Place of Discourse and Folklore of the African Diaspora

On being white and talking about racism. How to learn about Afro-Brazilian stories of resistance, through lenses free from the objectifying effects of the white gaze.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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“To get rid of the curse, the community called for good spirits to take to the streets in the month before August to ward off the evil spirits and attract good ones, managing to save the community from the great tragedy of Death. Initiating thus the apparitions of the mandus and Caretas (grimaces) on the streets of Acupe on Sundays of July.” (Wiki)

Each Sunday of July, a small Brazilian town called Acupe hosts street theater folklore of the African Diaspora. People come from all over the world to witness this unique cultural manifestation, and to support the community’s effort to reclaim its history. Nego Fugido (the play’s title, which I’ll roughly translate as “runaway black guy”) represents the long overdue opportunity for Afro-Brazilians to tell their own stories of resistance, spirituality, and ancestry. This way, they combat invisibility and the twisted white gaze of recorded history and western anthropology.

This play is about enslaved Africans who ran away, then were chased and killed by their master. This master was trying to avoid bankruptcy by offering the lives of enslaved runaways to Ikú (an Orixá, a force of nature, Death itself in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé), and planting a banana tree over each grave. Eventually, there are no more lives to be offered, and Ikú curses the whole town. Every year, good spirits must be sent out to chase away the bad ones and break the curse. Caretas, the masked children that roam the streets, symbolize the “insertion of blacks and their culture into Brazilian society” (Jamilson Oliveira). Ultimately, the enslaved are granted freedom, and the town manages to arrest and auction out the King. Today, the skirt made out of dried banana tree leaves worn by the performers holds immense spiritual power, symbolizing the sacrificed lives of their ancestors.

“The banana tree leaves themselves are used in Candomblé terreiros to scare away eguns (spirits). Every terreiro has a babá of the house, a good egun that prevents other eguns from disrupting celebrations and rituals.” (Jal Souza)

The story, which comes from oral tradition of a couple hundred years ago, is remembrance of colonial power dynamics, the brutality of the struggle for freedom, and the primordial strength of Ikú. Acupe is a Quilombola community at the “Bay of All Saints” (Bahia de Todos os Santos), a region with a long colonial history, and land with deep ancestral roots. The combination of lifelike reenactments, on the Land where the story took place hundreds of years ago, and the sacred ritual to rid the town of evil spirits makes for a breathtaking experience.

Unfortunately, the swarm of white photographers overpowers not only the audience, but also the performers. There is nothing inconspicuous or ordinary about those giant lenses being shoved at all angles and in all directions. These hybrids between tourists and professionals felt no shame in interrupting the performances to direct the actors into ideal poses. The drone hovering over us witnessed hostile arguments between photographers who fought over an ideal viewpoint, or between audience members that just couldn’t take those people’s entitlement over some cubic meters of aerial space.

Perhaps the the lack of a formal theater setting caused uncertainty over of what would constitute etiquette. Or perhaps they felt that this was a once in a life time opportunity to register that moment. What is certain is that the colonial gaze, and the historical form of racism being depicted in the play, was also manifested in its modern form, making people very anxious.

The population of Acupe is predominantly black. So, when there are white people there they are seen as outsiders. In fact, a lot of white people show up only to document this event, and the objectifying effects of the white gaze are palpable.

I believe there is a level of entitlement that comes through when white people act like being there and documenting the event is a favor they are doing for the community, as if their presence there is what gives the event value. There is absolutely no way that a photographer would interrupt an actor’s performance with “psssst! pssst!” while aggressively pointing to where the actor should move for a better shot at Shakespeare at the Park in NYC.

The “epidermalization of inferiority” may or may not come at play in response to this, but it is easy to imagine that many black people feel that the “social cost” of calling out white people’s insensitive behavior is too high, aside from having to deal with a likely outburst of white fragility. What I can say is that a hand full of black people in the audience were pushed too far and lashed out at arrogant gazers who were clueless and disrespectful.

I was taking pictures with my phone… the costumes were beautiful and designed to be photogenic. The problem isn’t visiting the town for the event, watching the performance and taking pictures. The problem is treating the Other as there to serve You.

One extremely insensitive thing you can do as an audience member is to treat those performers as objects, as if their purpose for being there was for you to make a fantastic photo. The parallels between history and modernity are distressing. The community is passing down a tradition to their children, honoring their ancestors on the very land where their blood seeped into the ground. Being able to witness it should be taken as a humbling learning experience.

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Place of Discourse

As someone who is not black or of the African Diaspora, I tell this story partially. I don’t, nor will I ever want to, speak for anyone. I speak about them, and about myself, because we exist in relation to each other, dialectically. My place of discourse is not, and doesn’t claim to be, impartial. That doesn’t mean I have no right to speak.

“[W]hite people cling to the notion of racial innocence, a form of weaponized denial that positions black people as the “havers” of race and the guardians of racial knowledge.” (Robin DiAngelo)

It’s my responsibility to address my white passing privilege, and to address how my own community might be reproducing classism and colorism. As white (passing) people, we must listen and learn (and read), but when we demand the unpaid emotional labor of racial education from Afro-descendants, we fall in the trap of reproducing the very thing we want to eradicate.

Support the community, don’t take from them. Learn without demanding labor. And attend when you’re invited. This is the etiquette we can establish.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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This is America’s Enslaver Culture

It’s no surprise that, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, enslaver culture is still very much alive.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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There are about 30 million pets abandoned in the streets of Brazil. Cats in particular are treated as a plague, killed and tortured indiscriminately.

Helping take care of street cats has been my way of dealing with the occasional helplessness many of us activists feel. I can’t always stop an armed policeman from telling a Candomblé worshiper dressed in white to lay on the floor with hands on the head for no reason. I can’t always stop a pack of drunk men desperate to prove their masculinity to each other from violating a trans woman on the street. But one thing I can do is clean the eyes of motherless kitties so they can see for the first time.

This coping mechanism recently lost its effectiveness when the dynamic at the cat shelter revealed a serious political issue: Enslaver culture.

It’s no surprise, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, that enslaver culture is still very much alive. One example of this is the donor/volunteer relationship.

When I go to the shelter, once a week, I clean, feed and give medicine to cats. I’m a light skinned Latina, with a job and a house, so I’m considered a volunteer. People with means in the group donate a little money to buy whatever is needed, and there is also lunch for whoever is working.

For years, one young homeless black man goes there everyday, twice a day, to clean, feed, medicate, and build little houses for the cats. He even monitors who is coming to abandon and who is coming to adopt. In my eyes, he is the boss of the operation. To the donors, however, he’s a lazy employee.

When I receive lunch, it’s a donation. When he receives lunch, it’s a salary.

One of the donors had an abandoned house, and decided to allow the homeless young man to stay there. This gesture turns out not to be as generous as it sounds. He has the responsibility to renovate and maintain the home (which is in poor condition), and he takes dozens of the most vulnerable cats home with him to care for overnight. Now that donors offer him food and shelter, they feel even more entitled to demand more labor, and the laborer is dependent while earning no wages.

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Land demarcation efforts by Quilombo Quingoma

It’s hard not to see the connection between this situation and our colonial history. Salvador, as the world’s capital of the African diaspora, is the land on which to witness, not the demise but, the development of colonialism and its deeply rooted white supremacy. Here, much of what is now urban residence used to be Quilombos.

Quilombos were communities formed by enslaved Africans who ran away. They were highly organized, militant, autonomous, and posed great threat to the Portuguese and Dutch authorities of the time. Today, there are much more than a million Quilombolas still fighting for their right to territory throughout the country.

Records show that there were compliant enslaved people who had stable relationships with their owners and did not want to join Quilombos. Some claim that abolishing slavery left the “freed” in worse conditions: “jobless”, homeless, and helpless (as some may say about my friend at the cat shelter). How reliable are these accounts? Not very, since those who kept records were the ones interested in using them for their advantage.

Arguments on the subject in literature in general have little empirical basis and tend to focus on the interplay of interests that would be associated with the diffusion of that interpretation. Several authors have considered the thesis of benignity a mere expression of the ideology of the ruling classes in the nineteenth century; its dissemination, especially abroad, would be part of the imperial government’s efforts to disseminate an amicable image of slavery and thereby oppose the abolitionist movement.

Flávio Rabelo Versiani (Economist, Brasilia) comparing enslavement in the U.S. and in Brazil.

On the other hand, in economic terms, not using “coercive force” (meaning, here we didn’t have as many lynchings) was a matter of efficiency, as was eventually abolishing slavery altogether. So, using words like “amicable” and “benign” to describe displacement, dehumanization, forced labor, murder and torture of black people is only considered empirical when described in economic terms. This, to me, is one good example of the rotten core of Academia.

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Today, some academics use this shaky empiricism to argue that the resistance against slavery was hypocritical. José de Souza Martins, one of Brazil’s most famous sociologists, claims there was slavery in the Quilombos. Dissociating the term “slavery” from “race” became his professional mission; white supremacy wasn’t the problem, according to him, rigidly stratified societies were.

His broad use of the term “slavery” can be compared to the broad use of the term “Nazi” when describing a feminist. José Martins says that because of the spread of “Islamism” in Africa, Africans enslaved themselves at a much higher rate than the Slave trade to the Americas, and that Islamic polygamy is also a form of slavery. The fact that he uses the term “Islamist” as synonymous with “Islamic” speaks volumes to the racial insensitivity of his rhetoric. But his use of biased (white) “empirical” evidence to delegitimize an organized resistance movement of the African Diaspora speaks even louder.

There is little denying that hierarchy existed in Quilombos, and that they used violence against enslaved people who chose to stay with their white masters. We have to understand that they were at war, and the decision to be compliant turned them into an enemy. So much so, that those compliant Africans were sent to the Quilombos as an army to defeat Quilombists. This practice hasn’t stopped, and is perpetuated by the military police force to this day.

