Apocalypse of Whiteness
By: Dr. James W. Perkinson
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. (Paul, heading off to Rome and ultimately, his death, in II Cor 13:11)
Farewell. The entirety of the message for today. Farewell to the world you thought you knew. Farewell to the country. To certainty. To your identity. To the expectation of progress, well-being, comfort, a good end. And maybe, most important of all, farewell to the story we have been living in. We live inside stories—a whole mess of stories—origins stories, initiation stories, trickster stories. Leslie Marmon Silko says at the end of the day, when the dominators come, when the colonists come, when the supremacists come, when the humans come (if you are a fish or plant or mountain top) all we have are our stories (yes, even non-human creatures probably have stories they live). But if we are the ones who have been doing the dominating, the colonizing, the reducing, being the “human masters over” everything else as the Psalmist unfortunately says—then what our responsibility comes down to is narrating—and embracing—an “ending.” How do we end and end well?
I spent part of the last week participating, with about 1100 other people around the world, in a global Zoom conference called The Wilds Beyond Climate Justice. Two things from that gathering for this morning.
1) I attended a number of Detroit-led sessions, including one featuring Bryce Detroit,
whom many of us know: Northside organizer, music producer, MC-activist, creator of an organization called Entertainment Justice, seeking to use popular culture idioms such as hip-hop to inculcate messages of justice and galvanize action. Bryce styles himself an AfroFuturist artist—building on an entire movement of AfroFuturism, asserting, among other things, that Africans are the progenitors of our species and committed to work towards a future lead by and hospitable to African peoples. Listening, with deep concern, and deep unease, to Bryce as indeed to many other presenters and participants at the conference, as well as to the message on the streets of protest over the last 12 nights, I am pushed to articulate my own version as a white artist/activist. I am concluding I want to be what I am only half-humorously calling a “EuroManure-ist activist,” helping compost whiteness into a definitive brown end. So—my response to the sharp challenge of this moment, de-centering white voices and de-colonizing white property and position: Face my own demise. Become part of a thoroughgoing composting operation! Digest and evacuate my own whiteness. More about that in a minute.
But from a different angle, this ending of whiteness can be said another way. I am not only committed to a particular process of defecation. I am also committed to reclamation—indeed, to what might be called antique ancestral innovation—the only kind of AI that I can readily embrace. “Ancestral innovation” means resolve to work my way back behind my own formation and entanglement in white supremacist settler colonialism, to get back to what was indigenous to the lands of Europe before they became “European” and imperial, to recover what worthy fragments of ancestral earth-wisdoms created by my Celtic and Nordic and Frankish forbearers I can find. And simultaneously work through the ancient traumas my own people suffered when, for instance, the 14th century Plague swept through the countryside like a scythe, or the wise women of old Europe were later burned as pagans and witches, or Ireland was invaded and decimated by England as an island of savages and primitives, etc. Part of the problem with whiteness is that we too carry significant ancestral trauma—but we have more typically fled from and projected our pain rather than faced and metabolized it.
And then having embraced that double journey backwards—with that history of both indigenous beauty and “racialized” agony steeping within me and within my reality—I need to innovate with others on a similar journey, into a different way of being someone pale-skinned and proactive, giving place to and collaborative with, darker colors of people and broader agendas. So: an ancient renovation. There is much more that can be—and must be—said about such an ancestral reclamation project, but that is for the days and years to come. Suffice it here to say, it is not enough to work for the undoing of whiteness as supremacy and settlement and domination. There is need to figure out something more positive to adhere to back in the blood-and-culture line. And that more venerable “something” is there, hidden in the memories and the mud, even if, for us as Euro-heritage peoples, it is far back and fragmentary.
2) But another important moment in the conference took place on the last night of the gathering, in a workshop entitled “Confíagua: Practices in Prophetic Listening” (led by millennial artist/activists brontë velez and Jiordi Rosales). This particular workshop made use of a yet-to-be-released film, coming out of Oakland, CA, detailing a large-scale black-led public ritual, on the 10th anniversary of the murder of Oscar Grant in the BART station of Fruitvale by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. The film is stunning, magnificently choreographed, almost exclusively featuring black ceremonial artists, literally smelting guns into star-molds indicative of the constellations in the night sky over Oakland when the Grant murder took place, and then returning those re-made metals back to earth and ocean as offering and transformation. The narration of the film at one point asserts flat out, “black wellness is the antithesis of nation-state violence,” and then goes on to say, “This is not our apocalypse, this is not our apocalypse, we are already revealed to ourselves.” “Apocalypse” after all means literally, “unveiling,” “revealing,” “revelation” as in The Book of Revelation, The Book of the Great Unveiling.
And here lies a deep quandary. We are indeed living an apocalypse, with Four Horsemen, Four Messengers, riding in on us from the horizon. Climate crisis. Coronavirus. Job loss. And now street protest, demanding the defunding of policing and the end of white violence directed against black bodies. Yes, also protesting violence against brown bodies (at the border) and red bodies (especially as “disappeared” Native women), and Muslim bodies overseas, in Yemen and Palestine and Afghanistan. But especially, violence directed against black bodies, again and again and again, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and on and on and on. A concerted demand for the end of white violence against black bodies. But we need to be clear. This means, effectively, as already hinted, the end of whiteness. The death-knell for white supremacy, white centrality, indeed, white being in any of its myriad structures and assumptions and practices. The end of whiteness.