Fifty years of patient advocacy, including the shocking discovery of mass graves at Kamloops, have secured once-unthinkable gains.
June 17, 2021
When an Indigenous community in Canada announced recently that it had discovered a mass burial site with the remains of 215 children, the location rang with significance.
Not just because it was on the grounds of a now-shuttered Indian Residential School, whose forcible assimilation of Indigenous children a 2015 truth and reconciliation report called “a key component of a Canadian government policy of cultural genocide.”
That school is in Kamloops, a city in British Columbia from which, 52 years ago, Indigenous leaders started a global campaign to reverse centuries of colonial eradication and reclaim their status as sovereign nations.
Their effort, waged predominantly in courts and international institutions, has accumulated steady gains ever since, coming further than many realize.
It has brought together groups from the Arctic to Australia. Those from British Columbia, in Canada’s mountainous west, have been at the forefront throughout.
Only two years ago, the provincial government there became the world’s first to adopt into law United Nations guidelines for heightened Indigenous sovereignty. On Wednesday, Canada’s Parliament passed a law, now awaiting a final rubber stamp, to extend those measures nationwide.
It was a stunning victory, decades in the making, that activists are working to repeat in New Zealand — and, perhaps one day, in more recalcitrant Australia, Latin America and even the United States.
“There’s been a lot of movement in the field. It’s happening with different layers of courts, with different legislatures,” said John Borrows, a prominent Canadian legal scholar and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash Unceded First Nation.
The decades-long push for sovereignty has come with a rise in activism, legal campaigning and historical reckonings like the discovery at Kamloops. All serve the movement’s ultimate aim, which is nothing less than overturning colonial conquests that the world has long accepted as foregone.
No one is sure precisely what that will look like or how long it might take. But advances once considered impossible “are happening now,” Dr. Borrows said, “and in an accelerating way.”
A Generational Campaign
The Indigenous leaders who gathered in 1969 had been galvanized by an array of global changes.
The harshest assimilation policies were rolled back in most countries, but their effects remained visible in everyday life. Extractive and infrastructure megaprojects were provoking whole communities in opposition. The civil rights era was energizing a generation.
But two of the greatest motivators were gestures of ostensible reconciliation.
In 1960, world governments near-unanimously backed a United Nations declaration calling to roll back colonialism. European nations began withdrawing overseas, often under pressure from the Cold War powers.
But the declaration excluded the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, where colonization was seen as too deep-rooted to reverse. It was taken as effectively announcing that there would be no place in the modern world for Indigenous peoples.
Then, at the end of the decade, Canada’s progressive government issued a fateful “white paper” announcing that it would dissolve colonial-era policies, including reserves, and integrate Indigenous peoples as equal citizens. It was offered as emancipation.
Other countries were pursuing similar measures, with the United States’ inauspiciously named “termination policy.”
To the government’s shock, Indigenous groups angrily rejected the proposal. Like the United Nations declaration, it implied that colonial-era conquests were to be accepted as forgone.
Indigenous leaders gathered in Kamloops to organize a response. British Columbia was a logical choice. Colonial governments had never signed treaties with its original inhabitants, unlike in other parts of Canada, giving special weight to their claim to live under illegal foreign occupation.
“It’s really Quebec and British Columbia that have been the two epicenters, going back to the ’70s,” said Jérémie Gilbert, a human rights lawyer who works with Indigenous groups. Traditions of civil resistance run deep in both.
The Kamloops group began what became a campaign to impress upon the world that they were sovereign peoples with the rights of any nation, often by working through the law.
They linked up with others around the world, holding the first meeting of The World Council of Indigenous Peoples on Vancouver Island. Its first leader, George Manuel, had passed through the Kamloops residential school as a child.
The council’s charter implicitly treated countries like Canada and Australia as foreign powers. It began lobbying the United Nations to recognize Indigenous rights.
It was nearly a decade before the United Nations so much as established a working group. Court systems were little faster. But the group’s ambitions were sweeping.
Legal principles like terra nullius — “nobody’s land” — had long served to justify colonialism. The activists sought to overturn these while, in parallel, establishing a body of Indigenous law.
“The courts are very important because it’s part of trying to develop our jurisprudence,” Dr. Borrows said.
The movement secured a series of court victories that, over decades, stitched together a legal claim to the land, not just as its owners but as sovereign nations. One, in Canada, established that the government had an obligation to settle Indigenous claims to territory. In Australia, the high court backed a man who argued that his family’s centuries-long use of their land superseded the government’s colonial-era conquest.
Activists focused especially on Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which each draw on a legal system inherited from Britain. Laws and rulings in one can become precedent in the others, making them easier to present to the broader world as a global norm.
Irene Watson, an Australian scholar of international Indigenous law and First Nations member, described this effort, in a 2016 book, as “the development of international standards” that would pressure governments to address “the intergenerational impact of colonialism, which is a phenomenon that has never ended.”
It might even establish a legal claim to nationhood. But it is the international arena that ultimately confers acceptance on any sovereign state.
Steps Toward Sovereignty
By the mid-1990s, the campaign was building momentum.
The United Nations began drafting a declaration of Indigenous rights. Several countries formally apologized, often alongside promises to settle old claims.
This period of truth and reconciliation was meant to address the past and, by educating the broader public, create support for further advances.
Judicial advances have followed a similar process: yearslong efforts that bring incremental gains. But these add up. Governments face growing legal obligations to defer to Indigenous autonomy.
The United States has lagged. Major court rulings have been fewer. The government apologized only in 2010 for “past ill-conceived policies” against Indigenous people and did not acknowledge direct responsibility. Public pressure for reconciliation has been lighter.
Still, efforts are growing. In 2016, activists physically impeded construction of a North Dakota pipeline whose environmental impact, they said, would infringe on Sioux sovereignty. They later persuaded a federal judge to pause the project.
Latin America has often lagged as well, despite growing activism. Militaries in several countries have targeted Indigenous communities in living memory, leaving governments reluctant to self-incriminate.
In 2007, after 40 years of maneuvering, the United Nations adopted the declaration on Indigenous rights. Only the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada opposed, saying it elevated some Indigenous claims above those of other citizens. All four later reversed their positions.
“The Declaration’s right to self-determination is not a unilateral right to secede,” Dr. Claire Charters, a New Zealand Māori legal expert, wrote in a legal journal. However, its recognition of “Indigenous peoples’ collective land rights” could be “persuasive” in court systems, which often treat such documents as proof of an international legal principle.
Few have sought formal independence. But an Australian group’s 2013 declaration, brought to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, inspired several others to follow. All failed. But, by demonstrating widening legal precedent and grass roots support, they highlighted that full nationhood is not as unthinkable as it once was.
It may not have seemed like a step in that direction when, in 2019, British Columbia enshrined the U.N. declaration’s terms into provincial law.
But Dr. Borrows called its provisions “quite significant,” including one requiring that the government win affirmative consent from Indigenous communities for policies that affect them. Conservatives and legal scholars have argued it would amount to an Indigenous veto, though Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, and his liberal government dispute this.
Mr. Trudeau promised to pass a similar law nationally in 2015, but faced objections from energy and resource industries that it would allow Indigenous communities to block projects. He continued trying, and Wednesday’s passage in Parliament all but ensures that Canada will fully adopt the U.N. terms.
Mr. Gilbert said that activists’ current focus is “getting this into the national systems.” Though hardly Indigenous independence, it would bring them closer than any step in generations.
As the past 50 years show, this could help pressure others to follow (New Zealand is considered a prime candidate), paving the way for the next round of gradual but quietly historical advances.
It is why, Mr. Gilbert said, “All the eyes are on Canada.”
However differently we register this pandemic we understand it as global; it brings home the fact that we are implicated in a shared world. The capacity of living human creatures to affect one another can be a matter of life or death. Because so many resources are not equitably shared, and so many have only a small or vanished share of the world, we cannot recognize the pandemic as global without facing those inequalities.
Some people work for the common world, keep it going, but are not, for that reason, of it. They might lack property or papers, be sidelined by racism or even disdained as refuse—those who are poor, Black or brown, those with unpayable debts that preclude a sense of an open future.
The shared world is not equally shared. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to “the part of those who have no part”—those for whom participation in the commons is not possible, never was, or no longer is. For it is not just resources and companies in which a share is to be had, but a sense of the common, a sense of belonging to a world equally, a trust that the world is organized to support everyone’s flourishing.
The pandemic has illuminated and intensified racial and economic inequalities at the same time that it heightens the global sense of our obligations to one another and the earth. There is movement in a global direction, one based on a new sense of mortality and interdependency. The experience of finitude is coupled with a keen sense of inequalities: Who dies early and why, and for whom is there no infrastructural or social promise of life’s continuity?
This sense of the interdependency of the world, strengthened by a common immunological predicament, challenges the notion of ourselves as isolated individuals encased in discrete bodies, bound by established borders. Who now could deny that to be a body at all is to be bound up with other living creatures, with surfaces, and the elements, including the air that belongs to no one and everyone?
