Who is America? Where is the America that Langston Hughes says has yet to be? Official history remembers one America. Red, black, brown, and yellow people remember another America, the American whose memory is a danger. That rainbow America continues to create history and to be a sign of blood and hope.
The America of the conquerors identifies with whiteness, manliness, and keeping a correct order. The other America has mixed things up and is full of color; its song and art break the rules. The other American is the real frontier, the place where something new can happen, the place where history is made. It is a place of possibility, but it is also a dangerous place. It is the border.
Borders are made by the powerful, but they can be subverted. Sometimes the border is a nineteen hundred mile wire fence with armed border patrol guards, checkpoints, and helicopter surveillance, like the Mexican/United States border; sometimes the border is a line drawn around the Black Hills. Sometimes border lines divide suburbs from slum neighborhoods where police question anyone from the ghetto for crossing over. Sometimes the border is in the mind. This is what Franz Fanon calls taking on the mind of the colonizer, believing the official America’s version of history.
The first step to creating history, according to Fanon, is to decolonize the mind. Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldalgia, who is considered the new de Las Casas of the Americas, has this to say about decolonization: “Decolonizing, reaching back for Latin America’s identity, means allowing the overall Latin American culture—which is the sum total of many cultures, first of many indigenous peoples, and of the black people, enslaved and brought to Latin America, and then of the resulting mixture in many places—allowing this culture to be expressed…” (Casaldaliga, 2). How is culture to be recovered when it is no longer simply the culture it once was but the “sum total of many cultures…indigenous… black… the resulting mix”? Dangerous memory must take back its own bruised and bold history. But even more than that, it must reckon with the fences that held captive the native, the black, red, brown peoples of the Americas, the fences staking land and the terrain of the heart and mind.
Historically the mixed blood person represented an affront to both the colonizer and the colonized. Mulattoes in the Caribbean were despised by the Europeans because they had black blood; they were rejected by the maroons and slaves because they were upwardly mobile and sought status in the white colonial society.
Even some colonized hold to the myth of pure blood and reject those who sympathize with or marry the colonizer. For the colonized, adherence to one’s race is a necessary part of the decolonization process in which the colonized throw off the dominant culture and recover their own. Yet after five hundred years we have a racial mix that makes the notion of pure blood a myth. Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., says that seventy to eighty percent of blacks have white and Indian ancestors. Moreover, he cites a study by Professor Robert Stuckert which indicates that one out of five American whites have African ancestors.
The most authoritative and scientific study in this area was made by Melville J. Herskovits…[whose study of 1551 blacks found] 71.7 percent of the same had white ancestors and 27.2 had some Indian ancestry. Since that time the number of mixed blacks has increased, not only because of additional black-white marriages but also because of the marriage of blacks (mixed) and blacks (unmixed). In the Herskovits sample, only 22 percent of black Americans were of unmixed ancestry. Nantu, Mandingo, Yoruba, Akan, Semite, British, Irish, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Creek, Choctow, Seminole, Pequot, Marshpee—the American black is an extraordinary amalgam of different amalgamations. The end product of 260 years of amalgamation, he is a genetic metaphor of the impossible possibilities of the people of the world, who are not so much equal as complementary, which is, as Teillard Chardin and Leopold Senghor said, a higher form, perhaps the highest form of superiority.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 325
The mix of races reveals “the impossible possibilities of the peoples of the world.” But the colonizers have not welcomed the crossing of genetic borders. Ironically, the early colonists of North America lacked the taboos that would circumscribe such intermingling. Contrary to most accounts, there were many marriages between blacks and whites in the early U.S. colonial period before slavery was introduced. Bennett argues that a system of racism had not yet developed which could focus white fears and that marriage between blacks and whites was a commingling of the poor black and white indentured servants who made up the majority of the early colonial population. The state of Virginia was composed largely of mulattoes resulting primarily from the union of black men and white women who, without social prohibition, chose each other across race lines.
When the colonial planters sought more mass agricultural labor in the latter part of the seventeenth century, slavery was introduced and with it systematic separation of the races. This took some orchestrating because, according to Bennett, whites didn’t as yet understand the concept of whiteness implying racial superiority.
To teach them their roles, the colonial ruling class organized a systematic campaign against mixing, which was perceived as a threat not only to Puritan morality but also to Puritan economics. “The increasing number of mulattoes, through intermarriage and illicit relationships,” Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene wrote, “soon caused alarm among Puritan advocates of racial purity and white dominance. Sensing a deterioration of slavery, if the barriers between masters and slaves were dissolved….they sought to stop racial crossing by statue.”
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 309
Hernan Cortes and la Malinche
If the colonists of North America tried to hold color lines fast, the Spanish colonists did not. Sexual relations between the Spaniards and the Indians produced a mixed race, the mestizos. Mesitzas were represented by la Malinche (La Chingada), the Indian woman who “betrayed” her people and slept with Hernan Cortes. The mix of bloods which resulted from mating between the Spanish and the Indian is the Ladino. Even today the most vulgar put-down one can say to a Mexican woman is to refer to her as la chingada (whore). Writer Gloria Anzaldua insists that such an interpretation of history fails to analyze Aztec class and gender relations. The Aztecs’ weakness was their apparent strength. The Aztecs were themselves conquerors of other tribes who hated them because of the rape by the Aztec nobility. The conquered Tlaxcalans helped the Spanish defeat the Aztecs. “Thus the Aztec nation fell not because [Malinche] interpreted for and slept with Cortes, but because the ruling elite had suberted the solidarity between men and women and between noble and commoner” (Anzaldua, 34).
