only be seen as the maintenance of diasporic tradition. Within the Jewish context it has been nearly impossible to trace any family back to the destruction of the Temple; however, the story remains within Jewish culture and community and within the collective memory of the people.
Walter D. Mignolo defines colonialism as:
“(1) the economic: appropriation of land, exploitation of labor, and control of finance; (2) the political: control of authority; (3) the civic: control of gender and sexuality; (4) the epistemic and the subjective personal: control of knowledge and subjectivity.”
It is easily seen that this definition of colonialism can be applied to black people residing within the United States today, a nation within a nation. And a colony within a "free" nation. It almost seems oximoronic, until we consider the systems that put it into place. Since the writing of the constitution the black population has been othered and set aside as a separate nation, a separate entity to be dealt with. From the 3/5ths clause to the 1 drop rule, white institutions of power have continually set up the black population as a separate unit, present for exploitation but never allowed to step out of the bounds that maintain that oppression. The American machine needs people at the bottom in order for "free" market capitalism to function. In my high school history class we discussed the motives for the civil war and spent a great deal of time discussing the economic motivations of the south to maintain a system of slavery. Although, today slavery is illegal, these systems of oppression are maintained, primarily to continue to fuel the US economic system. By maintaining this colonial structure that has been in place since the middle passage the US maintains the need for a diasporic community. Diasporic culture is inevitably tied to culture of the oppressed; to live in a diaspora means that there is somewhere else waiting, a homeland is out there somewhere.
So what is the path forward? Baldwin might suggest that first white Americans need to examine their own histories, to find their diaspora, and then once they have found that there is no way that they can ask of him a song, ask of his captivity a performance. How can the oppressor remember their oppression and still continue to perpetuate the systems that create oppression. Within the Jewish context it is necessary that Jews in America today reverse their mindset, out of the mindset of the colonized and oppressed, because we are a people with great power and only after that is realized can we move forward as activists, as allies and as people.