Zumbi‘s opposition to Ganga Zumba, and the consequent shift of leadership at Quilombo dos Palmares, is symbolic of all anti-colonial resistance because it was a refusal to submit to Colonial authorities, and a declaration that no enslaved African would be free until all would be free. This fight is not over yet. There is still enslavement, displacement, incarceration, genocide, and struggle for land demarcation. We must acknowledge that, because not picking a side, being compliant, is in fact siding with white supremacist forces.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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A Tribute to Winnie Mandela

Winnie Mandela passed away April 2nd, 2018. Here is a note, and tribute, by the Pan-Africanist school in Brazil that was named after her.

English Translation Here

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NOTA DA REAJA

À GRANDE RAINHA AFRICANA WINNIE MANDELA, NOSSO FAROL.

 “Para alimentar a luta, tinha de me expor à violência e à brutalidade do apartheid.”
Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela representou e representará para nós da Reaja, um farol, uma importante referência a qual nos mostra caminhos para uma prática de defesa dos interesses do nossos povo em meio a um tempo de miragens tecnológicas e traições políticas do propósito da luta negra no Brasil.

Winnie Mandela, o imponente nome que daos ao nosso quilombo de libertação forjado por pretos e pretas conscientes de sua história político racial se materializa pela nossa coragem de erigir um território livre de qualquer violência a qual o povo preto sempre esteve imerso. Seguimos com nossas próprias condições, construindo teoria a partir de nossas vidas e mortes, desgraça, servidão, drogas e ignorância, mas sobretudo a partir de práticas de resistência e libertação negra.

A nossa luta política é baseada em serviços comunitários e efetivo enfrentamento ao poder que tenta a todo custo nos eliminar da face da terra e diminuir nossa humanidade, nos utilizando como capachos e serviçais de pautas e propósitos que não nos pertencem, de lutas que não garantirão nossa libertação coletiva. Winnie Mandela acende em nós todos os dias o compromisso de construirmos um projeto de libertação de nosso povo. Winnie Madikizela Mandela é nossa mais pura inspiração.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela que nos confiou seu nome e sua trajetória para imortalizarmos na história segue firme e intacta em nossas mentes, corpos pretos, braços e pernas que trabalham arduamente dia após dia, nas madrugadas ou no sol escaldante das tardes da cidade túmulo. Militantes envoltos em um sonho coletivo de resgate de nossa autonomia enquanto povo, de nossa independência política sem a tutela de brancos acadêmicos ditando o que devemos ser ou fazer, de nossa autodeterminação sem vagos momentos ociosos, de solidariedade entre nós pretos e pretas.

Nossa Escola de Formação Quilombista e Panafricanista é o núcleo mais avançado de nossa ação, junto com o Núcleo de Familiares de Vítimas do Estado, Núcleo de Familiares e Amigos de Presos e Presas, e nossas ações permanentes de solidariedade e autodefesa. Agora que a Mãe da nação africana volta a sua massa de origem, devemos honrar ainda mais sua história de vida totalmente dedicada a luta de libertação africana.

Em toda sua trajetória política Winnie Madikizela-Mandela jamais recuou de seu dever histórico de enfrentar as forças do apartheid em Soweto, onde nos anos 70 os jovens estudantes negros e negras protagonizaram o mais importante levante contra a opressão branca na África do Sul. A luta e a oposição desses estudantes baseava-se nas péssimas condições de educação, na educação de última categoria dedicada aos africanos e na violência cotidiana. Os jovens foram as ruas e enfrentaram balas com pedras, gritos e cantos tradicionais. Impulsionando e criando toda esta força, estava Winnie Mandela.

Ela é a senhora maior da 4° Internacional Garveista, da qual somos filiadas. Ela é a grande Mãe da rebelião preta em todo mundo. Seu pensamento e sua prática política tem nos animado desde becos e vielas e cadeias e favelas onde combatemos a continuidade perversa da escravização.

Aprendemos com sua luta interminável de libertação que devemos proceder honrando nossos princípios de guerra contra a supremacia branca. Ela nos ensinou que a luta é contínua e regada a muita dor e sangue de ambos os lados, de inimigos e de lutadores radicais dispostos a dar a vida pela conquista de um pedaço de terra ou a libertação de um irmão encarcerado nas catacumbas do sistema prisional ou do acalanto de uma mãe que grita pela perda de seu filho. Somos combatentes dispostas a retomar toda a glória dos tempos áureos das terras negras africanas.

Estamos formando um exército preto de mulheres e homens capazes de reconhecer na sua comunidade o espelho necessário para erguer novas estruturas e instituições com nossos métodos de luta real, com bases em ação comunitária em todos os lugares onde o nosso povo se encontra.

Seguimos atentas e atentos as armadilhas de nossos inimigos. Estamos na disposição para devastar a linha auxiliar a qualquer custo. Não negociamos nossas dores como uma mercadoria barata do período colonial, não barganhamos migalhas usando nossas dores e nossos mortos e história como meros ratos lotados em cargos de governo a espera de cadeiras vagas. Somos a rua, a cadeia, os becos, a noite. Guiamos nossa esperança através do sangue bruto derramado no barro quente sob nossos pés. Suamos como operários escultores de nossa liberdade. Sonhamos com nosso lar repleto de gente preta livre, mas acima de tudo projetamos a edificação de um império sólido cravado na rocha profunda com as insígnias eternas de “Reaja ou Será Morta, Reaja ou Será Morto”.

Salvador, abril de 2018.


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ENGLISH TRANSLATION

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NOTE FROM THE POLITICAL ORGANIZATION REACT OR DIE

TO THE GREAT AFRICAN QUEEN WINNIE MANDELA, OUR BEACON.

“To fuel the struggle, I had to expose myself to the violence and brutality of apartheid.”
Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela represented and will represent to us at Reaja (React or Die), a beacon, an important reference which shows us ways to a practice of defending the interests of our people, in a time of technological mirages and political betrayals of the purpose of the black struggle in Brazil.

Winnie Mandela, the imposing name we give to our quilombo of liberation, forged by blacks conscious of their racial-political history, is materialized by our courage to build a territory free of any violence, which black people have always been immersed in. We continue with our own conditions, building theory from our lives and deaths, disgrace, servitude, drugs and ignorance, but especially from practices of resistance and black liberation.

Our political struggle is based on communitarian services and effective confrontation with the power that tries at all costs to eliminate us from the face of the earth, and to diminish our humanity, using us as mats and servants of interests and agendas that are not ours, of struggles that will not guarantee our collective liberation. Winnie Mandela shines a light every day at the commitment to build a project of liberation of our people. Winnie Madikizela Mandela is our purest inspiration.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who entrusted us with her name and her journey, is immortalized in history and follows steadily and intact in our minds, black bodies, arms and legs that work hard day after day till dawn, at the scorching sun of the tomb town afternoons. Militants enveloped in a collective dream of rescuing our autonomy as people, of our political independence, without the tutelage of white academics dictating what we should be or do, of our self-determination without vague idle moments, of solidarity between us black people.

Our Quilombist and Panafricanist Training School is the most advanced nucleus of our action, together with the Nucleus of Relatives of Victims of the State, Nucleus of Family and Friends of Prisoners (ASFAP-Bahia), and our permanent actions of solidarity and self-defense. Now that the Mother of the African nation returns to her place of origin, we must honor even more her life story, which was so completely dedicated to the African liberation struggle.

Throughout her political career, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela never backed down from her historic duty to confront the forces of apartheid in Soweto, where in the 1970s young black students staged the most important uprising against white oppression in South Africa. The opposition of these students was based on the poor conditions of education, the last-category education dedicated to Africans, and daily violence. The youth went to the streets and faced bullets with rocks, shouts, and traditional songs. Boosting and creating all this force was Winnie Mandela.

She is the senior lady of the 4th Garveyst International, of which we are affiliated. She is the great Mother of black rebellion in the whole world. Her thinking and her political practice has animated us from alleys and favelas, prisons and chains, where we fight the perverse continuity of enslavement.

We learn from her endless struggle for liberation that we must proceed by honoring our principles of war against white supremacy. She taught us that the struggle is continuous and watered with much pain and blood on both sides, from enemies and radical fighters willing to give their lives for the conquest of a piece of land, or the release of an imprisoned brother in the catacombs of the prison system, or the lullaby of a mother screaming over the loss of her child. We are fighters ready to take back all the glory of the golden times of the black African lands.

We are forming a black army of women and men capable of recognizing in their community the mirror necessary to erect new structures and institutions with our methods of true fight, grounded in community action wherever our people find themselves.

We remain attentive to the traps of our enemies. We are willing to devastate aid-routes at any cost. We do not trade our pains as cheap merchandise from the colonial period, we do not bargain for crumbs using our pains, and our dead, and history, as mere rats crowded into government offices waiting for vacant seats. We are the street, the chain, the alleys, the night. We guide our hope through the raw blood spilled in the hot clay under our feet. We sweat like working sculptors of our freedom. We dream of our home full of free black people, but most of all, we project the building of a solid empire embedded in the deep rock with the eternal insignia of “React or Die”.

Salvador, Brazil – April 2018.


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In the Terreiro of Old Black Iaiá, Let’s Saravá

English Translation Here

Foto de Laura Cantal

No Terreiro de Preto Velho Iaiá, Vamos Saravá

Aproximadamente no segundo semestre de 2017, os escandalosos ataques sofridos pelas religiões de matriz africana na região metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro ganharam espaços em diferentes mídias. Foram cerca de três meses de noticiamento, em que representantes de diversas frentes políticas, sociais e intelectuais discutiram em torno do acontecimento. Houve, inclusive, a cobertura da 10ª Caminhada em Defesa da Liberdade Religiosa, na qual membros e líderes de diferentes religiões deram as mãos contra a opressão sofrida. Até que, com o correr do tempo, outras informações aterraram a causa e os efeitos desse fenômeno. Não é à toa que, em vista do desenvolvimento do jornalismo moderno, a notícia seja compreendida como ícone do tempo presente e desapareça como fumaça no vento. Mas, convenhamos, não há novidade tampouco efemeridade nos ataques sofridos às religiões de matriz africana. É um acontecimento histórico e que, atualmente, ganha magnitude e feições assustadoras.

