The OF Blog: Reflections upon lost identity and older SF

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reflections upon lost identity and older SF

This week is International Blog Against Racism Week. It is rather fitting that I was made aware of this by reading Sarah Monette's LJ recently, as there is a related topic that has been on my mind for quite some time. There have been many posts about how insidious and pervasive racism today is, but not so much about some of its most devastating effects, such as the wiping out of one's cultural identity.

I am a fair-skinned, dark ash blond-haired, gray/blue-eyed male. By all accounts, I would be labeled as "white" and there I'd go, free to be able to be "color-blind" as much as I could ever hope to be. But in reality, I am not completely of European descent. Like many descendants of the first settlers west of the Appalachians, I have a substantial amount (at least 1/8, perhaps closer to 1/4) of "Indian blood." Just that very term alone, quite common until the past couple of decades, ought to indicate just how the native groups were viewed by the European-descent settlers. (For the record, my mother's side is mostly Cherokee and Chickasaw, while my Irish last name comes from my dad's side.)

Growing up about 30 miles west of Nashville, TN, I heard all about the First Thanksgiving when in school, how the local tribe fed those poor starving Pilgrim souls who were hell-bent on bringing Christianity to North America. With the exception of my Kindergarten teacher (who was part Native as well, I believe Apache or Hopi, I cannot remember which), never much was said about the native cultures from which I or many of my classmates were descended in part. We knew all about what it meant to be Irish, however - wearin' the Green on March 17th, perhaps saying "Erin go braugh," but nothing about "Civilized Tribe" of the Cherokee, except a very brief mention of Sequoyah and his Cherokee syllabary or perhaps some brief bit about the thousands who suffered on the Trail of Tears (including Sequoyah), with hardly a pause in the action before we rushed head-long into Manifest Destiny and the "conquest" of the West.

I feel a bit of an ache right now, not having grown up learning about one large part of my ancestry. Diminished, not really knowing even today what customs or traditions the Tennesse Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes had. While there have been some improvements in how these are covered in the history textbooks, there is still much room for improvement. Only a single introductory chapter for hundreds of native groups, with just a few bits and pieces of information about defeats at the hands of the European settlers and life on the reservation. Hardly a word still about what it means to belong to such a group.

I often wonder if this sense of absence was one of the motivating factors for me becoming a cultural history grad student over 10 years ago. Although my research primarily focused on 20th century German religious/cultural history, I had a secondary field that focused on the disappearance of oral cultures in the 15th and 16th centuries with the advent of the printing press. Whole ways of life that had lasted for hundreds of years, mostly gone within a handful of generations. Barely a memory, outside of various superstitions or clichéd expressions that are barely worth a thought, much less a momentary pause to consider.

Time is not a friend to cultures, I know. Even the most tradition-bound societies change over time. But when there's this almost casual disregard for other cultures, this ranking of them as "advanced" or "primitive" based on one group's standards for technology and living arrangements, part of me just wonders if maybe there's a sort of covert, insidious racism that belies our surface intentions of embracing others. The American "Melting Pot" ideal of the 19th and early 20th centuries is one such example - sure, send over your poor, huddled masses and we'll melt them down, take some yummy "ethnic" foods, and recast these sons and daughters of Italia, Russia, etc. into "Americans," devoid of any past association to their homeland except for some "foreign" last names and perhaps the odd church, mosque, or synagogue. Keep a few past associations, but for the most part, it was time to follow one model, that of the WASP "American."

Things are different today to an extent and I'm happy to see this. Although xenophobic attitudes are emerging more to the forefront today in the guise of the battle over "illegal immigration," (incidentally, Mexicans were not under a quota until the 1960s, perhaps due to the fear evoked by Julio César Chávez's unionization of the migrant Latino workers) more is being learned and shared about various cultural traditions.

Even SF has seen somewhat of a shift. Much of the Golden Age SF reads like WASP propaganda being regurgitated for another generation - go forth, explore, conquer, settle for the Good Ol' US of A/Human Race. Whoo-hoo! Just zap a few bug-like critters in spaceships and we're good to go! Those darn pesky up to their etymology of being "other." If we have to mention them at any detail, well, let's look at them from our point of view, that of the explorer, the conquistador, perhaps.

There is much in that which will appeal to readers today. Not to me, however. While First Contact sorts of stories are interesting, I find myself wanting to know more about how things appear to be from the "other" side. How do "we" (speaking of those who seek to explore/conquer) look to those being threatened by this advancement? What is the risk of things being lost, of disappearing into a vortex of forgetfulness and perhaps oblivion? What fragile beauties are being overlooked just to slake the thirst of those descendants of those whose vision of culture/society won out over others'?

And what risks do we run in being so assured of ourselves and our "place" that we might just end up obliterating other cultures/groups of people without a scarce thought for them as such? If this is not one of the more callous and destructive aspects of racist thought, the presumption that one's culture is "by nature" more worthy of being preserved than another's, then what is racism?

I ask this, wondering still what all has been lost to me and those such as me...


Anonymous said...

I think it frightens me a little that I don't know what to say.

Lsrry said...

Fear of the Other comes in so many forms - I suppose that should have been stated explicitly in that writing. I fear it may have been a bit muddled there.

Anonymous said...

I've entertained thoughts that alien contact is our only hope of achieving world peace.

It seems human nature (on the grand scale) is bent on dominance and that if our species were threatened with domination, we may finally unite.

As you put it though, it doesn't leave much room for hope that we'd establish an equality based relationship with the new species.

Anonymous said...


I think it would be impossible to establish an equality based relationship with a new species when we can't seem to establish true equality between the various ethnicities that are on our world today.

It scares me to think how the world would react to contact from an alien race. We tend to be a shoot first ask questions later race, especially when viewed as a large collective.

Jacob said...


I believe the point that Kim was making that only an external threat to humanity might cause humans to come together, or at least realize some sort of recognized equality.

Throughout history cultural genesis has often come in the form of "us and them" thinking. Identity and unification coming as a result of having a more foreign or, if you will, alien presence to define yourself and your neighbors against. This sort of racism/nationalism/clan-ism has been a pervasive definition point in cultural development.

Lsrry said...


I'm going to be honest here. I really am pessimistic when it comes to hoping that humans as a whole can become egalitarian and accepting of those who differ from "our" group (to be defined based on situations, from resource sharing to a possible First Contact scenario).

I remember reading the omnibus edition of Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood a few years ago and reluctantly agreeing with her assertion that our genetically "hardwired" brains are organized around hierarchies and power inequalities than around sharing. It will be very difficult to overcome this, if it can be overcome, and it might take something as drastic as a complete overhaul of human societal structure and/or genetic rewiring to accomplish a truly more egalitarian society.

But one can hope and struggle against the most overt signs of one group trying to dominate/subjugate another.

Jacob said...

I agree Larry. I don't know that a truly egalitarian society is possible, let alone likely even in the fact of a supposed first contact sort of event.

And, I agree with your final assessment. We can and should do what we can to address these situations. Part of that is to take a good look at the words and descriptions we use. In context to your post, it's surprising just how many derogatory sayings/phrases refer to that racist/stereo typical image of a Native American... or really any racial group.

Add to Technorati Favorites