Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter

I read The Angry Indian’s blog and listen to his amazing podcast.  In one podcast he mentioned Haunani-Kay Trask, and he listed her as part of his required reading on his site.  I found a good used copy of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii, and have read it in pieces, as it consists of articles, over the past year or so.  I finished it this morning.

Interestingly, I stumbled across her on some link from some blog I now can’t find just found.  A critique of the list itself, “10 More Terrible Bigots in Modern History” probably is as good a way to get to Trask’s book as any.  What this JustinJ who made the list fails to understand is that there is a concrete difference between white impulses for separatism and non-white impulses for separatism.  White separatism is the vehicle for historical and historically-conditioned violence, while non-white separatism is a response to that violence.  The Klan murders people, the Nation of Islam (let’s take the Nation in its most separatist exemplars) doesn’t.  This is fact, and any understanding of Trask depends on it.  In any event, it’s to be sure only white people who need this explained to them in any event.

Trask herself makes the point.  One article relates a conflagration following a response to a letter to the University of Hawaii‘s student newspaper by one Joey Carter, white student, decrying the term, “haole” and insisting on his own oppression as a white person in Hawaii.  Trask notes:

I informed Carter that he is a direct beneficiary, as are all white people, of a system of power in which one racially-identified group dominates and exploits another racially identified group for the benefit of the exploiting group.  In the United States, people of color do not have the power to practice racism against white people.  The same is true in Hawai’i, particularly in regard to Native Hawaiians

I don’t see how this is debatable if one wants to deal in fact.  I’ll leave it at that and get to the book.

I knew very little about Hawaii before reading Trask, though I will say I understood the colonial nature of the situation if only abstractly because I understand the colonial nature of the United States.  The subjects of the book range widely from history to commentary on coalitions in organizing.  Trask is among other things totally sensible, especially if one begins from her beginning, namely, that Hawaii is a colony forcefully taken by the United States against the wishes of Hawaiian people.  That’s the important point, I suppose.

Her work illustrates the importance of first principles in intellectual work.  One has to begin somewhere in an argument.  If one begins with the idea that Native Hawaiians lived savagely before being integrated into American democracy, then Trask is an awful racist.  If one begins from Trask’s point, she’s no racist at all but rather is responding to a historical crime.  Despite the approach of mainstream media in the United States, it’s not all just a matter of opinion to be noted without critique.  One may be right or both may be wrong.  The basic question is whether or not Trask’s starting point is correct, and it is, without a doubt.  If you have any interest in Hawaii, it behooves you to begin from that point and weigh everything else against it.  The conclusion you will come to, if you keep to logic, will support Trask.

Of particular interest to me were her comments on coalitions, because they rang very true to my own limited experiences protesting the various wars the United States is still, as of this writing, prosecuting around the world.  Her discussion of the way white people as a group behave in political groups was spot on and totally reflective of, in particular, one group I was involved in (and left) in Riverside, CA.  Generally, she favors, quoting Malcolm X, organizational separatism.  Hawaiians should form Hawaiian groups.  White people have a lot of work to do, but their work’s place is fundamentally among white people.  What do white people need to do?  Speak out against racism in their own communities when it pops up.  If every decent white person did that all the time, things would be a lot different.

She notes the exceptional white people who, over years, demonstrate themselves as real collaborators.  The key, Trask notes, is action as opposed to words.  Get to work, don’t demand to have the last word or control things, and you, white person, can be a part of the solution.  It certainly was clear to me in my brief activist tenure that there are plenty of white people who think that their part in the struggle is to say something in a meeting.  More importantly, if one, as a white person, understands that the single greatest thing one can do to dismantle racism is to shut up and work–obviously, in the right context–then damn it if one shouldn’t do it.  It’s liberating.

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Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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