introduction to decolonial art praxis
Family, Faith & Conceptions of Home
I am Robbie & Jack’s kid, Mara’s older sibling and Patrick’s uncle (qu-uncle? I don’t know). My parents each have four siblings, meaning I can count all ten of them on my two hands: my father represented by my left thumb, and my mother represented by my right middle finger. Jack is Johnny and Barbara’s oldest, and Robbie is Shirley and Vinnie’s middle. I knew both Johnny and Barbara, but never got to meet Shirley, and never got to meet Vinnie. All four of my grandparents are buried within a five mile radius of one another, and the place I grew up calling home: Lowell, Massachusetts USA. The city of Lowell was named for Francis Cabot Lowell, an architect of the US industrial revolution. What is commonly called the commonwealth of Massachusetts (and has more accurately been described as the “stolenwealth” of Massachusetts) takes, among other things, its name from Massachusett People. Despite the fact that my family came to what is presently known as the United States of America from Ireland, England, and France, between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries, all four of my grandparents, ten of their children, my sister, nephew, and countless others, including myself, came to cultivate an inherent sense of belonging to a place we all call Lowell. (Pronounced as if texting someone that you are laughing out loud: LOL.)
Prior to its colonization, the place that is presently called Lowell was land of the Pennacook Confederacy: Pawtucket Peoples living north of the Merrimack River, and Wamesit Peoples living to the south. The library of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell has compiled a list of historic markers, plaques, and statues that have been erected and dedicated to the Pawtucket and the Wamesit, as well as a bibliography of books written about Indigenous Peoples of the area. If I were to offer an addition to the list of historic markers, I would note the marker for “The Pow-Wow Oak,” which is located down the road from the house where I grew up, south of the Merrimack, on Wamesit land. My dad and I would drive by it on every trip home from the grocery store. If I were to offer an addition to the bibliography, I would cite Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, in which O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) examines over six hundred historical texts published between 1820 and 1880, involving the incorporation of cities and towns of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Several of these texts were spoken aloud during Fourth of July celebrations, commemorations, and pageants. As O’Brien notes in her introduction, on the intent and impact of these documents:
“Central to all of this is the construction of an origin myth that assigns primacy to non-Indians who ‘settled’ the region in a benign process involving righteous relations with Indians and just property transactions that led to an inevitable and…lamentable Indian extinction. Thus, the ‘first’ New Englanders are made to disappear, sometimes through precise declarations that the ‘last’ of them has passed, and the colonial regime is constructed as the ‘first’ to bring ‘civilization’ and authentic history to the region.”
I believe that O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting… would be a particularly important addition to UMass Lowell’s bibliography, as it provides important context when reading the inscriptions on the aforementioned historic markers, plaques, and statues. Each of these monuments was “gifted” to the city by settler-led organizations, including: the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Society of Colonial Dames, and, of course, the most egregiously named “Improved Order of Red Men.” Monuments to the Pennacook Sac’hem Passaconaway celebrate the fact that he “embraced Christianity.” Monuments to his son, Wannalancet, note that he was “like his father a faithful friend” to early New England colonists. These monuments serve to perpetuate a narrative of white christian dominance over the First Peoples of the land, and offer no acknowledgement that the origins of the country are rooted in an attempted genocide of its original inhabitants.
With this writing, I aim to account for myself in relation to and relationship with Decoloniality, as an academic framework and also a way of life. I hope for my work to resist narratives of colonizer success; resist the idea that the ongoing project of colonization amounts to a success story. I enter this work from the position of a settler: born, raised, and presently living in what’s called the United States of America. Racialized as white and presenting as male, there are ways in which certain (several) systems that I navigate have been designed to benefit, and not oppress me. I once got pulled over by a local cop at one in the morning for peeing on the side of the road, and not only did he let me go with a warning, I never once feared for my safety.
When we enroll in the Decolonial Art Praxis concentration at Goddard College, the first guiding question we are asked is “Who are your people(s)?” My first inclination at the time of enrollment was to immediately apologize for my people. “Look, we’re white, European-American settlers, okay, and I’m sorry!” While engaged in the concentration, I have been given the grace to explore the nuance and also the possibility inherent in my people’s position: the potential for social responsibility.
Following one twitter thread beginning with Troy Storfjell’s (Sámi) assertion:
“Indigeneity is an analytic, not an identity”
and response from Patty Krawec (Anishnaabe, Lac Seul First Nation):
“if Indigeneity is an analytic, so is settler. It is a way
of being in the world a set of relationships.
