On the Impossible Response
It was dark in the club. A cold night in Washington D.C. I had just given a presentation at an academic conference and was out with friends. And Beyoncé’s Formation had just roused the crowd into a collective gasping and celebration. I was walking down a winding staircase, glistening indigo fluorescence. And then, from above, that sound.
The sound of playing Indian as a child. The sound of bare-chested, war-painted braves riding into battle. That unmistakable mark of Hollywood sonority, of Tonto, of ecstatic, wagon-circling savages: the war whoop.
By the time I looked up into that darkness whoever it was had passed from view. But I did not need to see him. It was the pulsing rejection of my body, my hair, my presence. That sound.
And its not like it’s an ambiguous sound. It requires some effort. The hand to the mouth, the open mouth, the mouth that breathes that pitch just slightly above normal, a moment of tonality marked by the pulsating rhythm of colonial dread. That is the sound of death. Or, rather, of fear. It is the sound of imminent war. It may be the last sound you hear. At least in the movies.
What I have been trying to grasp, in the aftermath, as happens frequently in the wake of a micro (or actual) racist aggression, is what should I have done? What should I have said back to that man?
And the more I think of it, I wonder if there is anything, actually, that I could have said—uttered, intoned—that would have made me any more than what I was to that man in that moment: a body to parody, to mock, to shame, to strip of its ability to respond. It is an impossible response. When the interpolation as other is not the Althusserian, “Hey, you!” but instead a surreptitious, echoing epithet. It requires no turn, no response to the hail, and when you do turn, the source is gone, his power to elicit your response already evanescing as an insidious echo. Come back, master, I might have thought, I might have wanted, so that I can explain myself to you. But that was not the scene. Not demanding explanation but calcifying, freezing me in that nothingness.
Not Faggot, but Redskin. And the irony of this occurring in D.C. is not lost on me.
What I did do was haphazardly attempt to describe this event to a few other people, friends that I had gone out with. One of them said that people don’t do that anymore (make that sound), but apparently they do, they did. I left.
The next day I was supposed to go back to the conference, but instead I went to the Museum of the American Indian. I had been there before, two years ago, and remember not particularly liking it. I thought it lacked a political edge, that it was not as confrontational as I would have wanted about the American genocide and continued marginalization of Native people, about settler-colonialism.
And as I trudging up the spiral staircase to the third floor, I wandered into an exhibition by Kay Walkingstick, a Cherokee artist who only later in life (like me) came to grips with her Indigeneity. And I found myself sobbing in front of this image.
“Where are the generations? Where are the Children?” She asks.
And I could not take it. I could not take the feeling of history. That question that asks what Native life is actually possible? Where are those ancestors whose voice I will never hear?
Or what voice would they have used when I could not? What voice would they have had that might speak through me? And then I thought that it was not that theirs was absent, but simply that I have to be willing to hear it. That the voice of that past is only accessible if we are willing to listen for it. To hear instead of that war whoop the sounds of the forced removal, the sounds of memory, of the tears that they also shed, the sound of turning and looking but not being able to respond. The sound of Tsalagi. The sound of the sacred fire.
But I don’t hear this type of racist epithet very often. My lighter skin, my clothing, my education, my manner, tend to shield me from such slurs, and that is the privilege of passing. Until it isn’t.
The thing that I realized about the Museum, what I rethought this time, was its refusal of victimization. It is one thing to present two sides of history, as they did throughout, but it is another thing entirely not to name the things, the history, the bodies, the sounds, of the affect and the broken bodies, genealogies, of forced removal. One of last things I saw was a video installation entitled, “The ‘Indian Problem’,” which concludes with the following reflection by Suzan Shown Harjo: “we don’t make the case that there was genocide. We know there was, yet here we are.” Indeed. Yet here we are.