I started travelling seriously about a decade ago. More than 30 countries and countless airports later, perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt is in the power of story telling. I’ve been repeatedly appalled at the way in which stories about poor places especially, are contorted and manipulated, so that we, the privileged can exploit them to make money or to assuage whatever sense of entitlement we have within ourselves. Like Marlow and Kurtz, we need to construct a darkness and pierce its heart as a framing device for our own stories of self discovery and coming of age. Journalism and media especially, only tells those stories that will provoke a reaction in the emotionally stunted and intellectually stultified bourgeoisie, and that means, stories about hunger, violence, death and suffering. The developing world is like a Colosseum, where we can be titillated with images of struggle tearing apart the flesh of the poor.
By the late twentieth century the commodification, packaging, and merchandising of reality which constitute the knowledge industry have come to predominate almost to the exclusion of actual content.
Edward Said “How Not to Get Gored” in Reflections on Exile, Harvard University Press
In West Africa they have what are called griots – a historian whose job it is to record the history of the community and perpetuate it through story telling and song. A griot doesn’t simply stop at repeating narratives that have already been told. They also must interpret them in a way that is accessible to contemporary society. They have to add yarn to the weaving in order to extend and enrich it. A griot is a link between the past and the present, who allows the community context: an opportunity to catalogue their evolution and chart a way forward. Griotry is to me, a very powerful and easy way in which the poor can take ownership of the narratives of control or domination and tell their own stories on their own terms.
I write, I sing and I take photographs because I see myself as a modern griot. I grew up with very little and now I have more than most. From this uncomfortable space between two worlds, none of which is mine and neither of which will let me go, I see my opportunity to tell stories about places that resist exploitative narratives and instead tell stories of empowerment. I can speak the truth of the oppressed in the language of the oppressor. As a young, African, black, female traveller, I have found that I have a unique opportunity to peer behind the veil in many communities. Everybody’s expectations of me are so low, calibrated by the insidious destruction of sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia and other isms. I am overlooked no matter what society I go into, and that means I can almost sneak around, collecting my stories, weaving my yarn, adding to the tapestry of my own historical education. I choose to be a contemporary griot because I am disempowered in the narratives of the communities that I live in, and story telling gives me the power to write against that.
And because the social world includes the person or subject doing the studying as well as the object or realm being studied, it is imperative to include them both in any consideration of Orientalism.
E. Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered”
To fulfil their role, a trans-national griot must allow themselves to become a student of history. One must make the effort to learn about its history, it’s culture, it’s people. Where possible, one must aside their own cultural background and completely immerse themselves in the new world. If everyone walks to work, so do you. Listen to the music they listen to, read the books they are reading. Eat the food they are eating. Where impossible, a griot must remain conscious of the yardstick in the back of their minds: those inevitable comparisons with “home”.
But a griot must also have a foot in the present. A griot must be an observer of people, conscious that everything is happening across three planes: the visible, the unspoken and the historical. A handshake can’t just be a handshake. A griot will observe the mechanics of the handshake, consider what these mechanics say about the interactions across age, gender, social class etc, and then reflect on how the particular style of the handshake may have evolved over time. The fistbump and its relation to the drug trade. The hi-five as a statement on familiarity.
So far as Orientalism in particular and the European knowledge of other societies in general have been concerned, historicism meant that one human history uniting humanity either culminated in or was observed from the vantage point of Europe or the West. What was neither observed by Europe nor documented by it was therefore, “lost” until some a later date when it could be incorporated into the new sciences of anthropology, political economy and linguistics.
Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered”, in Reflections on Exile, Harvard University Press
What I’ve experienced in Haiti over the last 10 weeks has only reaffirmed the need for contemporary, poor societies to resurrect the tradition of griotry. Look, no media houses are interested in hearing stories of hope or triumph. No one wants to run the stories about women surviving rape and building thriving communities. No one wants to begin to contemplate a tale that doesn’t have a white saviour at it’s centre, swooping in, reorganising and rebuilding a random outpost of blackness or otherness. Hiding behind claims of interest or market based dynamics, modern media is only concerned with the next biggest story, at the expense of sober reflection, empathy and basic human kindness.
So if all you look at is the here and now, then yes, by those metrics Haiti is struggling, and everybody wants to run that story. But using the broadness of griotry you peer behind the veil and see a society that is actually thriving in the face of generations of exploitation, manipulation. Media asks the question: why isn’t Haiti the United States? The wrong question that ultimately lead to a poisonous answer. A better question would be: why is Haiti where it is today? Thinking about the country, on it’s own terms. And inevitably you conclude that Haiti should be so much worse off than it is right now. Only a holistic approach will inform you of why that is.
To foreground information and expertise is in many ways to say that what matters can be pushed up to the surface, and that history, insofar as it is out of easy reach, is better forgotten or, if it can’t be forgotten, ignored.