Within these pandemic times, air, water, shelter, clothing and access to health care are sites of individual and collective anxiety. But all these were already imperiled by climate change. Whether or not one is living a livable life is not only a private existential question, but an urgent economic one, incited by the life-and-death consequences of social inequality: Are there health services and shelters and clean enough water for all those who should have an equal share of this world? The question is made more urgent by conditions of heightened economic precarity during the pandemic, exposing as well the ongoing climate catastrophe for the threat to livable life that it is.
Pandemic is etymologically pandemos, all the people, or perhaps more precisely, the people everywhere, or something that spreads over or through the people. The “demos” is all the people despite the legal barriers that seek to separate them. A pandemic, then, links all the people through the potentials of infection and recovery, suffering and hope, immunity and fatality. No border stops the virus from traveling if humans travel; no social category secures absolute immunity for those it includes.
“The political in our time must start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common,” argues Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. If we consider the plundering of the earth’s resources for the purposes of corporate profit, privatization and colonization itself as planetary project or enterprise, then it makes sense to devise a movement that does not send us back to our egos and identities, our cut-off lives.
Such a movement will be, for Mbembe, “a decolonization [which] is by definition a planetary enterprise, a radical openness of and to the world, a deep breathing for the world as opposed to insulation.” The planetary opposition to extraction and systemic racism ought to then deliver us back to the world, or let the world arrive, as if for the first time, a shared place for “deep breathing”—a desire we all now know.
And yet, an inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.
As we dismantle the rigid forms of individuality in these interconnected times, we can imagine the smaller part that human worlds must play on this earth whose regeneration we depend upon—and which, in turn, depends upon our smaller and more mindful role.
Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline.
By Rachel Poser
Feb. 2, 2021
In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as “the incident.” Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of “Western civilization,” the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline “Every month is white history month.”
Padilla, a leading historian of Rome who teaches at Princeton and was born in the Dominican Republic, was one of the panelists that day. For several years, he has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms. Classics was a discipline around which the modern Western university grew, and Padilla believes that it has sown racism through the entirety of higher education. Last summer, after Princeton decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs, Padilla was a co-author of an open letter that pushed the university to do more. “We call upon the university to amplify its commitment to Black people,” it read, “and to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.” Surveying the damage done by people who lay claim to the classical tradition, Padilla argues, one can only conclude that classics has been instrumental to the invention of “whiteness” and its continued domination.
In recent years, like-minded classicists have come together to dispel harmful myths about antiquity. On social media and in journal articles and blog posts, they have clarified that contrary to right-wing propaganda, the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves “white,” and their marble sculptures, whose pale flesh has been fetishized since the 18th century, would often have been painted in antiquity. They have noted that in fifth-century-B.C. Athens, which has been celebrated as the birthplace of democracy, participation in politics was restricted to male citizens; thousands of enslaved people worked and died in silver mines south of the city, and custom dictated that upper-class women could not leave the house unless they were veiled and accompanied by a male relative. They have shown that the concept of Western civilization emerged as a euphemism for “white civilization” in the writing of men like Lothrop Stoddard, a Klansman and eugenicist. Some classicists have come around to the idea that their discipline forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy — a traumatic process one described to me as “reverse red-pilling” — but they are also starting to see an opportunity in their position. Because classics played a role in constructing whiteness, they believed, perhaps the field also had a role to play in its dismantling.
On the morning of the panel, Padilla stood out among his colleagues, as he always did. He sat in a crisp white shirt at the front of a large conference hall at a San Diego Marriott, where most of the attendees wore muted shades of gray. Over the course of 10 minutes, Padilla laid out an indictment of his field. “If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color,” he said, “one could not do better than what classics has done.” Padilla’s vision of classics’ complicity in systemic injustice is uncompromising, even by the standards of some of his allies. He has condemned the field as “equal parts vampire and cannibal” — a dangerous force that has been used to murder, enslave and subjugate. “He’s on record as saying that he’s not sure the discipline deserves a future,” Denis Feeney, a Latinist at Princeton, told me. Padilla believes that classics is so entangled with white supremacy as to be inseparable from it. “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity,” he has written, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.”
When Padilla ended his talk, the audience was invited to ask questions. Williams, an independent scholar from California, was one of the first to speak. She rose from her seat in the front row and adjusted a standing microphone that had been placed in the center of the room. “I’ll probably offend all of you,” she began. Rather than kowtowing to criticism, Williams said, “maybe we should start defending our discipline.” She protested that it was imperative to stand up for the classics as the political, literary and philosophical foundation of European and American culture: “It’s Western civilization. It matters because it’s the West.” Hadn’t classics given us the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy?
‘There are some in the field who say: “Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.” ’
One panelist tried to interject, but Williams pressed on, her voice becoming harsh and staccato as the tide in the room moved against her. “I believe in merit. I don’t look at the color of the author.” She pointed a finger in Padilla’s direction. “You may have got your job because you’re Black,” Williams said, “but I would prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”
Discordant sounds went up from the crowd. Several people stood up from their seats and hovered around Williams at the microphone, seemingly unsure of whether or how to intervene. Padilla was smiling; it was the grimace of someone who, as he told me later, had been expecting something like this all along. At last, Williams ceded the microphone, and Padilla was able to speak. “Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”
When Padilla was a child, his parents proudly referred to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, as the “Athens of the New World” — a center of culture and learning. That idea had been fostered by Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Like other 20th-century fascists, Trujillo saw himself, and his people, as the inheritors of a grand European tradition that originated in Greece and Rome. In a 1932 speech, he praised ancient Greece as the “mistress of beauty, rendered eternal in the impeccable whiteness of its marbles.” Trujillo’s veneration of whiteness was central to his message. By invoking the classical legacy, he could portray the residents of neighboring Haiti as darker and inferior, a campaign that reached its murderous peak in 1937 with the Parsley Massacre, or El Corte (“the Cutting”) in Spanish, in which Dominican troops killed as many as 30,000 Haitians and Black Dominicans, according to some estimates.
Padilla’s family didn’t talk much about their lives under the dictatorship, but he knew that his mother’s father had been beaten after arguing with some drunken Trujillistas. That grandfather, along with the rest of his mother’s relatives, were fishermen and sailors in Puerto Plata, a city on the coast; they lived in what Padilla describes as “immiserating poverty” but benefited from a degree of privilege in Dominican society because of their lighter skin. His father’s people, on the other hand, often joked that they were “black as night.” They had lived for generations in Pimentel, a city near the mountainous northeast where enslaved Africans had set up Maroon communities in the 1600s and 1700s, counting on the difficult terrain to give them a measure of safety. Like their counterparts in the United States, slavers in the Dominican Republic sometimes bestowed classical names on their charges as a mark of their civilizing mission, so the legacy of slavery — and its entanglement with classics — remains legible in the names of many Dominicans today. “Why are there Dominicans named Temístocles?” Padilla used to wonder as a kid. “Why is Manny Ramirez’s middle name Aristides?” Trujillo’s own middle name was Leónidas, after the Spartan king who martyred himself with 300 of his soldiers at Thermopylae, and who has become an icon of the far right. But in his early life, Padilla was aware of none of this. He only knew that he was Black like his father.
When Padilla was 4, he and his parents flew to the United States so that his mother, María Elena, could receive care for pregnancy complications at a New York City hospital. But after his brother, Yando, was born, the family decided to stay; they moved into an apartment in the Bronx and quietly tried to normalize their immigration status, spending their savings in the process. Without papers, it was hard to find steady work. Some time later, Padilla’s father returned to the Dominican Republic; he had been an accountant in Santo Domingo, and he was weary of poverty in the United States, where he had been driving a cab and selling fruit in the summers. That left María Elena with the two boys in New York. Because Yando was a U.S. citizen, she received $120 in food stamps and $85 in cash each month, but it was barely enough to feed one child, let alone a family of three. Over the next few months, María Elena and her sons moved between apartments in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, packing up and finding a new place each time they couldn’t make rent. For about three weeks, the landlord of a building in Queens let them stay in the basement as a favor, but when a sewage pipe burst over them as they were sleeping, María Elena found her way to a homeless shelter in Chinatown.
At the shelter, “the food tasted nasty,” and “pools of urine” marred the bathroom floor, Padilla wrote in his 2015 memoir, “Undocumented.” His one place of respite was the tiny library on the shelter’s top floor. Since leaving the Dominican Republic, Padilla had grown curious about Dominican history, but he couldn’t find any books about the Caribbean on the library’s shelves. What he did find was a slim blue-and-white textbook titled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome.” “Western civilization was formed from the union of early Greek wisdom and the highly organized legal minds of early Rome,” the book began. “The Greek belief in a person’s ability to use his powers of reason, coupled with Roman faith in military strength, produced a result that has come to us as a legacy, or gift from the past.” Thirty years later, Padilla can still recite those opening lines. “How many times have I taken an ax to this over the last decade of my career?” he said to me. “But at the moment of the initial encounter, there was something energizing about it.” Padilla took the textbook back to the room he shared with his mother and brother and never returned it to the library.