The culture of the mestizo and the mulatto is the culture of the wretched of the earth. This is the juncture in history where worlds collide. It is the borderland, the land of nobodies, those cast-offs who “belong” to no one—but themselves. The mestiza is the mixture of races, the flesh in which the blood of oppressor and oppressed flows. The mestiza, sign of contradiction, rejected, shoved to the margins of history, stands at our border, those racial, and often class lines that separate us from each other. The border is the place of reckoning and hope. There, in the places of “fences,” is another culture which transforms the old but remembers everything.
This is not an “integrated” or assimilated culture which imitates or seeks acceptance from the dominator. It is its own culture, struggling to know its identity, to make sense of the senseless, to make meaning of suffering, of absurdity, of duality. “We question the ‘integration’ of these cultures and people into what is supposedly a greater nation or a better culture. We do say we would be willing to accept an inter-integration, one continent meeting another….Latin America can and must provide Europe with a great deal in the way of ecology, nature, sense of gratuity, joy, color, hospitality, solidarity, hope, utopia….” (Casaldaliga, 2).
Who can see a world without fences, imagine the world beyond walls of captivity? Certainly not the fence-makers whose legacy to their children is a legal system which upholds their right to land, to boundaries that scar the earth with possession, and armies to enforce the “rights” of fences and walls. Those whose children and dreams were broken on the walls know the perniciousness of “ownership.” Theirs is the vision showing that “boundaries are all lies” (Hogan, 68).
Poet Gloria Anzaldua expands the idea of Mexican philosopher Jose Vascocelos who spoke of the synthesis of races, a mezcla (mixture) resulting in a cosmic race. It is the mestiza who bridges borders, having been torn apart by them. Anzaldua is not speaking of a kind of universal mestiza, that is, an idealized human person without a concrete history mired in the pain of colonialism. The new frontier, peopled with those whose minds are free of fences, is not a “melting pot,” or a place for “individuals without an anchor, without a horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless, a race of angels” (Fanon, 218). On the contrary, those who stand at the borders refuse to forget their people’s history of slavery, of colonization. They embrace the border as a meeting place rather than a place of separation. Whether the border is a state of mind or a fence in the earth, crossing over is an act of defiance, an act of decolonization. The mestiza understands that colonialism’s intention is to obliterate her people’s culture.
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding people in its grip and emptying the natives’ brain of all forms and content….it turns to the past of oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it….We have taken everything from the other side; and the other side gives us nothing…unless by a thousand wiles and a hundred tricks they manage to draw us toward them, to seduce us, and to imprison.
Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 210.
Decolonization is the process in which the colonized person refuses seduction. The task of the oppressed person is to discover his or her identity free of the definitions of the dominant culture. To be free is to affirm one’s own stolen history. But what of the mix, the new breeds created in the clash of cultures: Are they the cast-offs of the world or the harbingers of culture, and signs of a new humanity? People who identify with the dominator die internally, strangled by their own betrayal. The racially mixed person who embraces her subjugated selves recognizes the gifts of mixed blood, having suffered the pain of difference. The mestiza incorporates in her flesh our common blood.
For Fran Fanon, “It is not enough to try to get back to the people in the past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in the fluctuating movement which they are just giving shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question….IT is [in] this zone…where…our souls are crystallized and our lives are transfused with light” (Fanon, 227).
It is there at the border, in the shadows of fences that light pours in, dispelling the clouds of forgetting. The struggle of the borderland is a struggle for culture. But this liberation struggle is not without anguish. “The area of culture,” says Fanon “is then marked off by fences and signposts….Every effort is made to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture” (Fanon, 236).
Gloria Anzaldua expresses the internalized shame and self-hatred produced by colonial domination:
In the Gringo world, the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprivation. Around Latinos he suffers from a sense of language inadequacy and its accompanying discomfort; with Native Americans he suffers from a racial amnesia which ignores our common blood, and from guilt because the Spanish part of him took their land and oppressed them. He has an excessive compensatory hubris when around Mexicans from the other side. It overlays a deep sense of racial shame….
Chicanos and other people of color suffer economically for not acculturating. This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for psychological conflict, a kind of dual identity—we don’t identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don’t totally identify with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of two cultures with varying degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel that one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.
Gloria Anzaldua, The Borderland/La Frontera, 63, 83
Amoja Three Rivers
Amoja Three Rivers describes the burden of not knowing the racial mix that constitutes one’s peoples as a fate as damaging as trying to straddle the known mix of one’s race.