E. Said, “How to Not Get Gored”
The publishing industry falls over itself to seek out the next big expert on poverty, who will give them a snapshot of a complex society using the deeply flawed tools of their chosen discipline. What we end up with, is narratives about places like Haiti that focus on how bleak and unforgiving it is. We have a whole generation of people that will never come to Haiti believing that there is nothing worth salvaging here. A class of aid workers who have been conditioned to see struggle as a symptom of imminent political failure rather than the latest manifestation of a global economic system predicated on exploitation. A cabal of development professionals who are conditioned to live and interact with local communities from a place of fear, because the story tellers only tell those stories that titillate with the prospect of terror.
We need griots to write back against this culture of whitewashing, this idea that outside the control of Western governments and institutions communities of colour are random, disorganised and ungovernable. We need griots to tell other parts of the developing world that none of us is as far back as the media would have us believe. We need griots to remind us of the times when we were kings and queens, to re-instill that sense of pride and self-sufficiency. We need griots to heal the collective spirits that have been broken by generations of exploitation and abuse. We need griots to inspire the current generation to aspire to greatness and the collective good.
We need griots because the constructions of Western academia are suited to privilege certain types of knowledge or perspective. We need griots because these instruments were not designed to tell our stories on our own terms. We need griots because when we look at the gingerbread houses in Port-au-Prince we can’t just see dilapidation and neglect. We need griots to see the ingenuity of Haitian people, the durability of their aspirations in the face of adversity, the interruption of capitalism and the march to centralisation that curtailed their expansion. We need griots to paint us a bigger picture and keep things in perspective. We need griots because traditional spaces are not open to narratives of triumph from the developing world, and to paraphrase the words of Zora Neale Hurston, if we do not speak up they will kill us and say we liked it.
Insofar as it is run by and for Western interests, mainstream publishing isn’t going to do that for us. It isn’t going to allow us to come in and write back against our oppression or stake a claim to our human dignity, when there is so much money to be made from peddling the gore at the Colosseum. Griotry, embracing the fluidity of story telling and doing away with misguided aspirations towards “objectivity” at the expense of accounting human failure, is an excellent opportunity for us to do just that. It is our chance to write and speak back against broken and incomplete narratives that shortchange us of our dignity as individuals and communities.
We cannot proceed unless we dissipate and redispose the material of historicism into radically different pursuits of knowledge, and we cannot do that until we are aware that no new projects of knowledge can be constituted unless they resist the dominance and professionalised particularism of historicist systems and reductive, pragmatic or functionalist theories. E. Said, Orientalism reconsidered
To me, the distinction between faith and religion is the difference between training for a sport and actually playing it. Having religion is like running drills – a constant repetition of of rituals and actions that’s designed to prepare you for something else. Faith, on the other hand, is what happens in those moments when the storm rises around you, and the only thing keeping you sane is that small voice whispering “keep striving; do the right thing”, especially when doing the wrong thing would be easier or more convenient. Religion is easy. Faith is a process of refinement. It’s a challenge. And in the same way that not everyone who goes the gym will run a marathon, not everyone who practices a religion possesses faith.
What I want, more than anything, is to be able to conjure up the complexity of the human experience using only my words. To tell the stories of what it means to love and be loved, to try and fail, to succeed and to despair in equal measure. Beyond politics, I want to write stories about people who do, think and are. I lack the vocabulary. I fail myself.
Two days ago I had dinner at a restaurant in PaP popular with US embassy officials. Live jazz band (led by an expat) and an outdoor garden that was shielded from the brutality of the heat by many beautiful trees. I ordered a $15 bacon cheeseburger while I streams of embassy officials trooped past our tables to kiss the ring of my host and hostess. I had this odd feeling of peering behind the veil to this expat life that I’d only seen from outside the bubble in Nairobi. Imported wine, bread rolls and butter, and the faint aroma of frustration hung in the air.
What I saw can only be summarised as a gilded cage. You could reach out and touch the unhappiness. Most of these people had left their homes in the promise that they were going to some exotic location, only to be slapped with some of the most thorough “security measures” you can imagine. They aren’t allowed to use public transport. They aren’t allowed to visit Haitian neighbourhoods. They aren’t allowed to attend any of the Haitian festivals nor to participate in any protests. Essentially: “We want you to be in Haiti, but we don’t want you to interact with anything that is remotely Haitian, including Haitian people”.
I died a little just for being around it.
Why would you drag someone away from their family and friends only to put them in this suffocating bubble? Who does it helped? I feel like it only made the expats more resentful of of the country, which is in fact a beautiful, vibrant country full of risks for sure, but also full of love and warmth. Why would you come all the way to Haiti to do exactly what you would do back home? No wonder we have so many flawed and meaningless “development plans” and strategies – most of these people have no idea what they’re talking about.