O Rio de Janeiro, entre as mais de três décadas de comércio escravagista, recebeu cerca de 3 milhões de africanos escravizados, dentre os quais aproximadamente 1/3 deles desembarcaram no Cais do Valongo na região portuária da cidade – espaço que, em virtude de muita luta, recebeu o título de Patrimônio Mundial pela UNESCO em 2017. Isto precisa ser dito, para início de conversa, porque não há como se conceber o Rio de Janeiro sem se levar em consideração a presença e as manifestações culturais desses 3 milhões de negros africanos escravizados. O Rio de Janeiro é uma cidade maravilhosa também graças ao contributo desses homens e mulheres, sem os quais o samba carioca não haveria existido. Assim como o samba, as chamadas religiões afro-brasileiras são manifestações culturais de matriz africana que, ao longo do tempo e das articulações culturais, construíram uma cara própria: a cara do Rio. Pixinguinha, grande compositor carioca do nosso passado e a quem devemos a chamada deste artigo, é resultado do caldeirão rítmico apenas encontrado nos morros e terreiros cariocas como a lendária Casa da Tia Ciata, terreiro de candomblé frequentado por ele e outras personalidades do samba como Donga e João da Baiana.

Infelizmente, Pixinguinha, Donga e muitos outros homens e mulheres negros e anônimos sofreram e sofrem opressões que remontam a história da cidade. Desde início do século XX, os espaços de sociabilidade e as manifestações culturais de matriz africana são atacados, homens e mulheres negras são expropriadas de seus direitos e de suas condições mais básicas de existência. Não há um intervalo de tempo dentro da linha dos acontecimentos na história do Rio de Janeiro em que os negros e a suas manifestações culturais não tenham sofrido com o poder público. De acordo com a pesquisa realizada pelo historiador Nireu Cavalcanti, entre 1910 e 1918, 66 terreiros espalhados pela cidade foram perseguidos e posteriormente tiveram suas portas fechadas. E isto é uma constante ao longo das décadas seguintes. A interface entre intolerância religiosa e tráfico – esse poder supostamente paralelo e que de paralelo não tem nada – é atualmente a nova forma de opressão que os terreiros têm sofrido, especialmente no estado do Rio de Janeiro.

De acordo com as notícias que temos, nesta década os primeiros casos neste perfil remontam o ano de 2013, quando traficantes evangelizados proibiram que líderes religiosos praticassem os seus rituais, expulsando-os de suas comunidades na Zona Norte da cidade. Segundo as informações do Ministério dos Direitos Humanos, o número de denúncias de injúrias por preconceito religioso subiu de 15, no ano de 2011, para 759 em 2016. Apenas entre agosto e outubro de 2016, foram registradas 42 denúncias de intolerância religiosa no estado fluminense, dentre as quais 38 referem-se às religiões de matriz africana[1]. Para além das imprecisões estatísticas, ainda de acordo com as declarações fornecidas pelo secretário estadual de Direitos Humanos, Átila Nunes, há uma lacuna no código penal, não permitindo uma tipificação clara sobre o que seria considerado preconceito religioso, permitindo que qualquer tipo de agressão aos terreiros possa ser entendido, por exemplo, como um simples desentendimento entre vizinhos.

Respeitar as diferenças e permitir a livre manifestação dessa diferença não se trata apenas de um princípio constitucional, muito menos de algo que deva ser concedido por alguém. É um principio humano. É e sempre deverá ser muito maior do que as determinações de um Estado e de qualquer poder público. No entanto, no sentido contrário desta liberdade inerente ao ser humano, temos acompanhado uma associação nefasta entre o poder político e a bancada evangélica no Congresso Nacional. E este diálogo não deve ser visto como alheio à essas perseguições religiosas ocorridas não apenas no Rio de Janeiro, mas em diversos outros estados brasileiros como a Bahia e Minas Gerais. Atualmente, a Frente Parlamentar Evangélica (FPE) agrega mais de 100 parlamentares, com expectativa de que em 2018 cerca de 165 parlamentares evangélicos sejam eleitos entre Câmara dos Deputados e Senado.[2]

Suas últimas legislaturas estão envolvidas com projetos como o “Estatuto da Família” (PL. 6.583/2013) que, através de regras jurídicas conservadoras, convenciona a definição de família; também contribuíram com Propostas de Emenda Constitucional como a PEC 171/1993 que justifica a redução da maioridade penal a partir de passagens bíblicas; e têm envolvimento com Projetos de Lei como o PL 4931/2016 do deputado João Campos (PSDB-GO) – vulgarmente conhecido como “Cura Gay” -, cujo o relator é o mesmo do Estatuto da Família, o pastor Ezequiel Teixeira (PTN-RJ), assim como o PL 5.069/2013 que ataca o direito constitucional de mulheres vítimas de violência sexual a terem o devido acesso ao aborto – projeto este encabeçado por Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ), ex-presidente da Câmara dos Deputados recentemente preso por corrupção ativa e passiva, prevaricação e lavagem de dinheiro e que, de acordo com o pedido do Ministério Público Federal, pode vir a cumprir 386 anos de prisão.

Note-se que a maior parte dos parlamentares da FPE advém das igrejas pentecostais, como a Assembléia de Deus e a Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – cujo um dos mais destacados membros é o atual prefeito da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella (PRB-RJ). Este que, entre silenciamentos e medidas conservadoras, não apenas desconsidera a redemocratização do nosso Maraca, como também negligencia a expressão do samba e do próprio carnaval, alma da cidade, uma típica comemoração arduamente construída pelas comunidades e terreiros dos morros cariocas. Outros “grandes” nomes avultam esse relacionamento amoral entre política e religião, como o deputado federal Marco Feliciano (PSC-SP) e o deputado federal Jair Bolsonaro (PP-SP), pré-candidato às eleições presidenciais de 2018.

Ainda que os parlamentares evangélicos pentecostais se afigurem como maioria, não podemos ignorar que há outros atrelados a diferentes vertentes da religião cristã, como os protestantes históricos e os batistas. No entanto, ainda que respeitemos as diferenças entre uns e outros, isto não minimiza o quão inconcebível é que um Estado constitucionalmente laico permita a simbiose entre política e religião tal como temos visto no Brasil. Como anteriormente dito, religião é uma manifestação cultural, própria de uma cultura específica e o direito ao culto, seja ele qual for, deve ser preservado em um Estado Democrático de Direito. Sob nenhuma hipótese pode uma religião ter os seus princípios fundamentais como norteadores das deliberações do poder público, muito menos subverter esses mesmos princípios e cooptar uma massa majoritariamente negra que vive há séculos no abandono, submetida aos mandos de um poder “paralelo” que é igualmente subproduto das artimanhas desse projeto Universal.

A Origem Desse “Big Bang”

A gênese de todo esse enredo, ao meu ver, parte da ideia de que os princípios de liberdade e igualdade foram há muito tempo adulterados em função da orquestração do poder entre os homens. Não encontro absurdo algum em afirmar categoricamente que o entendimento de mundo e de relação com o outro que nos foi introjetado tem direta conexão com a lógica de uma parcela de homens que, partindo de seus interesses políticos e econômicos, quis imperar. Sim, faz parte de um projeto ambicioso. E, pior, faz parte de um projeto maléfico e que, infelizmente, segue vigente até os dias de hoje, assumindo formas variadas ao longo da história.

Poderíamos aqui discorrer sobre as suas origens em um movimento de reconstrução histórica, mas é provável que nos percamos em tantas idas e vindas. De qualquer forma, importa expor a sua pedra angular, uma vez que ela ainda hoje limita a nossa existência enquanto sociedade e, acredito eu, seja essa a pedra no sapato que causa grande parte das atrocidades no mundo. O modelo de construção desse mundo particular pode ser entendido como “paradigma da simplificação”[3]. E ele traz em sua gênese o princípio da disjunção e da redução da realidade humana a partir de uma perspectiva eurocêntrica, falocêntrica e colonialista.

A igualdade entre os homens foi abstratamente construída através de um suporte jurídico-moral baseado nesse paradigma. O direito a existência da multidiversidade cultural da espécie humana é automaticamente negado, sendo a nossa natural diferença cultural enquadrada em noções hierarquizantes. Aqueles que não são considerados iguais passam a ser considerados como passíveis de opressão. O conservadorismo que esse modo de ver o mundo instaura, enquanto filosofia política e social, é portanto necessariamente racista e misógino. Ele é contrário a prática democrática de coexistência das diferenças.

Em sua evolução, de forma ainda mais cruel, esse paradigma serviu de base para um sistema econômico que, devido a sua própria natureza, compreende o mundo como um produto. Ou seja, o capitalismo – que hoje se embrenha e rege a lógica das relações humanas – é um sistema que compreende o mundo e os seres humanos como produtos a partir de uma ótica disjuntiva e inerentemente racista e misógina. Mulheres, homossexuais, crianças, idosos, negros e uma série de outras categorias são vistas como subprodutos. É essa a base do sistema vigente que é responsável pelo desmantelamento dos vínculos sociais que garantiriam a nossa existência.[4]

Ele desconsidera todas as variadas formas de existir, todas as formas de auto-reconhecimento e de valorização da essência própria de cada ser humano no mundo. No meu entendimento – que também se constrói a partir da minha vivência e experiência de vida – o candomblé e todas as religiões de matriz africana são mais uma forma de existência e de compreensão do mundo. Mas não se trata apenas de uma representação a partir de uma cosmogonia sui generis, cujas bases históricas encontramos em diversas comunidades infelizmente desmanteladas em toda a África. As religiões de matriz africana são um meio de se compreender a vida social de maneira mais elevada, assim como toda religião deveria ser e ser exercida. Elas são um modo de vida e de entendimento dessa existência. Elas permitem que, ao reconhecer a sua ancestralidade e sua história, seus fiéis valorizem a sua essência e compreendam o valor da cultura que as originou.

