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  • Writer's pictureToby

Re-invention or extinction

"Rather than social forces, Locke believed that the Great Migration occurred because of an act of consciousness, a willingness on the part of Black Americans to seize, as he put it, an opportunity for a different future than the present had saddled them with. To leave the South, to leave the land where one’s ancestors were buried, was an act of reinvention, a fostering of a new self out of a vision of a new future, that redefined what it meant to be Negro. In this new conception, to be Negro meant to be a risk taker, a change agent, and a visionary willing to invest in that vision and make it a reality. Rather than a progressive theory of history, the New Negro invoked a cyclical one, a historical imagination inspired by aesthetics displayed as a social reality, asserting that Black Americans could invent a new reality for ourselves as a people by fundamentally approaching our lives as works of art that we can compose." Jeffrey C. Stewart on Alain Locke

"The character of the mountain is contained within this song. When this male red crossbill offers his springtime melodies, the combined experience of thousands of ancestors flows to the air. Only those predecessors whose songs accommodated the particular challenges of the wind in these trees passed on their genes. Evolution shaped the song to the place." David George Haskell

I read these two passages back to back on LitHub. Pair those with a recent NPR bit on "assisted migration" where "foresters responding to climate change are experimenting with planting trees adapted to hotter, drier weather found further south," and I'm thinking a lot about where we've come from in relation to where we're going.

Stick with me. I know this is a lot (and if you consider how it is a central theme to Dark Roux some would consider it too much). But I am plagued by the rearview gazing of the Southern American culture. Don't get me wrong, some of this is very useful. Many of our ancestors understood the land and the environment better than we do. But this persistent belief that the best of our society is behind us only serves to create a hopelessness that allows the powerful to burn-it-all-down-since-it's-all-gone-to-hell-anyway-so-we-might-as-well-enjoy-the-money.

But I refuse to believe this is where it ends. The passages above, and the bit from NPR, show we are not done adapting. Our ancestors (at least the ones who didn't put money and power over people) were adapting to place by recognizing they couldn't (and maybe understood they shouldn't) try and control everything. Adaptation is as much about learning where to let go of control as it is learning new ways to control. The way forward will be learning a better balance of this.

In this point in history, I think we need to control less. We need to learn more. Yesterday 19 children and 2 adults were shot dead by someone who clearly wanted too much control. What do we learn from that? Is there something we need to control more? Are there other things we need to let go of the need to control? Without a better understanding of these things I'm certain the only thing we control is how many funerals we can make it to in a day. We cannot re-invent using only old, tired ideas. Our place, our species, is changing, and we must as well.

What Alain Locke saw in Black literature and art changed how we see the Black story in this country. It is true that Black folk have been victimized by long-standing systems of oppression. They could have sang the same song in the same places as their ancestors. But they did something remarkable. They migrated. Leaving home, leaving the world they understood, and the way they understood themselves, they re-invented themselves. They became artists of their own lives. We must all do this as quickly as these Black pioneers did. We must leave behind what is broken. Holding onto painful practices that injure our neighbor and the environment out of nostalgia only ensures extinction built on our principles. Otherwise we will keep looking at the hopeless painting peddled by those who will watch our extinction from tall towers.

The future has never been more uncertain to our species. This also means the canvas has never been this blank. Let us be deliberate with how we paint these next years. May we re-trace only what is useful. For the rest of the canvas, let an unfettered imagination guide us.

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