White Presence and the Interruption of Space (The Christian Imagination, Ch 1)

Before moving onto the next chapter, I need to tell an important story from this first chapter: the story of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She was part of a family that lived in southern Africa with the Ju/wasi and /Gwi peoples. They weren’t officially anthropologists but they lived with the people, respected them, learned from them, and wrote about them.

Her writings about the Ju/wasi are important for Jennings as they capture the deep intertwining of land and identity. As a mobile group, they–particularly the women of a family–possessed a deep, intimate knowledge of the land, the pattern of animals, the changes of seasons, the locations of water, the kinds of edible plants and their precise location. As Jennings says, “in careful detail Marshall Thomas depicts how a sense of identity can flow directly from the land” (49).

In 1998, at the showing of a film, a person in the audience intimated that the Marshall family had “initiated the spoiling of the Ju/wasi way of life by bringing the Western world to their doorstep” (50). She snapped back but later reflected on the merit of the criticism. Jennings says,

The accusation had merit because the Marshall family’s presence marked the land in a new way. It marked the land as a separate reality from the reality of the people. Their presence effected a conceptual separation that became a material one. They separated the people from the land….

…How the Marshalls aided in the separation of Ju/wasi from their land was by enacting through their presence a new relationship to the land at the very moment they “touched” the Ju/wasi. They had reached beyond geography into identity, and in so doing they showed that continuities of identity did not require specific land or specific relationships to land. In the modernity the Marshall family embodied, identities are encapsulated by language and race, along with the important tropes culture and (ethno-)rituals…

…[The Ju/wasi] cannot return because white presence first interrupted the connection of land to identity and then very quickly reconfigured both. (50, 51, 53).

The implications of this story are staggering. White flesh, simply in its presence, performs a profound and terrifying dismantling and incorporation, that is, a conversion, enfolding of an entire people and land into the logics of race and capitalist exploitation (52-53). One family, who lived with, learned from, and deeply respected this group of people–one white family!–by their presence, performed this work.

Did I mention I’m white, have a family, and am moving to Dallas at the end of the summer?

I hope this post better clarifies the deep problem and what is at stake for Jennings and for all of us who want, as I continually quote from Fanon “to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other.” Especially for those of us who think Christianity should press us into these kinds of intimate, physical encounters with each other.

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11 Responses to White Presence and the Interruption of Space (The Christian Imagination, Ch 1)

  1. Eric says:

    I’m re-reading this text, this time much more slowly. I was struck by the following paragraph:

    “Theorists and theories of race will not touch the ground until they reckon deeply with the foundations of racial imaginings in the deployment of an altered theological vision of creation. We must narrate not simply the alteration of bodies but of space itself. The narration must be of both. There is an aspect of delusion in racial theory that suggests possibilities of resistance to racial identity, or seeks to discern powers of racial improvisation, or advocates renouncing white privilege all without seeing how these identities are reflexively calibrated to the turnings of spatial habitations. Racial identities have taken on landscape and geographic characteristics and cannot simply be overcome by thought, any more than a mountain may be moved by turning one’s face away from it.” (p. 63)

    I think I’ll put the book down and chew on that for a while…

    As I was reading the chapter I couldn’t help but ask the question about agrarianism, and particularly theologies of land and place that have been expounded by writers like Wendell Berry and enacted in countless church and community gardening efforts (and in many cases as a site for interracial communal healing and food justice). In the final paragraph of ch. 1 Jennings plays with Heidegger, describing how “from the colonial moment forward” theology would be formed without “the way of dwelling,” without an anchor in a “landscape that hunts for us.” Christian/theological agrarianism in its many variations might be understood, in part, as one attempt to rectify this problem. What are the promises and pitfalls?