Tendo sido nascida e criada em um terreiro de Candomblé da família do Axe Pantanal cujas origens nos levam à Bahia, atesto 30 anos de vivência em uma comunidade que, como outra qualquer, tem seus rituais e sentidos particulares, mas que em nenhum momento deixou de exercer a função de acolhimento e de auxílio na integração social de seus membros. Há mais de 20 anos que as insígnias do terreiro da minha casa foram retiradas, assim como seus atabaques – responsáveis pelo ritmo e pelos ensinamentos ancestrais que palavras não traduzem – foram guardados por medo de possíveis perseguições. Minha mãe pediu que seus filhos não trafeguem vestidos com as roupas brancas e expondo seus fios de conta – colares feitos de missança e pedras específicas que representam os Orixás – por medo de qualquer tipo de agressão por parte dos vizinhos que são, como em quase toda comunidade do subúrbio carioca, majoritariamente evangélicos.

Mas minha casa continua sendo a casa de uma família que ultrapassa a dimensão normativa imposta pelo pensamento propalado pelo paradigma da simplificação. A minha casa não compactua com a intolerância, muito pelo contrário, ela carrega ensinamentos ancestralísticos que afastam a ignorância – moeda muito valiosa entre os pentecostais que estão no Congresso. Minha casa é organizada – e não dominada – por uma matriarca, por uma mulher que recebe, aceita e orienta qualquer ser humano que entre portão adentro, independentemente de qualquer padrão imposto pela sociedade e os dignifica, fazendo com que eles acreditem em seu potencial. É uma casa soberana. É uma família não convencional que professa uma fé e independe do poder público. Observando-se como se estrutura o poder, não é difícil entender o “perigo” que, assim como outros tantos terreiros, minha casa representa para um mundo em que a carne mais barata é a carne negra.

Rodapé:

[1] Fonte: Secretaria de Estado de Direitos Humanos Políticas para Mulheres e Idosos (SEDHMI). Informações obtidas em reportagem do Jornal O Globo, 05/11/2017.
[2] Informações obtidas aqui.
[3] O conceito é elaborado pelo antropólogo Edgar Morin. Seu estudo epistemológico compreende a relação dos pressupostos da ciência com a sociedade, relação esta que teria o poder de influenciar a construção do mundo social a partir do paradigma da simplificação. Ver M ORIN. Edgar. Introdução ao pensamento complexo. Lisboa: Instituto Piaget, 1992.
[4] De acordo com os relatórios da Oxfam, a riqueza acumulada pelo 1% mais rico do mundo corresponde a riqueza dos outros 99% restantes. E 9 entre cada 10 indivíduos mais ricos são homens e caucasianos. Para mais, ver Oxfam.

Nota da editora: Imagens não creditadas são cortesias da escritora, e pertencem ao seu acervo pessoal. Por favor, não reproduzir ou apropriar antes de pedir permissão.


Karina Ramos

Nascida e criada em um terreiro de Candomblé na Zona Oeste do Rio de Janeiro, Karina Ramos é historiadora, especialista em história da África contemporânea.


ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Term Index at the bottom

Photo by Laura Cantal

In the Shrine of Old Black Iaiá, Let’s Hail

Approximately in the second half of 2017, the scandalous attacks suffered by ancestral-African religions in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro gained much space in the media. It was about three months of reporting, in which representatives from various political, social and intellectual fronts discussed the event. There was even the coverage of the 10th Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom, in which members and leaders of different religions joined hands against the oppression. Until, over time, more information appalled the cause and effects of this phenomenon. It’s no wonder that, in view of the development of modern journalism, the news is understood as an icon of the present time, and disappears like smoke in the wind. But, let’s face it, there is neither novelty nor ephemerality in the attacks on ancestral-African religions. It is a historical event and it is now gaining magnitude and scary features.

Rio de Janeiro, among more than three decades of slave trade, received about 3 million enslaved Africans, of whom about 1/3 of them landed at the Valongo Pier in the port area of the city – a space that, because of much struggle, received the title of World Heritage by UNESCO in 2017. This needs to be said in the first place because there is no way to conceive Rio de Janeiro without taking into account the presence and cultural manifestations of these 3 million enslaved black Africans. Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful city also thanks to the contribution of these men and women, without whom Rio’s samba would not have existed. Like samba, so-called Afro-Brazilian religions are African cultural manifestations that, over time and from cultural articulations, have built their own face: the face of Rio. Pixinguinha, the great Rio de Janeiro composer of our past and to whom we owe the title of this article, is the result of the rhythmic cauldron only found in Rio’s morros (hills where there are favelas) and terreiros (yard-like shrines) such as the legendary Casa da Tia Ciata, a Candomblé terreiro frequented by him and other samba personalities like Donga and João da Baiana.

Unfortunately, Pixinguinha, Donga, and many other black and anonymous men and women have suffered, and still suffer oppression that dates back to the city’s history. Since the beginning of the 20th century, spaces of sociability and cultural manifestations of African matrix are attacked, black men and women are expropriated of their rights and their most basic conditions of existence. There is not an interval of time within the line of events in the history of Rio de Janeiro where blacks and their cultural manifestations have not suffered with public power. According to research conducted by the historian Nireu Cavalcanti, between 1910 and 1918, 66 terreiros scattered throughout the city were persecuted and later had their doors closed. And this is a constant throughout the following decades. The interface between religious intolerance and trafficking – this supposedly parallel power that has nothing at all – is currently the new form of oppression that the terreiros have suffered, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

According to the news that we have, in this decade the first cases in this profile go back to the year 2013, when evangelized traffickers prohibited religious leaders from practicing their rituals, expelling them from their communities in the North Zone of the city. According to information from the Ministry of Human Rights, the number of complaints of religious prejudice increased from 15 in 2011 to 759 in 2016. Only between August and October 2016, 42 complaints of religious intolerance were registered in the state of Rio de Janeiro, of which 38 refer to religions of African origin. In addition to the statistical inaccuracies, still according to the statements provided by the state secretary of Human Rights, Attila Nunes, there is a gap in the penal code, not allowing a clear definition of what would be considered religious prejudice, allowing that any type of aggression to terreiros can be understood, for example, as a simple misunderstanding between neighbors.

Respecting differences and allowing the free expression of this difference is not only a constitutional principle, much less something that should be granted by someone. It is a human principle. It is and always should be much greater than the determinations of a State and of any public power. However, in the opposite sense of this freedom inherent to the human being, we have accompanied a nefarious association between political power and the evangelical bench in the National Congress. And this dialogue should not be seen as alien to these religious persecutions that occurred not only in Rio de Janeiro, but in several other Brazilian states, such as Bahia and Minas Gerais. Currently, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front (FPE) brings together more than 100 parliamentarians, with the expectation that in 2018 about 165 evangelical parliamentarians will be elected between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Their last legislatures are involved with projects such as the “Family Statute” (PL 6.583/2013), which, through conservative legal rules, convenes the definition of family; also contributed with Proposals of Constitutional Amendment like the PEC 171/1993 that justifies the reduction of the criminal adulthood based on biblical passages; and have involvement with Law Projects such as PL 4931/2016 by Rep. João Campos (PSDB-GO) – commonly known as the “Gay Cure” – whose rapporteur is the same as the Family Statute, Pastor Ezequiel Teixeira (PTN- RJ), as well as PL 5.069/2013 that attacks the constitutional right of women victims of sexual violence to have adequate access to abortion – a project headed by Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ), the former president of the Chamber of Deputies who was recently imprisoned for active and passive corruption, prevarication, and money laundering. All of which, according to the request of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, earned him a 386 year sentence.

It should be noted that most FPE parliamentarians come from Pentecostal churches, such as the Assembly of God and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God – one of the most prominent members being the current mayor of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella (PRB-RJ). This, which, amid silence and conservative measures, not only disregards the redemocratization of our Maracanã (the football stadium where the televised carnaval happens), but also neglects the expression of samba and carnaval themselves, the soul of the city, a typical celebration arduously built by the communities and terreiros of Rio’s morros. Other “big” names add to this amoral relationship between politics and religion, such as federal deputy Marco Feliciano (PSC-SP) and federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro (PP-SP), pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential elections.

Although Pentecostal evangelical parliamentarians seem like a majority, we can not ignore the fact that there are others tied to different strands of the Christian religion, such as the historical Protestants and the Baptists. However, even though we respect the differences between them, this does not minimize how inconceivable it is that a constitutionally secular state allows the symbiosis between politics and religion as we have seen in Brazil. As previously stated, religion is a cultural manifestation, proper to a specific culture and the right to worship, whatever it may be, must be preserved in a democratic state of law. Under no circumstances can a religion have its fundamental principles guiding the deliberations of public power, much less subvert those same principles and co-opt a majority black mass that has lived for centuries in abandonment, under the control of a “parallel” power that is equally a by-product of the tricks of this Universal project.

The Origin of This “Big Bang”

The genesis of this whole plot, in my opinion, starts from the idea that the principles of freedom and equality have long been adulterated by the orchestration of power among men. I find no absurdity to assert categorically that the understanding of the world and of the relation to the other that has been introjected to us has a direct connection with the logic of a portion of men who, from their political and economic interests, wanted to rule. Yes, it’s part of an ambitious project. And, worse, it is part of an evil project and, unfortunately, it is still in force until today, taking on varied forms throughout history.

We might here dig into its origins in a movement of historical reconstruction, but we are likely to lose ourselves in so many comings and goings. In any case, it is important to expose its cornerstone, since it still limits our existence as a society and, I believe, is the stone in the shoe that causes much of the world’s atrocities. The construction model of this particular world can be understood as the “simplification paradigm”. And it brings in its genesis the principle of disjunction and the reduction of human reality from a Eurocentric, phallocentric and colonialist perspective.

