Story, and the Republican National Convention and Minnesota Nice and East Africans in the Twin Cities and Blood Diamonds,
The Blood Diamond of Story.
Perhaps the wonderful thing about story, about writing, is the chance to reframe everything. The free field of language which in its spiderwebbing way leads us to more truth, hidden truth, forgotten truth, truth which has been obscured and deformed.
Reframing everything. Putting everything back in context.
I taught Children’s Literature last spring at a wonderful community college in Minnesota, and the first thing I asked my students was, well, what is a child? When discussions of poverty and homelessness, child soldiers and human trafficking, present day slavery and prostitution and abuse, came forward, perhaps some students expecting only adorable pigs and wise spiders were a little surprised. But the courage and energy with which this beautiful and diverse group entered this material was nothing less than a true crossing, an entry into larger truths, a reframing. When a student from Ethiopia did a presentation about child soldiers, some of the students from suburbs of the Twin Cities wept, and one, through tears, thanked him, through her anger at her own not knowing, thanked him.
So much amnesia we battle, and that is part of the source of story. The search for antidote for amnesia. Affirming context. An acceptance that a diamond can be a blood diamond, and so much of the suffering for instance in Sierra Leone, the country of Ishmael Beah, who writes his own story in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, is looked at through the lenses of amnesia, through the idea that Africa is a continent whose current violence came from within. But it was Belgium’s King Leopold who was the first to cut off limbs in Africa, 1 for every 100 slaves, as a warning, so this act did not originate with the Africans in Sierra Leone. Take a look at the very moving film Blood Diamond, and think about your or someone else’s diamond engagement ring.
So, many of the stories we are pushed to tell are the stories of the unseen. Or the familiar stories that seem to have a queasy hole in their middles, a spiraling silence that has its effects in so many ways. A loss of time. Waking up in another place and time as many people who experience severe trauma do, people with dissociated identity or multiple personality disorders. When people in the US woke up to the horrific September 11th attacks in 2001, for many it seemed as if amnesia had flung them into an arbitrary world, no cause with great effects. However one looks at this horrible day, this idea does not serve. We need context. We need to face causes.
Here is a simple example of something made invisible, something of significance, I believe, of how different points of view see and do not see something which is there; how, then, reality is rendered invisible by a kind of negative magic; and how our voices, our stories and images, are needed to lift that invisibility and restore the world in its fullness, in its truths, in the complexity of its workings.
Let’s go back 11 days. It is September 1, 2008, and the Republican National Convention has come to St. Paul, Minnesota and clogged the streets and been preceded by confiscations of video equipment and raids on the houses of suspected anarchists with no more suspicious materials than exist in anyone else’s house, plus perhaps a bag of shit. Not exactly WMDs. The week will go on with the use of pepper spray and tear gas and concussion grenades and beatings and arrests of journalists, including Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and 2 of her producers (charges not yet dropped) and rubber bullets and 800 arrests. Minnesota Nice long gone.
And very little of this will appear in the mainstream national news, although we here in the Twin Cities saw it as we see our grocery stores and our gas stations and our neighbors and our magnificent trees.
There is a massive anti-war march (many different numbers given of those in attendance, but these marchers are minus many people who have been carefully intimidated for weeks with threats of violence against demonstrators from our caring Homeland Security and local forces).
There are many descriptions of this elsewhere, so I will just say this: We gather at the State Capitol, and after a rally we march through the streets of St. Paul towards the Excel Energy Center where the Republican festivities are in process, although without Bush and Cheney, who are staying in out of the rain. As we approach the center we are funneled, or herded like cattle, through enormous riot gates. Very clever, but somehow not the free expression I had envisioned.
Before we get to those gates, as we are marching the streets of St. Paul, there are lines and lines of riot police to either side of us. No identification. No faces — their faces are covered with helmet and shields, and they are entirely dressed in black riot gear, flak jackets, with an array of weaponry hanging from their costumes.
I must be more threatening than I thought. All that salsa dancing is paying off.
But this is what I see and what captures me. In front of most of the lines of riot police up and down the streets (and they must be at least 7 feet tall and rather intimidating), there is a line of young East Africans, I am thinking mostly Somali. Young people. Beautiful young people. Some of them, even children. In front of these lines of massive, armed and well protected riot squads. Between them and the marchers. Between them and me. Young people standing still with such focus in their faces that I know I am protected and honored and in the presence of something holy.
