Reflecting on Theft
In fall we put most of the garden to bed. After months of reaping the harvest from long, sunny, warm days, we pull up tomato and zucchini plants, spread leaf mulch to keep the weeds down. Overwintering vegetables – arugula, lettuce, turnips, chard, kale – stay green. The rest of the garden turns brown, lies fallow, gathers rain and nutrients for spring planting. If we follow the seasons’ rhythms, we too slow down, cover up, spend more time inside, reflect.
Astrologically, Fall Equinox marks the transition between the signs of Virgo and Libra. Virgo facilitates individual healing and cleansing after the glorious, glowing excesses of Leo. Libra, the sign of balance and justice, seeks equilibrium between the individual and the collective. Fall Equinox is a good time to reflect on our individual role in society as a whole and to open ourselves to others’ points of view in our quest for justice.
Recently, the New York Times Magazine published a series of essays titled “The 1619 Project.” The series acknowledges the 400th anniversary of the date in late August, 1619, when the first 20-30 enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia. The essays dive deep into the impacts of chattel slavery on all aspects of life in the colonies and, later, the United States: our founding ideals, capitalist economy, health care system, wealth gap, mass incarceration, excessive consumption of sugar, and even gridlocked traffic in Atlanta, Georgia.
I’ve read enough of the essays to come to this conclusion: most of the possessions I own and the experiences of my life have been made possible by massive, ongoing theft from and murder of people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people of color. This is a stunning realization. What is more stunning to me is that this undeniable truth is only now becoming fully clear to me, at age 70. It’s as if I am unwrapping layer after layer of gauze from my eyes. My vision is still impaired, but I begin, at last, to see. And I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and came of age during the early days of the American Indian Movement.
The house I live in, the land it rests on, every home I’ve ever had, every city, state and national park, almost every field, riverbank, lakeshore. The Ivy League campus I left home for at 18, its land, brick buildings, endowed professorships, overweening prestige. The health care industry that paid me wages for decades, pays me a pension each month, earned me Social Security, fixed my broken leg, treated my depression, helps me manage my asthma. The Pap smear tests I had done every year or two to screen for cervical cancer. The salmon I love to eat, the vegetables grown on land stolen from people we now call illegal. The music I love to dance to, its beats, rhymes, rhythms. Our Constitution, now being shredded by thieves. All stolen.
I have a body, a voice, hands, feet, eyes, mind. Family and community. Ancestors who stand behind me. The ability to see, to listen, speak, write. To step forward instead of hiding behind whiteness.
What am I doing to stop the stealing, the killing? What can I offer to repair the damage done?
Once I see, I feel compelled to act. But it’s important to educate myself so that, in acting, I don’t compound the harm. To listen. Lately I’ve been reading, in addition to the essays: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Olua, White Fragility by Robin diAngelo. Memoirs like Roxane Gay’s book Hunger, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, Terese Marie Malhot’s Heartberries: A Memoir. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, by Coll Thrush. Listening to and reading first-person accounts of the horrors that have been unfolding on our southern border for decades. Following people of color on social media. (For white people, if you do this, I encourage you to read and listen without asking questions. If you don’t understand a tweet or post, it may not be for you. The point is to educate ourselves, not to make people of color work harder explaining things to us.)
I’ve been excavating my own ancestral stories. Learning about ancestors who were colonizers and those who were colonized. It’s important for those of us of European descent to know where we come from. Otherwise, we steal others’ stories as well as their land and labor. I’m looking closely at my spiritual and healing practices to discover and stop using ones that are appropriated.
This is a lifelong journey.