And you can be something different”
I hear, in these tweets, an invitation to engage in decolonial discourse, not from a place of knee-jerk apology, but rather from a place of radical accountability and Love. As bell hooks writes: “all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.” By viewing settler as an analytic as opposed to an identity, I see a path toward accounting for myself and my people with love, without, as Kazu Haga puts it, “letting the system off the hook.” As Kazu Haga writes “At its best, accountability is an act of love…Hearing the why and understanding the story of the person who caused…harm can be an important aspect of healing for the person who experienced it, and it can play a big step toward forgiveness.” But what does it look like to move from interpersonal apology, toward apology for—or on behalf of one’s affiliations with—larger systems or institutions? Edgar Villanueva (Lumbee) devotes an entire chapter of Decolonizing Wealth to Apology, in the process of addressing the sins of colonial capitalism–citing an apology letter written by Hilary Giovale of the Geo Family Foundation, upon learning about “her own family’s involvement in land theft and slavery.” In addition to the letter itself, Villanueva quotes Giovale on her outlook prior to writing that letter: “My heart was calling me to apologize, but for some time, I still felt ambivalent about it. I was worried that any apology I could give would seem insincere, insufficient, or that it would generate fresh pain and inflict further harm.” Witnessing the way Villanueva facilitates reparations tithing at the institutional level–in the field of philanthropy–affirms something that had been brewing in my heart and mind for some time. Recalling the long arm of the collection basket working its way down our pew–my father letting me drop our little envelope into it. Of course, what had been brewing in my heart and mind stems from a deep skepticism about the Roman Catholic faith system in which I was raised, and an ongoing effort to reappropriate its traditions and practices to better suit my personhood.
My queerness has been apparent since the time of my earliest, now fading, memories–one of which I return to ask my parents about on a highly occasional basis: maybe five or six times over the past 25 years. A sporadic conversation, to say the least–it’s evolving, but began and continues to begin with, what seems to me, a straightforward enough question:
I’m going to pause here briefly to tell you that my pediatrician smoked, as did the people who worked behind the desk–and so there were ashtrays all around. I have memories of ashtrays sitting on end tables, in sight of the toy section of the waiting room, as though I myself, at four or five, might have been able to bum one off the doctor and light-up, right there beside the rocking horse. Such was the state of medicine.
I’m going to pause here again. I realize that I am now wading into the logic and language of a particular time, place, and culture. Defined in colonial terms: late 1980’s, Greater Boston, Irish Catholic. Under these circumstances, queerness is not only pathologized, it is demonized. If a benevolent god could let such a thing happen to a church-going (and church-tithing) family, then surely there could be a cure–perhaps some kind of an exorcism.
You’d have thought that I was performing some kind of an exorcism when I eventually told my mother that actually, yes, I was gay after all. A wild, howling release of grief, like I’d only witnessed the few times someone important had died. Granted, it was Mother’s Day, and I was only 15 years old. And it’s one thing to suspect that you might one day need to enlist the services of a conversion therapist–quite another thing to receive confirmation. Incidentally, I never did go to a conversion therapist, that was just a weird contingency plan. Also, incidentally, my mother is going to read this and go:
What did you have to drag me into this for?!
And that is a legitimate question. After all, this is my statement of position, written in defense of my masters thesis. This is supposed to be my introduction to the academy.
What the hell are you doing here?!
When we enroll in the Decolonial Art Praxis concentration at Goddard College, the first guiding question we are asked is “Who are your people(s)?”
I didn’t come here to tell you that my people are ahssholes, I just feel like I should warn you that we can be ahssholes. If you never heard of an ahsshole before, that’s perfectly fair–it’s a regional brand. Like Chelmsford Ginger Ale. (Pronounced, characteristically, without the r but also, as if by magic, turning the lm into an n: Chensfed. Chensfed Gingerale. It’s delicious. Reminds me of faking a sick day.) I, myself, have been an ahsshole countless times. Watching myself in home movies, acting up. Swearing at the camera. Mooning it. “What’s the matter with this kid?!” I ask. Then immediately remember that the people behind the camera were wondering the same thing. Of all the Batman characters to emulate–why Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman? “What’s the matter with this kid?”
We find ways to laugh about it now–finding healing in humor. But those first few months after coming out were pretty rough sledding–me and my mom giving each other the silent treatment. After the dust began to settle, she told me that actually, I was “one of the most Christ-like people” she knew. Which I’m sure a 15-year old me must have rolled his eyes about at the time. With some years’ hindsight, I realize what high praise this actually was–coming from Robbie. With some years’ hindsight, I recognize that there were more than interpersonal family dynamics at play here–that some of this friction stems from the Catholic Church’s attitudes about queerness, as promulgated by its representatives, here on the ground: an anti-queer weaponization of so-called “family values.”