    • Tim McGee says:

      I know bell hooks has a book on “place” that apparently engages Berry in a way that is very subtle and appreciative while also offering a pretty substantial critique. I haven’t read it though. I think your last question is exactly the question though, the promises and the pitfalls. For Jennings, the quote you pulled out is the exact place to begin probing, for just as narrations of race have often ignored the transformation of the land, so too have narrations of land often ignored their own performance of racial identity.

  2. Eric says:

    Here is the book: http://www.amazon.com/Belonging-Culture-Place-bell-hooks/dp/041596816X/ref=ed_oe_p. Just reading the summary, it seems to retrace how rural, agrarian spaces have been configured as white spaces in the context of the great migration.

  3. Tyler says:

    The connection between land and identity in Ju / wasi way of life is something that has stayed with me from Jennings work. I work for a non-profit in Texas whose model is to move into the neighborhood — in this case, North Waco — where it works. This seems to noble in a lot of ways (wanting to live life with those you work with, forming a deeper solidarity, etc.), but, simultaneously, the racial logics at play (mostly white people moving into black neighborhoods) carry some semblences to the Marshall family and Ju / wasi. The differences are obvious — the North Waco black community is not the Ju / wasi tribe and I don’t think its identity is bound to geography in the same way (I know Jennings shies away from nostalgia towards identity bound to land, but does he see that form of identity as a possibility post-the age of exploration and consumption?) — but nevertheless this movement contributes to displacements within the black community (from lack of housing caused by migrations of whites, to higher costs of living, etc.). These happening are read by whites positively as a form of community development, while, on the other hand, from some black friends whose families were there long before the non-profit moved in, they’re read it as a form of gentrification. I wonder if Jennings had these sorts of situations in mind. Sorry about the scattered thoughts.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Tyler–I’m not sure if Jennings had them in mind or not but I posted it with that in mind (and my upcoming move to Dallas, in terms of where I want to live and what that means…). There isn’t a simple answer, nor should there be. Eric, who posted above, reflected on this in his own context when he first read the book a year ago. The difficulty is about narration and about who controls the story of these moves: are the white people willing to recognize that not only might they be *thought* to be a burden but actually *are* are a burden and disruption? Are they willing to recognize that they do not have the ability to frame and narrate the story at all, let alone claim it as a story of success (“community development”)? And not just because we’ll have to wait and see if they are the advance guard of gentrification but because they have no idea what they are doing there (and must hope and work diligently to build relationships so that they can start beginning to feel and sense where they are living and what they are doing).

      Eric–you might have some better formed thoughts on this. What do you think?

  4. Tyler says:

    “The difficulty is about narration and about who controls the story of these moves: are the white people willing to recognize that not only might they be *thought* to be a burden but actually *are* are a burden and disruption?”

    Thanks, Tim. I think pointing to who is doing the narrating is spot-on. Unfortunately, there seems to be something like a vicious cycle at work in the non-profit I’m at (all non-profits?) wherein, for the purpose of raising more funding for more programs, the founder (a white male) creates the narratives, and, at times, alters pre-existing ones, to garner more support. Of course it is not absolutely one-sided but still the tendency remains.

  5. Eric says:

    A few weeks ago I commented on this issue in a thread on Tim’s Facebook page. From my experience in the predominantly black and low income neighborhood where I live, the overturning of space happens something like this: white property investors buy and renovate housing; young white professionals move into this renovated housing and promptly organize a neighborhood watch overwhelmingly composed of white residents; neighborhood watch members are coached to call the police at the first sign of “suspicious activity,” usually identified as two or more black males congregating in one place, talking loudly, or loitering. The result of these concerted efforts is that property values trend upwards and attract more white urban pioneers. The combination of increased police presence (and increased arrest and incarceration rates) and raised property values have a “cleansing” effect on the neighborhood on a block by block basis.