Equality between men was abstractly constructed through a legal-moral support based on this paradigm. The right to existence of the cultural multidiversity of the human species is automatically denied, and our natural cultural difference is framed in hierarchical notions. Those who are not considered equal are now considered as oppressive. The conservatism that this way of seeing the world establishes, as a political and social philosophy, is therefore necessarily racist and misogynist. It is contrary to the democratic practice of coexistence of differences.

In its evolution, even more cruelly, this paradigm served as the basis for an economic system that, by its very nature, understands the world as a product. That is to say, capitalism – which today stands and governs the logic of human relations – is a system that understands the world and human beings as products from a disjunctive and inherently racist and misogynistic perspective. Women, homosexuals, children, the elderly, blacks and a host of other categories are seen as by-products. This is the basis of the current system that is responsible for dismantling the social bonds that would guarantee our existence.

He disregards all the various forms of existence, all forms of self-recognition and appreciation of the essence of each human being in the world. In my understanding – which is also built from my experience and experience of life – Candomblé and all religions of the African matrix are more of a way of existence and understanding of the world. But it’s not just a representation from a cosmogony sui generis, whose historical basis we find in various communities unfortunately dismantled throughout Africa. African-born religions are a way of understanding social life in a higher way, just as every religion should be and be exercised. They are a way of life and understanding of this existence. They allow, in recognizing their ancestry and their history, their believers to value their essence and understand the value of the culture that originated them.

Having been born and raised in a Candomblé terreiro of the family of Axe Pantanal, whose origins take us to Bahia, I attest to 30 years of living in a community that, like any other, has its own particular rituals and senses, but that at no time stopped exercising the function of reception and assistance in the social integration of its members. For more than 20 years, the insignia of the terreiro of my house have been removed, just as their atabaques – the percussion responsible for the rhythm and for the ancestral teachings that words do not translate – were kept for fear of possible persecution. My mother asked her children not to wear white clothes and expose their fios de conta – necklaces made of beads and specific stones representing the Orixás – for fear of any kind of aggression on the part of the neighbors, who are, as in most of Rio’s suburban communities, predominantly evangelical.

But my house remains the home of a family that goes beyond the normative dimension imposed by the thinking propounded by the simplification paradigm. My house does not cope with intolerance, on the contrary, it carries ancestralistic teachings that drive away ignorance – a very valuable coin among the Pentecostals in Congress. My house is organized – not dominated – by a matriarch, by a woman who receives, accepts and directs any human being who enters the gate, regardless of any standard imposed by society, and dignifies them so that they believe in their potential. It is a sovereign house. It is an unconventional family that professes a faith and is independent of the public power. Observing how power is structured, it is not difficult to understand the “danger” that, like so many terreiros, my house represents for a world in which the cheapest meat is the black meat.

Footnotes:

[1] Source: Secretariat of State for Human Rights policies for women and the Elderly (SEDHMI). Information obtained in report of the newspaper O Globo, 05/11/2017.
[2] Information obtained here.
[3] The concept is drawn up by anthropologist Edgar Morin. His epistemological study understands the relationship of the assumptions of science with society, this relationship that would have the power to influence the construction of the social world from the paradigm of simplification. See M ORIN. Edgar. Introduction to complex thinking. Lisbon: Piaget Institute, 1992.
[4] According to Oxfam’s reports, the wealth accumulated by the world’s richest 1% corresponds to the richness of the remaining 99%. And nine out of ten richest individuals are men and Caucasians. For more, see Oxfam.


Editor’s note: Non-credited images are courtesy of the writer, and part of her personal collection. Please do not reproduce or appropriate without permission.

Translator’s note: Words in italic are left untranslated due to the inadequacy of its closest English counterparts. By leaving them as is, we hope to introduce them into the English linguistic repertoire.

Term Index

Atabaque: A holy percussion instrument used in the ceremonies, where the rhythm and dance are vessels to divine ancestors.

Bahia: A state in the Northeast region of Brazil. It was the first point of contact the Portuguese had with what became the Brazilian colony. Its capital, Salvador, was Brazil’s first capital. It’s now the city with the most African descendants outside of Africa (an estimated 80% of the population). Though difficult to cite precisely, Salvador’s port was one to receive the most enslaved Africans (Rio de Janeiro being second). Only in the second half of the 1700’s, almost one million Africans came to Brazil, half of which came to Salvador (the others to Rio and other parts of the coast). Of the almost 5 million total enslaved Africans that came to Brazil during the nearly 500 years of Colonialism, Salvador is undoubtedly the city most affected by this horrific event in history, a legacy and a reality that is still very much alive today.

Candomblé: An ancestral African Religion of the African Diaspora, worshippers of Orixás.

Carnaval: A Christian festival celebrated in February. A particularly epic event in Brazil, where people drink excessively, hook up, and watch Samba “schools” (teams/groups) perform and compete against each other in massive moving trucks with dancers, musicians, props, and costumes.

Favela: A type of slum formed in response to rural exodus (into large cities e.g. Rio and São Paulo), and to over-population, homelessness, lack of infrastructure and social services. Favelas developed into well organized autonomous regions that operate in parallel to the governmental system. They have a parallel economy, infrastructure and security systems, often maintained by trafficking/traffickers.

Fios de conta: Necklaces representative of the Orixás, made of beads and stones of the symbolic color of each divine ancestor, held together by a cotton thread (never by synthetic nylon threads).

Maracanã: Was once the largest football stadium in the world, site of legendary World Cups and football history moments. It is also where the televised Carnaval parade happens.

Morro: A hill where there is a favela. Favelas first started forming in hills because they were a sort of terrain unaccounted for by the State or land owners.

Samba: A Brazilian musical genre bred in Rio de Janeiro, with rhythm and dance deriving from African roots in Bahia.

Orixás: Divine African ancestors. They represent Nature’s forces and have human-like characteristics such as personality, image and emotions. They are also expressed through color symbolism. Due to Colonial oppression, these Orixás were in some instances merged with the figures of Catholic saints as a self-preservation and disguise strategy.

Terreiro: Where Afro-Brazilian Religious cerimonies happen, and where offerings are given to Orixás. It can be described as a sort of shrine, except there is not construction, only an enclosed open space.


Karina Ramos

Born and raised in a Candomblé terreiro in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Karina Ramos is a historian, an expert on the history of contemporary Africa.

The Roots of Our Resistance

By Rhyd Wildermuth

View from my window, 2009
View from my window, 2009

I stood in the street-front garden on a languid August evening.  The sun had set, the heavy Friday commuter traffic dwindled on the arterial street before me, a pause of quiet settling over the city before the raging hoards of week-end revelers awoke to earlier memories of life.

The gloaming light faded just as the street-lamps ignited, shining amberic yellow across the concrete stones radiating the last of the day’s heat into the cooling night.  I breathed in, deeply, taking in the intoxicating scents around me. Nicotiana filled the heavy, thick drunk air as I unraveled the garden hose, my bare feet brushing against chamomile and mint. I opened the spigot, directing a slow spray of water on the baked-earth in which nasturtium, victorian lilac, and heather rooted amongst human-high blades of vetiver and taller-still sunflower.

Nothing ready to harvest those weeks in August; all the greens had long-before gone to seed, and the tomatoes and peppers not yet ready.  I liked that time of year best, in between one harvest and the next, my garden planned to explode in heady blossoms while vegetables and roots swelled pregnant in the long heat.

This was my home, a shared house in the middle of the city in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, then still an enclave of queers, artists, urban service workers, hipsters, and old Black families sharing the same streets and cafes in the 10 blocks near my garden. One of the first neighborhoods established on the forested hills, ancient trees still winning out over perpetually cracked concrete, centuries-old roots throwing off asphalt and brick with easy indifference.

The house was built early in the 1900’s, but I was much newer to it, having moved just after the WTO protests in the last year of the last century. The neighborhood was gorgeous, playful, the spirits and animals curious and kind, the side-streets as much a foot-path as the sidewalks, alleys hiding mysteries, swelling with quiet contentment. It was a good place, all I needed and wanted of a neighborhood, a city, a world.

That night I stood outside to water my garden somewhat distracted.  Several things weighed on mind, particularly the increasing costs of living where I did. The neighborhood was in upheaval, that slow war of gentification and displacement, increasing costs without increasing wages. The rent on our place had not yet gone up, but all the other expenses were becoming difficult to manage on my full-time social work income, even after sharing the burden of rent, utilities and food with my lover and roommates.

My lover was inside at the time, with another lover. I’d wanted to give them some time to each other, and I’d wanted to stand in the garden. I’d suspended candle lanterns from the branches of an Elder tree another lover had rescued 6 year before, other lanterns swayed from wrought-iron sections of fence we’d found in alleyways and converted into trellises for climbing Cathedral Bells, Morning-Glories, and Black-eyed Susan vine. Amongst those planted vines, ivy–cut back years before—crept back to war with a rather resilient clematis, and amongst those candles and vines, wild lupine and scotch broom and opium poppy peeked through, each flower and shrub and vine a story, each planting of it a relic of my life always ready to be relived.

I sat for awhile, perhaps over-watered, lingering, wondering if they’d had enough time alone, wondering if I should make maybe take tea in thegarden.  It was a beautiful night–all options seemed pleasurable, all paths leading towards contentment.  I’d decided on tea, but just as I turned, I heard my neighbors’ voice call out.

Hey! You got a transfer?” he asked.  I turned, glad to see him.  We’d known each other for over a decade, and he’d been there long before I’d arrived. At 15 years in my home, I was a newcomer—he’d lived there his entire 45 years, which were short compared to his grandmother’s 96 years.

“Yeah,” I said, digging the paper bus ticket from my over-full pockets.

We had an illegal trade going. He started it a decade ago, running across the street to hand me a crumbled purple ribbon of newsprint, an unexpired bus transfer.  I’ll admit, a stranger running at you, shouting as you wait for a bus, is a bit startling, and I was probably awfully defensive that first time.

