Finding refuge from white supremacy in our Indigenous cultures
The nature of whiteness and the power it hogs is that its needs are to always be met at the cost of everybody else’s.
by Djanaïna François
Someone said to me once: “God created wolf first, then us, then white people—he warned that misunderstanding others is their default, from a cultural standpoint to an existential one, as they will continuously see the world through a lense of authority.”
An autumnal evening sky hovered above us and I held a faint grasp on the idea of God. The reconciling caress of the Northeastern wind seemed to promise that everything would be better this time, bearing witness to the commiseration we both held in light of oppressive systems ravaging our communities. I thought about what that man said to me, struck truly by the firmness of his reaffirmation, and how much it mutilated white supremacy in all of its bold persistence. It continually brutalizes our livelihood as though we were born to be at the mercy of its vile, subpar crumbs of courtesy.
Without any further explanation, I understood and reckoned with all the parts of his statement. It shed up close and personal with my own malnourishment—born in Haiti, bred from a colorist society where the harmonizing of self with one’s roots is often looked down upon, leaving us removed from a tangible, uplifting, relatable, reasoning concept of personhood. But without these things, our arsenal in this white-dominated world is empty. In the battle for liberation, we would be remiss without our culture.
We are not nailing divinity into existence, we are not ornating it. We are divinity. So much so that white people hunted us and drove us to suicide by the thousands, from the Igbo landing to the mass poisoning of Taínos in Ayíti. If I cannot invoke the Iwas and the spirits of my ancestors, if none of us can delve into our rituals in the privacy of our respective communities without white supremacy’s children wailing to be breastfed and nurtured into our spaces when our supply can barely feed our own kin—when the nipples remain sore from the masking us to feed their bellies, their minds, their souls, their wretched senselessness—then we will not be as free as we can be.
The man’s words, while a revelation to me, were mostly forgotten until one summer night when I stood in a line outside the Lincoln Center where I anticipated seeing a roots band known as Boukman Esperyans. As I watched them dance, I began dissecting the forms of cruelty that white supremacy often embodies.
I find myself clenching my jaw when I play over in my head the number of joyous folks standing inside the venue, the color of their skin in such contrast with those standing outside. The various dimensions presented that night were archaic and familiar. In my dismay, I stood watching disappointed Black people stretch their necks for a peak, wearing their best headwraps, their delicately sewn dresses. Black folks who had invited out aunts and mothers aching for the rekindling of lost culture. I imagine they expected it would bring them relief, only to suddenly realize that it might not come tonight.
The nature of whiteness and the power it hogs is that its needs are to always be met at the cost of everybody else’s. Its appetite craved the joy of “ethnic music,” the “broken French” words in songs they don’t understand—neither the language nor the historical context—and so they stood in front of Black people and dominated the space.
It took me back to the 1700’s on the island of Quisqueya, when French barbarians forbid my ancestors from tasting squash in the plantation’s kitchen as they curated and served white masters an earthy, aromatic soup at supper, and they did this for three hundred years. It took me to the cringy pages of “Rejuvenation Through Joy,” a short story written by Langston Hughes which shows us a shocking phenomena inside the colony of joy—a sanctuary for rich white people looking to save themselves with a recipe the Protagonist Eugene Leshe believes they could only find by opening themselves to the Native American and Black ways of living.
It is ironic to see the progress of things overtime and the lack thereof. The reality which inspired such a poignant piece from Mr. Hughes can be found lurking now in yoga studios. In healing centers and the sacred muddy land of Souverance. In Pow Wows, in drawers with palo santo sticks and white sage, the African folkloric dance classes, the mainstream media which claim Jazz as an invention of whiteness, behind wealthy gated communities with young white people who credit themselves as innovators of street fashion.
I watched their hips sway in linen skirts, the awe on their white faces, their arms accentuated by the assortment of handmade jewelry, kissed gently by the blinding stage lights, summer wave blonde hair animated by the tranchant drums, revealing slightly the glow of their skin from behind the glass door of the atrium. We stood, impatient, piled among each other, like hungry dogs, holding smartphones, capturing the fragmented performance of Boukman Eksperyans slipping between the cracks of a small window.
When do we get to escape white supremacy? If not at a concert, if not at a vodou ceremony, if not in spaces meant for us, then where? The red, gold, and fertile vegetation of Taíno land is gone, we weep for the parts of ourselves perished in the senseless fatal ambition of white men. Earth reeks of genocide. To not be able to stomp around barefooted is a cruelty—to not recharge and ground oneself, to not eat food (in my case, okra stew with tomtom) alongside people who look like us, speak the same language as us, understand us without us having to explain, without having to make space for white people and yield to the subtlety of oppression.
For Black people to better heal from the brutalities we repeatedly try to cope with and often are dying from, we have to be able to isolate from the face, the model, and the presence of what terrorizes us daily. But, lamentably, there is no guide on how to avoid white supremacy. It seems to be everywhere, even in the concrete and bricks—a plague haunting us without a foreseeable end. Even so, our culture can be our refuge. It grants us an opportunity to heal, consult, reinforce, reimagine, discover what we are truly capable of. Even when there seem to be no more fight left in us, we can start there.