Friday, September 23, 2016

A Lesson from Everfair

Decisions of when to fight, and where to fight, and how to fight, are never automatic; however decisive and clear an unjust incident may be, why does the responsibility to respond always fall on the shoulders of those we think are the most aggrieved?

Nisi Shawl's Everfair, proposes an alternative outcome to the late-19th, early-20th century genocide in the Congo perpetrated by Belgian King Leopold on the way to thoroughly expropriating the valuable resources of that African land. Mark Twain, who wrote several polemics denouncing the genocidal Belgian attack on the Congo (including King Leopold's Soliloquy), believed that Leopold ranked as one of the most villainous figures in all of world history.

"In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives within the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and peity-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust," Twain wrote in the post-humous Mark Twain in Eruption.

In Shawl's alternative history novel, a diverse collection of demographically distinct groups, including faith-based, back-to-Africa, American blacks, European socialists, and native Africans, unite and eventually establish their own free state on parts of the Congo wrested by force from Leopold. The book is full of singular characters, important resurrected history, and subtle moral lessons. I haven't yet reached the end of the book, but before I do, I'd like to highlight one of those lessons.

One of Shawl's major characters, Lisette Toutournier, is a bi-racial Frenchwoman. She is smart, passionate and apparently fearless, a set of characteristics that makes her appearance in the Congo as a dedicated opponent of Belgian colonialism unsurprising. As the resistance to Leopold grows and the utopian Everfair begins to take shape, Toutournier finds enough free time to pursue a number of love affairs.

At a critical point in their affair, one of her lovers, a white European woman who has come to occupy a revered position in Everfair's pantheon of heroes, cluelessly insults Lisette's racial heritage; an incident that leaves Lisette both speechless and unwilling to continue their affair. But though the affair has ended, Lisette's lover cannot begin to guess the reason why.

Perhaps, by the end of the story, Lisette will have shared the pain and anger that she felt at the moment her lover so casually and ignorantly derided one of the central aspects of her identity. Regardless, the reader knows that Lisette's lover, a respected leader of Everfair, is nevertheless a product of the racism of her time and place. The reader also knows that it is not possible for Lisette, however gifted and disciplined she may be, to address and remediate all insults and the racism that underlies them.

This brings us (or me, anyhow) to #blacklivesmatter and the growing refusal of African Americans and their allies to stand aside in the face of police brutality and police killings in black communities nationwide. Huge numbers of white Americans seem surprised by the growing militance, though both that surprise and the number of white people who pretend or allow themselves to be surprised seems to be diminishing in the face of the persistence of #blacklivesmatter, North Carolina's Moral Monday Movement, and similar local and national groups.

The surprise white folks seem to feel is a fundamental manifestation of white privilege, which is ultimately the privilege to ignore the realities of one's surrounding community, or country, or world. It is more than a little ironic that white folks, who have for generations reaped the benefits of exploiting the black community, seem to need those same people to do one more thing for them; to clarify with endless patience what racism is, how it permeates our society, and how it is manifested and sustained in feigned shock at acts of black resistance and rage.

That white folks need such remedial instruction from black folks is outrageous. Fundamentally outrageous. After all, African Americans live every day with insults and assaults simply because of their skin color, and must decide to ignore so many of those insults and assaults so that they might instead both live their lives and maintain their sanity. Who has time in the face of the daily demands of life and the tactical demands of resistance to racism to also scrub clean the souls of white folks? 

That Sisyphean tasks reminds me of a truth I stumbled upon some years ago when I first wondered how many times a gay friend of mine needed to come out in order to best take care of himself and to move forward in solidarity with comrades organizing to resist homophobia in all its manifestations. Eventually it became clear that the question of coming out to new people in new places was an endlessly repeating requirement that he was forced to reconsider under constantly changing conditions.

It struck me then and seems equally clear to me now that addressing homophobia and racism are not primarily the responsibility of gay men and lesbians and bisexuals and transgender people or of African Americans. Indeed, if we are to rid the world of racism and homophobia, the main responsibility for rooting out such scourges belongs to those who carry those diseases in their most virulent forms. Straight people and white folks.

Postscript: I cannot resist adding that Shawl dedicates her book to Octavia Butler, whose books offer many lessons that complement Everfair. I reviewed one of those books, Parable of the Sower, a few years ago. To fight back in Parable's dystopian world, which shares many characteristics with our own, Butler develops a tool, a new religious "faith that that has no supreme being, only a profound and Buddhalike understanding of the world that humans must embrace, sharp points and sharp edges, notwithstanding. 'All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change,' she writes. In other words, there is nothing for it but to live in the world, and to see oneself as both responsible for what the world becomes and subject to its conditions at any given time. People are most present in the world when they are growing and changing.

I have to say that with Everfair, Nisi Shawl establishes herself as Octavia Butler's spiritual heir.

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