Tuesday, May 26, 2020

“Woke” versus Awakening: Have we all Become Culture Orphans?


In a past posting I talked about memory and why ‘remembering’ is so important.  Lately, the term “woke” has been coined to identify privileged peoples’ growing awareness of the history and ongoing oppression in North America with its attendant miseries of racism, sexism, and gross unequal distribution of wealth. In Canada, First Nations people have historically been at the tail end of seemingly endless injustices. Those of us who are “woke” are aware that many reservations struggle with high unemployment, poor housing, with water fouled by some bozo profit-seeking company that just doesn’t give a damn, and healthy food expensive and hard to come by.  We also know that many First Nations are precariously housed or live on the streets. But I want to point out that one of the peculiarities of being Indigenous in North America has a lot to do with language.

If you want to make slaves out of a population, or at least degrade them, then the first thing to do is to kill their mother tongue.  The reason any native language is called a mother tongue, in my opinion,  points to the strong suggestion that human females are responsible for creating and passing down language. But I mustn’t digress.  After the genocide of the Indigenous population in Canada that followed contact with the Europeans (there is no other word for what happened other than genocide although the Canadian government won’t say so) the remaining children were “blessed” with the civilizing influence of residential schools where their lessons were peppered with beatings and sexual terrorism. They were not allowed to speak their own languages as this merely indicated their savagery; at the same time this indicates awareness of the power of language to anchor a peoples’ identity. The children who survived were considered successes by their teachers when they could no longer speak their own languages, at least fluently. Some children, if they were lucky enough to go home again, couldn't speak to their own families.

In the United States, Africans were brought to this continent in chains for the slave trade and treated to the lash when they tried to speak their native tongues.  African-Americans were also forced to lose their memory for their original languages, and by proxy their diverse identities and histories.

When language is lost, so too is cultural memory – the memories that language rests upon. While the First Nations in Canada are re-membering their cultures in many different ways, including through reclaiming the linguistic knowledge of their ancestors, many of those languages are gone. Few African-Americans known anything about their ancestry before slavery. So many millions of people have become cultural orphans. And I want to argue that in a very real, concrete sense that those of us belonging to the dominant Anglo culture have also lost our mother tongues. Not just our individual ancestral languages, but also the capacity re-member any other ways of being than we currently are. The consequences of the colonial (and ongoing) violence has not left us unmarked. While we may be “woke’, we also need to awaken to the realization that we are all cultural orphans. Yet our orphan-hood has turned us into monstrous toddlers demanding everything we have a whim for, with no capacity to sit with discomfort or inconvenience, while at the same time yearning for another way. How then do awaken and start again? Next time.

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