Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Erzulie's Skirt & Empire

A Speech/Reading presented for Last Sunday
Austin, TX
February 18, 2007

A mirror for this posting can be found on the Discussion page

What is empire?

In her 2003 speech on Confronting Empire, Arundhati Roy states:

"When we speak of confronting "Empire," we need to identify what "Empire" means. Does it mean the U.S. Government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations? Or is it something more than that? In many countries, Empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous byproducts — nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course terrorism. All these march arm in arm with the project of corporate globalization."

If we are to consider how we as U.S. Citizens participate in the construction of Empire and how we confront our own participation and perpetuation of empire, we must begin by asking ourselves some fundamental questions around what we are certain we know: what we have assumed are truths guaranteed and embedded in our social contracts.

I am not a historian, and I am not a political scientist. I am a novelist, a poet, an organizer engaged in questions around the dismantling of oppressive institutions and transformative modes of thinking within U.S. society. I am engaged in these questions because of the very nature of empire: what we decide here affects the rest of the world. An appropriate metaphor would be the waterfall that begins as the wet, spongy ground of a spring and soaks up through the sand as a creek, to become a river and to then plunge off of a cliff into unknown depths, sweeping logs and branches and anything else in its path down with it. We as a nation enacting empire are both the spring and the waterfall. And I have witnessed the sweeping waters of U.S.Dominican Republic. empire tumbling violently across the landscape of the land of my birth: the

Picture this: A hot tropical sun radiating heat across white sand. Turquoise blue sea water lapping at your toes. The sound of the wind in the palm trees as the sweet scent of sand and ocean permeate your skin and every cell of your body. You have just eaten fresh fish and fried plantain served to you on a styrofoam plate. You look out over the sea, happy that you decided to visit the Dominican Republic on your vacation. The people are so nice, the food is so good and the rum, oh the rum. A dark woman, you assume she is Dominican, approaches you and offers to braid your hair for only $20.00. As you rub suntan lotion onto your shoulders, you decide, sure – why not. It would be fun to have braids for a little bit. It would be almost...exotic.

Now picture this: On a hot, sunny day in November 1999 a group of women, myself included, sat on the beach wiggling our toes in the white sands, looking out over turquoise blue waters. But we were not there to enjoy the sun. Just that morning, word had reached us that the President, Leonel Fernandez, had deported several hundred Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans from the Dominican Republic over to Haiti. His reasons: securing the homeland and ensuring that the Haitians did not interrupt the economic health of the nation. That same day, a boat carrying 85 people, we will assume they were all Dominican, though that boat could have also included Haitians and Cubans and people from any other island in the region, capsized in the open waters of the Mona Channel as they attempted to make their way to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that has served as a port of entry for many on their way to the land of opportunity. We were trying to figure out what to do, how to respond to the loss of life, liberty and dignity among our fellow human beings whose only crime was to try and secure a living out of sand, water and scorched earth.

Read from Erzulie’s Skirt, excerpt pages 166 & 167

In the past few years especially we have become acquainted with sweat shop labor and its ramifications. Through the protests of the anti-globalization movements, including the first march in Seattle in 2000 and down to the neat label at the bottom of American Apparel advertisements stating: “Made sweatshop-free in L.A. we as a movement have reached a higher consciousness about sweat shop labor and its implications for people and communities around the world. What we have failed to realize is that foreign economic policies designed in the United States, including NAFTA and the recently enacted Caribbean & Central American version, CAFTA, continue to create a two-tiered system of economic participation – between countries of consumption and countries of production. The Dominican Republic, a land and a nation at the heart of Western history – for being the first place in the hemisphere where colonization was enacted, as well as its institutions, including slavery, large scale cash crop plantations and gold mining – is a nation bound by the economic policies of the United States. In order to maintain its sovereignty as a nation, its leadership participates in economic and social policies that keep it in line with its friendly neighbor to the North. In 1999, this included the deportation of hundreds of people from the land of their birth. In 2003, this included the commissioning of 150 Dominican soldiers to fight in Iraq beside U.S. forces. In 2004, this included cuts in subsidies to Dominican rice agriculturalists and cattle ranchers – foods that were then replaced with imports from the United States. In 2005, the U.S. coast guard reported the highest number of immigrants arriving by boat from the Dominican Republic in recent history.

What, then, are our remedies? I don’t profess to have answers to this question. I will, however, offer two points of reflection.

The first point I will ask you to consider is the legacy of binary thought that we have been socialized into under the U.S. social contract. The either/or paradigm under which we function has limited us to essential concepts and language of black/white, male/female, us/them. The consequences of this paradigm are manifold and specifically affect those who transgress these boundaries of essential identity. We have historic examples in the ways in which white and black women were punished during struggles for abolition and suffrage, and forced to separate their efforts often through violent acts. Today, we see the effects of either/or thinking exemplified through the number of hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals. We also see this paradigm enacted in the framing of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle, and in the justification of pre-emptive war.

We as social movements and individuals hoping and working towards a better society, must undo our own participation in either/or paradigms. We must reconceptualize the multiple complexities of our society, and our political frameworks (including the bipartisan framework) as spaces for both/and approaches to decision-making.

Secondly, and finally, we must examine our sense of certainty. If there is one major shift in our society as a whole following 9/11 it is that we became less certain of many things. This, I believe, is a positive outcome of a very traumatic situation. Certainty, and I cite Karen Armstrong in this point, is a key element of fundamentalism. And in discussing fundamentalism, I am not speaking of those who have been framed as the enemies of the U.S. Remembering my recent call to intersectional thinking, rather than either/or thinking, I would ask us to consider how we as a secular society have become certain about the separation of church and state, while simultaneously witnessing the melding together of these two institutions into a force that is forming a discrete political agenda that dictates not only how foreign aid reaches other countries, but how we as a people are to think of ourselves in that process. As long as we are certain that our democracy is unquestionable, or that the assumed truths guaranteed and embedded in our social contracts are unshakeable, we will fail to grasp how we U.S. citizens continue to participate in the development of policies that strip the rights and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, including our own.

I will conclude with a final reading from my novel, Erzulie’s Skirt

Read from Erzulie’s Skirt, excerpt pages 79-81


Roy, Arundhati
Confronting Empire, delivered at the World Social Forum in
Porto Alegre, Brazil, on January 27, 2003

Armstrong, Karen
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, Anchor Books, NY: 2004.

Statistics on the Dominican Republic gleaned from El Listin Diario & El Diario Libre, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Country Report (Dominican Republic, Chapters IX & X) OEA/Ser.L/V/II.104, Doc. 49 rev. 1, 7 October 1999

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