Colonial Fool Part II: Let My People Go

“Have they ever hung from trees?” … “Were they ever slaves for 500 years, then I don’t think so. I don’t think [the issues are] equal … Simple as that.” – Rep. Monique Davis

[Rep. Jehan] Gordon-Booth said [same sex marriage] has “really taken a toll” on her and she will keep her religious background in mind when she takes a position. “I’m a Christian before I’m a black woman before I’m a Democrat,” she said. “Before all of that, I’m a Christian.“I have to live with what I do or don’t do. And so it’s a vote I have to take that I can be comfortable with the rest of my life. This is history.” – The Chicago Sun

“Today our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has won!” [Bishop Larry] Trotter wrote. “Pastor James Meeks, Bishop Lance Davis and I are so proud of the God fearing Black Caucus members who withstood the pressure of the LGBT forces and allowed God’s word concerning marriage to remain between one man and one woman in Illinois.” – Chicago Tribune

What the f**k?!

I have spent the last couple of weeks diving into research on what I consider to be the primary issue facing America today: Colonialism.  We are still living in a society that is defined by the conquest of a privileged ruling class where people who aren’t part of that ruling class are either enslaved by their position in society or they are systematically and deliberately eliminated.  This isn’t just about black and white, because America is much more than that at this point, although, it still very much has those shades; this is about cultural power and perceived wealth and concepts of everything from self esteem to personal identity…and yes, freedom.  Sadly, by the statements above by certain black leaders in the Illinois battle over same sex marriage, we once again see how the echo of colonialism, like the waves from a far off storm, have come ashore, yet again.

I love the depth of faith that some people in the black community share.  The commitment to a life lived in community and equality and to a life that is not just about what we ‘have’ but who we are.  In fact I applaud anyone who lives by what they believe, and I will not ask them to change their beliefs.  But a belief is just that; it is not a rule of fact for anyone other than the person who holds that belief.  We cannot experience life in other people’s beings; we cannot tell one another what is ‘truth’.  This is the most difficult part of being human…co-existing.  So when I read statements like those above I have to ask myself “what went wrong?”

Back when slavery was introduced in the Americas (1500’s) the first people bringing slaves to this country (Spanish) were overthrown by their captives. There is a long history of slave rebellion that gets very little airing.  We seem to be sadly content to think that captive Africans were docile and subdued relatively easily by the slave traders…but that’s another blog altogether.  On the contrary, slaves and indentured servants were not easily subdued by any  means.  There were three primary tools used to keep slaves enslaved.  First, it took the physical threat of guns and shackles to “keep them in line” although that didn’t always work.  Countless people died attempting to escape slavery.  This was a constant problem for slave masters and one look at the history of the Constitution of the United States makes it very clear just how big a deal this issue was/is.  The Constitution is the second tool.  The system of “government” that created this great land both embraced and promoted slavery and the classification of slaves as not holding full personhood rights.  This is most notably evident in language of the “Three Fifths Compromise.”

But one tool was more effective than the gun in making space for slavery to continue as long as it did: Christianity.  Christianity was forced on the slaves as much as the shackles and the unwanted advances of horny slave masters.  Slave masters, who were first reluctant to let slaves engage in worship, found that by imposing the Christian religion on them, they could in essence control their minds.  But being far more intelligent than they were given credit for, slaves learned to use Christian worship as a tool for communication, and sustaining themselves as a community.  The black church today owes its continued success entirely to the ability of early Africans in this country having the ability take poison and turn it into a poultice.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Christianity, for all of the good it does some people in the black community today, was unwillingly forced on the slaves.

But we are not living in the 1600’s.  We are not fighting the battles of oppression the same ways.  Specifically for black Americans today, the shackles are frequently financial and the guns we fear are those we turn on ourselves; and sadly the Christianity of the black church serves, in this case, to divide us more than bring us together.  In a twisted way, we have learned to do the work of the slave master to ourselves.  I think the three statements that begin this post exemplify ways in which the black community has turned the tools of colonial oppression on itself and is sinking fast.

Guns – Rep. Monique Davis sounds like a child who is using words she doesn’t understand.  If she doesn’t know or remember that Matthew Shepherd existed, that gays and lesbians have been beaten to death in this country this year, that trans-women are shot at point blank range for no reason, that the Holocaust targeted gays, that laws still exist worldwide that support murdering people for having sex with the same sex, then she probably doesn’t know about how well she fits the model of black people that D.W. Griffith portrayed in Birth of a Nation.  Ignorance like this kills.

Government – Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth doesn’t understand separation of church and state.  Truth be told, I’m not one to really make a big stink about this particular argument because I don’t think we can actually claim that there ever was or will be a truly secular system of government in America unless we chuck all of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all of our legal procedures and our monetary system that use Abrahamic language, symbology and ethics.  However, If Rep. Gordon-Booth heard someone in the Middle East make this same statement in the name of Allah while quoting the Hadith in the Qu’ran where it makes reference to being stoned to death for sodomy, she might think again.