When my parents and their siblings were growing up in Lowell, those in the know knew to stay away from “Father Q.” The “Q” was code for “Queer.” He was one of countless priests whose child sex abuse was kept under wraps by the church–relocating abusers from parish to parish. In this case, child sex abuse was directly associated with the abuser’s presumed “queerness.” While this correlation may be reduced to “those were different times,” the legacy of those times and its prevailing attitudes are still felt today. A faith system with an entire sacrament dedicated to apology, represented by an institution that seems increasingly incapable of atoning for its sins. The question, I suppose, is how to hold Love for the individuals, without letting the system off the hook.
I was never very attached to Catholicism, even before I came to distrust it. After I came to understand that the nature of my personhood was at odds with Catholic dogma, I started looking around for other options. First year of high school, my AIM screen name was BuddhaBoy17. Second day of high school English class, I brought my copy of the Kabbalah for show and tell. (Mrs. O’Neill, rest her spirit, laughed out loud. “Jesus, your mother must be having a field day with you!”) Eventually, I figured I should probably just try to be a good person, and find faith in myself.
The first time in my adult life that my attitude toward Catholicism softened was on a tour bus headed from Dublin to Northern Ireland: first time visiting the actual homelands of my people: having an embodied experience of what Decolonization might mean to an actual Irish Catholic, as opposed to a modern day Irish American Catholic. Leading up to this trip, I told everyone I was going on a reverse-pilgrimage. A few weeks before finishing my MFA at Goddard College, concentrating in Decolonial Art Praxis, I was holding on tightly to the question: “Is this a decolonization, or just another recolonization?” My people hadn’t lived there for generations; weren’t there during the Troubles, for example. Functionally, this was a vacation. Spiritually, I was hoping for a kind of reconnection. I was flying solo, leaving on the Fourth of July. (Because, as I’d been feeling, saying, and even creating performance art about: Fuck the Fourth of July.)
Just as I’d had a few beers at one airport bar, my seat mate had had a few margaritas at another airport bar. She told me that her sister was presently missing her connection, and would also be missing their tour of Northern Ireland the next day, and would I like to go instead? And given our mutual lubrication at the time of the offer, that is exactly what happened.
Before leaving for Ireland, I’d told some friends that I didn’t believe it was possible for me to find homelands–and that, at this point, my Home is circumscribed by the bounds of my person. Nodding in and out of sleepiness on the drive toward County Antrim, on a Paddy Wagon bus, with a cartoon leprechaun painted on it, I heard the driver say something along the lines: “If your people came from here during the mid-eighteen hundreds, just know they were escaping persecution or famine–which were not unrelated. So anyway, welcome home.” On the drive back from Northern Ireland, I found myself turning cellular data on, and googling how to say “Home” in Irish. I tried out my pronunciation on the tour guide when bidding him farewell. He smiled and said something back at me that I didn’t understand. Within 24 hours, I had the first Irish words I ever spoke tattooed onto my left arm. I don’t regret it (yet), but do sort of wonder whether or not this might have been an ahsshole move. Luckily, unlike the permanency of a tattoo, I have come to view “ahsshole” as an analytic, as opposed to an identity; realizing that (unlike queerness, for example), it is possible to be something different.
In the article “Beyond territorial acknowledgements,” scholar Chelsea Vowel (Métis from manitow-sâkahikan) notes:
“Often, territorial acknowledgments characterize non-Indigenous peoples as ‘guests’. Are guests only those people who are invited? … Why guests and not invaders? To what extent was permission actually sought to be in these territories, and conduct the affairs that Indigenous nations are thanked for ‘hosting’? What if an Indigenous person stood up and revoked that assumed permission?”
Vowel’s point is well taken. I think about all the house guests I’ve ever had that I wished would finally go home–and acknowledge that I, myself, must have been that house guest at one point or another: in some sense, I still am. I get to thinking about “tourist” as analytic, and wonder about the potential permanency of this status–maybe it becomes a kind of identity. The question then becomes: how not to behave like yet another Ahsshole American tourist—wherever one finds oneself in the world? Part of this, I imagine, means understanding where in the world one’s tourism will be welcome, and where it will not. What about the relationship between tourism income and institutional tithing? Or for that matter, personal tithing? I fear that if I get too far into the particulars of my own tithing practices, it might sound like virtue signaling (and if mentioning my tithing practices at all sounds like virtue signaling, please just know that I am navigating a somewhat complicated relationship with virtue). If you’ve made it this far, please know that I thank you for being here, for taking the time–and in some very real, very concrete way, strange though it may sound–I love you. Yes I said it, what about it? Fuck off. Sorry. I didn’t mean that, knee jerk profanity. Okay, that’s it. Thanks again xoxo Lots of Love: LOL