One day in the summer of 1994, a photographer named Jeff Cowen, who was teaching art at a shelter in Bushwick, where María Elena and the boys had been transferred, noticed 9-year-old Padilla tucked away by himself, reading a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. “The kids were running around like crazy on their after-lunch sugar high, and there was a boy sitting in the corner with this enormous tome,” Cowen told me. “He stood up and shook my hand like a little gentleman, speaking like he’s some kind of Ivy League professor.” Cowen was taken aback. “I was really struggling at the time. I was living in an illegal building without a toilet, so I wasn’t really looking to be a do-gooder,” he said. “But within five minutes, it was obvious that this kid deserved the best education he could get. It was a responsibility.”
Cowen became a mentor to Padilla, and then his godfather. He visited the shelter with books and brain teasers, took Padilla and Yando roller-skating in Central Park and eventually helped Padilla apply to Collegiate, one of New York City’s elite prep schools, where he was admitted with a full scholarship. María Elena, elated, photocopied his acceptance letter and passed it around to her friends at church. At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.
Years passed before Padilla started to question the way the textbook had presented the classical world to him. He was accepted on a full scholarship to Princeton, where he was often the only Black person in his Latin and Greek courses. “The hardest thing for me as I was making my way into the discipline as a college student was appreciating how lonely I might be,” Padilla told me. In his sophomore year, when it came time to select a major, the most forceful resistance to his choice came from his close friends, many of whom were also immigrants or the children of immigrants. They asked Padilla questions he felt unprepared to answer. What are you doing with this blanquito stuff? How is this going to help us? Padilla argued that he and others shouldn’t shun certain pursuits just because the world said they weren’t for Black and brown people. There was a special joy and vindication in upending their expectations, but he found he wasn’t completely satisfied by his own arguments. The question of classics’ utility was not a trivial one. How could he take his education in Latin and Greek and make it into something liberatory? “That became the most urgent question that guided me through my undergraduate years and beyond,” Padilla said.
After graduating as Princeton’s 2006 salutatorian, Padilla earned a master’s degree from Oxford and a doctorate from Stanford. By then, more scholars than ever were seeking to understand not only the elite men who had written the surviving works of Greek and Latin literature, but also the ancient people whose voices were mostly silent in the written record: women, the lower classes, enslaved people and immigrants. Courses on gender and race in antiquity were becoming common and proving popular with students, but it wasn’t yet clear whether their imprint on the discipline would last. “There are some in the field,” Ian Morris, an adviser of Padilla’s at Stanford, told me, “who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” Reformers had learned from the old debates around “Black Athena” — Martin Bernal’s trilogy positing African and Semitic influence on ancient Greek culture — just how resistant some of their colleagues were to acknowledging the field’s role in whitewashing antiquity. “Classicists generally identify as liberal,” Joel Christensen, a professor of Greek literature at Brandeis University, told me. “But we are able to do that because most of the time we’re not in spaces or with people who push us about our liberalism and what that means.”
Thinking of his family’s own history, Padilla became interested in Roman slavery. Decades of research had focused on the ability of enslaved people to transcend their status through manumission, celebrating the fact that the buying and granting of freedom was much more common in Rome than in other slaveholding societies. But there were many who stood no chance of being freed, particularly those who worked in the fields or the mines, far from centers of power. “We have so many testimonies for how profoundly degrading enslavement was,” Padilla told me. Enslaved people in ancient Rome could be tortured and crucified; forced into marriage; chained together in work gangs; made to fight gladiators or wild animals; and displayed naked in marketplaces with signs around their necks advertising their age, character and health to prospective buyers. Owners could tattoo their foreheads so they could be recognized and captured if they tried to flee. Temple excavations have uncovered clay dedications from escapees, praying for the gods to remove the disfiguring marks from their faces. Archaeologists have also found metal collars riveted around the necks of skeletons in burials of enslaved people, among them an iron ring with a bronze tag preserved in the Museo Nazionale in Rome that reads: “I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”
By 2015, when Padilla arrived at the Columbia Society of Fellows as a postdoctoral researcher, classicists were no longer apologists for ancient slavery, but many doubted that the inner worlds of enslaved people were recoverable, because no firsthand account of slavery had survived the centuries. That answer did not satisfy Padilla. He had begun to study the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had shaped his mother’s mystical brand of Catholicism. María Elena moved through a world that was haunted by spirits, numinous presences who could give comfort and advice or demand sacrifice and appeasement. For a while, when Padilla was in high school, his mother invited a santero and his family to live with them at their Section 8 apartment in Harlem, where the man would conjure spirits that seethed at Padilla for his bad behavior. Padilla realized that his mother’s conception of the dead reminded him of the Romans’, which gave him an idea. In 2017, he published a paper in the journal Classical Antiquity that compared evidence from antiquity and the Black Atlantic to draw a more coherent picture of the religious life of the Roman enslaved. “It will not do merely to adopt a pose of ‘righteous indignation’ at the distortions and gaps in the archive,” he wrote. “There are tools available for the effective recovery of the religious experiences of the enslaved, provided we work with these tools carefully and honestly.”
Padilla began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition. As James Baldwin observed 35 years before, there was a price to the ticket. His earlier work on the Roman senatorial classes, which earned him a reputation as one of the best Roman historians of his generation, no longer moved him in the same way. Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and “Western civilization” had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he told me. He revisited books by Frantz Fanon, Orlando Patterson and others working in the traditions of Afro-pessimism and psychoanalysis, Caribbean and Black studies. He also gravitated toward contemporary scholars like José Esteban Muñoz, Lorgia García Peña and Saidiya Hartman, who speak of race not as a physical fact but as a ghostly system of power relations that produces certain gestures, moods, emotions and states of being. They helped him think in more sophisticated terms about the workings of power in the ancient world, and in his own life.
Around the time that Padilla began working on the paper, Donald Trump made his first comments on the presidential campaign trail about Mexican “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” coming into the country. Padilla, who spent the previous 20 years dealing with an uncertain immigration status, had just applied for a green card after celebrating his marriage to a social worker named Missy from Sparta, N.J. Now he watched as alt-right figures like Richard Spencer, who had fantasized about creating a “white ethno-state on the North American continent” that would be “a reconstitution of the Roman Empire,” rose to national prominence. In response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, Mary Beard, perhaps the most famous classicist alive, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the Romans “would have been puzzled by our modern problems with migration and asylum,” because the empire was founded on the “principles of incorporation and of the free movement of people.”
‘I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake. I want to build something.’
Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.
To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether. Classics was happy to embrace him when he was changing the face of the discipline, but how would the field react when he asked it to change its very being? The way it breathed and moved? “Some students and some colleagues have told me this is either too depressing or it’s sort of menacing in a way,” he said. “My only rejoinder is that I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake. I want to build something.”
One day last February, shortly before the pandemic ended in-person teaching, I visited Padilla at Princeton. Campus was quiet and morose, the silences quivering with early-term nerves. A storm had swept the leaves from the trees and the color from the sky, which was now the milky gray of laundry water, and the air was so heavy with mist that it seemed to be blurring the outlines of the buildings. That afternoon, Padilla was teaching a Roman-history course in one of the oldest lecture halls at the university, a grand, vaulted room with creaking floorboards and mullioned windows. The space was not designed for innovative pedagogy. Each wooden chair was bolted to the floor with a paddle-shaped extension that served as a desk but was barely big enough to hold a notebook, let alone a laptop. “This was definitely back in the day when the students didn’t even take notes,” one student said as she sat down. “Like, ‘My dad’s going to give me a job.’”
Since returning to campus as a professor in 2016, Padilla has been working to make Princeton’s classics department a more welcoming place for students like him — first-generation students and students of color. In 2018, the department secured funding for a predoctoral fellowship to help a student with less exposure to Latin and Greek enter the Ph.D. program. That initiative, and the draw of Padilla as a mentor, has contributed to making Princeton’s graduate cohort one of the most diverse in the country. Pria Jackson, a Black predoctoral fellow who is the daughter of a mortician from New Mexico, told me that before she came to Princeton, she doubted that she could square her interest in classics with her commitment to social justice. “I didn’t think that I could do classics and make a difference in the world the way that I wanted to,” she said. “My perception of what it could do has changed.”
Padilla’s Roman-history course was a standard introductory survey, something the university had been offering for decades, if not centuries, but he was not teaching it in the standard way. He was experimenting with role play in order to prompt his students to imagine what it was like to be subjects of an imperial system. The previous week, he asked them to recreate a debate that took place in the Roman Senate in A.D. 15 about a proposed waterworks project that communities in central Italy feared would change the flow of the Tiber River, destroying animal habitats and flooding old shrines. (Unlike the Senate, the Princeton undergraduates decided to let the project go ahead as planned.) Today’s situation was inspired by the crises of succession that threatened to tear the early empire apart. Out of the 80 students in the lecture, Padilla had assigned four to be young military commanders — claimants vying for the throne — and four to be wealthy Roman senators; the rest were split between the Praetorian Guard and marauding legionaries whose swords could be bought in exchange for money, land and honors. It was designed to help his students “think as capaciously as possible about the many lives, human and nonhuman, that are touched by the shift from republic to empire.”
