Motherhood at the End of the World

From The Paris Review:

In the run-up to Thanksgiving last year, you learned a whitewashed story at school about how the first peoples of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilization and progress. You came home from school and unzipped your backpack, revealing with artistic pride a picture book you had colored and stapled yourself. Your kindergarten teacher had asked you to color in a little Native American girl, then a Native American boy, followed by a pilgrim girl and boy, each one garbed in their traditional attire. I admired the craft of your book, a swell of parental pride coursing through me as I witnessed the evidence of my progeny doing and making things in the world beyond me. And I relished that you had colored all four children Brown like you.

As you flipped through the pages of your book, you narrated a sad story about how much the pilgrims had suffered when they arrived on this land. I felt a surge in my body, an immediate, unstoppable need to explain the other forms of suffering elided by this disturbingly singular narrative. I described some of the impacts of this arrival on Indigenous peoples—the European theft of their autonomies, cultures, languages, and lands. I explained that colonial practices dramatically changed how humans live in relation to this land. And I told you that this historical moment of colonial contact was crucial to understanding how we arrived at the global ecological crisis we face today. I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment. We were sitting on the landing at the top of the apartment stairs, the contents of your backpack scattered around us. “This is not what my teacher told us,” you said with unmistakable agitation. I knew that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one. “That’s okay,” I said. “My job as your mother is to tell you these stories differently, and to tell you other stories that don’t get told at school.” I pressed on to explain that history is a story based on a version of the past. “Can you hear the word story in history?” I asked. You nodded slowly, a little body in deep rumination. “These stories need to be told from the perspectives of those who have been most damaged by history. These other stories,” I said, “can teach us how to keep living.”

From the onset of your public education, you have been learning what it means to be American through a manicured version of history that keeps European whiteness at its center. This form of education willfully forgets the lives that were destroyed, the bodies that were brutalized, and the cultures and traditions that were abolished or displaced to establish that center space. It tells you a singular and continuous narrative of Western capitalist expansion, obscuring the bleak fact that much of what we call “progress” has been a direct and unrelenting line to the wholesale destruction of the earth. Against this obliterating narrative, I glean from the fragments in an attempt to teach us otherwise. I scramble to harvest alternative histories omitted by the textbooks, the histories of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival. Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis. This morning, you went off to school to learn discipline, to hone your reading and writing skills, to study official state history. I am at my desk sipping tea, turning over words. The birds are chirping outside my window. You, me, the birds. We are all creatures living as though we have a future, as though tomorrow will continue to resemble today. Meanwhile, plans are being devised to drive the marketplace forward when the earth’s nonrenewable resources are exhausted. Scientists and businessmen are plotting to colonize the moon in a relentless drive to create an alternative human habitat when this one can no longer foster us. There is no consideration of ceasing extraction, only a maniacal mission to discover other worlds to plunder.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG notes that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

He also notes that “the lives that were destroyed, the bodies that were brutalized, and the cultures and traditions that were abolished or displaced to establish” Western civilization in the United States and Canada could be said about every continent and sub-continent in the world and every race in the world during all of known history.

It is absolutely true that the US enslaved African-Americans. It is also true that Native Americans killed and enslaved each other long before any European face appeared in North, Central and South America. The Aztec and Inca empires were built on the backs of Native American slaves.

William the Conqueror was not particularly kind to native Anglo-Saxons. The Golden Horde was an equal-opportunity conqueror of both Europeans and Asians. The Ottoman Empire wasn’t regarded as particularly gentle by its subjects. Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Timur AKA Tamerlane were not regarded as pacifists in their time.

Mansa Musa, an African, the 14th century emperor of The Mali Empire, is regarded by some as the wealthiest individual the earth has ever seen. In addition to Mali, Musa’s empire included present day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Mauritania. The Mali Empire grew to that size through the military conquest of a variety of other African tribes and their hereditary homelands.

When Musa decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was accompanied by tens of thousands of his subjects and servants. The procession included hundreds of camels just to carry the gold to finance his travel expenses. Musa gave gifts of gold to a great many people that pleased him during his pilgrimage. He was vastly more wealthy than any of his subjects.

These encounters sometimes resulted in unintended consequences, however. Musa’s gifts of gold were so large that they depreciated the value of the metal in Egypt, and the economy took a major hit. It took 12 years for the community to recover.

3 thoughts on “Motherhood at the End of the World”

  1. Note that the author of this piece ignores the fact that a good chunk of the reason that Massasoit helped the Plymouth colony was because he thought they would be useful allies against the Wampanoag’s neighbors, although it’s not surprising that she does, since that would spoil her “Europeans are uniquely evil and bad” theme. (A fact which, by the way, I learned in elementary school, though I do not recall if I learned it in class or independently.)

    I would also note that only in the 21st-century Western capitalist society she so despises could she make a living as “writer and academic whose work engages the enduring effects of colonization, current ecological crisis, and queer-feminist futures.” In any previous century, she would have been unable to get anyone to give her money. In most of the rest of the world, she would either be run out of town or killed.

    That having been said, hypocritical histrionics aside, her overall point is a good one: part of being a good parent is teaching your children to question the narratives that others present to them, and to seek and find answers for themselves rather than to be blind followers or blind contrarians. This may produce unwanted ideological results, but it will probably produce functional human beings who are not easily stampeded into doing stupid things, which is rather more important.

  2. I am refreshed and comforted by seeing people raise these points, which have been conveniently forgotten by too many people.

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