Composting Thanksgiving

In the days before November 23rd, I struggled to return people’s wishes of “Happy Thanksgiving.” This is not a new struggle, but this year,  the dis/ease caused by the lie of Thanksgiving overwhelmed me. Being a mama has a lot to do with this. At four years old, my child is taking stock of natural and social forces more deeply than before. Allowing him to ingest the fraudulent claim of Indigenous people helping European settlers through a hard season, and then gathering with them for a feast of gratitude, is like feeding him a poison that damages his vision.  

“Have a renewing break.” I said in response to others’ greetings. It is a small act. A first step in creating a ritual around a history unimaginably violent and cruel. It is not the violence and cruelty that I hope to ritualize, but a re-membering of what happened, for it is only by re-membering that we can hope to create pathways to healing and transformation.

The Other Slavery

On a recent Hidden Brain podcast, the host, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed Andrés Reséndez, a historian, professor, and author about his book, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. In the interview, Reséndez shared that from 1492 to 1900, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous people throughout the Americas were enslaved.  He noted that this enslavement began within three years of Columbus’s arrival, when in response to mounting financial problems, he sent back 550 captives to Spain to sell in Spain’s slave markets.

Reséndez also recounted a chilling tale of a childhood friend of Columbus, who in a letter to the conquistador expressed his desire for sex with an Indigenous woman he had seen naked.  Soon after this, Columbus “gave” the woman to him as a gift. Reséndez used this story to highlight that in the enslavement practices of Spanish invaders, Indigenous women and children were valued higher – in the case of women, 50 – 60% more - than men. He attributed this to the reproductive power of women, and the adaptability of children in learning languages and skills desired by slave masters. Reséndez posited that the practice of enslaving Indigenous women and children is the historic antecedent of modern day sex trafficking.

Reséndez also revealed that while the enslavement of Indigenous people was outlawed by the Spanish colonists in 1542, colonists and settlers used a multiplicity of labor practices that essentially amounted to slavery. These included the forcible removal of Indigenous people from their places of origin, using threats of violence to force compliance, and creating indebtedness and buying an Indigenous person’s debt to enforce work with little to no pay. Such practices sound eerily familiar in this age of global capitalism, which has spawned numerous ecological and human disasters, including the displacement of millions and the plundering of natural resources on a massive, irrevocable scale. Both alarming developments make it increasingly difficult for local communities to sustain themselves using local resources. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that 45 million people in the world are currently enslaved in ways reminiscent of Indigenous people’s enslavement in the Americas over a period of 400 years.

No Mud, No Lotus

In a strategic planning retreat I attended recently, a participant quoted her mother saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t see where you’re going.” The failure of the United States to remember its history with honesty enables a continuity in systems and practices of oppression that violate some and dehumanize all.

How do I break this cycle with my child, family, and community?

The Zen Buddhist master, peace activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud. No lotus.” to convey that those things which nourish us – beauty, love, art, courage, vision, and relationships – often grow out of our suffering.  Thich Naht Hanh’s teaching calls to heart compost, which transforms leaves, grass clippings, wood debris and food scraps into dark, rich, productive soil. Stable compost goes through a thermophilic, or high temperature, decomposition phase and then a slow stabilization or airing phase. During the high temperature phase, a curing process takes place in which all pathogens and weed seeds are killed. This phase is critical to compost being able to move into its airing phase when it slowly releases nutrients for plants and conditioner for soils. (Go to the Deeproot Blog for more on the power of compost.)

The lessons of compost are encouraging. They incite me to imagine spaces where we create the conditions for curing the violent energy that fueled the conquest of the lands and peoples of the Americas. It is this same energy which drives the ongoing, relentless extraction of natural resources and human labor for an illusory sense of profit and wealth. 

What might these conditions be? Are we brave enough to create them? What are the processes that generate enough life force in our individual and collective bodies and consciousness to transform denial into an energy that nourishes life?

I do not know for certain, but I have some inklings. As I begin to experiment with these, I feel my dis/ease abating.


Where we begin determines the change we make

A good friend, film maker and cultural educator, once told me that it was "f@cked up" to begin African American history with the slave trade. For him, beginning with bondage, coercion, and relative powerlessness was damaging to the psyche of African American children and young people. With his home schooled children and his students, he wisely began with the rich cultural traditions of central and western Africa and times of sovereignty and innovation in the fields of mathematics, architecture, science and music.

As a teacher of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and history, I began with European colonization of Caribbean lands, the forced assimilation, displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the capture and enslavement of Africans from hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. I did so to set a context for the role of musical traditions in the lives of enslaved people. My main message in 15 years of cultural work was that In the context of cultural erasure, forced labor, and the subjugation of body, mind and spirit, music was a tool of survival and resistance. My hubris, at first, blinded me to participants' inherent (ancestral) knowledge of this and and the ways they lived this out through the musical traditions they claimed as their own.

I’ve worked with many people and organizations who feel the locus of their power in the fight against injustice. Certainly, when we come together in a common struggle for access to basic human rights of quality housing, education, and health care and living wage work within an extractive and exploitative economic and political system and WIN, there is a sense of collective power that emboldens the spirit and strengthens the heart. 

But this beginning with what we don’t have has never sat right with me. After five years of honing my skills as an organizer, my discomfort became so acute that I leapt from this vocational path to an experimental journey in collective music making. What I loved most about music as a means of justice making, was that the groups I gathered with began with a sense of cultural riches and collective abundance. The locus of our power was not in an external fight, but in the sinew and blood of our bodies, in the spiritual wisdom of ancestors, in the vibrant rhythms and songs we sounded together. We did not have to fight to have power, but rooted in our power we were compelled to change the conditions that suppressed or denied its full exercising and expression. 

When our starting point is sovereignty and abundance and not oppression and scarcity the vital work of transformative justice becomes one of coming full circle to our intrinsic power - power that can never be taken from us.

Where is the locus of power for you?