Padilla stood calmly behind the lectern as students filed into the room, wearing rectangular-framed glasses low on his nose and a maroon sweater over a collared shirt. The stillness of his body only heightened the sense of his mind churning. “He carries a big stick without having to show it off,” Cowen, Padilla’s childhood mentor, told me. “He’s kind of soft on the outside but very hard on the inside.” Padilla speaks in the highly baroque language of the academy — a style that can seem so deliberate as to function as a kind of protective armor. It is the flinty, guarded manner of someone who has learned to code-switch, someone who has always been aware that it is not only what he says but also how he says it that carries meaning. Perhaps it is for that reason that Padilla seems most at ease while speaking to students, when his phrasing loses some of its formality and his voice takes on the incantatory cadence of poetry. “Silence,” he said once the room had quieted, “my favorite sound.”
Padilla called the claimants up to the front of the room. At first, they stood uncertainly on the dais, like adolescents auditioning for a school play. Then, slowly, they moved into the rows of wooden desks. I watched as one of them, a young man wearing an Army-green football T-shirt that said “Support Our Troops,” propositioned a group of legionaries. “I’ll take land from non-Romans and give it to you, grant you citizenship,” he promised them. As more students left their seats and began negotiating, bids and counterbids reverberated against the stone walls. Not everyone was taking it seriously. At one point, another claimant approached a blue-eyed legionary in a lacrosse sweatshirt to ask what it would take to gain his support. “I just want to defend my right to party,” he responded. “Can I get a statue erected to my mother?” someone else asked. A stocky blond student kept charging to the front of the room and proposing that they simply “kill everybody.” But Padilla seemed energized by the chaos. He moved from group to group, sowing discord. “Why let someone else take over?” he asked one student. If you are a soldier or a peasant who is unhappy with imperial governance, he told another, how do you resist? “What kinds of alliances can you broker?”
Over the next 40 minutes, there were speeches, votes, broken promises and bloody conflicts. Several people were assassinated. Eventually it seemed as though two factions were coalescing, and a count was called. The young man in the football shirt won the empire by seven votes, and Padilla returned to the lectern. “What I want to be thinking about in the next few weeks,” he told them, “is how we can be telling the story of the early Roman Empire not just through a variety of sources but through a variety of persons.” He asked the students to consider the lives behind the identities he had assigned them, and the way those lives had been shaped by the machinery of empire, which, through military conquest, enslavement and trade, creates the conditions for the large-scale movement of human beings.
Once the students had left the room, accompanied by the swish of umbrellas and waterproof synthetics, I asked Padilla why he hadn’t assigned any slave roles. Tracing his fingers along the crown of his head, he told me he had thought about it. It troubled him that he might be “re-enacting a form of silencing” by avoiding enslaved characters, given the fact that slavery was “arguably the most ubiquitous feature of the Roman imperial system.” As a historian, he knew that the assets at the disposal of the four wealthy senators — the 100 million sesterces he had given them to back one claimant over another — would have been made up in large part of the enslaved who worked in their mines and plowed the fields of their country estates. Was it harmful to encourage students to imagine themselves in roles of such comfort, status and influence, when a vast majority of people in the Roman world would never have been in a position to be a senator? But ultimately, he decided that leaving enslaved characters out of the role play was an act of care. “I’m not yet ready to turn to a student and say, ‘You are going to be a slave.’”
Even before “the incident,” Padilla was a target of right-wing anger because of the blistering language he uses and, many would say, because of the body he inhabits. In the aftermath of his exchange with Williams, which was covered in the conservative media, Padilla received a series of racist emails. “Maybe African studies would suit you better if you can’t hope with the reality of how advanced Europeans were,” one read. “You could figure out why the wheel had never made it sub-Saharan African you meathead. Lucky for you, your black, because you have little else on offer.” Breitbart ran a story accusing Padilla of “killing” classics. “If there was one area of learning guaranteed never to be hijacked by the forces of ignorance, political correctness, identity politics, social justice and dumbing down, you might have thought it would be classics,” it read. “Welcome, barbarians! The gates of Rome are wide open!”
Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.
“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.” She went on: “My line has always been that the duty of the academic is to make things seem more complicated.” In a 2019 talk, Beard argued that “although classics may become politicized, it doesn’t actually have a politics,” meaning that, like the Bible, the classical tradition is a language of authority — a vocabulary that can be used for good or ill by would-be emancipators and oppressors alike. Over the centuries, classical civilization has acted as a model for people of many backgrounds, who turned it into a matrix through which they formed and debated ideas about beauty, ethics, power, nature, selfhood, citizenship and, of course, race. Anthony Grafton, the great Renaissance scholar, put it this way in his preface to “The Classical Tradition”: “An exhaustive exposition of the ways in which the world has defined itself with regard to Greco-Roman antiquity would be nothing less than a comprehensive history of the world.”
How these two old civilizations became central to American intellectual life is a story that begins not in antiquity, and not even in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment. Classics as we know it today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, as European universities emancipated themselves from the control of the church, the study of Greece and Rome gave the Continent its new, secular origin story. Greek and Latin writings emerged as a competitor to the Bible’s moral authority, which lent them a liberatory power. Figures like Diderot and Hume derived some of their ideas on liberty from classical texts, where they found declarations of political and personal freedoms. One of the most influential was Pericles’ funeral oration over the graves of the Athenian war dead in 431 B.C., recorded by Thucydides, in which the statesman praises his “glorious” city for ensuring “equal justice to all.” “Our government does not copy our neighbors’,” he says, “but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.”
Admiration for the ancients took on a fantastical, unhinged quality, like a strange sort of mania. Men draped themselves in Roman togas to proclaim in public, signed their letters with the names of famous Romans and filled etiquette manuals, sermons and schoolbooks with lessons from the classical past. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German antiquarian of the 18th century, assured his countrymen that “the only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.” Winckelmann, who is sometimes called the “father of art history,” judged Greek marble sculpture to be the summit of human achievement — unsurpassed by any other society, ancient or modern. He wrote that the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Athenian art reflected the “freedom” of the culture that produced it, an entanglement of artistic and moral value that would influence Hegel’s “Aesthetics” and appear again in the poetry of the Romantics. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
‘I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry. When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.’
Historians stress that such ideas cannot be separated from the discourses of nationalism, colorism and progress that were taking shape during the modern colonial period, as Europeans came into contact with other peoples and their traditions. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” Winkelmann wrote. While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below. “That exclusion was at the heart of classics as a project,” Paul Kosmin, a professor of ancient history at Harvard, told me. Among those Enlightenment thinkers were many of America’s founding fathers. Aristotle’s belief that some people were “slaves by nature” was welcomed with special zeal in the American South before the Civil War, which sought to defend slavery in the face of abolitionist critique. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that despite their condition in life, Rome’s enslaved showed themselves to be the “rarest artists” who “excelled too at science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children.” The fact that Africans had not done the same, he argued, proved that the problem was their race.
Jefferson, along with most wealthy young men of his time, studied classics at college, where students often spent half their time reading and translating Greek and Roman texts. “Next to Christianity,” writes Caroline Winterer, a historian at Stanford, “the central intellectual project in America before the late 19th century was classicism.” Of the 2.5 million people living in America in 1776, perhaps only 3,000 had gone to college, but that number included many of the founders. They saw classical civilization as uniquely educative — a “lamp of experience,” in the words of Patrick Henry, that could light the path to a more perfect union. However true it was, subsequent generations would come to believe, as Hannah Arendt wrote in “On Revolution,” that “without the classical example … none of the men of the Revolution on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.”
While the founding fathers chose to emulate the Roman republic, fearful of the tyranny of the majority, later generations of Americans drew inspiration from Athenian democracy, particularly after the franchise was extended to nearly all white men regardless of property ownership in the early decades of the 1800s. Comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire became popular as the country emerged as a global power. Even after Latin and Greek were struck from college-entrance exams, the proliferation of courses on “great books” and Western civilization, in which classical texts were read in translation, helped create a coherent national story after the shocks of industrialization and global warfare. The project of much 20th-century art and literature was to forge a more complicated relationship with Greece and Rome, but even as the classics were pulled apart, laughed at and transformed, they continued to form the raw material with which many artists shaped their visions of modernity.
Over the centuries, thinkers as disparate as John Adams and Simone Weil have likened classical antiquity to a mirror. Generations of intellectuals, among them feminist, queer and Black scholars, have seen something of themselves in classical texts, flashes of recognition that held a kind of liberatory promise. Daniel Mendelsohn, a gay classicist and critic, discovered his sexuality at 12 while reading historical fiction about the life of Alexander the Great. “Until that moment,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 2013, “I had never seen my secret feelings reflected anywhere.” But the idea of classics as a mirror may be as dangerous as it is seductive. The language that is used to describe the presence of classical antiquity in the world today — the classical tradition, legacy or heritage — contains within it the idea of a special, quasi-genetic relationship. In his lecture “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilization,” Kwame Anthony Appiah (this magazine’s Ethicist columnist) mockingly describes the belief in such a kinship as the belief in a “golden nugget” of insight — a precious birthright and shimmering sign of greatness — that white Americans and Europeans imagine has been passed down to them from the ancients. That belief has been so deeply held that the philosopher John Stuart Mill could talk about the Battle of Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated the first Persian invasion in 490 B.C., as one of the most important events in “English history.”
