Running the Gauntlet

Running the Gauntlet

I often think that every disadvantaged — hell, call it what it is: oppressed – group must endure certain ritualistic phases imposed by its oppressors.

These phases–gauntlets, actually–vary or overlap in details, but generally each has its own characteristics. They’re intended as obstacles to say the least, impediments to be more accurate; if we’re being honest, death blows to the head, heart, and life, when successful.

The first, usually, is invisibility. Nobody notices that you’re suffering. How can you be suffering? You’re just a person like everyone else. You’ve got the same privileges and benefits and oh, perhaps a drawback or two here or there, sure, but gee whiz, no biggie. If you haven’t called attention to your suffering, preferably by screaming a lot, that’s taken to mean that you weren’t suffering in the first place. Of course, if you have called attention to it, depending on the degree of your complaint, you’re exaggerating, hyperbolic, or a flat-out goddamned liar. One example: in the late 1960s, when women began complaining in feminist terms (which we naively thought had historic precedent so we were largely being mild mannered and eminently reasonable), men reacted by saying that we were hysterical and our hair was on fire. You see, since date rape, acquaintance rape, and marital rape were all as yet unthought of and unnamed concepts, then unless you had been murdered during a gang rape by 20 drunk strangers, it couldn’t possibly be a “real” rape. You get the point. Similarly, in the process of (god forbid we use the term “woke”) European Americans beginning to fathom the tiniest bit about true Black history in this country, vociferous denial immediately slams down and outrage at Critical Race Theory is the resulting roar: “Now you’re going too far!” Still, the truth will out and history, more often than not, is its friend. Years ago, I titled one of my books Going Too Far. One or two reviewers thought they were displaying wit by deleting the third “o” and treating “far” as if it were a place toward which I was en route.

Native Americans — the Indigenous peoples of the Americas — are now beginning to emerge from such invisibility, having been told they must patiently and impatiently wait”their turn” while educationally disadvantaged European Americans made our way down the list. And such a long list it is! You’d think it might begin with Native Americans since they were the first people to encounter the European tidal wave. It hit this country in the form of Catholic priests, conquistadors, Puritan Protestants, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Scandinavian armies, and soon after, so-called “settlers.” It especially took its toll in the form of contagious diseases that had been decimating Europe, to which the Indigenous peoples here had no immunity whatsoever.

The Americas that Columbus “discovered” were already home to between 72 and 75 million people — a population approximating that of 16th-Century Europe. They were already “settled” in more than 1000 nations, and they spoke an estimated 400 to 500 distinct languages, now lost. As many as a quarter of the earth’s languages, linguists say, were in the Americas.

At first in a trickle the Europeans came, but then in hordes, famished for the abundance of natural resources (like forests for lumber) that Europe was already beginning to lose, and hungry for everything else–gold, precious stones and minerals, oil, human labor, land, power. Slavery was a strategy. So was poverty. But disease was the most effective. Smallpox. Yellow Fever. Measles. Influenza. Bubonic plague. Cholera. Within 200 years of the conquest, three quarters of America’s Native population had been erased.

Easy enough, then, to render them invisible! To render them the percentage of “and others” in any pie-chart of demographics. To permit Benjamin Franklin to admire and envy the Haudenosaunee League of Nations’ great rules for democratic government and steal them for the infant United States, while still considering those who devised them to be savages, unworthy of receiving credit. Conveniently invisible.

But then, once you peek around the corner, you are no longer completely invisible. You have managed to make it to the next stage–where you have now achieved the status of . . . being laughable! How comic they are: your mannerisms, your accent, your dress, your difference in education or lack thereof, your religions and traditions–so cute. Amusing, certainly. Even worthy of a certain — shhhhh — almost reverence, as if you were a quaint vessel for preciosity. Definitely entertaining. Assuredly not threatening. Not serious–or even real. You are, we might say, a popular sensation!

This is a tricky stage, because in your newfound position you are useful and provide advantages and pleasures for the powerful. They do reward you with a prize or two; attention, publicity, a lunch or dinner at a fabulous restaurant or event where you will be seen and talked about–with, in other words, the impermanent notoriety bestowed on temporarily well-regarded (but not seriously respected) persons. Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas was costumed in hoop skirts and sent to the English court to be gaped at. Sacajawea was packed off with Louis and Clark to be an amiable guide to the West. La Malinche was used as an invaluable translator and guide, then abused and historically slandered.

I find myself wondering if Native peoples are going through this stage at present, but the stages blur and their borders overlap, so it’s difficult to tell. Black Americans have been across those borders and back and across and back so many times, it’s difficult for them to work out just where they are: “Here’s a Pulitzer Prize!” and then “You’re fired.” This stage is perilous for any individual or group caught in it, because the prizes feel real but the promise is not; because it makes you a cynic who bitterly starts to think you might as well make hay while the sun shines since who knows what tomorrow brings; and because your original hunger has never been assuaged or even minimally addressed in the first place. If by chance you make it through this treacherous phase without buying in or selling out, if you dodge a torrent of slings and arrows from your own people (because they assume you’re now one with The Oppressors and probably have been all along); if you keep your counsel and your soul intact, if you survive taking to drink or having a nervous breakdown or shriveling up way beyond any dry “spell” as a writer or artist — if all that is somehow endurable, you just might live on long enough to get some real work done. But.

When you pass into this stage, things get very dangerous. Because you do. Now tired of being politic, entertaining, promising, and remarkably articulate “for your kind,” you find fools insufferable, and it’s harder and harder to find anyone who is not a fool. You show your teeth. They promptly knock them out. Now, instead of lionizing you as the new answer to everything or even acknowledging that you are (all things considered) fairly talented, they reconsider. They judge you humorless. Sullen. Ungrateful. A militant. A terrorist, even. Violence flirts. You go to jail. If you keep this up, you might see prison — or worse.

All this time, curiosity has kept you sane, simply by wondering how it can be, that they don’t see: see the need for reparations, see the injustices, see the pattern, the pain? See the Oh look we now even have a word for it, the swarm of microaggressions? See the macroaggressions, too, the ones you breathe in every day along with the oxygen of despair, see you. How come they can’t see you? How can a distinguished group of scholars, men as well as women, studying comparative racism in three originally colonized societies— Brazil, South Africa, and the United States —repeatedly refer in their documents to consanguinity, miscegenation, mixed concubinage, “dusky mistresses,” and interracial relationships, along with using such terminology as “mulatto,” “octoroon,” “half breed,” “passing,” and so forth — all without once, not once, mentioning rape?

That is the sort of question we must all ask in any of our attempts to decolonize what we’ve been told about colonization–and to decolonize what we suspect hides in feminism itself.