Thursday, October 27, 2011

Red Down Below: The Place of Indians in Black/White Dialogue

Preface: It appears that being swamped with work doesn't mean I blog less often, it means I blog more often in shorter bursts. Who knew?

In Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize Winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he condenses US history in this bit of poetry that forms the song's refrain and gives the work its title:

Blood on the fields
King Cotton grow
Brown soil yields
White up above
Red down below
A depiction of cotton-pickers in Texas. Source unknown. .

Marsalis produces a chilling portrait of the entangled violence and forced labor production that made the US a financially independent nation. In Marsalis's words, a shadowy, unknown force wields the whip and attacks black women's bodies: the blood is already on the fields. If we were to personify these metaphors, it would seem as if the brown soil of black female bodies is giving birth to cotton instead of children. In the lyrics that precede the refrain I quoted, we can see black hands (male and female) "picking, hoeing, feeding, and seeding." In this imagery, enslaved African America births a white supremacist nation ("white up above").

But what of this racial hierachy: white above, red at the absolute bottom with a layer of brown soil between? Black workers and mothers are dramatically present, while the presence of white masters and overseers can be inferred. Indians, however, are already disappeared. While Marsalis's oratorio begins with a wordless chant "To call the Indians out" -- the only place of the so-called "red" people in Blood on the Fields would seem to be in a past that runs quite literally underground: "Red down below." Any blood on the fields would have to be that of tortured African Americans; North America's indigenous peoples are not onstage in this racial conflict, their presence is subterranean, subtextual.

Marsalis's poetic history forms an interesting contrast with Dessalines, the revolutionary general and former slave who is said to have had this reflection on the achievement of Haitian independence from France in 1805:
We have avenged these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country. I have avenged America.
Bucking Columbus's insistence that flesh-eaters were around every corner when he landed at Hispaniola--Dessalines insists that Europeans who decimated and enslaved were cannibalistic in their use of other human beings. But, in reviving the first inhabitants' name for the island, calling the new "black Republic" by the Arawak name of Haiti, was he asserting kinship with an injured but still present people? Or was he promising that blacks would carry on in the name of a cruelly extinguished Amerindian population? In other words, was Dessalines trying to make political connections in the present, or was he lending luster to the first black postcolonial nation through association with the nobility of a vanquished people?

I ask these questions about black uses of the Indian past to open up another question related to a particular conversational habit I've encountered. You might say it's a move akin to that made by whites who would prefer to "talk about class" than about race. Where I posed some pretty stiff rebuttals to that false substitution, I have to say, this one leaves me genuinely perplexed.

Why is it that, if one engages in a long enough conversation with a certain kind of white person on the topic of black people's ongoing predicament in the US, this statement, sooner or later, makes an appearance: "What we really have to talk about is what was done to the Native Americans. I mean, what we did to them was just awful"?

Are these suggestions meant to draw attention to a group that is forgotten, but not gone? In other words, is addressing a supposedly vanished Native American plaintiff's grievance preferable to having to address that of a black person quite literally in the white person's face?

Is this supposed to be a trump card? You're here. They were exterminated. So stop complaining. (Somewhere, I hear every Native scholar, activist, and everyday person sighing).

And, most important, why is it that the invocation of Native Americans has, in my experience, always brought the conversation to an absolute halt? Was that the effect desired all along?

Is our shared silence a sign of collective guilt? Are we that flummoxed by the fact that all living, nonindigenous Americans--the descendants of the pioneers, the Buffalo soldiers, and Asian immigrants--stand on native ground and, thus, benefit from native dispossession, marginalization, and contemporary misery?

As I teach John Marrant's narrative of his captivity among the Cherokee, read Deloria's brilliant Playing Indian, and pursue my own research on Cherokees' reported responses to Othello on the eighteenth century, these questions recur in my mind. The conversation I've joined with researchers on this topic complicates any easy sense that blacks have come out ahead of Indians. The story is simply too tangled. Is any of the people who managed to stop my mouth with the invocation of "what we did to the Indians" aware of black-Indian cooperation in the antebellum period? Of Cherokee slaveholders? Or of the strange and bitter crop that we are now reaping from this period? (See: "US government warns Cherokee nation not to exclude black freedmen").

So, what do we make of the three colors of the Atlantic palette: black white and red? What is the place of Native Americans in a conversation usually dominated by black and white -- not as a replacement but as an integral factor on par with the other principals? And why the silencing effect?


  1. I too am a native Cincinnatian who currently resides a state also known as Tobacco Country. However, I live in the Bourbon producing part of the state. Parsing between the lines of the description you gave about yourself, I think I may know your folks.

    In terms of the questions you have raised about the black/white binary and the place of Native Americans in it ... I will have to get back to you. My day on the plantation has ended and I need to return to the slave quarters for a little food and rest. I do plan to return to comment, and to read further the excellent thoughts and ideas you have posted on your blog.

  2. Thank you for the comment, ourstorian. I've taken a quick glance at your blog and I'm most impressed. Sankofa, Uncle Clarence, quoting George Clinton about getting free... I love it.

  3. I think we just don't have a mainstream narrative to come to terms with the native question. Black/white? The civil rights movement settled it, right? Yes, of course not (!!), but in the popular narrative, having equal rights before the law seems like a pretty good "conclusion" to the story of slavery. Now we can all feel less guilty about it, right? The native question is one that is not resolved in the same way. Can we just make everyone citizens, equal before our laws? What do they want? Do they want what white people want? It's also very hard to reconcile the victorious narrative of the American Revolution, etc. with the destruction of native peoples. There is no feel-good ending.

    As I was reading the first part of this post I was thinking I would mention the black/native question being played out with regards to the Cherokee nation (which you got to at the end, so never mind!). Interesting change-up of the _Blood on the Soil_ hierarchy? Instead of silence, I would hope that bringing up native peoples would contribute to a broader discussion of oppression as one motor of American history as many conceive of it. But then I would also feel like that is down-playing the important differences of each case.

    In any case, this white girl can't imagine ending the discussion with you at any point! It doesn't end. We have to keep working these things out.

  4. CraftyRachel -- This is brilliant. I think you are exactly right that the slavery question seems to have a happy ending while Indian Removal does not. Your comment makes me wonder--in my Socialist/Muslim/Kenyan way--whether or not the "solutions" to the two are closer than it would appear. To address the deprivation of either constituency would really require a sacrifice -- in order to make reparation, as it were. I wonder if the form of reparation needed would be different or similar. (My guess is similar).

    Your humor and insight are always appreciated. Thank you!