To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” But if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up. “I would get rid of classics altogether,” Walter Scheidel, another of Padilla’s former advisers at Stanford, told me. “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”
One way to get rid of classics would be to dissolve its faculties and reassign their members to history, archaeology and language departments. But many classicists are advocating softer approaches to reforming the discipline, placing the emphasis on expanding its borders. Schools including Howard and Emory have integrated classics with Ancient Mediterranean studies, turning to look across the sea at Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa. The change is a declaration of purpose: to leave behind the hierarchies of the Enlightenment and to move back toward the Renaissance model of the ancient world as a place of diversity and mixture. “There’s a more interesting story to be told about the history of what we call the West, the history of humanity, without valorizing particular cultures in it,” said Josephine Quinn, a professor of ancient history at Oxford. “It seems to me the really crucial mover in history is always the relationship between people, between cultures.” Ian Morris put it more bluntly. “Classics is a Euro-American foundation myth,” Morris said to me. “Do we really want that sort of thing?”
For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” Amy Richlin, a feminist scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped lead the turn toward the study of women in the Roman world, laughed when I mentioned the idea of breaking up classics departments in the Ivy League. “Good luck getting rid of them,” she said. “These departments have endowments, and they’re not going to voluntarily dissolve themselves.” But when I pressed her on whether it was desirable, if not achievable, she became contemplative. Some in the discipline, particularly graduate students and untenured faculty members, worry that administrators at small colleges and public universities will simply use the changes as an excuse to cut programs. “One of the dubious successes of my generation is that it did break the canon,” Richlin told me. “I don’t think we could believe at the time that we would be putting ourselves out of business, but we did.” She added: “If they blew up the classics departments, that would really be the end.”
‘I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.’
Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.
Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”
Last June, as racial-justice protests unfolded across the nation, Padilla turned his attention to arenas beyond classics. He and his co-authors — the astrophysicist Jenny Greene, the literary theorist Andrew Cole and the poet Tracy K. Smith — began writing their open letter to Princeton with 48 proposals for reform. “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America,” the letter began. “Indifference to the effects of racism on this campus has allowed legitimate demands for institutional support and redress in the face of microaggression and outright racist incidents to go long unmet.” Signed by more than 300 members of the faculty, the letter was released publicly on the Fourth of July. In response, Joshua Katz, a prominent Princeton classicist, published an op-ed in the online magazine Quillette in which he referred to the Black Justice League, a student group, as a “terrorist organization” and warned that certain proposals in the faculty letter would “lead to civil war on campus.”
Few in the academy cared to defend Katz’s choice of words, but he was far from the only person who worried that some of the proposals were unwise, if not dangerous. Most controversial was the idea of establishing a committee that would “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication” — a body that many viewed as a threat to free academic discourse. “I’m concerned about how you define what racist research is,” one professor told me. “That’s a line that’s constantly moving. Punishing people for doing research that other people think is racist just does not seem like the right response.” But Padilla believes that the uproar over free speech is misguided. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he told me. “I have to be honest about that. I see them as a means to the end of human flourishing.”
On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.
“There is a certain kind of classicist who will look on what transpired and say, ‘Oh, that’s not us,’” Padilla said when we spoke recently. “What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do? What the demands of the current political moment mean?”
Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”
Rachel Poser is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her writing, which often focuses on the relationship between past and present, has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Mother Jones and elsewhere. A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 7, 2021, Page 38 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Iconoclast.
Talvez possamos aprender com os palestinos a lidar com o nosso momento, isto é com o desespero, o exílio e a tragédia
No momento em que se inaugura a revista Exilium, da comunidade intelectual árabe no Brasil, creio não haver nada mais oportuno do que evocar Mahamoud Darwich. Vivemos sob um governo de ultradireita cuja estratégia compreende, entre outros, dois temas cruciais que, interligados, tornam atualíssima, quiçá imprescindível, a leitura de sua obra. Pois com o bolsonarismo, estamos presenciando o ataque aberto aos povos indígenas e a adoção de uma política destrutiva com a terra, o lugar e o meio (veneno dos agrotóxicos nas plantações, desmatamento acelerado, mercúrio do garimpo nos rios, descaso com a poluição dos mares, lama de barragem rompida, desmantelamento das instituições de fiscalização e controle…) que merecem ser considerados à luz de seus escritos. Se percebermos as conexões entre tais temas e as questões que neles ressoam, através da vida e da poesia do poeta máximo da Palestina, talvez possamos aprender com os palestinos a lidar com o nosso momento, isto é com o desespero, o exílio e a tragédia, concebidos a partir de uma perspectiva vital.
São muitas as possíveis portas de entrada na poesia e na vida de Darwich. Como nossas experiências de vida parecem ser muito distantes das dele e dos Palestinos, escolho a que me parece mais próxima, a de maior ressonância. Aquela em que o poeta palestino se descobre índio na própria condição de poeta e de Palestino. Mais precisamente, Pele-Vermelha.
Preso duas vezes pelos israelenses por razões políticas em sua juventude, Darwich se viu como um espectro assombrando seus algozes. Em Presente ausência, sua última autobiografia poética publicada em 2006, dois anos antes de sua morte, o poeta escreve:
“Espectro que leva o guarda a vigiar. Chá e um fuzil. Quando o vigia cochila, o chá esfria, o fuzil cai de suas mãos e o Pele-Vermelha infiltra-se na história
A história, é que és um Pele-Vermelha
Vermelha de plumas, não de sangue. És o pesadelo do vigia
Vigia que caça a ausência e massageia os músculos da eternidade
A eternidade pertence ao guarda. Bem imobiliário e investimento. Se necessário, ele se torna um soldado disciplinado numa guerra sem armistício. E sem paz
Paz sobre ti, no dia em que nascestes e no dia em que ressuscitarás na folhagem de uma árvore
A árvore é um agradecimento erguido pela terra como uma confiança em seu vizinho, o céu (…)”[i].
“A história, é que és um Pele-Vermelha.” No início dos anos 90, em“Na última noite, nesta terra”, Darwich havia publicado o Discurso do homem vermelho, no qual abordava a problemática do Outro. Para escrevê-lo, havia lido uma vintena de livros sobre a história dos Pele-Vermelha e a literatura deles. Queria impregnar-se de seus textos, dos discursos dos chefes. Precisava conhecer suas roupas, os nomes de suas aldeias, a flora, os modos de vida, o ambiente, os instrumentos, as armas, os meios de transporte. Ora, por que esse interesse tão agudo nos povos indígenas norte-americanos, tão distantes no espaço e no tempo, aparentemente tão sem conexão com o que se passava na Palestina na segunda metade do século XX?
No material coletado para escrever seu Discurso, Darwich inspirou-se particularmente na fala do Cacique Seattle no Congresso norte-americano, em 1854, em resposta à proposta formulada por Isaac Stevens, governador do Território de Washington, de comprar as terras indígenas. Ali, o líder indígena dizia: “Cada parcela deste solo é sagrada na avaliação de meu povo. Cada encosta, cada vale, cada planície e arvoredo foi consagrado por algum acontecimento triste ou feliz nos dias que há tempos desvaneceram. Até as pedras, que parecem ser mudas e mortas como o calor sufocante do sol na praia silente, estremecem com as memórias de comoventes acontecimentos conectados com as vidas de meu povo, e até o pó sobre o qual agora erguei-vos responde mais amorosamente aos pés dele do que aos vossos, porque é rico com o sangue de nossos ancestrais, e nossos pés descalços são conscientes do toque empático. Nossos bravos falecidos, queridas mães, alegres e amorosas esposas, e até mesmo as criancinhas que viveram aqui e aqui se alegraram durante uma breve estação, amarão estas solidões sombrias e a cada entardecer saúdam os espíritos das sombras que retornam.E quando o último Pele-Vermelha terá desaparecido, e a memória de minha tribo terá se tornado um mito entre os Homens Brancos, estas praias fervilharão com os mortos invisíveis de minha tribo.” [ii].
Ora, a relação sagrada com a terra e o lugar é a mesma que encontramos no Discurso do homem vermelho. Vejamos dois pequenos trechos, traduzidos por Elias Sanbar para o francês: “Assim, somos o que somos no Mississipi. E cabem a nós as relíquias de ontem. Mas a cor do céu mudou e a Leste, o mar mudou. Ô senhor dos Brancos, domador dos cavalos, o que esperas dos que partem com as árvores da noite? Elevada é nossa alma e sagradas são as pastagens. E as estrelas são palavras que iluminam.. Escruta-ase lerás nossa história inteira: aqui nascemos entre fogo e água, e logo renasceremos nas nuvens às margens do litoral azulado. Não firas ainda mais a relva, ela possui uma alma que defende em nós a alma da terra. Ô domador dos cavalos, domestica tua montaria, que ela diga à alma da natureza seu pesar pelo que fizestes com nossas árvores. Árvore minha irmã. Eles te fizeram sofrer, como a mim. Não peças misericórdia para o lenhador de minha mãe e da tua (…)”.
“Há mortos que cochilam nos quartos que erguereis. Mortos que visitam seu passado nos lugares que demolireis. Mortos que cruzam as pontes que construireis. E há mortos que iluminam a noite das borboletas que chegam na aurora para tomar chá convosco, calmas como vossos fuzis que as abandonaram. Deixai então, ô convidados do lugar, alguns assentos livres para os anfitriões, que eles vos leiam as condições da paz com os defuntos.” [iii].
