UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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Not from Here: Being White in North America

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A few years before my father died, I asked him where he wanted his ashes to be placed. He replied—without hesitation—that it made no difference to him at all.

I came to wish I hadn’t let him off so easily, as five years later his ashes still sat in their brown plastic box, prompting me to embark on a 2,000-mile journey across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains to find the place where my father’s ashes belonged.

Coming home, I set out on a different kind of journey, writing about my experience as a white man with Norwegian and English lineage exploring both America and the question of belonging to a place whose history holds the continuing legacy of the displacement, dispossession, and genocide of Native peoples.

The result is Not from Here, a memoir that has just been published by Temple University Press.

More than a personal narrative, Not from Here tries to illuminate the national silence around unresolved questions of accountability, race, and identity politics, and the dilemma of how to take responsibility for a past we did not create. It is a story about the past living in the present; of redemption, fate, family, tribe, and nation; of love and grief, that raises disturbing questions about belonging, identity, and place.

Here is a sampling of what reviewers have to say:

Those undergoing their own grief journey will find their thoughts given poignant expression in Johnson’s musings on his father’s life and their too-distant relationship. The best part of this book, though, and why it should be widely read, is its thoughtful examination of the workings of privilege in immigrant experiences.”
Library Journal

“What it means to be white, what it means to be American, and what it means to be from a place and to belong to it are questions that Johnson raises throughout the book. He is painfully aware that as a descendant of those who took the land from others, dispossessing and displacing them, he is today the beneficiary of acts he did not perform. . . . [T]hose expecting a son’s gentle memoir will be in for a surprise.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Not from Here is a fascinating journey into filiality, heritage, and the heart of this American land. It is a journey worth taking and a story well told.”
Kent Nerburn, author of Letters to My Son, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce

“The extraordinary achievement of Not from Here, and the stunning gift it offers to my own self-understanding, lies in the mirror it holds to white American culture. Seeking a resting place for his father’s ashes, the son is gradually faced with the essential rootlessness of his—and my own—people. In the process of conquering and commodifying our world, we have been losing what it means to belong.”
Joanna Macy, author of Coming Back to Life

“If those two great existential questions—Who am I? and Where am I from?—are linked, how are those with transient upbringings in our amnesiatic, immigrant-settled society to answer them? In Not from Here, Allan Johnson takes a road trip on the American plains to try to find out, haunted by his globe-trotting father’s ashes in the trunk and the legacy of Euro-American conquest staring at him through the windshield.”
Colin Woodard, author of American Nations and The Lobster Coast

“‘This package contains the cremated body of / Valdemar N. L. Johnson / Cremated December 7, 2005, ID Number 20051912.’ A nondescript package of gray ash triggers a passionate engagement with American history as the author’s need to find a meaningful place for his father’s remains becomes a poignant quest for his own identity: the ancestral identity that originates in majestic Norwegian fjords and flees, improbably, to the rich wind-blown alluvium of America’s heartland—a Promised Land being ruthlessly cleansed of Native American tribes to make way for sturdy Lutherans and a nation’s dream of Manifest Destiny. Johnson comes to terms with the ricocheting ironies in a tender, wistful narrative reminiscent of N. Scott Momaday’s classic journey of tribal ancestral discovery in The Way to Rainy Mountain. Not from Here is a truly lovely book.”
Calvin Luther Martin, author of The Way of the Human Being

“This is not only an exquisitely crafted memoir of a son seeking a place for his father’s ashes. This is not only an exploration of the right relationship between the living and the dead, the ethical and emotional responsibilities we have to each other. This is also a heartbreaking and exact investigation of the ways our ancestors call us into the vortex of history, demanding that we confront and respond to the deeds done, the harm wreaked on the land and the Native people who were here before us. How we bury our dead requires us also to unearth the harm done and to bring healing to the line that must recognize and include all our relations. A profound text from a beautiful soul.”
Deena Metzger author of Y Blanca Y Negra and Entering the Ghost River

Not from Here is available in hardcover and Kindle editions. Order from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, or your local bookstore. To read the Prologue, click here. And do ask your local library to add it to their collection.

Proud to Be White?

I remember that day when I was teaching a college course on race and how quiet the white students became when the focus shifted to black people fighting oppression by promoting pride in being black. Black is beautiful. And then there was a pause in the conversation and the white student wanted to know if she was allowed to feel proud of being white.

It came as no surprise. Who, after all, doesn’t want to feel good about who they are, especially when they’ve had no say in what that is, told from the moment she was born that she was white. And born into a racist system of privilege that is also not her fault. So why, then, she wants to know, should black people be the only ones to feel proud of who they are?