Don’t pay,” he’d said, stopping in front of me.  “I got a transfer.”

At first I’d refused.  Metro transfers are non-transferable, and I was more a liberal then, and less the anarchist.  I imagined it my moral duty to pay for public transit, regardless of how poor I was.  But the man was nice, and he’d sprinted a hundred feet across a busy street to give me a free ride, so I accepted.

That act started our long friendship.  Whenever I’d see him, I’d say hello, and offer him any unexpired transfers that I had if he was waiting at the stop.  Sometimes he’d leave his on the sign-post by the bus shelter, and then I started doing that too.

My large balcony overlooked the street and the bus stop, and I’d sometimes spot him offer used transfers to others, too.  Most would refuse, particularly the well-dressed white women, and I’d watch their body language show their fear or disgust of the large Black man trying to save them a couple of dollars.

That evening, I handed him mine–an ‘Owl’ transfer, good until the next morning, and then offered him a cigarette, though he hadn’t asked.  I enjoyed his company, despite always forgetting his name.  He always forgot mine, too, no matter how many times we’d offer them to each other.  After most of a decade of talking, laughing, sharing a beer or sprinting across a busy street to save the other guy a few dollars, names really didn’t matter as much as everything else.

We stood outside together, talking, watching the street lamps flicker and the increasing weekend traffic begin to flood the street. My mind was still a bit distracted by my lover’s guest inside, though not from jealousy. The man inside was a writer, too, a left-leaning journalist for a local alternative paper, who’d written several articles about this recent wave of gentrification in our neighborhood. We didn’t agree on much—he saw the changes as good and inevitable; I saw them as horrifying as my steady income seemed to pay for less and less each month.  We’d talked amiably about it, though, but the matter weighed on me.

In the garden, I asked my neighbor and co-conspirator against the rising cost of public transit a question I’d been meaning to ask for several months. As my friend had lived in his home his entire life, and his grandmother was the first to live in their century-old house, I figured he’d have some insight.  And I’d wanted to know how he’d fared during the sub-prime era a few years before, when predatory mortgage brokers would go door-to-door trying to get poorer families to take out equity loans or to sell their home altogether.

“Hey,”  I asked.  “Did you and your grandmother ever get hit by the loan sharks a couple of years ago?”

“Shit,” he’d said, dragging his cigarette, one eye scanning the street for the bus. “We still do, and the real estate agents.  There was a woman here just yesterday–she comes by every week trying to get my grandma to sell.”

I probably looked a bit stupid from the shock.  His grandmother was almost a hundred years old, suffering from age-related dementia, could barely remember her own name let alone make such a decision.

He told me he had to chase another out of his house a month before–his grandmother had let the real estate agent in while he was gone, and by the time he’d arrived his grandmother was already fumbling with a pen to sign away the home she’d been born into. He’d torn those papers up in a fury and pushed the woman out.

A house next to us had sold for almost a million dollars a few years before, after its owner had paid my landlord and another to cut down trees to increase the view from its windows onto Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains (I never learned how much my landlord was paid).  The house next to my friend’s rented for six thousand dollars a month, the house on the other side of him had sold and was being torn down for new apartments.

The hyper-inflated market for housing in a dense and vibrant neighborhood offered quite the buy-out for those whose desire for money outweighed their sense of place and ties to their home.  For him, though, despite being employed only part-time while caring for his very elderly grandmother, it made no sense to sell and move from the house built by his great grandfather.

He told me there’d been plenty of times he was tempted when the electricity was about to go out because of unpaid bills.  Worse, several of the mortgage brokers pitched hard–he was in his mid-forties and had never owned a car, never traveled.  A mortgage or a sale would mean he could buy a car and wouldn’t need to bus all the time, wouldn’t need to trade transfers with his neighbor to make ends meet.

Making a Killing

You might not know the scam here, particularly if you are white–I was ignorant of this myself until about a decade ago.

Black home-owners are continuously targeted by real estate agents and predatory lenders in neighborhoods primed for ‘urban renewal’ (that is, gentrification).  Because they’re minorities, their plight and position elicits little sympathy and solidarity from the middle-class white liberals who dominate the politics in many cities, and their high unemployment rates often mean they are more likely to endure long periods of poverty and have less access to the lines of credit freely offered to middle-class whites.

But many of them owned homes, particularly in areas that were once considered poor and undesirable neighborhoods.  And for families like my friend’s, the home was theirs, long-ago paid off or never borrowed for in the first place. Without income, though, and without easy credit, the house becomes the only thing they can draw from, and banks are too-often willing to take a house as collateral on an ‘equity loan.’

There are many ways a loan can go wrong, the most obvious one being that jobs are lost or medical crises ensue, and the failure to repay that loan (often for relatively small amounts compared to the value of the house) means everything is lost.

Because we live in a racist, Capitalist Democracy, profit is the only religion and any problems you endure are considered your own responsibility, even if those problems were caused by manipulative land speculators and bankers composing confusing loan agreements. And speculators often target Black home owners because they know they are poor, often strapped for cash, less educated than their white neighbors, and their lack of political power means their complaints are often ignored or considered hysteria by those outside their communities.

Mortgage brokers and loan officers (who, like real estate agents are often paid on commission) see Black home-owners as easy targets, particularly since the pay-off for a loan default is often extra-ordinarily high compared to the amount lent.  During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when interest rates were low and regulation was lax, brokers and real estate agents targeted Black home owners particularly, approving loans with variable rates (often interest rates that tripled after a year of repayment), making a ‘killing’ in new housing markets.

During the heady days of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the new rage in home ownership from friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to get in on ‘Flipping,’ where you buy a house, hold it for a year or two, and sell it for $50- to $100 thousand more than your original loan, pocketing the difference as profit.

“In fact,” a long-time friend of mine explained after he flipped his first house, “you wouldn’t have to work for others anymore.  Rhyd–you could write while fixing up a house.  And they don’t care how much money you’re making now–they’ll give a loan to anyone.  You’d be stupid not to.”

Lax regulation, high unemployment, and government policies to push home ownership as the ‘American Dream’ created an overheated engine of profit for those who did the transfers.  And each sale meant a little more profit, and many people were buying only to sell again, with no interest in the communities they bought homes in.

It all seemed really, really wrong…and it was.

A friend got caught on his second house as the market collapsed, and he, along with many, many other people, were all ‘underwater’ (owing more on their loans than the resale value of their houses).  But worse than the obvious game and great ‘forgetting’ of everyone involved (they, like me, had witnessed the dot.com bubble in Seattle, after all), was the fact that this shell game was being played at the expense of poor and Black folk, who lost their homes in droves when the money they’d borrowed to pay down medical debt, perform long-needed repairs, or get them through an economic rough-patch couldn’t be paid back. They lost not only the roofs over their heads, but also the decades and almost centuries of rootedness that came from living in the same home as your ancestors.

Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA
Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA

And in the last 6 years, another round of the shell-game had begun in our city and our neighborhood. Large internet technology companies had begun expanding their profit-ventures and needed more workers to help them do it. Traditionally Black and gay neighborhoods became war zones again, threatening to push both him and I out in favor of a whiter, straighter population.

Ancestral Trauma and the Cycle of Violence

The ancestors of many Black folk in America were hauled from their homes in chains in the hulls of ships, becoming an uncompensated labor force to subdue the colonized lands of the Americas.  From one great break of ancestry to another, the descendents of folks living on the continent of Africa found their traditions severed by the ravenous lust of Capital both through slavery and through the pillaging of land speculation.

Marxist historians speak of a process called “Primitive Accumulation,” [Primitive as in ‘primary’ or ‘initial,’ not as in the ‘opposite of civilized,’] the plundering of natural resources (wood, minerals, people).  This accumulation usually involved violence–the Crusades, imperial conquest of South America, and slave-taking were all acts of Primitive Accumulation, and all resulted in great wealth for European rulers and merchants.  That initial accumulation of wealth at the point of the sword then became the wealth that we now call Capital.

Primitive Accumulation caused massive displacements of people and destruction of societies–the deaths from conquest in the Americas and the hauling of humans in chains across oceans being obvious examples.  But this way of gaining wealth is never very sustainable–one can only plunder so many ancient cities of their gold and people before there’s no longer any gold or people left to plunder.

Capitalism is a more systematic and efficient method of plunder, as it invests those stolen resources into localized cycles of oppression.  Consider–the effort to hire an army willing to risk death to conquer another people for its wealth is intense, requiring state sanction and ideological support (the Crusades, the War on Terror)–and this method is usually only available to kings.  For lesser lords (and their descendents, the ‘Bourgeoisie’), it was easier to exploit the people around them rather than traveling overseas.

slave auction, Virginia
Slave Auction, Virginia, USA

But Capitalism operates, still, on the same logic as primitive accumulation–the ‘creation’ of wealth from finite resources.  Humans can only work so long before they tire, and consumers can only buy so many of the same dress before they no longer need any more dresses.  There is always a limit to the amount of money that can be made in any venture, whether it is conquest of ancient societies or mass-produced trinkets.  The wells run dry, the mines empty, the storehouses fill to overflowing.

The Capitalist, like the conqueror, is never sated, since the entire point of both Capitalism and Conquest is to gain ever-increasing amounts of wealth (unlike for the worker or the slave, which is do do as little work as possible while still surviving or not getting beaten). So Capitalism must find new ‘markets,’ new fields of conquest from which wealth can be derived.  And sometimes, it does so by destroying what is already there in order to make profit from rebuilding it.

When a neighborhood undergoes gentrification, land and buildings are changed or replaced in order derive more wealth from them. Old houses that are only being lived in or rented at stable rates become targets for Capital-seeking investors and real-estate agents. If you own a house your entire life, you’re not making money for anyone else by living there. Renters  provide some wealth for landords, but because there’s only so much that can be squezzed from a renter’s income before they must move, Capitalists actively displace renters in favor of higher-income people.

Old houses are torn down to make room for denser apartments and condominiums, old apartments are renovated or sold as condominiums, and the people who lived previous are either ‘priced out’ or forced to leave through lease terminations.