And I cannot stop looking, and I think, this, this is The Photo of this march, of this movement in some ways. In the 1960s, the photo of the young white woman stuffing a flower down the barrel of a National Guardsman’s (or policeman’s?) gun, or of the 4 students lying dead in Ohio after a protest, did not show us the Black students killed at Jackson State in a protest, did not show us so many others. So I understand that one image, one aspect of an event, is not supposed to eclipse all others.
But here are immigrants for whom everything is at stake: their new home, and the home they have left, still under bombardment and in suffering. Everything is at stake: the way they are and remain Somali or Ethiopian or Eritrean, and the way they are becoming American; the very ground under their feet is at stake, their jobs, their homes, their families, their cultures, at stake, each day at stake, each word, each statement, their very names, at stake.
And though this is THE picture of this march for me, I see it no where, in neither the establishment media nor the left media, the media of protest. This photo is No Where I have yet seen, although I must look at the local Somali and African newspapers and I think, I hope, it will be there. (More information about the very large Somali community in Minnesota below this posting.)
Always a story, an image, a point of view unheard.
Now, maybe I missed the appearance of these photos, having been a bit submerged with deadlines. But so far as I can see, or hear from others, no such photo.
And back to September 1st, I am marching under banners that demand an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I am marching with dear C who is part Ojibwe, and she sees the many signs, “End the Israeli Occupation”, as we march side by side with S and J who come from New Orleans, who had to search for parents, for grandparents, through the effects of Katrina and the genocidal negligence of this current government, and I feel the ache of stories converging, not told, being told. On my back, C leans to write another sign on the other side of the one we had put up in the air, a sign that recognizes the first occupation of what would become the United States. “America out of Turtle Island”, it says – and we swing that sign around and around as we walk, and this dizziness is the dizziness of the truth, the hidden truth, and the connectedness of truths in this text of the world we live in, and this is story to me.
This is story.
Please Vote! Vote for those who truly value all our stories, yours and mine and those who stood between this writer and the very heavily armed, faceless, riot police in St. Paul, Minnesota, next to the stories at the Republican National Convention, where they laughed at our communities and at those who work in them for positive change.
(this is written in a hurry, so much to do)
PS: For those who know how central, how urgent, are stories:
From 9/11/08’s DEMOCRACY NOW!
From The Somali Action Alliance at http://www.somaliactionalliance.org/readarticle.php?article_id=1
“WHO WE ARE
Before the civil war, an estimated 7.7. million people lived in Somalia, while today, about one million Somali are scattered around the world (Cultural Orientation Project, 2004). While a great number of refugees live in neighboring countries in East Africa and in the Middle East, there are Somali communities throughout Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Finland, England) and North America. Somalis in the United States have lived predominantly in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and recently, San Diego and Seattle. Particularly, recent first and second waves of Somali immigrants have settled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where an estimated 40-70% of Somali immigrants now reside, making it the largest American home to Somali refugees (Greeson, Veach, & LeRoy, 2001; Minnesota Foundation, 2004). While the number is not exact, community leaders estimate 60,000-75,000 Somali live in Minnesota with the majority in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Somalis are one of the largest immigrant communities in Canada, with the majority living in Toronto.
“The complex war among clan-based militias has displaced almost 50% of the population, and hundreds of thousands have died” (Kemp & Rasbridge, 2001, p. 59). Somali have lived in the United States anywhere from 5-10 years, are primarily apartment dwellers and work more than one job. Our families are large, often 6-10 members, approximately 1/3 are children. Many families are headed by mothers as men were killed in the war. Limited English skills and work low paying jobs predominate. As refugees from a civil war we have little knowledge or trust in a democratic system and minimal experience in raising our voices in either unity or disagreement. We are a Muslim community which impacts our ability to participate in the Western economic system. A political people, we’re eager to discuss what is happening back home. As an oral people we depend on each other, the radio, and internet for our news and information.Using the Federal definition of poverty for a family of 4, the amount is $18,850. Related research helps provide a picture of the state of Minnesota’s Somali families. According to the Community Partnership for Adult Learning (2004 report) 70% of the Somali families living in the Cedar Riverside are live below the Federal poverty level. A study done by the Wilder Research Center (April 2003) indicates that 32% of Somali families receive MFIP are working, another 31% are on MFIP and not working and 37% are off MFIP.”
Minnesota’s Somali families. According to the Community Partnership for Adult Learning (2004 report) 70% of the Somali families living in the Cedar Riverside are live below the Federal poverty level. A study done by the Wilder Research Center (April 2003) indicates that 32% of Somali families receive MFIP are working, another 31% are on MFIP and not working and 37% are off MFIP.”