By Camille Barton, GEN Toolkit Consultant
In the process of doing this research, grief has become an emergent topic of conversation in many of my friendships. While walking with a friend, who identifies as white, they spoke of their desire to do ancestor healing work and the challenge of this, having had little connection with their living ancestors; let alone the ones that came before. My friend expressed some envy about my ability to connect with my Yoruba and Celtic ancestors, to know my lineage and be in relationship with it. This sparked a rich conversation between us about grief, colonisation, loss and the violence of the void – this sense of internal emptiness that many white people feel – a sense that there is no culture, no richness, no ancestral wisdom to connect to or lean upon. It is this sense of emptiness, or void, that I believe is the driving force for cultural appropriation and other intersecting harms rooted in consumption and erasure. We all have a deep desire to feel connected to something real and we all have powerful lineages to draw upon if we are brave enough to face the wounds of empire. Further reflection on this conversation, inspired the following piece of writing:
There is a violence in the void. The emptiness is a hunger and cannibal like erasure that has consumed many indigenous and intact cultures. Do not mistake the void for nothingness – lying beneath are the tendrils of pain, stories of empire and conquerors whose ancestors, at one point were the conquered. What would it be like to submerge yourself in this feeling of void – to really listen to what it needs to heal? To reconnect with stories and seek out your ancestors that practiced ritual and moved with the seasons? This may seem lost to you but they live in your body – woven into the fabric of your DNA. Try speaking to them and see what emerges. Know that their whispers may at first appear as sensations in the body. This kind of inquiry asks for more nuance than the written or spoken word – it involves learning the new language of the body and the implications of its signals. The intuitive gut feeling is an example of this.
Working with the ancestors is important even on an intellectual level as it puts our lives into context. No person is an island. We each come from rich histories, lineages filled with joy, loss, trials, tribulations and triumphs. Our existence is owed to large amounts of intersecting collaboration – regardless of how sustainable or dysfunctional it was – we are alive because a community of people willed and nurtured us into existence.
Once we can acknowledge this, we can then begin to ask deeper questions such as: what harms did my ancestors experience and how does this impact my life? What harms did they enact knowingly or unknowingly, unto others? How do these legacies live on through my body and in relation to other bodies? As James Baldwin notes, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history”.
When we acknowledge the historical processes our lives have been shaped by, we begin to have agency to re-pattern and create new stories and ways of being, rather than unconsciously reproducing old wounds and the violence of the void. Some of these wounds include, but are not limited to, racism, ableism, ageism, transphobia and homophobia. How do we learn to collaborate in a way that sustains life for the next seven generations to come? This is one of the big questions I am sitting with at the moment. One pathway I can see, is based on acknowledging and grieving the violence of the void (and of Empire), as a means to embrace and remember ways of existing that are in harmony with the Earth, our indigenous ancestors, and the mycelial networks of life that exist within it. If you would like to read more about this work for people with European heritage, check out White Awake.
We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world making projects – mutual worlds – and new directions – may emerge. Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option… Staying alive – for every species requires liveable collaborations. Collaboration means working across difference… Without collaboration, we all die.
Mushroom at the End of the World : On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, pg. 28.