God – Bishop Larry Trotter hasn’t read a Bible. Last time I checked, Jesus Christ wasn’t fighting any battles and had nothing to “win.”  Language like this is straight out of that other great movement that oppressed people of color…the Spanish Inquisition.  He might want to take into account that the “LGBT(Q) forces” he is so afraid of are not outside of the church and that the same word of God that he’s referring to, saw Lot sleep with his daughters (Gen. 19: 30-36) and allowed (enforced even) slavery.

My point is twofold.  We cannot impose our beliefs on anyone.  The Marriage Equality Movement is not asking to impose anything on anyone, it is only asking to be released from restriction.  My favorite quote about marriage equality is: “if you don’t like gay marriage…don’t get gay married.”  Equal protection under the law, is not forcing people to do anything they don’t want.  We do not live in a society of restrictions.  If we did, we wouldn’t have the KKK or the Nation of Islam or free blacks in America.

My second point is, when are black American leaders going to wake up to the fact that we continue to see ourselves in relation to our colonial past.  The reasons that some black American’s cling to their religion is damaging our own success.  It is time for black American faith and faith in general to grow up.  Our faith can do remarkable work in building bridges, in giving hope, sustaining people through tragedy and helping us explain an inexplicable world…if it is faith that we want.  But faith and religion can and have done unthinkable damage.  No matter what, faith and religion cannot force us to love someone we don’t love; nor can it forbid us from loving someone we love.  Love is basic, and according to my beliefs (and I only take responsibility for my beliefs) love is God given as part of being alive.

A few sources:

Slave Rebellions

US Constitution and Slavery

Holy Qu’ran

Christianity and Slavery

2 thoughts on “Colonial Fool Part II: Let My People Go

  1. Dearest Adam:

    Thank you for this. I am glad for your use of the colonial lens here, and let me explicate part of how I think it is working.

    One of the main tools of colonialism, and particularly of its imperialist stage in the 19th and 20th centuries, was to pull colonial elites away from colonial masses, to give them certain privileges, and then to co-opt them in controlling (or attempting to control) the vast majority of a colonized people. I see this clearly in my work in Southeast Asia; it is equally clear in South Asian and African colonies, and in African-American history. Now it doesn’t always work, but there have always been people who have participated in their own colonization.

    One principal way in which this has been achieved has been the bestowing of education, very often laced with heavy doses of Christianity. And accompanying this came very European notions of what appropriate gender roles were, what marriage should look like, etc. There were great pressures for these colonial elites to be “proper,” particularly in relation to their sexuality and their family structures. And, often, the colonized, in their attempts to prove that they were worthy of equality with Europeans (in which I include white Americans,) at times took on these patterns of acceptable morality in an even stronger form, developing almost Puritanical streaks.

    In particular in Southeast Asia, and also in Africa, monogamous (heterosexual) marriage was held out as a critical marker of modernity, even if it was one of the last ones adopted by dynastic elites who wished to keep the political alliances available to them through plural marriage and concubinage strong. (Think The King and I and all the wives . . .) So, in order to be what gay author Andrew Tobias [writing under the name John Reid] called “The Best Little Boy in the World,” many colonized people took on what are essentially Victorian values about sex, gender and marriage, all in the name of being proper, since equal still wasn’t available to them.

    I have, unfortunately, seen this tendency increase of late among many folks, including both Africans and Americans of African descent. It’s in the recent issues about homosexuality in Uganda, Kenya and just this past week, Nigeria. It’s been playing out most egregiously in the African-American community in early unwillingness to deal with HIV-AIDS, in the willingness of certain preachers to be co-opted by the Republican Party, and by a certain group of Black elected officials, though, gratefully, far from all of them.

    Now, that gender and sexuality should be such strong touchstones and such difficult issues among people who have been called “boy” and have had to stand in streets with signs that read simply “I AM A MAN,” or who are assumed to be hyper-sexual Jezebels and fecund Aunt Jemimas is not surprising, understandable even. But it certainly carries a legacy of colonialism to it.

    I very much hope that your analysis grows and deepens and finds ways to enrich discussions of this all.

    Peace to Thee

  2. Thank you so much Charley for this insight. Your view, particularly as a scholar of colonialism outside of the US is extremely valuable. So frequently in conversations about the impact of colonialism and slavery in America, there is a tendency toward “it only happened here.” This is not the case. Yes, there are unique situations surrounding colonialism and its legacy here, but that is the case everywhere that people suffered under colonial rule.

    In particular your reply here reminds me of two things. When visiting Senegal in 1999, we went to the coastal city of San Louis north of Dakar. This is a full blown 19th century French city…or rather the shell of it. All of the buildings remain, but none of the infrastructure. It is creepy and disturbing to see, yet the people survive in and around these buildings…like living among the ghosts of the past. It made me think quite a bit about what Washington DC would look like if it were in the same situation.

    I also think about being a child in the 1970’s and wearing my afro with a “part.” When I see this hair style now, I laugh, because it is so much of an adaptation and affectation of a white style, yet it is not only useless, it is antithetical to what black hair is.

    A bit of a random reply, but I think you get where I’m coming from. No one should be complicit in the continuation of their own oppression.

    Thank you!


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