This is why I reject the label “expat” because it smacks of a superiority complex and a calculated detachment from the reality of the country we live in.
Plus, that burger was terrible.
I needed a day.
I needed to give myself time to think and reflect before saying something that could potentially drive the debate backwards. There has been a battle raging inside me over the last two days, between the part of me that has been in law school and the part of me that senses that a grave injustice has been committed. My heart knows how it feels, but my brain needed a day to figure things out. Both sides have declared a truce, and this is where things stand.
Procedurally, the outcome in the Zimmerman trial was sound; it is consistent with the propositions of the law under which the decision was made. Soundness as a philosophical principle has nothing to do with rightness or wrongness – it is a quality of an argument that is predicated on consistency: is the argument in keeping with the legal tradition in which it was undertaken? Does it adequately reflect the principles that the system has been designed to privilege?
The Zimmerman decision is sound because it is consistent with the principles of an adversarial system that is weighted to privilege the appearance of innocence over the possibility of guilt. The adversarial system is a balance sheet, and both the judge and the procedural law have the discretion to admit or reject what goes into the balance sheet, before presenting it to the jury to make the final tally. It considered all the things that it was set up to consider – the “material facts”, the history of the two major players, the argumentative capacity of the lawyers on either side. A sound decision is basically a balance sheet that balances.
Soundness, however, is not a function of wrongness or rightness. Consider the following: “all white animals are ducks; this animal is white and therefore this animal is a duck”. This is a sound argument because in the closed system of the premises and its conclusions, the conclusion is consistent with the principles that I have set out. But logically, in the real world, we know that not all animals that are white are ducks. The proposition is internally flawed.
In the Zimmerman case, I posit that the propositions that were presented to the jury were as follows. “There was a confrontation between two men with no other eyewitnesses. One of the men was unarmed. The unarmed man swung at and hit the armed man. The armed man shot and killed the unarmed man. The conclusion: there isn’t enough reasonable doubt to reject the proposition that armed man acted in self-defense.”
I posit that you could challenge this argument either on the basis of the truth of its premises, or on it’s rightness or wrongness in the universe in which it is proposed. Firstly, the central flawed premise and the reason that has drawn thousands out of their homes over the last two days to protest, is that this was a confrontation between two “men”. George Zimmerman is a man. Trayvon Martin was a boy. A black boy who has grown up in a country in which he is socialised to be wary of confrontation with the law, and with big burly white men bearing guns, who come running after you in the dark of night.
A few weeks after Martin was initially shot, I attended a town hall meeting organised by black mothers in the relatively affluent Cambridge community that surrounds my university. Four – black – law enforcement professionals were on the panel addressing a primarily black audience. One mother stood and pleaded in tears: “I need you to tell me how I can keep my son safe”. And they had no responses beyond the stock; get him to change the way he dresses, the music he listens to, and the places where he chooses to hang out with his friends, including his front stoop.
Can you imagine a white police officer giving white mothers advice on how to keep their sons safe from police officers? It struck me that night, that to be a young black man in America is to live in constant apprehension that someone will misunderstand your appearance and then use that as an excuse to fight. You could argue that Zimmerman also went into the confrontation with his own fear: the fear of the young, black man – the presumption that he must be a criminal. But unlike Trayvon, Zimmerman had an assurance at the time of his pursuit that the police would arrive to address the situation. He had reason to temper his (irrational) fear. Trayvon did not.
Secondly, even if you accept all the premises above, your lived experience may tell you that an argument is wrong because it just doesn’t reflect the reality of the world. The reason why so many people are upset at the Zimmerman outcome, and the reason why this case is about race, is that the balance sheet that was presented to the jury did not reflect the totality of the situation, because the impact of race cannot be neatly summarised and quantified on the legal balance sheet.
Race is what I call an “immutable construction”. Immutable, because there’s nothing you can do to change it – the colour of your skin is a biological imperative. But it is also a construction, because the way people react to and interact with race is a function of their own prejudices and assumptions about the world. So when I walk into a room, I can’t do anything about my blackness, or the way people react to it, but the people who react to it can do a great deal about their own reactions.
This immutable construction permeated every step of the Zimmerman trial. It is why we ended up with an all white, female jury – the demographic most “sympathetic” to one side and acceptable to the other. The prosecution wanted a panel of mothers to play on their sympathies: the defence likely wanted a panel of white people to play on any possible fear of young, black men. It was also in the normative judgements made about the presentation of Rachel Jeantel as a witness, or the way Martin’s character was called into question.
Indeed, the easiest way to get to the heart of the way in which race pervaded this whole procedure is a well-publicised thought experiment in which the races of the two actors are reversed. Is there a universe in which black George Zimmerman gets away with killing white Trayvon Martin? Is there a universe in which a white defence attorney portrays a white Trayvon Martin as a criminal whose moral character is worth discrediting? Is there a universe in which a prosecution attorney steps away from making that case for fear of alienating the jury? Is there a world in which a jury buys that?
