Against the Winds of History
The U.S. had just elected someone who will move us beyond the body and soul crushing policies of neoliberalism and several steps closer to unbridled fascism. The desperation of the people who, as James Baldwin said, “believe that they are white” to maintain the system of white supremacy is about to take on an even more brutal expression.
Whiteness was a concept invented to create a hierarchy between poor, displaced English and Scottish farmers sent to America to work off their debts and the people kidnapped from Africa to work the same fields. Its purpose was to convince the newly-minted white folk that there was something in it for them if they kept Black folk down.
The descendants of those British peasants and millions more displaced from Europe by the violence and poverty that marked the rise of capitalism are now being told that their struggles for economic survival are the fault of new migrants from Mexico and Central America. They are being told there is something in it for them if they help carry out the rounding up and deportation of Brown people. They are being told they need more police and more guns to protect them from reaping a harvest of imagined vengeance for their complicity in the continuing genocides against Black and Indigenous people.
CNN refers to the water protectors at Standing Rock who are facing down tanks and guns with prayers as echoes of the “Wild West.” Our President elect spoke in Nixonian code about “law and order” in response to Black uprisings in Charlotte and Milwaukee.
The carnage this country was built on remained invisible to those who profited from it for centuries. Now we are living in a time where we watch it unfolding in videos posted on Facebook feeds. And, witnessing that brutality laid bare, the people who have believed that we are white, in overwhelming numbers, have said a clear yes to the ungloved iron hand.
“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus has an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
But what are wind and storm to witches?
From within it, our culture feels propelled by irresistible winds of destruction. The linear narrative that history imposes on us, and the sense that all of time and space are contained within (and accounted for by) what we call history, feel like they will crush in on us. They feel like they will preclude possibility. We do not expect to weather the storm.
And it makes sense that our bodies respond that way. When we are overwhelmed and do not believe any escape is possible, we begin to contract and to surrender into death.If a black hole is a star collapsed inward on itself, creating gravity so intense that light cannot escape it, then trauma is its spiritual equivalent.
Walter Benjamin wrote of the angel of history as he saw the inescapable destruction of his own life approaching.But I have felt other winds and other storms.
Not even a sliver of of all of time and space are contained in the stories we have been told about what, whether those stories are of what has been, what is, and what is possible.
Most people throughout most of history have not lived under the grip of this terror. Capitalism and the ideology of whiteness are less than 400 years old.
People and communities, human and wild, were driven from the world by its onslaught. Those ancestors call to us, revealing in the music of their voices the rhythm and shape of worlds in which lives like theirs are again made possible. They rattle at the gates of death, demanding to be allowed to return.
Descendants, biological and cultural and otherwise, call to us as well, insisting that we shape a world in which their lives will become possible. They rattle at the gates of death, demanding entry into the world.
I have felt the winds that blow through when both gates are open.
But I have felt another wind too.
It is not theology, but fact, that every particle of your being and every particle of mine were present for the birth of the universe. When all things were contracted into a single point and exploded outward, the force left a curve in the structure of time and space that radio astronomers have mapped. The echo of that explosion is the background radiation they explore
In my tradition, we dare to call that explosion orgasmic. We dare to understand our own being as infused with that ecstasy, and dare to explore our own role in the shaping of worlds. We are not powerless.
The force of that ecstasy blows stronger than the wind escaping the gates of the false paradise from which an upstart desert demigod exiled humanity. It rattles the bars and the walls of the prisons we have allowed to contain our imaginations.
The difference between trauma and ecstasy lies not in the source of their overwhelming power, but in whether we constrict against it or harness it and dance with it.
When we dance with ecstasy, we call worlds into being.
Despite the imminence of his own demise, Benjamin saw clearly the task at hand. He wrote:
“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ’emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable”
At the same time that markets in New York and Tokyo and London are vacillating in response to electoral chaos — markets, which, we must remember, are driven by the monetization of the death of forests and deserts and human lives — the water protectors at Standing Rock are praying morning, noon, and night as they face down teargas and rubber bullets and armored cars in defense of the living world.
They know that their prayers are stronger than guns. They know that this is the work they were born for, the resurgence of a way of being the largest military and economic machinery in the history of the world could not drive out of existence, the return of understandings and relationships necessary to collective survival.
I am a witch, trained in a tradition that teaches that a witch bows to no one. I am wedded to gods far older than this planet, let alone this civilization. My body and my being partook in the creation of all things.
It comes down to this now: do we believe in the power of our prayers, our spells, our gods? And can we pray as fervently as the prayers arise at Standing Rock? Will we lend the force of our own beings to the same struggle?
Let us call in the storm that brings the real emergency.
And dance with its winds.
And dance with its winds.
Sean Donahue is a highly neurodivergent wild forest creature who defies the seelie/unseelie binary. He lives on traditional Klickitat territory in Trout Lake, WA and has an herbal practice in Portland and Beaverton, OR. He is an initiated priest of the BlackHeart line of the Feri Tradition of witchcraft, and carrier of the Green Wand.
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