by Inye Wokoma
Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.
One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather waking up every morning before the sun came up. I was born in 1969 and in my early years, before my mother married my father, we lived with my grandparents. By the time I was maybe 4 or 5, my grandfather had retired. He had served in World War II in the motor pool in the South Pacific, and then, when he came to Seattle, he got a job at the Naval shipyards down on the piers here in the sound, later working with the transportation department until his retirement in the early ’70s. He came from a family of tenant farmers who migrated to the Northwest from the South who were used to working on the land. Their work ethic never left him.
Before he retired, and even long after, he’d be up, before the crack of dawn, getting up, moving around the kitchen or the dining room, finally driving off in his truck.
These are not vague memories. They’re very clear, if a little soft around the edges, the way memories from that part of your life always are. I remember those sounds seeping into the living room where I would sometimes sleep on the couch. It was that time of morning when it was still dark, between night and day, and I was in that liminal space, between asleep and awake. It left me with the sense of being in a dark cocoon.
I now live and work in homes that he bought, owned, and fixed himself. I’m raising my family here, among his books and mine, his tools and my tools side by side.
On my mother’s side, as the new phraseology goes, I am ADOS, which is African American Descendant of Enslaved Africans. Part of my work is framed by the past 500 years of folks being taken from the continent, being put on a path of never-ending migrations, the first starting with the forced migration from the continent and then the perpetual migration of folks whose humanity was disempowered as they were legally reduced to the state of property, which meant that they could be traded back and forth. A perpetual moving around of people.
Then, of course, there’s the almost century-long Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and the West, which was as much folks seeking economic opportunity as fleeing the outright and overt systems of terror maintaining the social and economic order of the southern states: yet another phase of migration. Then you get to the North, where folks are sequestered into “ghettos.” Two and three generations later, that land becomes desirable to folks, setting up another phase of migration, as people have been pushed out of these new urban homelands where they were attempting to create something new and meaningful.
My father’s Nigerian (Kalabari tribe), so I have a direct lineal connection to the African continent. There is a story of migration here as well. In a new nation formed out of the colonial adventures of Great Britain, often the brightest and most promising children were sent overseas to pursue advanced education in the West. For Nigerians, this has most commonly been the United Kingdom and the United States. This has everything to do with the lingering political, economic, social, and cultural effects of colonialism. It has everything to do with the very present reality of neo-colonialism and all the ways it suppresses any kind of collective aspirational movements of African peoples. My father came to America to attend college in the 1960s; he never returned home to live. Even now, in my ancestral town of Buguma in the Niger Delta, members of my family are displaced by the twin ecological and economic holocausts brought on by the oil extraction industry, an industry that almost wholly benefits the West through petroleum companies such as Shell and British Petroleum, notwithstanding the few complicit Nigerians who benefit from this neo-colonial arrangement. My relatives are spread out across the country and the world. Many want to return to their ancestral home, but can’t. It is too dangerous. All of these movements of African people in the 20th Century are stories of Black migration.
These two historical trajectories — my mother’s and my father’s — each embodying their own unique stories of migration and dislocation, are bound together in my story, in my body, in my blood. When I’m talking about the importance of Black home ownership in Seattle, as I often do in my work and art, part of what I’m doing is, “How do we disrupt that process of never-ending migration?” I am asking a global question, imagining what it means to intentionally root ourselves to place again as a means of reconstituting our fractured humanity. This brings me to yet another aspect of this migration story: that of Black people intentionally choosing to leave the northern cities of the United States and move back south. This started in the 1990s, an act of will. Over the last fifteen years, it has mingled with the active gentrification of Black communities in northern cities to become something much more complex. People compelled to uproot from their homes, some taking it as an opportunity to rediscover something older, more essential to their sense of identity. Then there are the growing number of Black American expats living in various African countries — they are seeking, in similar ways, to reconstitute themselves by establishing new roots in an adopted ancestral home. These stories are complicated. They are never just one thing or another.
How do we find ourselves again, and when we do, who will we discover ourselves to be?
I hate to use the “anti” frameworks, because I prefer to be more “pro” than “anti.” Existing within the realm of dreams, visions, possibilities, and creative action is the most natural state for me. So what does it mean to be pro-Black or pro-liberation? For me, it stems from an African diasporic context. Being brought up with a Pan-Africanist outlook on life and the world is very much about the fact that your life is dedicated to the liberation of African people all over the planet.
For me, there’s no conceivable way to talk about Black liberation in isolation from Indigenous land sovereignty with any level of integrity unless you’re just trying to play for your position on the hierarchical ladder of white supremacy. These are the only two choices: that you are either pro-liberation, which means you’ve got to account for the whole dynamics of the situation that you’re in, or that you just want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and get to a higher position than everybody else.