The law cannot contemplate such hypotheticals. It is the paradigmatic instance of the limits of a “post racial” world – it ignores the very racial differences that set off the chain of events being adjudicated, and pretends that they can be extinguished in the minds of a jury that lives in the real universe in which these racial assumptions are the order of the day. To recall an earlier proposition: very often the “appearance of innocence” is predicated on the race of the accused and the victim, but the legal system cannot look at that because it doesn’t know how.
And this is why we speak up; because where the conclusions law so far diverge from the reality of the universe in which we live, we must draw attention to these limitations in hopes for reforming the law to better address them.
** Old Post – just clearing up the backlog!**
I begin with a disclaimer. I don’t believe that Sarah Palin is responsible for the fatal shooting in Arizona this weekend, and I don’t believe it’s fair to lay blame for the deaths of innocent civilians at her doorstep. Mrs. Palin did not cause Jared Lee Loughner’s mental illness. She may have an incredible mastery of how to play the game, but she certainly did not write the rules.
That said her statement regarding the shooting was disconcerting, though I wasn’t sure why. Was it the fact she seemed so calm and collected even as about 2 minutes into the video the tone changes from “my condolences” to “it wasn’t me”? Was it the fact that the speech came nearly three days after the event, three days during which her name and reputation have been dragged to hell, something that even the most irrational politicians would have tried to damage-control ages ago? Was it that everything in the speech seemed far too managed to be sincere – from the US flag pin on her lapel, to the nondescript but familiar background, or the first time in ages that we’ve seen her hair completely down? All of these reasons offered some kind of promise but none adequately explained the disquiet I felt when watching Mrs. Palin’s message.
In fact, after some reflection, I think the thing about the speech that I find most unnerving is Mrs Palin’s insinuation that this event means nothing for American politics, and after the fray it will be business as usual. To be honest, I’ve always found it hard to believe that Mrs. Palin is as callous as people make her out to believe, preferring a narrative in which she’s more an overzealous, ill-informed individual. I expected that the 3-day cooling off period would have been an opportunity for political reinvention on Mrs. Palin’s part, in which she would not accept responsibility, fair enough, but attempt to point out that it was a moment of reinvention for the poisonous punditry and showmanship that has become so characteristic of American politics. I accept that it would have been a political gamble too far for her to in any way incriminate herself or her allies, but I at least hoped that she would rather have “taken the Democrats down with her” rather than turn around and insinuate “nobody did anything wrong”.
Frankly, from whatever way you look at it, this video is a disappointment. I’m not a US citizen – I have no binding life commitment to either political party, save to criticise where criticism is needed, and on this score, criticism is much needed. Politically, I think Mrs. Palin shot herself in the foot. It is not in her interest to appear defensive and antagonistic at a time of national mourning. Save for a single line implying agreement with President Obama, the bulk of the video focuses on hinting that the venomous rhetoric that has characterised the US political space in the last 2 years is “healthy” or “normal” when it is anything but. Take it from someone who votes in one of the poorly functioning democracies in the world – when politics becomes personal, and the right to hold contrary opinions is challenged not by ideas or debate but repeatedly through overly aggressive positioning, it’s a prelude to events like those we saw last weekend. Personally, it makes her look like a bad leader, given that one of the qualities that people look for in leaders in times of crisis is an ability to shoulder responsibility and point a way forward that isn’t “more of the same”.
In fact, if I had the opportunity to give Mrs. Palin any advice it would be that “more of the same” is a very bad idea. The reality is, in as much as the rest of the world loves to hate on the USA, citizens of most nations dream of having the kind of democracy that it has on it’s best days. The last two years have not been the USA’s best days. Instead of the self-assuredness and forward-thinking attitude that should come from a nation that has begun to overcome one of the darkest chapters in it’s history through a monumental election, we have self-doubt and backward thinking because some individuals insist on acting like pimply, awkward bullies. Rather than looking for ways to move forward with pride and mutual accommodation, we’ve seen misguided politicians rallying citizens around the very false notion that the 1700’s or 1800’s were some kind of golden age with people running around town brandishing guns and shooting up people or places they were unhappy with. And why? Because the sitting government made a few decisions that you disagree with or that threaten you financially?
Mrs. Palin, the world has changed, and for a moment it looked like the US democratic system had changed with it. “More of the same” – aggressive politicking using language laced with violent and retrogressive imagery – is not a good move. It’s time for the awkward bully to grow up. Violent rhetoric may not have created Jared Lee Loughner, but it created an environment in which his mental instability could go relatively unnoticed until it was too late to save the lives that were lost this Saturday.