One of the most effective and insidious aspects of racism is cultural genocide. Not only have African Americans been cut off from our African tribal roots, but because of generations of whites pitting African against Indian, and Indian against African, we have been cut off from our Native American roots as well. Consequently most African Native Americans no long have tribal affiliations, or know for certain what people they are form.
Amoja Three Rivers, “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide,” Ms., 42
Guillermo Gomez Pena sees whole generations “as the world’s biggest floating population” –the refugees, the war and border displaced the impoverished seeking work only the desperate want. The colonial project set in motion, and continues to drive, vast displacement of peoples. Gomez Pena calls this the borderization of the world.
The borders either expand or are shot full of holes. Cultures and languages mutually invade each other. The South rises and melts, while the North descends dangerously with its economic and military pincers….Europe and North America daily receive uncontainable migrations of human beings, a majority of whom are being displaced involuntarily….
The demographic facts are staggering: The Middle East and Black Africa are already in Europe, and Latin America’s heart now beats in the United States. New York and Paris increasingly resemble Mexico City and Sao Paulo. Cities like Tijuana and Los Angeles, once socio-urban aberrations, are becoming models of a new hybrid culture, full of uncertainty and vitality. And border youth—the fearsome “cholo-punks,” children of the chasm that is opening before the “first” and the “third” worlds, become the indisputable heirs to a new mestizaje [the fusion of the Amerindian and the European race].
Guillermo Gomez Pens, in Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, eds., Multicultural Literacy, 131
What emerges from the mezcla of cultures, from five hundred years of fences, is not only cultural damage and psychic scars but a new wisdom, a new path. Creoles, mulattoes, and mestizas, the issue of crossed blood, of people who have crossed over the forbidden frontiers, are people who represent a new human enterprise. The new path is made by the despised. It is not an easy road; it is a way that reveals our common journey and common frailty.
The mixed blood person, like all subjugated people, bears the memory of lash, shackles, humiliation, and rape. Here is the testimony of Mary Crow Dog, a Lakota woman who gave birth during the siege of Wounded Knee.
…After I had a baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name, Okita Win, Brave Woman, and fastened an eagle plume in my hair, singing brave heart songs for me. I am a woman of the Red Nation, a Sioux woman. That is not easy.
I had my first baby during a firefight, with bullets cracking through one wall and coming out the other. When my newborn son was only a day old and the marshals really opened up on us, I wrapped him in a blanket and ran for it. We had to hit the dirt a couple of times. I shielded the baby with my body, praying, “It’s all right if I die, please let him live.”
When I came out of Wounded Knee I was not even healed up but they put me in a jail at Pine Ridge and took my baby away. I could not nurse. My breasts swelled up and grew hard as rocks, hurting badly. In 1975 the feds put the muzzle of their M16s against my head, threatening to blow me away. It’s hard being an Indian woman.
My best friend was Anna Mae Aquash, a young, strong-hearted woman form the Mic Mac Tribe with beautiful children. It is not always wise for an Indian woman to come on too strong. Anna Mae was found dead in the snow at the bottom of a ravine on Pine Ridge Reservation. The police said she died of exposure, but there was a 38 caliber slug in her head. The FBI cut off her hands and sent them to Washington for fingerprint identification; hands that helped my baby come into the world.
My sister-in-law Delphine, a good woman who had lived a hard life, was also found dead in the snow, the tears frozen on her face. A drunken man had beaten her, breaking one of her arms and legs, leaving her helpless in a blizzard to die.
My sister Barbara went to the government hospital in Rosebud to have her baby and when she came out of anesthesia found that she had been sterilized against her will. The baby lived only two hours and she had wanted so much to have children. No, it isn’t easy.
When I was a small girl at St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic Sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience.” At the age of 10 I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age 12 the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age 15 I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are white and male.
Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, Lakota Woman, 1-3
Born in this suffering is a defiance that offers hope. Indian poet Joy Harjo uses the metaphor of houses to describe Indian shame and defiant hope in response to the white way.
She had some horses who whispered in the dark,
who were afraid to speak.
She had some horses who screamed out of the fear of silence,
who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had some horses who waited fro destruction.
She had some horses who waited for resurrection….
These were the same horses.
Joy Harjo, in Rayna Green, ed., That’s What She Said, 45
The borderland is woman’s “place” because it is no man’s land. It is woman who locates in her bodiliness the wounds of centuries. It is woman who envisions a new humanity without borders, without a “place” for women, for the elderly, for those who are outcasts, who are “different” racially, sexually, culturally.
Pretty Shield was a medicine woman of the Crow Nation. Medicine Woman of the Crow, Shield’s autobiography written with Frank Linderman is the first record of the “women’s side” of Native American Life.
I saw Strikes—Two, a woman sixty
years old, riding around the camp on
a grey horse. She carried only her
root-digger, and she was singing her
medicine-song, as though Lakota
bullets and arrows were not flying
When the men and even the women
began to sing as Strikes-Two told
them, she rode out straight at the
Lakota, waving her root-digger and
singing that song. I saw her, I heard
her, and my heart swelled because she
was a woman.
Pretty Shield in Paul Gunn Allen, ed., Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, 33