Practically, this means that I can’t talk about the importance of Black land ownership without also acknowledging the fact that I’m talking about land, particularly in Seattle, that was never ceded. Even for land that was ceded in treaties, we now know that many of those treaties were never honored or valid in the first place. Even if there was an exchange that was agreed upon, that exchange came after three generations of constant warfare and the defamation of social networks, ecological systems, and cultural ways. You have people who have been facing continuous onslaught, who are looking for a way to stop the never-ending warfare. If we’re working on the principles of justice and equity, then you have to go back and look at all of it.
As I mentioned before, my father came to the United States from Nigeria in the mid-1960s. I was given a Nigerian name, and I had both a Nigerian and a Pan-Africanist upbringing. I’ve never been inclined to use the word Indigenous in reference to myself. I think the word Indigenous has a kind of political framework that, for me, is tied to geography, tied to culture, tied to a sort of lived epistemology, some continuity that informs a sense of coherence that predates contact with Europeans. A global cultural and political hegemony.
Black American culture, of course, is in itself not monolithic, but there is a kind of coherence to Black culture despite class distinctions, regional distinctions, and so forth. A kind of cultural coherence that allows us to communicate and have affinity no matter where we are in the country because of commonality in our collective experiences as a people. I think beyond that, there is something deeper. Something specific in a people born of an amalgamation of nearly every West African culture touched by the transatlantic slave trade. Something born out of the specific conditions in America where the system of chattel slavery sought to strip every vestige of our former identities, attempting, in every way, to reduce us to the bare elements of what makes a human being. It is born out of those parts of our former selves that we fought to retain despite this systemic, trans-generational onslaught. What we retained was a kind of meta-African-ness. These were the things that couldn’t be stripped away by force, confounded by the smashing together of people from across Africa speaking in strange tongues, things that couldn’t be lost in the mists of time because they were encoded in our blood, in the ways our eyes gaze up at the stars. This meta-African-ness undeniably connects us to that continent and is at the same time specifically American. The peculiarities of our experience here makes us distinct from every other culture on the African continent, each with its own level of Indigeneity, rooted in their own sense of history and place.
So, as to the matter of Indigeneity, the fundamental question for me is: Are not Black Americans indigenous to Turtle Island? To me, that’s a very provocative philosophical question. But it’s also a legitimate philosophical question. Black peoples in the United States are a cultural, epistemological body of humans who have a kind of coherence in the way that we exist in the world, an existence that is not rooted in any other place, any other social context, any other political concept, any other context. An existence specific to here.
That’s not to displace, of course, the original Indigenous inhabitants. Even in my advocacy of Black land and home ownership, I am not saying that it means that we have any land rights equal to First Peoples. Instead, this is a philosophical question that has utility in understanding where we go from here: How do we see our history as it truly is and begin to imagine creating entirely new things, rooted in the best of what our ancestors have to offer us and also forward-looking? Even now, we’re having this conversation as if African peoples who landed here and Indigenous relatives who had been here since time immemorial don’t have a shared history, as if there isn’t a deep and rich history of the two communities being together, marrying together, producing children together. This is where the lines get further blurred. It’s important that we honor boundaries and have these conversations with intentionality. I explored these ideas in my multi-media installation piece, “This Is Who We Are” (Frye Art Museum, 2016).
What I learned listening to the sounds of my grandfather preparing for his day in the pre-dawn hours all those years ago, getting ready for work, getting ready for church, getting ready to build and to learn and, thus, to teach, was ultimately about service. Service doesn’t always mean sacrifice. And when it does call for sacrifice, this is not always a negative. Sometimes sacrifice is not even sacrifice but rather simply a thing you choose over some other option, the option of not doing, not knowing, or not building. In my work and art, I imagine what it means to be rooted again, to stop moving and to begin to be whole again. To build a new human beingness based on a healthy relationship to the land we live on. This is an indigenously African way of being that I learned from my family on my father’s side. It is one of those things retained in our ADOS beingness that I learned from my grandparents in their life-long work to build a new communal home in Seattle’s Central District. A home they intended for their great-great-great-grandchildren and beyond. It is a truth held up for us by the First Nations Peoples of Turtle Island. By supporting Indigenous sovereignty, we build. Let’s build.
Inye Wokoma is a journalist, filmmaker and visual artist who explores the intersections of our political economies and shared histories through the lens of personal narratives rooted in the neighborhood he grew up in, the Central District. His two on-going bodies of work, “An Elegant Utility” and “Wa Na Wari” use multi-media and socially engaged art to ignite conversations about land, identity, politics, and justice to better understand the past, and shape transformative possibilities for the future. Wa Na Wari is a grantee of Nia Tero.
Featured Image: Inye Wokoma. (Photo: James Harnois)
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