    This, of course, is a narrative that describes a more or less intentional displacement of black bodies from a particular geography. The question gets more complicated when white bodies enter a space out of a desire for intimacy and joining with neighbors. The tragic dimension is that often the very presence of white bodies in this geography can unintentionally enact displacement. We attract police attention without asking for it, and property values can trend upwards simply because we give the house a new paint job or start landscaping the lawn. For example, during my first year living in my neighborhood, while walking near my house I was approached by a police cruiser and warned to “be aware of my surroundings.” My roommate was stopped and questioned (but not frisked) out of the assumption that a white person would only be on that block to buy drugs. In both instances white presence in this particular geography enacted displacement by configuring space as black and therefore as a space constituted by violence and criminality. In the former incident this violence represents an archetypal threat to white flesh, while in the latter it represents a violent consumption and exploitation of black criminality.

    So all of this begs the question: is intimacy and joining possible in a world configured around white bodies? I have lived in predominantly black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods since I graduated from college. I’ve learned that the violence of these relationships is not just potential, it is the default state, but neither can we avoid it through maintaining segregated geographies (by staying in the suburbs, so to speak): not only is this attempt at mutual closure and separation an illusion, such attempts at purity and innocence simply mask the violence necessary to configure space into separate worlds (Jim Crow in the US, apartheid in South Africa). In my experience, here are some of the practices that resist this reconfigured world: if/when you move into the neighborhood, do absolutely nothing for several years. Don’t call the cops- when there is non-violent crime deal with it by directly confronting the perpetrators (direct confrontation is a gesture of respect); this does not mean being a vigilante (!!). Don’t try “improving” the neighborhood; refrain from any and all attempts at “development.” Get to know and trust your neighbors- sit on porches and talk about the weather. Have cookouts and invite everyone, including gang members and dealers. Include neighborhood children in family activities (and always get permission from their parents). Be a tutor. Participate in and learn from congregations, associations, and institutions that already exist in the neighborhood, and refrain from speaking in meetings or trying to influence them. Refrain from joining neighborhood watches unless they are organized by long-term residents. Refuse to be elected block captain no matter who nominates you. Avoid media attention, especially if you suspect that the story will be about you or will portray the neighborhood in a negative or passive role. Be honest about your fears and mistakes. Acknowledge your racism. Don’t be a hero or a martyr.

    Btw, I also work at a non-profit. Often, the issue doesn’t begin with me crafting a narrative in order to garner financial support or grant money. Sometimes the problem is that the donor or grantor has already created the narrative and demands that my work create a world that fits their narrative. When faced with this dilemma, my response can only be tactical. I won’t say how I do this since this is a public forum and I don’t know who will be reading it. If you want to know more about writing grants or fundraising, give me a call or email me.



  6. Eric says:

    I forgot one other important practice re: resisting gentrification. It is extremely difficult to resist rising property values, but there are some things that can slow it down. Last year a developer tore down a condemned house next to ours and, fortunately, consulted the neighbors before building on the lot. It was obvious that their design was out of step with surrounding architecture: they wanted to build a two-story four bedroom home on a block of single story two bedroom homes and duplexes. So all of the neighbors turned out and pressured the developer to change the design. They agreed: the new house is nice but is consistent with surrounding architecture. I hope that held back the tide a bit.

  7. Tyler says:

    Really helpful comments, Eric. I’m only beginning to think through some of these issues that you and Tim (and Jennings) have raised. Also, strikes me that some of my earlier comments were naive and excessively bleak, esp. w/r/t nonprofits and narratives — the donor situation and white bodies’ migrations are more complicated than I saw. Thanks. Tyler

  8. Tyler says:

    Tim, coincidentally I was at SMU yesterday with some high school students on a college visit. The visit heightened my interest in your engagement with Jennings especially as you think through and decide about your Dallas move (I’m in a similar boat this fall, we’re leaving Texas for Princeton Sem…). The context of SMU in Highland Park will pose particular challenges, I think. Not looking for any specific response here, more just appreciating your openness in working through the Xian Imagination and your family’s move on the blog — it’s certainly more than a little relevant and helpful to our upcoming move.

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