The politics of forgetting

Last night I read a poem by Lewis Scott, an African living in Wellington, about the election of Barack Obama to the American presidency.  It will be published in the next Tu Mai, New Zealand’s monthly indigenous lifestyle magazine.   

The poem is beautiful – worth buying next month’s magazine for – drawing on the experiences of Africans jumping ship mid-trip to escape impending slavery, the language of slavery, the freedom railway of Harriet Tubman and co, and Billie Holiday’s unforgettable description of lynching:

For Mr Scott, the election of a Black man to the White House is an opportunity to reflect on the history of Africans in the USA, particularly those who trace lineage back to slavery.  A chance to honour those histories, and consider how that places African-Americans now.  And a chance to honour Barack Obama himself – even if his record on race and discrimination is perhaps as yet untested.

Contrast that with the Dominion Post’s lead yesterday, splashed all over the front page:

Change has come to America

America has put its sorry history of slavery and civil rights abuses behind it with the election of Barack Obama as its first black president.

This one was written by Pakeha New Zealander Tim Pankhurst, and the “putting the past behind us” idea is one we’re very familiar with here in Aotearoa.

One of the recurring complaints about the Waitangi Tribunal process, in which claims of historical failures to honour the Treaty of Waitangi between the Crown and Maori are assessed based on available evidence, is that Maori need to “just get over it”.  Explicit in these comments to a DomPo story about Tuhoe negotiations in which Michael Cullen talks about “looking to the future”. 

The problem with all this forgetting about the past and looking to the future is at least two-fold in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  Firstly, the forgetting allows us to pretend that any social arrangements we have now are organic, they’ve “just happened”, and actually pretty much anything that happens now is down to individual choices people make.

So if Maori are not performing as well in school as Pakeha for example, instead of examining how well our education system has served Maori, if we forget the past we can just say “they’re not doing their homework, they’re not getting support at home, Maori don’t care about education.”

A problematic viewpoint if you know that Maori rates of literacy were higher than European in the early contact world of the beginnings of the 19th century – despite te reo not being a written language before British missionaries arrived.  Maori embraced literacy as they embraced many other new tools – because of an interest in adapting and learning.  Funny the education figures in colonial New Zealand have had such poor reflection of this then – until you remember our colonial history which includes the deliberate attempts to stop Maori speaking te reo and the imposition of a British schooling system with British curriculum and ways to learn.

The second problem with “forgetting” in New Zealand is cultural – Pakeha culture, heavily influenced by our British ancestors, sees the past as happening back there.  Maori culture on the other hand, is far less linear – the past and its peoples are part of today in a much more tangible sense.  So when Pakeha urge it’s time to forget the past in terms of colonisation, we’re not only erasing behaviours and actions which explain our social and physical world now, we’re actually committing a kind of cultural violence.  We’re saying “our world view is what matters, not yours.”

Obama has not, in winning the White House, overcome slavery and removed civil rights abuses.  He has continued the struggles African-Americans have been engaged in since they were first transported, bought and sold, and put to work turning America’s fertile land-mass pilfered from Native Americans into a tobacco and cotton profit-making garden.  He’s a beneficiary of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s – even though he is not from a family of former slaves.

I’m with Lewis Scott in wanting to honour that history, not Tim Pankhurst, in wanting to put the abuses behind us.  Those abuses and the resistance they spawned are still part of the USA post the election of Barack Obama.


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