This cycle of upheaval is not new.

Consider some of the earliest upheavals caused by Capitalism, not in the Americas or in Africa, but on the very islands where Capitalism started.  The Highland Clearances and other Enclosure movements were the first salvos in the transition from Primitive Accumulation to Capitalist exploitation of peoples.

The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo's, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to 'improve' production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.
The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo’s, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to ‘improve’ production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.

Wealthy landlords and tribal chieftains pushed people (often kin) from land they’d worked for centuries in order to derive more wealth from that land through ‘improvements’ (in essence, the beginning of industrialised farming).  Some were sold as indentured servants because of unpaid rents, others were marched away and left to die, and the vast majority faced a choice–move to the towns and work in the factories other Capitalists had set up to turn their lifeblood into wealth, or travel across oceans to the conquered lands of North America and Australia in order to start again.

Of course, the lands those displaced peoples moved to were already inhabited, and the history of all European colonies is written in the blood of indigenous peoples. Those First Nations and Aboriginal peoples had varying responses to these newcomers.  Some sought peace, others sought war, but neither tactic proved successful in keeping their own ancestral lands from the Enclosures that sprung from the British Isles.

The United States, particularly, has seen multiple waves of displaced peoples.  Enslaved peoples from the African continent, indentured servants and refugees from the “Progress” of Capitalism in Europe, and of course, the very people who lived on this land before the whole cycle began–they are all victims.

‘Round the Prickly Pear

Gentrification is seen by many as a natural process.  In a way, it is– it;s initiated by a very small but particularly destructive element of the natural world—humans, or more specifically, Capitalist humans. And though displacement of peoples is not new, the kinds of economic displacement seen since the birth of Capital, is a different thing altogether than what was seen in the past.

Gentrification is a kind of opening of a new Capital-producing market , created by destroying what was already there–and it’s a super-heated engine of destruction in many cities of the United States currently. I’ve many friends in the Bay Area, for instance, for whom the exorbitant rent-increases has become so absurd that they’ve taken on a sort of war-trauma.  The same occurs in Seattle now, with apartments friends rented 4 years ago at $1000/month now renting for $2000, a 100% increase over half-a-decade.

Similar in Portland, Oregon, as well as neighborhoods in large cities across the country. In other cities, natural disaster (like in New Orleans) or economic collapse (Detroit) have led to even more damage to Black folk, as investors and traitorous politicians have colluded to rebuild cities without their traditional inhabitants. In all cases, though, the mechanism is the same, and the victims have much more in common with each other than they do with new residents moving into their respective cities, yet rarely do they fight in solidarity.

But why not?  Some of this absence of solidarity derives from racism, but there’s an understated problem in our understanding of Gentrification which also prevents united fronts against Capitalist displacement.

Too much written about this process situates it in a narrative of cycles,  a progression of neighborhoods derived from natural law and inevitability.  From this view, the answer to complaints about rising rents and destroyed communities range between ‘get over it’ or ‘there’s nothing that can be done.’

A less-heard point sometimes arises, though, and it has more merit.  I heard it often from my anarchist friends in the middle of the last decade, an important reminder that whites did this to First Nations peoples before, and we’re all on stolen land.

This is true. Unfortunately, the result of that argument is usually a complete  dismissal of the very real damage done to people when their homes are taken through predatory loans or their rents increased so much they have no choice to become displaced.

The problem arises because so many different peoples, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, have all fallen victim to Capitalist displacement. The land I currently live on was stolen from the Duwamish peoples more than a century ago; it is still stolen from them, and worse–the Federal Government does not recognize them as an tribal group, and therefore all their claims are legally null. The Black families who lived here were descendents of people displaced by force from their homes in Africa, victims of primitive accumulation and the European thirst for Capital.

And then…there’s me.  Some of my ancestors were displaced from the British Isles during the Enclosures and the birth of Capital.  Others fled mainland Europe during the Enclosure of their land, or became refugees of Capitalist wars.  Not all, mind.  I’ve a rumored but unverified First Nations ancestor on one side of my family, and on the other, an unfortunate “Boston Brahmin” ancestor.  And I’ve already been displaced several times in my life through poverty or rent-increases.

We could construct a hierarchy of victimhood in the relentless history of displacement by employing metrics of innocence, complicity, and ancestral ties. And we should and must tell those stories, and we should and must do everything to right those wrongs.

But here’s the problem– the insidious trick of Capitalism is that the violence it perpetrates upon people determines their future actions, too. White (a false racial construction) settlers, displaced from a myriad of European lands, helped displace (sometimes by direct violence) indigenous peoples and each other, like abused children who grow up to repeat their childhood trauma upon others. The violence enacted on them became the violence they enacted upon others.

More horrifically, Capitalism offers a path out of poverty and ancestral trauma if one agrees to renounce all kin, class, and ancestral ties.  The descendent of African slaves who becomes an immigration enforcement officer, the victim of the Enclosures and the Clearances who agreed to help the English enforce its laws against the Irish, or became a colonial administrator in India, the Irish descendents who swelled the ranks of violent police forces in New York, Boston, and San Franscisco, the “Buffalo Soldier,” the Tribal leader who signed away mining rights for personal benefit,  the poor-born of any race who becomes a manager or foreman–each is preyed upon twice-over by Capitalism, forced into horrible circumstance and then offered a treasonous path to personal survival.

When we try to parse out all the histories of complicity, we miss the point, much like sorting buckets of bailed water on a sinking ship according to half-full/half-empty dichotomies.  The question should not be, “who suffered most?” but rather “why haven’t we stopped this suffering?”

In a gentrifying neighborhood, newcomers are often confused by the reactions of those their presence is displacing.  No one person displaced another; in San Franscisco and Seattle and in all these other cities, each person is making an individual choice to live in a different place, often times following work.  The problem is never each individual person, but the systematic weakening of the communities being displaced (long before real estate agents and property owners identified the neighborhood as a new market), a state which not only enables but often encourages the destruction of older neighborhoods, and under all of this, entire societies which have lost touch with the spirit of the land beneath their feet and the meaning of place.

And it’s that weakening of ties to place where our primary resistance and revolutionary assault against Capitalism must begin.

From Strong Roots, We Fight

CC. Alley Valkyrie
CC. Alley Valkyrie

Capital requires new markets to expand, but the earth is limited and we only need so much shit.  Enclosures are an old trick, and the displacement they cause generate both more profit for the rich, but do something even more vital for the smooth running of Capital: displaced peoples lack community, become desperate, and most significantly of all, have no access to their history.

Slaves hauled across oceans cannot visit the graves of their ancestors; peasants forced off land cannot visit the old wells and stones which rooted their world firmly in the other.  Old contracts with the land are broken, old gods forgotten, and the standards once used to judge if an act would serve the community or damage it fall away.

Capitalist displacement is also Capitalist disenchantment; it is the reason for which the traditions of people are perpetually destroyed. Rootless people are easily controlled and coerced, people without the stories, myths, and spirits of a place have nowhere to turn beside the market for the creation of their meaning.

Capitalism needs us to be displaced, pushed around by its invisible hand.  We must stand in fight, root ourselves in place, learn the names of our neighbors and the trees on our streets, seek out the sources of our water, trace our streams under pavement, learn the origins of our food and the histories of our homes.

We must tell the stories of our place to each other, creating new communities, new peoples unwilling to move when they tell us to go, untempted by profit in other towns, unafraid to confront the haunting ghosts of those buried in our graveyards, uncowed by threats of property laws and poverty outside the logic of the time-sheet and the work-day.

For those of us in the Americas or in other former colonies of the proto-Capitalist empires in Europe, we must begin by seeking out, offering our aid, and helping to restore the peoples displaced by our ancestral traumas. The Duwamish are not the only First Nations people written out of existence in the United States, and the successor states of British Imperialism have a particularly horrible history of violence against the people they conquered—the British, after all, started Capitalism.

We must become rooted in the land and communities, and we must refuse the Capitalist’s game of divide-and-conquer.  In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, waves of ‘tech workers’ are displacing others. They, moving to cities for high-waged work, have no ties to the land, and no community when arriving except their (Capitalist) employer and others working for them.  The 100-year old Black woman whose house they might purchase means nothing to them; they don’t know her story any more than they know that of the land upon which her home was built.

But we must remember—they are mere tools, ‘buying in’ to new Capitalist ventures and selling their labor to powerful Capitalists. They contribute to the destruction of communities by renting and buying homes at exorbitant rates (against their own self-interest). They become the weapons Capitalists wield in new wars of accumulation, often unwitting and too-often indifferent, rootless themselves, colonial settlers no different than those who became colonial servants in India for the British crown. They are not the direct cause of gentrification, but they become ‘class traitors,’ slobbering on their knees and choking at the altars of Capital—just like the rest of us. They, and we, must refuse to destroy the lives of others in return for scraps from the tables of the rich.

And from our position of rootedness and solidarity, we must directly attack Capital. It is the Capitalists who are in power, who start this engine and keep it stoked hot, making a killing from our attempts to make a living.  Aided by complicit governments bloated and drunk on tax money, political donations, and their lust for power, the Capitalists have perfected the pillaging wars of Colonialism in a system so pristine we cannot fully unravel its knotted patterns of destruction.

But that knot cannot be unraveled; it must be cut.  We cannot ever hope to find an answer to Capitalist displacement of peoples without fighting Capitalism, nor can we hope to rectify the wrongs that Capitalism has caused to peoples until Capitalism is no longer a threat.

The answer’s under our feet, in the places we live, the communities from which we’re alienated, in the spirits of the air and tree and grass in our neighborhoods.

The answer is both a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen). Even when displaced (as I was), we must see every place as our home and a site of beautiful resistance. And those who refused to leave, those who, like my transfer-trading friend and neighbor, who bravely choose land, history, and community over the treason of the Capitalist buy-out, must be be honored, supported and defended, because it is they who can show us best the importance of roots.

