By Dr. Kyle Mays, Guest Contributor
Scenario: So, I’m sitting with five dear friends in at one of their apartments. Two were women, three were men, all were Black, except for me (I am Black/Saginaw Chippewa). We’re eating grilled chicken, mac-n-cheese, a bomb-ass fruit salad, and a salad with Thai-sesame dressing; the food was on point! After finishing our meals, we had some carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (yum!) with coffee⎯medium roast. Luckily we finished our meal and no one suffered the itis.
As is our custom, we began to debate politics, popular culture, and just straight shit talking. Our conversations ranged from whether Beyonce can be a feminist, to how someone could support racist mascots. Then, we started to debate current happenings in the D (Detroit!). The bulk of our discussion was centered on how hipsters⎯white hipsters⎯are moving into Detroit, and setting up businesses downtown. One of my friends called it gentrification, the other homie chimed in and made a distinction between urban renewal, which is what is happening downtown, and gentrification, which is happening all over the city. I was pretty quiet, after all, I’m a historian, what do I know about contemporary politics?
Anyways, one of my friends made an interesting rhetorical choice by calling the white hipsters “contemporary settler colonists,” to which my head snapped up. I guess he saw my sudden reaction, and further stated his case that, yeah, white hipsters coming into Detroit were, in fact, settler colonists. My immediate reaction was to think, “Of course they are, we live in a settler colonial society.” But the second thought made me a bit more uneasy. I thought to myself, “wait–you in this room are also settlers; you have a very different historical experience in this country, but make no mistake, your ass is a settler, too.” Even writing that makes me uncomfortable! After all, these people in the room are people I love⎯dearly. But what enhanced my discomfort happened about five minutes later, when I brought up an essay written by Detroit radicals James “Jimmy” Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs. The essay is titled, “The City is the Black Man’s Land.”
In this seminal essay, published in 1970, the Boggs’ articulate a compelling argument for why it is imperative for Black folks to take over the politics of cities. Here is a passage from their essay:
America has already become the dangerous society. The nation’s major cities are becoming police states. There are only two roads open to it. Either wholesale extermination of the black population through mass massacres or forced mass migrations onto reservations as with the Indians (White America is apparently not yet ready for this, although the slaughter of thirty-two blacks in Watts by the armed forces of the state demonstrates that this alternative is far from remote). Or self-government of the major cities by the black majority, mobilized behind leaders and organizations of its own creation and prepared to reorganize the structure of city government and city life from top to bottom (40)
The Boggs’ were revolutionary thinkers, and had a powerful way with words. So, why would they need to appropriate Indigenous history as it relates to the future of the Black experience? There are at least three points I’ll make here. First, the Boggs’ lived during a time of great social transformation, so the idea that they just didn’t know anything about Native “issues” is unlikely because they were always aware of the politics of this country. And we know from history that rumbles of Native activism were happening for some time. Second, the Boggs’ position white power as a form of indigeneity (or ownership of city politics and land), which, while true, ignores a longer Native history. The solution, they propose, is to own the land, or city government. Working within the Black-Racial paradigm, which still plagues discussions of race relations in the United States, the Boggs’ articulate a vision of moving out one settler⎯a white power one⎯for another⎯a Black Power one. Within this scenario, Native people don’t exist. In other words, we can see the powerful use of rhetoric to dismiss Native histories.
When I brought up these arguments to my friends, they debated my points, saying that that “Blacks just didn’t know,” “why would I place them on the same level as white people?,” etc. I’m unsatisfied by those excuses. This is clearly a discussion we need to have.
I want to take the time to try and understand why the Boggs’ found it necessary to appropriate Indigenous history as the outcome for Blacks if they didn’t get their shit together by taking over city politics. Perhaps we might call this the “Political Discourse of Black Indigeneity.” First, their understanding of Native history ignores Indigenous agency in resisting oppression through savvy forms of negotiation and sometimes, outright violence. They perpetuate the idea, to their respective audience, that Native people did not resist, and worse, disappeared into the unknown reservations. That is not true. Though the reservation period was a nadir for Native people, we still found ways to resist, especially by 1970. Second, they assume that Native people left cities, and therefore, by extension, perpetuating the idea that all Native people live on reservations. As someone whose great-grandmother contributed significantly to Detroit’s (and Michigan’s) postwar political culture on behalf of the Native community, Indigenous people and cities are not incompatible. Some were even active in Detroit’s Black Power organizations, such as women like my aunt Judy who participated in DRUM (the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement).
There was no need to use Native histories to move Black folks to action. Yet, the Boggs’ did, and we must begin to unpack the discourses of Black indigeneity, and the problems it presents. I don’t want to end on too sour a note, but I do think the relationship between Blacks and Natives, and how we talk about one another, is important. After all, language is central to how we construct our own reality of self and the world.
How do we understand the ways Black folks also contribute in some way to settler colonialism? And how can Black folks help Indigenous people and themselves, through a discourse of love and revolution, transform an oppressive, society, built on settler colonialism and white supremacy? Finally, how can Native people, often silent on Black “issues”, use a decolonial love that contributes to Black liberation, too? These questions, and others, are important if we want to live in a society where #BlacksLivesMatter and #NativeLivesMatter.
Shit, I think I still kinda ended on a sour note. I should say that me and the homies continued eating that carrot cake with the cream cheese frosting and drinking medium roast coffee. I left unsatisfied with a portion of the conversation, but I’m hoping that, at some point, they see my point. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the next conversation about Black indigeneity, perhaps with a lemon pound cake and a bougie rooibos tea?
Kyle T. Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) earned his Ph.D. in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In the fall of 2015, he will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he will work to transform his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racial and Gender Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000, into a book. He can be followed on Twitter @mays_kyle.