A boca do Pele-Vermelha, porém, porta a voz do chefe índio e do Palestino. Mais do que através de uma abstrata noção de pátria, a relação Pele-Vermelha–Palestino se desenha como intensidade de parentesco com o lugar, com a natureza, e seu caráter cósmico. Como o Cacique, o poeta palestino pertence à terra; e não a terra a ele. Assim, a carga poética da enunciação é a mesma nos dois discursos, e expressa a solenidade da locução, seu caráter sagrado, transcendente. Mas, ao mesmo tempo, os dois discursos se pretendem históricos, fazem História, são marcos de acontecimentos tremendos.
Escrevendo o Discurso do homem vermelho, Darwich levantou a questão do genocídio indígena nas Américas e da relação que ele tinha com o fim da presença árabe na Península Ibérica. Tratava-se de estabelecer o sentido da imposição do Ocidente e de sua cosmovisão. Com efeito, em entrevista a Subhi Hadidi e Basheer al-Baker, o poeta esclarece o motivo estético e político dessa incursão na História: “Distingo entre a crônica e o arquivo. Meus poemas dizem o direito, a recusa de que a força imponha seus “direitos”. Podem objetar-me que a História não passa de uma longa sucessão desses direitos nascidos do uso da força. Isso significa que o fraco é obrigado a aceitar sua ausência forçada, até a colaborar para o seu próprio desaparecimento? Muito ao contrário, não deve ele continuar combatendo para permanecer presente?
O registro histórico sobre o qual trabalho é aquele da defesa do direito, ainda que me digam que é pela espada que nascem os Estados. A poesia não pode conciliar-se com a força, pois ela é habitada pelo dever de criar sua própria força, fundando um espaço vital para a defesa do direito, da justiça e da vítima. A poesia é a aliada indefectível da vítima, e só pode encontrar terreno de entendimento com a História com base nesse princípio fundamental. É sob esse ângulo que precisamos compreender a temática dos Pele-Vermelha ou da queda de Granada, para propor, em 1992, uma leitura humanista de 1492.
Naquele ano, o mundo ocidental atrelou-se à interpretação do alcance histórico de 1492, e mais particularmente, de dois episódios fundadores para o Ocidente: a viagem de Colombo e a queda de Granada. O primeiro dos dois acontecimentosfoi uma conquista acompanhada de um projeto genocida, na linhagem do espírito das guerras cruzadas. O segundo consagrou definitivamente a ideia de Ocidente e expulsou os árabes do caminho que levava a esse mesmo Ocidente.
Sou um cidadão do mundo que eles destruíram, ou chutaram para fora da História. E sou uma vítima cujo único bem é a autodefesa. Mergulhei numa leitura aprofundada da história dos árabes na Espanha, e a dos índios e sua relação com a terra, os deuses e o Outro. O que me impressionou nos índios, é que eles apreenderam os acontecimentos como manifestações de um destino incontornável, e que os enfrentaram com o espanto daqueles que vêem a história geral se abater sobre a “história privada”.
A consagração do conceito de Ocidente exigiu o desaparecimento de setenta milhões de seres humanos, bem como uma guerra cultural furiosa contra uma filosofia intrinsecamente mesclada à terra e à natureza, às árvores, às pedras, à turfa, e à água. O homem vermelho desculpava-se com ardor de surpreendente poesia da árvore que ia cortar, explicando sua necessidade vital de sua casca, seu tronco, seus ramos; em seguida, lançava um pedaço de tronco na floresta para que a árvore renascesse… A máquina venceu essa santidade que o homem vermelho atribuía à sua terra, uma terra divinizada, pois não distinguia entre suas fronteiras e as dos deuses.
Coloquei-me na pele do índio para defender a inocência das coisas, a infância da humanidade; para alertar contra a máquina militar tentacular, que não vê limites para seu horizonte., mas arranca todos os valores herdados, e devora, insaciável, a terra e suas entranhas. (…) Meu poema tentou encarnar o Pele-Vermelha no momento em que ele olhou o derradeiro sol. Mas o “branco” não encontrará mais repouso nem sono, pois as almas das coisas, da natureza, das vítimas ainda volteiam sobre sua cabeça.” [iv].
Darwich extrai, assim, no passado, os acontecimentos que seguem ressoando no presente e vê com clareza como a condição agonizante do Palestino sobrepõe-se à do Índio; mas não é só a privação derradeira, a privação do direito de recusar uma vida e um estatuto abomináveis que o levam ao encontro do Índio; é preciso assinalar que é como poeta, como homem que busca a fonte da poesia no continuum da relação cósmica, mítica, com a natureza, que Darwich se vê na pele vermelha. O Pele-Vermelha infiltra-se na História como o selvagem resiste na “civilização” – ser poeta-índio e, ao mesmo tempo, índio-poeta, é assumir uma condição ontológica e epistemológica.
Mas é, também, ser um mistanenim, o Palestino-Árabe infiltrado em território ocupado e no pesadelo israelo-americano. E é aqui que a dimensão política da ressonância Pele-Vermelha-Palestino se explicita. Encontramos a chave dessa explicitação em Être arabe, livro de entrevistas de Christophe Kantcheff com Farouk Mardam-Bey e Elias Sanbar, dois amigos próximos de Darwich, tradutores de vários de seus livros para o francês e companheiros de seu longo exílio em Paris. Como o poeta,Sanbar foi e é um intelectual palestino que atuou como verdadeiro diplomata na Europa, defendendo a causa palestina nos campos da política, das ideias e da cultura. Como o poeta, Sanbar também pertencia à Organização de Libertação da Palestina (OLP).
A Palestina, observa Elias Sanbar, é uma nação sem Estado. Como pode, então, existir um sentimento nacional tão vivo, tão forte? Segundo ele, isso ocorre em virtude da centralidade da questão do lugar. Desde o início, no entender de Sanbar, tratou-se de uma substituição, não apenas de uma ocupação, nem de uma exploração colonial, ou de uma colonização clássica. Desde a Declaração Balfour, de 2 de Novembro de 1917, o projeto sionista consistiu na volatilização de uma terra árabe e sua substituição por uma outra.
“Portanto, diz Sanbar, os Palestinos serão submetidos a uma ofensiva de domínio dos lugares, um domínio no qual a apropriação da terra, que embora semelhante como duas gotas d’água a uma aquisição clássica, comum, de uma propriedade por uma pessoa privada ou uma pessoa moral – no caso, o “povo judeu” representado pela Agência judaica -, será na realidade apenas um elemento, importante, claro, mas elemento de um edifício visando não a constituição de uma imensa propriedade de 26.320 quilômetros quadrados, isto é a superfície da Palestina, mas o desaparecimento de um país” [v].
Um país, quer dizer, um espaço considerado por séculos pelos Palestinos como sua terra natal. Por isso mesmo, os filhos da terra, embora se considerassem Árabes e falassem árabe, se diziam “Árabes da Palestina”. Esse duplo pertencimento é constitutivo do seu ser. Por sua vez, como que para confirmar essa condição, todos os Árabes de outros países “verão no projeto anglo-sionista uma ofensiva contra um membro, no sentido fisiológico, de seu corpo. E como a própria posição da Palestina nos mapas ajuda, esta se verá espontaneamente assimilada como o mais vital dos órgãos, “o coração dos Árabes” [vi].
Com efeito, em Novembro de 1917 o povo palestino fica sabendo que o Ministro inglês James Balfour prometera seu país a um movimento vindo do Ocidente, comprometido com a ideia de promover o retorno dos judeus após um exílio de dois mil anos e de restaurar um “Estado dos judeus” na Palestina. Tem início, então, o conflito. Os Palestinos reagem imediatamente ao texto de Balfour. Mas, perplexos, caem numa armadilha, pois aceitam os termos da declaração que os designam como“comunidades não judaicas na Palestina”.
Assim, com Balfour, não só o “povo judeu” “volta” a um antigo território que haveria sido seu, como encontra ali não uma nação e um povo, mas “comunidades não judaicas”, isto é de uma outra religião, muçulmana e cristã. Desse modo, desmonta-se a identidade palestina secular. E isso tem como corolário o fato de que os Palestinos judeus não só deixam de existir como parecem nunca ter existido!
“Doravante, continua Elias Sanbar, tudo se passa entre o povo judeu que retorna e duas outras comunidades que esperam partir para ceder lugar, o seu lugar. A história contemporânea da Palestina reduzir-se-á então, sob diversas formas, a uma repetição permanente de um enunciado terrível: os Palestinos se encontram permanentemente em instância de ausência anunciada”[vii]. De nada adianta cristãos e muçulmanos reivindicarem o estatuto de “povo da Palestina” e afirmarem que já estavam lá antes dos judeus. Tampouco adianta afirmarem sua presença no lugar – os sionistas argumentam que na verdade a Palestina é um território vazio, um deserto, segundo a famosa frase de Israel Zangwill: “O sionismo é um povo sem terra que volta a uma terra sem povo”.
