Joseph M. Pierce
On the Children in Cages
We shouldn’t be surprised. At any of this. We should have seen it coming. Surprise is not the right word. But neither is outrage, really. Are we outraged at the images of caged children? Children placed in detention centers that are not really detention centers. Children separated from mothers whose tears never did matter.
Is it the fact of their separation, or our visceral reaction when confronted with the sounds of impotence or the images of innocent bodies under space age blankets on the floors of cold cells? The images of innocent bodies made innocent no more. The loss of innocence. The feeling of having to recon with the undeniable fact that this too is us. Now. Or is this surprise-cum-outrage better described as embarrassment, shame, or perhaps even fear?
The fear of what we have done. Or is it incredulity?
And yet, we shouldn’t be surprised. We have been doing this for decades. Centuries. Boarding schools took Indigenous children away from their parents. Children, transformed by a nation through institutions meant to protect them. From themselves. From what they might grow up to become. Because children become adults. Adults become dangerous. Have voices. And voices resonate, grow. They generate fear.
Were we incredulous when we read that one article about missing Indigneous women? Were we incredulous when we heard about the suicide rates on reservations? Were we incredulous when we saw how many Black children grow up without parents in order to sate this nation’s need to imprison Black and Brown bodies. This nation. Insatiable for the confinement of bodies in its cells and its camps and its underemployment and its football games.
Boarding schools. Adoption policies. Internment camps. Slavery.
Selling Black and Brown children to work for white people, to provide income for white people, to provide holes for white to men to stuff with their cotton.
We took children from their mothers and fathers. For. Centuries.
All in the name of a greater purpose. In the name of the law. In the name of God. This, from a nation meant to distribute liberty so generously that all of the world would benefit. Such munificence. Such eugenic clarity.
Its not that we are condemned to repeat the history that we have not learned, but rather that we willfully repeat what we know to be effective in maintaining order in a land imagined to be lawless. Made lawless by its bloody origin so that it could be ordered anew, according to a vision of endless bounty and productivity, a vision made reality on the backs of Black and Brown children separated from their mothers’ wombs, breasts, arms, flailing in horror. Isn’t that history?
While we react with clicks. And likes. And with dystopian futures on televisions that project not fantasy but the fact of human existence for Black and Brown mothers. Mothers who have been living that dystopian future for centuries.
(Detention center in McAllen, Texas. Photo: Center for Border Protection)
We take children from mothers and fathers. We take them and we put them in cells. Like we took them and we put them in schools—in order to civilize them, save them from their own blood, from their inhumanity, from their fate to disappear to become the history that they were destined to become. And so we saved them from themselves. From their own disappearance. From their long braids and their almond eyes and their superstitions. Like we took them from the Black wombs of their Black mothers whose Black skin was a cosmic affront to the (manifest) destiny of a nation meant to forget itself and the bodies that grind within it.
Babies taken from mothers to be raised by white families. Because opportunity. And war.
Korean children. Mexican children. Indian children. Black children.
Black children in tender blue lights. In tobacco fields.
On the scribbles of ledgers. In the mouths of fish who grow fat.
How can I put it more clearly? The US has been stealing Black and Brown children from the arms of their mothers since its inception. Literally.
This is nothing new.
The problem is not the fact of this history, but what to do with it.
An if/then proposal: If this is not new, then what are we talking about? If it is not new or surprising; neither surprising nor outrageous, but (perhaps) shameful and embarrassing and made real by the inability that we have as a nation to confront the fear that we have of our foundational contradiction: that life and liberty and happiness is not for all, but the few, the children of white settlers drunk with the purity of their enduring whiteness, then what? What now?
Try again: If this is not new and not surprising but based in fear, the fear of losing power, the fear that white people have had on this land since they thought they found it (lol), since they stole it, and they knew they stole it, since they stole the land and its children, its histories and languages and animals and spirits (they stole the gods of this continent…and we are surprised that they would steal a few more children), then what?
Beyond the historical horizon is a Salvadoran woman a Nicaraguan woman a Mexican woman a Guatemalan woman whose arms stretch out in agony (or is it shame?).
People will say: what are we to do? This is the then part. Then what?
What are we to do about this now? We can’t change this history. The past. As if the past were not also here, now, breathing in us. As if we are not also the past.
Making a distinction between this is outrageous and this is nothing new is politically unproductive. So, some people will say, we need to act in the present, now. We need action items.
LOL. Fine. Of course we need to act now. The children who are in prisons, who are being illegally held against their will, who are being tortured in this way, should be released to their parents immediately. (That was a concrete point, one that answers the what now? question.)
The thing is: this is nothing new makes the now seem illegible as history, as if the legacy of colonialism and the prison industrial complex and racism and neoliberal economic policies and intervening in Central America and Iraq and Chile and Cambodia and Vietnam and Korea (and…and…) were not all materially enmeshed, woven together into the very fabric of American social life as it is today. As if we could not carry the weight of the millions of children taken from parents, the centuries of Black and Brown children taken from their parents, into this present in order to act on it. Now.
It is not that making a distinction between the historical and the political now will lead us to a stalemate, but rather that it is impossible not to bear the marks of history, we, whose bodies are those of the mothers whose children were once lost, once stolen, once sold. We, whose bodies bear that shame and that loss and that joy and that promise, we who know all too well what lessons history provides.
In fact, the only way we will make sense to future generations who will ask us what we did when in our present, which is like so many other presents, we were faced with the possibility of bearing our shame and our fear and holding it, making space it in our lives and our relations and our love. Yes love. They will ask what it felt like to feel that moment. And we will have to be able to say that we held on to the pain of its history for an eternity of todays that seemed to have already passed us by. But which is also today and now. And then. Or else, they too will ask, surprised, how did this happen, again?