AK Note: This post is a follow up to Kyle’s post over the summer entitled “The Political Discourses of Black Indigeneity, And Why It Matters”. If you haven’t read that post, I’d encourage you to head over there first. Part of why I love the format of blogging is the ability to reflect about my own writing, and to respond and more deeply develop thoughts I put out in earlier posts, so I’m happy to extend that opportunity to others too.
By Dr. Kyle Mays, Guest Contributor
Let me get right to the point: I am writing this piece for those who have made interesting, provocative, wack, even insightful comments about the commentary on Black Indigeneity that I wrote for Dr. Adrienne Keene’s Native Appropriations blog this past summer. In particular, I want to respond to at least three comments: that I’ve internalized (white) racism, that Black people are not settlers, and how some Native people use my critical analysis to support their anti-Blackness. In the spirit of Hip Hop culture and competition, I’m bout to go Back to Back…Of course my title is ripping off of Drake’s summer diss track of Philly rapper Meek Mill. I got Seven points to make.
- Black-Indigenous Relations. The world does not revolve solely around Afro-Indigenous peoples, especially those connected to the Five Tribes. I respect that unique struggle, and have written about it. Google it. But I have also written elsewhere that there are other conversations that need to be had, too. So, if you want to read more about Afro-Indigenous relations and peoples among the Five Tribes, go check out the work of Tiya Miles and a host of other scholars. For contemporary people, holla at Marilyn Vann, who has been on the forefront of Afro-Cherokee and Cherokee Freedmen rights; she’s dope. I love my Afro-Five Tribes and Freedmen peeps, but that’s not my major concern. There are many dimensions to “Black indigeneity,” and my aim is to document and explore other parts of it.
- A Note About Self. I have poor (we weren’t working class, we were working poor and then just straight up po!), Black (American) cultural experiences (my mom is from the projects of Cleveland!). I took two years of graduate level coursework in Black Studies. And my academic mother and Black Studies O.G., Geneva Smitherman mentored me to pursue my doctoral studies. I say all of that to say: I’m Black, proud to be Black, and have a deep love and appreciation for Black culture, history, and language. Oh, by the way, how many of yall were mentored by the “Queen of Black Language?” I’ll wait…Anyways, pardon my hubris, but I understand Black discourse styles very, very well, and their prospective for “gittin us ovah.” I also understand their potential pitfalls. Just because I’m trying to point these difficult contradictions out, that doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of anything. We need to be ashamed about anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous-ness coming from each other. I am also not engaging in the politics of conservatism or victim-blaming. My goal is to end colonialism and white supremacy; we can’t do that without clear dialogue with one another about the issues we face because of colonialism and white supremacy.
- On Being Black-Indigenous. Being Black and Indigenous and studying the topic affords me a unique opportunity. I am well-situated to comment on what I call “Black Indigeneity.” I embody what I study, and I see both sides very well, even if the topics are difficult. The world is full of contradictions, and I am trying to tease out at least one. As Huey P. Newton once said, “contradiction is the ruling principle of the universe.” Once we figure one thing out, a new contradiction will emerge, and then we have to solve that Rubik’s Cube. I don’t enjoy sifting out the thorny histories and strained relations between Black and Indigenous people, but if we are going to change the game, we need to have these painful dialogues and work out some contradictions. The plot thickens when we ain talkin bout white folks, don’t it?!
- Native People Showin Me Love. I appreciate all of the love I’ve received from my Native peers. But based upon conversations with close friends, it has forced me to reevaluate and think, well, why do some Native folks like my work? Though I think the majority of Native people have a righteous mind when it comes to my work and also have a genuine affinity for affirming that #BlackLivesMatter, etc., we do need to acknowledge that some Native folks are anti-Black. Straight up! I can’t tell you how many Native brothas and sistas done tried to check whether I’m “Indian enough” or characterize me solely as Native, only then to make some racist ass comment about Black folks. Hell, in my own family history, Native people have called us niggers like they were the mouthpieces of white supremacy. We, that is, Indigenous folks, need to check that anti-Black shit, too. Ain nobody got time for that!
- Arrivant/Settler/[etc.]. Someone humorously asked me if I considered myself a half-settler because I am Black and Indigenous. I laughed. Out. Loud. Bless her heart. No, I do not. When I wrote that original piece I thought long and hard about what word I should use for describing both my frustrations and acknowledge the unique history of Black folks who are the descendants of captured Africans. Obviously they didn’t come over here on their own, or, as Malcolm X so eloquently stated, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock! The rock was landed on us!” I used settlers in my essay, with a caveat; Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd uses arrivants in the Transit of Empire (2011). (I’m not comparing myself to Jodi; she’s way smarter than me!). But the point remains: when you use language to render Native people invisible, you become a part of the problem—the settler colonial problem—doing work for the settlers in power. You help construct what Geneva Smitherman calls a “sociolinguistic construction of reality.” Thus, you contribute to a situation wherein Native people, already struggling for visibility, have to contest against even more. Black folks are not settlers in the European sense. But do notice how I attempt to structure my argument(s). I analyzed the discourse, not the historical actions. Again, Black folks are not the God Damn White man (go listen to Louis Farrakhan’s written play from back in the day; problematic, but entertaining). Words, as symbols and signs embedded with meaning, can cause problems. Speaking of Farrakhan, ask him about how his words helped create a toxic scenario in which Malcolm X could be murdered. Words hurt.
- Black-Indigenous Relations. Finally, we live in a messy world. I have only so much energy to deal with oppression (also acknowledging my straight, male privilege, and having a Ph.D. I guess one of the few, terrible things that can happen to me is that I get shot by the po-po…). Quite frankly, I can’t deal with too much of the white man–that shit can be difficult and outright annoying. My point here is that I choose to focus my limited energy on Black-Indigenous relations. Someone else can do the backbreaking work of trying to educate zhaganosh. Unless they like John Brown or Viola Liuzzo, I just can’t (for the most part).
- Language Usage: Decolonization. Okay, I done talked a lot of shit. So, let me offer some hopefully useful points for those who, while trying to do good, render Native people invisible with words. Or, in the countersense, how Native people use the faults of some people to further their own anti-Blackness.
- Black folks, think carefully about how you use decolonization. I understand that you are dealing with actually existing material issues that impact people, but does your use of the term include Native people? Don’t forget, colonialism in this settler society has not ended. Any discussion of decolonization is irrelevant without Native people. If you want Black liberation, reparations, whatever, don’t forget you live in a settler state.
- Indigenous folks, don’t use my critical analysis to underscore your anti-blackness. I know, there are problems with how some Black folks frame their understanding of liberation; but that doesn’t mean you can engage in white supremacy. Again, Black folks are dealing with real issues, too. How can you discuss decolonization without taking into account those who didn’t come over here on the Mayflower? What about Afro-Indigenous folks? You cannot decolonize shit while being anti-Black. Period.
Okay, I-own wanna hear bout this ever again…Nah, I’m just playin. But I hope we can continue having these critical dialogues for the future of both Black and Native peoples. After all, ain nobody say that decolonial love was easy (shout out Leanne Simpson). It’s fuckin hard, but we need to end white supremacy and settler colonialism, sexism and ableism, gender discrimination and male patriarchy, etc., like yesteryear. We can’t do any of that unless we figure out some contradictions.
Well, there you go, Back to Back! I’m out!
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 began 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.