Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving--and pass the cranberries

“Wild” cranberries
“America was until this last generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and it belongs to us."

That’s a quote from Richard Spencer, self-appointed spokesman for the “alt-right” in a gathering of some sort in Washington D. C. last week.

Right now, I am reading A Land So Strange: the Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, an explorer-adventurer in the New World whose party of hundreds was put off course, shipwrecked, stranded, and lost somewhere near present day Florida in 1527. He, along with three others, were the sole survivors of an ordeal on the North American mainland that lasted over seven years and involved starvation, cannibalism, enslavement, and the first detailed descriptions of Indian societies along the Gulf of Mexico. Most likely, few early European arrivals were literate; fewer still had the gift and took the time to describe the New World. De Vaca remarked, for instance, on the size and physical prowess of the Indians--something that startled many Little Ice Age Europeans.

I jump from Spencer to Cabeza de Vaca not because the one is an avowed racist and the other not, or because Spencer speaks from a life of ease and privilege while de Vaca lived through excruciating hardship, but because of the total irony of Spencer’s “America was until this last generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.”

America was, for the first 12,000 or 14,000 or 16,000 years—the dates keep getting pushed back—a land of Asian immigrants who had populated it from Arctic to near Antarctic and grown in numbers to some 60 or 70 or 80 million by the time the cycles of life and cultures in the place were interrupted by European diseases and culture with Columbus in 1492. This half of the world had developed over 2,500 languages, diverse religions and political systems; had domesticated corn, tobacco, rubber, squash, potato, chocolate, llamas and alpacas. Some of its societies developed writing, systems of mathematics and astronomy. There were skilled sailors, boat builders, whale hunters, fishermen, weavers, potters, wood carvers, artists and artisans.

Societies, cities, and empires had risen and fallen—pre-Inka to Inka, Mayan, Mississippi Mound-builders, plainsmen, coastal tribes—in a kind of dance with far-off and invisible partners in Europe, Asia, and Africa that were doing the same.

The conceit of Europeans in 1492 is that they were the true ones, had the true civilization, culture(s), and religion(s) that deserved to rule everything they found and surveyed. The parentheses are because Europeans ultimately could not agree on what was true, which caused different European nations and religions to war with each other in this new world.

De Vaca and the Spaniards believed that they were designated by God to colonize this new world and plunder its riches for themselves, their European sponsors, and their Church. Their misunderstandings and misdeeds preceded Mr. Spencer’s probable northern European ancestors by decades. But de Vaca in particular gained some appreciation for the marvelous ways that native peoples across hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast and the interior of what is now the Mexican-American border country had learned to manage their environment and carve out lives. And surely some of the northern Europeans, whose visitations on Virginia and New England resulted in similar hardship and eventual displacement, gained the same appreciation.

One wonders at the role of epidemic diseases in both cases, diseases that wiped out indigenous communities without immunities and convinced some of the conquerors—and undoubtedly some of the victims—that God was on their side.

From this distance it appears that some white Americans believe that still, believe that they are the true and only lawful heirs to the work of God and the hard labor of European settlers and later white immigrants.  They are ignorant of or choose to ignore the thousands of years and millions of brown immigrants who preceded them and developed the two continents through their acts of discovery and adaptation, and to ignore the millions of black, brown, and yellow skinned people who, often enduring slavery, scorn, and even death, brought the North American Continent (we’ll assume Spencer is not speaking for the many South American countries and cultures) and these United States to where we are today.

Cranberries, like the squash, the wild turkey that is father to your domestic variety, the potatoes and beans and other accouterments that are on your Thanksgiving table today, were here before Spencer’s forbearers knew there was an America. Maybe he and his white purists should start by stripping their Thanksgiving tables, and everyday tables, of the gifts of others.

The rest of us can give thanks to ALL who have contributed-even some of those like de Vaca who were often wrongheaded about it--to our tables.

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