We have allies, seen and unseen.

We must join their fight.


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Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.

Never Shall Be Slaves – I

By Jonathan Woolley

Britannia-Statue

“Rule Britannia/Britannia rules the Waves
Britons never never never shall be slaves.”

These are words I grew up with. To be sung at sporting events and public celebrations, while waving a little plastic Union Jack and being carried along with the crowd. Even if you haven’t come across them before, you will have heard the tune: it immediately calls to mind the maritime, stubborn spirit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will not be conquered – we fought off the Germans, twice! We stand for freedom. We invented democracy. Did you know we banned slavery before anyone else?

It’s catchy, this sort of thing. It rings out in the public sphere, and fades till it becomes a hum, till it becomes part of the white noise that lingers in the imagination even when all else is silent. Britons never shall be slaves. If our nation were one of the Seven Kingdoms, and the House of Windsor were our liege-lords, these would be their words. You don’t need to know much about blowing gales(1) to know the power that such songs command.

I can remember, when I was small, I just took all this on board. I’d see my mother proudly singing along while watching the Last Night of the Proms. Afterwards, she explained to me why they were important. We Brits have a proud naval tradition, she said, and that protects us from our enemies.

Rule Britannia! was written in 1740 by a Scottish poet called James Thomson. It was part of a production about Alfred the Great – the original patron of the English navy – written to mirror a spate of recent victories scored by the British navy against the Spaniards. It struck a chord, so to speak, and rapidly entered into the popular songbook. Nowadays, nobody really remembers the full lyrics: it’s just the short refrain above that is sung, with great ardour, over and over and over.

It is true, of course, that British sea power has been instrumental in protecting Britain and Northern Ireland from foreign invasion. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada onwards, there has been a sort of popular superstition amongst the British people that the seas and skies themselves defend our island – a tsunami of the occident – with our navy standing guard in their stead. Our seas are to us what Russian winters are to Moscow. Our navy made Operation Sea Lion a pipe dream, unless our air force was removed first.

But the last bit of the words – the indefinite proclamation, never shall be slaves – is a darker matter. Because it isn’t true. Not even a bit of it.

Britons have been – and still are – frequently enslaved. Whether we’re talking about entire Cornish villages being carted off by pirates from the Barbary Coast, or modern-day debt slaves in quiet suburban streets, the ardent claim made by Rule Britannia! rings rather hollow. And the history of the British Empire’s relationship to slavery is anything but noble. I suppose it could be read as aspirational; that slavery is inimicable with British values, even if the reality it somewhat different.

But beyond this, there is another story to be told. A sad one, with a horrible ending.

“Briton” – as a demonym – has deep roots. It stretches back far into the past, to the Priteni, or the People of the Forms (2) – the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles in the Iron Age. I use the term “indigenous” advisedly, because the Priteni were progressively colonised by a bellicose foreign Empire: that of Ancient Rome. And a big, and often neglected part of that history, is slavery. Slaves were routinely exported from Britain, being listed by Strabo amongst other goods that were traded from there. Like many minor powers on the fringes of imperial players, it seems, the Ancient British chiefdoms were driven to enslave one another as a way of making money. Despite this, Cicero informs us that Britons would “not fetch fancy prices” in Roman slave markets, because they were too lazy. Cicero also observed in a letter to a friend that, after the conquest,

“It’s also become clear that there isn’t an ounce of silver in the island [Britain] nor any prospect of booty except slaves.”

But that was incentive enough for Rome. Slaves were the hydrocarbons of their day – their expropriated labour the primary energy source in Roman agriculture, industry, and domestic life. And just like our present-day Empires, Rome needed a constant supply of energy to keep itself going.

Historians like Tacitus open a window on what the invasion and conquest of Britain would have meant for the indigenous population: if you resisted, thousands of your people would be slain in battle, with the rest being taken into slavery. If you did not, you would be forced to pay tribute to Rome, and would be utterly subject to Roman laws. Your body and person would be free, but your spirit, wealth and society would be forever subject to the Pax Romana.

Within the narrative of conventional British patriotism, this was no bad thing. This was not enslavement, this was progress. Rome brought civilisation – literacy, underfloor heating, professionalised crafts, olive oil, wine, and – eventually – Christianity. The Roman armies protected the Iron Age tribes from one another; pacifying them. In this imagining, the ancient Druids – the spiritual ancestors of modern Druidry – were superstitious, murderous zealots; justifiably massacred on the Isle of Angelsey. History is written by the victors, of course; as such, it is often so much blood libel.

The Britons, of course, never threw off the Roman yoke. They never again were the Priteni – the People of the Forms. Many shaved their faces, put away their ink, and replaced their roundhouses with villas, their trousers for togas. Their wild and mysterious gods were weighted down with stone temples, then forgotten entirely when the Christ came. And Rome did bring peace, and opportunities for trade. The population grew, and lifespans increased. Winston Churchill claimed

“For nearly 300 years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had.”

As Churchill was an ardent imperialist, such a reading is unsurprising. For as with all Empires, the peace and properity of late-Roman Britain was bought and paid for with tens of thousands of lives that were taken in war, or swallowed by the slave trade, then promptly ended in the lead mines, galleys and plantations of Gaul, Spain, and Italy.

But the Pax was not to last in Britain. After 300 years, the Roman Army retreated to defend Gaul, leaving Britain defenseless and – crucially – without a source of currency. Deprived of military wages, and so no longer able to trade, the now highly specialised British economy collapsed. Whereas before ordinary people knew how to support themselves – making their own utensils, growing their own food, and building their own houses – within the Empire, they had access to specialist craftsmen who could provide all these goods. Once the money supply was cut off however, people could neither buy, nor make, nor grow the commodities they needed. The population crashed, with hundreds of thousands of people starving or dying of disease and exposure, simply because the Imperial economic system upon which they relied had suddenly spat them out, and they no longer knew how to cope without it. Much like the Western Australian Government currently; the Romans stayed long enough for everyone to become reliant upon them, before pulling out and leaving the population to fend for themselves. As Professor Ronald Hutton recently stated in a talk at a Lugnasadh celebration: “The paradise of late Roman Britain became a nightmare.”

The Roman Occupation was a time when Britons were – both collectively and personally – slaves. We were violently chained to a grand imperial machine, exploited, then rendered utterly dependent upon that machine for very our survival. True, that experience was varied – some were formally enslaved, others were free citizens of the Empire. But our liberty was utterly destroyed. So much so, that Rome hadn’t just stolen the sons, daughters, grain, gold, and sovereignty of Britain – it had stolen and corrupted its very soul. No longer did the Britons – as the warchief Calcagus once had, in Tacitus’ imagining – long for freedom from the oppression of vicious empires. The trauma of our abandonment scarred that sentiment, so over generations it would be perverted into a desire to become a new Rome ourselves. Britons never shall be slaves. So we shall make slaves of all others.

It’s over a thousand years later now, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The British people are no longer a collection of tribes preparing to fight for their lives, insulted as “barbarians”, and soon to be broken into death and slavery. We are the Romans now. Or, at least, we were. For a time. But our Empire fell, as Empires always do, and everyone who fell under Britannia’s long shadow has been left to pick up the pieces.

We Pagans look to our ancestors for comfort, support, protection, and advice. The Gods can be fickle, but our ancestors – as our kin – can be trusted before all others to look out for us and to teach us true lessons. This story from the past of the British people is pretty baleful knowledge. It isn’t a happy story of triumph, of a Sceptered Isle safe from slavery. It is a story, first and foremost, of the ancestral Britons’ total defeat – their subjection, and eventual decimation. Some died early, some died later, but the overriding theme is the total loss of sovereignty. What’s more, this didn’t just happen once in Britain’s early history, but several times in the various successor nations of Britain – from the Norman Conquest, to the Highland Clearances.

Some people respond to this realisation by creating a kind of victimhood narrative; in place of patriotic bluster, they nurse xenophobia – describing present-day immigration, often by people of colour, as an “invasion”; or trying to conflate the experience of present-day white people with present-day indigenous communities, who still live under a different sort of Pax. But to respond in this way is both foolish, and immoral. Foolish because it ignores the intervening history, and immoral because it justifies the continued persecution of indigenous peoples, and migrants.

These instances of colonalism in Britain’s past foreshadowed the creation of the British Empire centuries later. Rome set a bloody precedent across Europe; its lost golden age driving the ambition of generations of latter day Caesars. The people such conquering visions displaced often ended up in non-Western countries, replicated the abuses they had suffered on indigenous populations. It isn’t so strange that peoples when utterly conquered should themselves then seek to conquer; and sing songs about their own liberty. Most bullies are themselves subjected to abuse, and cover their weakness with ostenstatious displays of strength. But to understand this should never serve to justify or excuse bullying behaviour. The fact that Britain was once colonised in the past, can never be used to excuse present-day colonialism or racism. Instead, it should encourage us to do the opposite.

The irony is that both patriotic and victimhood narratives commit the same error – dishonouring and forgetting our ancestors’ struggle against the Roman oppressor. Putting Rome on a pedestal exemplifying a lost Golden Age, ignores the suffering of those who originally fought against her. And pretending that this idolising of Rome hasn’t happened in our more recent past, merely enables us to ignore those who suffer now. As Pagans, it is our duty and privilege to remember this past, to be inspired by it to show solidarity and support to those oppressed in the modern day, and to oppose Empire in the present, in memory of all our beloved dead who fell beneath its jack-booted oppression. Anything less is not only morally wrong, but leaves us chained to the ghosts of our once-conquerors. We must break those chains. Then, and only then, will the claim that there never shall be slaves ring true.

(1) Blowing a gale – The English word “gale”, referring to a strong wind, comes from the Middle English word galen, which means to sing, scream, cry, or practice enchantment. As such, when Asatruar sing galdr, we English might be said to blow gales.

(2) This etymology is believed to be a Gaulish description of British people, reflecting their tendency to tattoo themselves with blue pigment.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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