Years ago my friend and teacher Mia Herndon listened patiently as I railed against capitalism and how broken the system was. Then she said, clearly, “Capitalism is not broken. It is working exactly as it was designed to work.” A light bulb went on in my head that has illuminated how so many things we want to call dysfunction are actually oppressive and inhumane systems functioning exactly as they were intended to work.
This line of thinking beamed through the performative shock of the attempted coup on January 6, when media pundits and interviewees said, “This isn’t American.”
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White Supremacy Is Embedded in U.S. History
The confederacy, whose flag was waved in the Capitol building on Wednesday, was a four-year alignment of 11 states committed, among other things, to the right to own slaves. It emerged toward the end of a centuries-long period during which it was easily assumed that the role of people of African descent was to provide free labor until death. The foundations of U.S. wealth and reach are heavy bricks sunken into the bloody soil of that labor.
There are many flags that could be created and waved if the issue at hand were the right of states to self-determine their own destinies, but those who claim the U.S. confederacy are easily aligning with a very specific and racist right, a very specific white supremacy.
The American Civil War began primarily as a result of the long-standing disagreement between the Union and the Confederacy over the institution of slavery. Thousands of people were willing to fight and die rather than share the load of labor needed for a successful national economy. On January 6, thousands of unmasked people showed up ready to fight and die rather than quarantine, rather than relinquish supremacy, and rather than participate in a multiracial society. They crowded together amid a raging pandemic and entered a building that other people have been killed for getting lost near.
In the 19th century, the Union was declared the winner, and eventually emancipation was technically true on paper. But the systems were not abolished; they morphed into the prison-industrial complex. The wounds were not healed; they morphed into Jim Crow and then again into surface post-racialism and razor-sharp microaggressions and racist policies. They fester, still hungry for the heart of the nation.
When will it end?
When it is no longer controversial to assert that Black lives matter.
Today, we are far from that evolved place, but one thing is official: Republicans who bet on white supremacy, who bet on the Confederacy, have lost themselves the presidency, House and Senate. In four years.
Still, I “claim no easy victory,” as Amilcar Cabral, the Cape Verdean revolutionary, puts it. I know we are up against the ruling structures of a system, of a nation, that has never loved us. This is history unfolding, a pendulum swinging back and forth along prescribed lines. We must find a way out of those lines if our nation plans to outlive the Confederacy, and if — because racialized fascism is a growing global threat — our species hopes to outlive the Nazis.
But we are finding our way. From the Capitol in D.C. to the streets wherever we live, this old shell is bursting at the seams, and the new worlds we are building are the true pressure.
As we build, we must also attend to our grief.
My dear friend Shonali Saha recently reminded me of the concept of sleep debt, and it got me thinking about grief debt. Everyone I know is grieving either direct or circumstantial loss, with no time to come apart and land beyond the loss. The circumstances of COVID-19 are unparalleled in our lifetimes: So many communities and nations are battling this rate of death, this level of mismanagement, concurrently.
The virus isn’t our only grief. Before coronavirus became our main grief story, we were already wearing ripped Black cloth and weeping daily because of the losses that come from living within supremacist systems that infiltrate our own minds and hearts and use us against each other. We were already grieving from the loss of room to breathe and think, displaced by the onslaught of constant real and presidentially-sparked imaginary crises during this administration. We were already grieving the limitations of everyone we’ve ever elected to get us further than this. We were already grieving what happens at our borders, behind our bars, with our dollars and in our name.
We desperately need time to grieve, remember, dream, rest, land. Change.
Instead, the death throes of this administration are loud and consuming. They are, perhaps, representative of a different kind of grief — a dangerous kind. Part of what we are witnessing now is the result of masses of white people grieving the myth of their supremacy. Rather than facing the shame of not being superior, these white people seem to keep looping in the denial phase of grief.
When I facilitate groups, it’s clear that we need to honor our losses and name what hurts and needs healing before we can truly move forward. What goes untouched, unnamed, and unhealed becomes the festering heart of the group, and blameful dysfunction becomes the cultural norm.
In this moment, the United States is overrun with zombie ideas that we need to let truly die. Our attention is legitimizing, powerful, enlivening. We need to attend to the end of these ideas, not engage them as valid in any way. Do not indulge the perspective of white nationalism or any other superiority-based worldview as a valid perspective, as a political possibility with which to negotiate. You wouldn’t sit a corpse in a courtroom to negotiate property. We must attend to, and protect ourselves from, those who are and will be grieving the concept of supremacy — white, male, straight, able-bodied, cis, wealthy, citizen.
This is long haul work. As Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Be impeccable with your words.” Look to grassroots organizations like the Frontline, Mijente, the Rising Majority and the Movement for Black Lives for collective action guidance. Save your strength for the cultural and policy fights which will begin January 21.
And stay safe. Please. The streets are full of people who still want us hanging from trees. Pay attention to your surroundings and your loved ones. Stay safe, for you are a precious resource for freedom. We will be adapting to the conditions this administration has inflamed for years.