She is, of course, ignoring the rest of what people of color have to deal with that she does not. Even more, she is asserting privilege by expecting that race should not be a source of loss or unhappiness for whites.

But that isn’t what stands out in my memory of that moment. Her question is rhetorical. Her tone makes it clear that she believes the answer is no, and she thinks it isn’t fair. Yes, she knows she is white and that white privilege is real and oppressive and wrong. But she also sees herself as a human being like anybody else. Being white does not mean she will be strong or resilient or successful in life, that she will be grounded, safe, or secure in who she is. It will not make her wise or happy or immune to tragedy and grief, or to loneliness, depression, and despair.

In fact, being white makes her vulnerable to that moment when the fraud of whiteness itself suddenly becomes visible, and all that she unconsciously takes for granted about race whenever she looks in the mirror or walks out in the world is suddenly thrown into doubt. It is the vulnerability that made James Baldwin feel sorry for white people for having to depend upon the ridiculous belief that being white makes them better than everyone else.†

I understand why black pride would exist. If your body is arbitrarily made into an object of contempt, disparagement, ugliness, and disgust, then to reclaim that body makes all the sense in the world.

But if something as arbitrary as the color of your skin has been made into an exalted cultural ideal, the purest expression of what it is to be not only human but, beautiful, superior, and fine, and that turns out not only to be a myth and a fraud, but a cultural invention whose sole purpose is to justify exploitation, injustice, and oppression, then what is one to make of that?

That is the bind that she was in, as am I and anyone else identified as white. And, wanting to feel good about who we are, it is tempting to seek refuge in not looking too closely at what it is exactly about being ‘white’ that should make us feel good about ourselves, not to mention proud.

It cannot simply be the color of our skin. For one thing, that isn’t something we have any hand in bringing about, no more than my being tall or having brown eyes. ‘Proud to be tall’?

Then there is the idea that ‘white’ is just another word for ‘European,’ as if I am to derive some sense of who I am from a continent that includes Russian, Italian, Finish, Greek, French, German, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, British, Scot, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, and Dutch, to name just the ones that come to mind.

Not to mention that at one time or another, Italians, Greeks, and the Irish were not considered white by those with the power to decide such things. And Jews no matter where they were from. And that for most of history, no one in ‘European’ countries thought of themselves as white even when they were well aware of people who looked quite different than they.

The fallback position is that ‘white’ stands for the idea of European, the whole thing as a point of pride, as in European Civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. All right, for the sake of argument, but then why not just say that? What does ‘white’ signify that ‘European’ does not? And what is the message in the meaning?

The painful fact is that what the ‘white’ identifier says, and all that it says and ever has, what the word actually means when you get right down to it, is that if you are white, you are inherently superior to anyone who is not.

Proud to be white. Proud to be better than them. Proud not to be you.

What I said that day is that one of the contradictions of whiteness is that we don’t get to feel proud of being white unless we ignore what it means. Unless we forget that the idea of whiteness and the fiction of race (which is all that they are, cultural ideas and fictions) have a history. There was a time not that many centuries ago when they did not exist.

But she had now come to know too much to shield herself with ignorance and forgetting. And she was resisting the bind this puts us in—how to see and feel about ourselves as white—that is part of the legacy of race that we inherited the moment we were born.

We did nothing to deserve this. But neither do people of color deserve what is handed to them.

Part of what makes the bind so difficult is the belief that the only alternative to pride is shame—that if people of color now get to feel proud of their ‘race,’ then whites must be ashamed of theirs, what I think I saw in her face that day.

But there is another possibility. As a cultural cornerstone of white privilege and racism, the idea of whiteness is a shameful thing with a shameful past and present. But as a human being, I have no reason to feel ashamed because I happened to be born looking like someone identified as white.

If not pride or shame, then what?

Grief, for one, for the injustice and unnecessary suffering, and the unavoidable complicity of white people, and what that does to our lives, whether we know it or not.

And compassion. And anger.

And a resolve to carry the painful reality that it means something to be identified as white, that it matters in how the world happens and shapes people’s lives, including my own, and to not feel free to join the Great White Dream that none of this exists, or matters, and even if it does, it will go away on its own without anything required of us.

If white people are to feel proud of anything with regard to race, I would say let it be how we live the inescapable bind we are in, and how we respond to the challenge of consciously being white in an oppressive system of privilege that we did not create, but that belongs to us now.

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If you liked this post, you might also want to read, “The Hijacking of Political Correctness.”

†James Baldwin, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies.” (1984). Reprinted in David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken, 1999.

To learn more about the history of whiteness and race, see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Verso, 2012); Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 4th ed. (Westview Press, 2011); and Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade, rev. ed. (Back Bay Books, 1988).

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