Conhecemos bem esse tipo de argumento, que também foi usado no Brasil da ditadura para justificar o projeto “desenvolvimentista” de “ocupação” e de “integração” da Amazônia, desconhecendo deliberadamente que ela era e é habitada por povos indígenas, a quem também os militares brasileiros negam o direito ao emprego do termo “povos”, visto que povo, nestas paragens, só existiria um, o brasileiro. Mas voltando à Palestina: cria-se uma diferença absoluta entre a vivência do colono israelense e a do cidadão palestino: o primeiro pensa que esteve lá há milênios e por isso pode voltar; o segundo sabe que nunca partiu, que tem o direito de viver ali… porque é dali!
Assim, desde o início do século XX, o projeto de constituição do Estado de Israel já preconiza a expulsão do povo palestino e institui a sua condição de refugiado em sua própria terra ou de exilado. Por isso, Sanbar vai afirmar: “O que marca e marcará profundamente o ser palestino, é que cedo essa sociedade sabe que está engajada num combate que ultrapassa a independência que ela reivindica. Ela luta para continuar a existir no lugar, seu lugar” [viii].
Ora, como bem sublinha Elias Sanbar, Israel nasce da mesma maneira que nasceram os Estados Unidos – os sionistas repetem a mesma lógica adotada pelos colonizadores na América; aos Palestinos caberá então o destino de se transformarem em Pele-Vermelha, isto é autóctones destinados à ausência. Como os Índios, os Palestinos ficam sem lugar.
Ao longo de todo o século XX, a questão, no fundo, sempre foi a mesma. De um lado, uma guerra de conquista do território, uma guerra de ocupação progressiva e negação da existência do autóctone; de outro, resistência e afirmação obstinada de existência do homem e do lugar. Não cabe aqui nos determos nas datas-chave desse conflito que oficialmente explode em 1948 com a criação do Estado de Israel e o desaparecimento da Palestina do mapa e dos dicionários enquanto país. Desde então a determinação israelense de fazer país e povo sumirem prolonga-se na Guerra dos Seis Dias, em 1967, estende-se na invasão do Líbano no início dos anos 80 com o massacre de Sabra e Chatila, ganha novos contornos com a Intifada e, posteriormente, com as intermináveis negociações de paz que nunca põem um fim ao avanço sistemático da colonização dos territórios ocupados…
Mas se há semelhança de destino entre os Pele-Vermelha e os Palestinos, também há diferença e ela precisa ser registrada. Numa conversa entre Elias Sanbar e Gilles Deleuze, publicada pelo jornal Libération, em 8-9 de Maio de 1982, o filósofo francês aborda o assunto: “Muitos artigos da Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes lembram e analisam de uma maneira nova os procedimentos pelos quais os Palestinos foram expulsos de seus territórios. Isso é muito importante porque os Palestinos não se encontram na situação de gente colonizada, mas evacuada, expulsa. (…) É que há dois movimentos muito diferentes no capitalismo. Ora trata-se de manter um povo em seu território e de fazê-lo trabalhar, de explorá-lo, para acumular um excedente – é o que comumente se chama uma colônia. Ora, pelo contrário, trata-se de esvaziar um território de seu povo, para dar um salto adiante, trazendo uma mão-de-obra de outras partes. A história do sionismo e de Israel , como a da América, passou por isso: como criar o vazio, como esvaziar um povo?” [ix].
Até aí, estamos ainda no campo da semelhança. Mas, segundo Deleuze, quem demarcou o limite da comparação foi Yasser Arafat, ao apontar que existe um mundo árabe, enquanto os Pele-Vermelha não dispunham de nenhuma base ou força fora do território do qual eram expulsos. Sanbar concorda com essa análise: “Somos expulsos singulares porque não fomos deslocados para terras estrangeiras, mas para o prolongamento de nossa “casa”. Fomos deslocados em terra árabe, onde não só ninguém quer nos dissolver, mas essa própria ideia é uma aberração” [x].
Assim, os Palestinos não foram confinados em “reservas”, como os Pele-Vermelha. Deslocados “dentro de casa”, para o meio de povos irmãos e solidários, os Palestinos assumiram a condição do exílio de um modo muito particular. Como aponta Sanbar, todo exílio comporta duas rupturas: uma com o lugar de partida, outra com o lugar de chegada. “Ora, expulsos e forçados a se deslocar, os Palestinos continuavam sendo Árabes e em momento algum seu deslocamento suscitará uma diáspora, pois esta exige que se eleja residência numa terra estrangeira. O que precisamente não eram os países vizinhos que os acolheram.
Os Palestinos se encontravam refugiados, é claro, mas em sua continuidade territorial e identitária; deslocados, é claro, mas dentro de sua língua, sua cultura, sua cozinha, sua música, seu imaginário. Mais ainda: compartilhavam com os povos que os acolhiam o sonho da unidade em um grande Estado árabe” [xi]. Nesse sentido, “(…) os refugiados reagem como homens e mulheres/território, isto é estão convencidos de transportar com eles, neles, sua terra, esperando efetuar o Retorno e “repousá-la em seu lugar”[xii]. (Idem pp. 166-167) É essa condição complexa e trágica que faz com que Mahamoud Darwich, trinta anos depois de deixar a Palestina, se encontra em Gaza e escreve:
“Vim, mas não cheguei.
Estou aqui, mas não voltei!”
Com efeito, não se pode voltar de onde nunca se saiu, porque nunca se abandonou o lugar. Por isso, importa agora salientar que Darwich foi a voz que enunciou com todas as letras todas as camadas de sentido dessa complexa condição. Não foi à toa que se tornou um patrimônio coletivo do povo palestino, que o vê como seu porta-voz. A ponto dele escrever um comovente poema para sua mãe e todos os leitores/ouvintes lerem/ouvirem naquele termo a palavra Palestina.
É impressionante: percorrer sua obra é perceber que Darwich é Palestino, é Árabe, é o refugiado, é o exilado de dentro e o exilado de fora, é o infiltrado, é o Pele-Vermelha; mas é, também, o Troiano vencido que nenhum Homero cantou e o Cananeu cuja Bíblia se perdeu. Darwich é tudo isso porque é poeta que acessa diretamente apotência da matriz ancestral da poesia – a presente ausência de onde ela brota.
“Não te perguntas mais: O que escrever?, mas: Como escrever? Invocas um sonho. Ele foge da imagem. Solicitas um sentido. A cadência se torna estreita para ele. Crês que ultrapassastes o limiar que separa o horizonte do abismo, que te exercitastes a abrir a metáfora para uma ausência que se torna presença, para uma presença que se ausenta com uma espontaneidade de aparência dócil. Sabes que em poesia o sentido é movimento numa cadência. Nela a prosa aspira ao pastoral da poesia, e a poesia à aristocracia da prosa. Leva-me ao que não conheço dos atributos do rio… Leva-me. Uma linha melódica semelhante a esta abre seu caminho no curso das palavras, feto em devir que traça os traços de uma voz e a promessa de um poema. Mas ela precisa de um pensamento que a guie e que ela guia através das possibilidades, de uma terra que a porta, de uma inquietação existencial, de uma história ou de uma lenda. O primeiro verso é o que os perplexos nomearam, segundo sua origem, inspiração ou iluminação” [xiii].
É espantosa para nós, brasileiros, a determinação com que os palestinos se aferram à sua identidade, língua e lugar. Para nós, é quase incompreensível. Daí a importância de MahamoudDarwich como emblema do que não somos. Desde os anos 20 do século passado, os modernistas brasileiros se perguntaram: O que é “ser brasileiro”? e, na impossibilidade de reconhecer-se como tal: Como tornar-se brasileiro? Se a questão moderna brasileira é eminentemente ontológica e epistemológica, é porque interpela diretamente o ser e o devir. Mais do que interpelados, ameaçados de extinção enquanto povo, os Palestinos forjaram na luta uma resposta, pela boca de Darwich e de tantos outros.
Tentando responder, os modernistas brasileiros saíram em busca da “redescoberta” do Brasil e acabaram descobrindo o Outro, isto é os índios, que constituíam uma das três grandes correntes populacionais da formação do povo brasileiro (com os europeus e os africanos trazidos como escravos); mais ainda: descobriram que, apesar do genocídio inconfessado praticado desde 1500, muitos desses povos ainda sobreviviam no território nacional. Portanto, o Outro não era o de fora, o Outro era o Outro da própria terra, do lugar, presente e no entanto sistematicamente ignorado, “ausente”. E era esse Outro que fazia o brasileiro moderno perceber-se como um “desterrado em sua própria terra”, nos dizeres de Sérgio Buarque de Holanda.
Assim, nos anos 1920-30, ficou claro que, para saber o que é ser brasileiro ou como tornar-se um, seria preciso pôr sobre a mesa o que é ser índio, e como os brasileiros lidam, ou melhor não lidam com isso. No Manifesto Antropófago, Oswald de Andrade, formulou a questão de maneira tremenda, emseu achado paródico do dilema hamletiano: “Tupy or not tupy, that is the question” [xiv].
Formulado em língua estrangeira, mais propriamente na língua de Shakespeare, o statement não poderia expressar melhora condição esquizofrênica do brasileiro moderno, pois este se encontra diante de um Double bind que, segundo Gregory Bateson [xv], não permite opção e decisão. Com efeito, quanto mais tentamos resolvê-lo, mais afundamos na armadilha. Isso ocorre porque tanto os brasileiros quanto os índios, tanto os selvagens quanto os civilizados, não podem ser eles mesmos sem “resolver” sua relação com o Outro, historicamente negada, e recalcada desde sempre. Pois o que dizem os brasileiros para os índios: “Vocês não podem ser brasileiros porque são índios!” E, ao mesmo tempo: “Vocês não podem ser índios porque são brasileiros!” Assim, índios e brasileiros têm o seu devir bloqueado pelo dilema Tupy or not Tupy…
Mahamoud Darwich deveria ser ensinado em nossas escolas. Para que nossas futuras gerações aprendessem o que é a paixão exemplar e irremissível de um povo pelo seu lugar no mundo.
*Laymert Garcia dos Santosé professor aposentado do departamento de sociologia da Unicamp. Autor, entre outros livros, de Politizar as novas tecnologias (Editora 34).
Publicado originalmente no primeiro número da Exilium – Revista de Estudos da Contemporaneidade órgão da Cátedra Edward Saïd da Unifesp.
[i]Darwich, M. Présenteabsence. Col. Mondes árabes. Arles: Actes Sud, 2016. Tradução do árabe por FaroukMardam-Bey e EliasSanbar. Pp. 146-147.
[xiii]Darwich, M. Présente absence. Op. Cit. Pp. 80-81.
[xiv]Nunes, Benedito. “Antropofagia ao alcance de todos – Introdução”. In Andrade, Oswald de. Do Pau-Brasil à Antropofagia e àsUtopias – Obras Completas VI. Rio de Janeiro: Civ. Brasileira, 1972, p. XXVI.
[xv] Bateson, G. Double bind, Steps to na ecology of the mind: A revolutionary approach to man’s understanding of himself, 271-278. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 271-278.
It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise. Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief
What does capitalism actually look like?
There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.
They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’
I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’
It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?
This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’
There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.
Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.
The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?
Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.
This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.
The politics of decolonization are not the same as the act of decolonizing. How rapidly phrases like “decolonize the mind/heart” or simply “decolonize” are being consumed in academic spaces is worrisome. My grandfather was a decolonizer. He is dead now, and if he was alive he would probably scratch his head if these academics explained the concept to him.
I am concerned about how the term is beginning to evoke a practice of getting rid of colonial practices by those operating fully under those practices.Decolonization sounds and means different things to me, a woman of color, than to a white person. And why does this matter? Why does my skin itch when I hear the term in academic white spaces where POC remain tokens? Why does my throat become a prison of words that cannot be digested into complete sentences? Is it because in these “decolonizing” practices we are being colonized once again?
I am not granted the same humanity as a white scholar or as someone who acts like one. The performance of those granted this humanity who claim to be creating space for people of color needs to be challenged. They promote Affirmative action, for instance, in laughable ways. During hiring practices, we’re demanded to specify if we’re “aliens” or not. Does a white person experience the nasty bitterness that comes when POC sees that word? Or the other derogatory terminology I am forced to endure while continuing in the race to become America’s Next Top Academic? And these same white colleagues who do not know these experiences graciously line up to present at conferences about decolonizing methodology to show their allyship with POC.
The effects of networking are another one of the ways decolonizing in this field of Humanities shows itself to be a farce. As far as I understand history, Christopher Columbus was really great at networking. He tangled people like me in chains, making us believe that it was all in the name of knitting a web to connect us all under the spell of kumbaya.
Academic spaces are not precisely adorned by safety, nor are they where freedom of speech is truly welcome. Not all of us have the luxury to speak freely without getting penalized by being called radicals, too emotional, angry or even not scholarly enough. In true decolonization work, one burns down bridges at the risk of not getting hired. Stating that we are in the field of decolonizing studies is not enough. It is no surprise that even those engaged in decolonizing methods replicate and polish the master’s tools, because we are implicated in colonialism in this corporatized environment.
I want to know what it is you little kids are doing here—that is to say, Why have you traveled to our Mapuche land? What have you come for? To ask us questions? To make us into an object of study? I want to you go home and I want you to address these concerns that I have carried in my heart for a long time.
Such was the response of Mapuche leader Ñana Raquel to a group of Human Rights students from the United States visiting the Curarrehue, Araucanía Region, Chile in April 2015. Her anger motivated me to reflect upon how to re-think, question, undo, and re-read perspectives of how I am experiencing the Humanities and how I am politicizing my ongoing shifts in my rhyzomatic system. Do we do that when we engage in research? Ñana Raquel’s questions, righteous anger, and reaction forced me to reconsider multiple perspectives on what really defines a territory, something my grandfather carefully taught me when I learned how to read ants and bees.
As politicized thinkers, we must reflect on these experiences if we are to engage in bigger discussions about solidarity, resistance and territories in the Humanities. How do we engage in work as scholars in the service of northern canons, and, in so doing, can we really admit what took us there? Many of us, operating in homogeneous academic spaces (with some hints of liberal tendencies), conform when that question is bluntly asked.
As someone who was herself observed and studied under the microscopes by ‘gringos’ in the 1980s, when pedagogues came to ask us what life was like in a war zone in El Salvador, Raquel’s questions especially resonate with me. Both of us have been dispossessed and situated in North American canons that serve particular research agendas. In this sense, we share similar experiences of being ‘read’ according to certain historical criteria.
Raquel’s voice was impassioned. On that day, we had congregated in the Ruka of Riholi. Facing center and in a circle, we were paying attention to the silence of the elders. Raquel taught us a priceless lesson. After questioning the processes used to realize research projects in Nepal and Jordan, Raquel’s passionate demand introduced a final punch. She showed us that while we may have the outward face of political consciousness, we continued to use an academic discipline to study ‘exotic’ behaviors and, in so doing, were in fact undermining, denigrating and denying lessons of what constitutes cultural exchange from their perspective.
From these interactions in the field emerge questions that go to the heart of the matter: How do we deal with issues of social compromise in the Humanities? In unlearning? In many cases, academic circles resemble circuses rather than centres of higher learning, wherein a culture of competition based on external pressures to do well motivates the relationship between teacher and student.
One of the tragic consequences of a traditional system of higher education is working with colleagues who claim to have expertise on the topic of social activism, but who have never experienced any form of intervention. I am referring here to those academics who have made careers out of the pain of others by consuming knowledge obtained in marginalized communities. This same practice of “speaking about which you know little (or nothing)” is transmitted, whether acknowledged or not, to the students who we, as teachers and mentors, are preparing to undertake research studies about decolonizing.
Linda Smith speaks about the disdain she has for the word “research,” seeing it as one of the dirtiest words in the English language. I couldn’t agree more with her. When we sit down each semester to write a guide to “unlearning’,” or rather a syllabus, we must reflect upon how we can include content that will help to transmit a pre-defined discipline in the Humanities with current social realities. How can we create a space where a student can freely speak his/her mind without fear of receiving a bad grade?
Today, anything and everything is allowed if a postcolonial/decolonizing seal of approval accompanies it, even if it is devoid of any political urgency. These tendencies appear to be ornamental at best, and we must challenge the basis of those attempts. We can’t keep criticizing the neoliberal system while continuing to retain superficial visions of solidarity without striving for a more in-depth understanding. These are acts for which we pat ourselves on the back, but in the end just open up space for future consumers of prestige.
The corridors of the hallways in the institution where I currently work embodies this faux-solidarity in posters about conferences, colloquiums, and trips in the Global South or about the Global South that cost an arm and a leg. As long as you have money to pay for your airfare, hotel, meals and transportation, you too could add two lines in the CV and speak about the new social movement and their radical strategies to dismantle the system. You too can participate in academic dialogues about poverty and labor rights as you pass by an undocumented cleaner who will make your bed while you go to the main conference room to talk about her struggles.
We must do a better job at unpacking the intellectual masturbation we get out of poverty, horror, oppression, and pain–the essentials that stimulate us to have the orgasm. The “release” comes in the forms of discussions, proposing questions, writing grant proposals, etc. Then we move onto other forms of entertainment. Neoliberalism has turned everything into a product or experience. We must scrutinize the logic of power that is behind our syllabi, and our research work. We must listen to the silences, that which is not written, and pay attention to the internal dynamics of communities and how we label their experiences if we are truly committed to the work of decolonizing.
Clelia O. Rodríguez is an educator, born and raised in El Salvador, Central America. She graduated from York University with a Specialized Honours BA, specializing in Spanish Literature. She earned her MA and PhD from The University of Toronto. Professor Rodríguez has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Spanish language, literature and culture at the University of Toronto, Washington College, the University of Ghana and the University of Michigan, most recently. She was also a Human Rights Traveling Professor in the United States, Nepal, Jordan, and Chile as part of the International Honors Program (IHP) for the School of International Training (SIT). She taught Comparative Issues in Human Rights and Fieldwork Ethics and Comparative Research Methods. She is interested in decolonozing approaches to teaching and engaging in critical pedagogy methodologies in the classroom.