“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” – Fannie Lou Hamer
Site where Adam Blakeman first saw land in his journey from England to Turtle Island
The graveyard sat unexpectedly at the edge of a noisy road. Encased by a large iron fence, the entrance was marked by two stone pillars with bronze plaques turned turquoise by time. The first plaque read, “1676–1906. Erected by the Mary Silliman Chapter. Daughters of the American Revolution.” The second, “In honor of the men and women who planted in the wilderness the early homes of Stratford. Who fought bravely and suffered patiently in the war of the American Revolution, and who left to their descendants a proud memory of courage, endurance, and faith in God.” I am standing here reading these words with one of these descendants, my friend Morgan Curtis. We have traveled here to Stratford Connecticut, from Northern California, to go and sit at the grave of her ancestor Adam Blakeman. Although it is early spring here on the East Coast the trees surrounding the gray and white gravestones remain leafless. As Morgan and I walk among the headstones looking for that one particular name, we begin to notice the same last names again and again. Names from both sides of her family. We are truly walking among the echoes of Morgan’s people, a lineage of “Daughters of the American Revolution”, a lineage of colonization.
None of this is lost upon either of us. Morgan, like so many of my friends today, is in a state of reconciliation with her ancestry. Unlike most, she has clear documentation of the entirety of her family’s history from the first moment Minister Adam Blakeman set foot upon the shores of Stratford. In an odd way, this is something that we have in common. I too share in the great privilege of known lineage and origin. I too have visited where my ancestors now rest, except that my ancestors and family have lived here in North America for the past 8,000 years. My family, First Nations peoples, were the ones that ancestors like Adam Blakeman ended up colonizing. In today’s world, it would be easy to label Morgan as white and me as a person of color. We are both familiar with these labels, the subtlety that accompanies each, and the way that society plays into these labels. This afternoon though, like any day we spend together, we are stretching these labels. Most importantly, Morgan and I are friends, and a part of our dedication to our friendship is why we are in this graveyard. Adam Blakeman was born in Gnosall, Staffordshire, England, June 10, 1596, and traveled by boat to Connecticut in 1638. He fled England in order to found a Utopian community where he would be free to practice his Puritan faith. This is a well-known story that is the foundation of American history. Often times though, as the story has been told and re-told through the generations, the truth and perspective of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island are left out. In the justification of fleeing persecution, an idea of a right to dominion over land and people has been written into our history books as absolute. Adam Blakeman and other men like him held no interest in stopping the circle of oppression that they themselves had experienced in their homeland. I am sure that the idea of an actual friendship between those first Puritan’s and the Native Peoples whose homes and lives were taken was inconceivable. As inconceivable as the idea of one of the “Daughters of the Revolution” sitting at his grave with her native friend. Someone has placed a miniature American flag to the right of Minister Blakeman’s headstone, a clear marker among the many graves. The flag seemed to say, “Here commemorates an original American.” Morgan and I are quieted by the sight of the stone. It is wide and larger than most of the others. I think about how much this man could not have imagined in the year 1665, the year when he died. He could not have imagined how big this town would become, or that there would be a road so close to his church filled with noise and exhaust. Together, sitting on the ground Morgan and I give our prayers to this ancestor and to the Paugussett Peoples, who’s nation existed before the settlement of Stratford. We talk about our friendship, how we are finding our way forward together after hundreds of years of pain. Morgan places a flicker feather, a small offering at the base of the headstone. I take her photo and she looks up into my lens with a serious expression that also seems to border on confusion. We make our way out of the graveyard and back into the car where we drive for 10 minutes before parking at the water’s edge. We get out and gaze into the blue horizon. Somewhere close to where we are standing now is the exact spot that Adam Blakeman first sighted from the bow of his ship in 1638. It is the place that he would decide to settle and begin a new life. It’s a windy day and we stand there, hair blowing, at the site of where Morgan’s family first began to consider themselves American. Here is where one particular myth of progress began, a story so strong in its conviction, that over 300 years later, we still name it as our becoming. We know better, and before we go, Morgan and I take a photo together. My friends and I talk often about “collective liberation”. At the core of all of these conversations is the desire to experience in our own lifetimes the dismantling of systems of oppression, understanding that in such systems no one is exempt from suffering. To me, working towards collective liberation means exercising an ever-expanding capacity to hold nuance. In conversation, today on both the right and the left, many ideas are oversimplified to black and white, or right and wrong. While we cannot deny the reality that our economic and social systems here in the United States are founded upon white supremacy, we also cannot deny that each of us and our histories are complex and layered. It is possible, especially in North America to hold within one’s own lineage the oppressor and the oppressed. But what exactly does it mean to “hold nuance”? Recently, Brendan Campbell, a Two-Spirit of nēhiyaw (Cree) descent, posted on Facebook such a clear definition of this term and what is being asked of us, that I have not been able to get his words out of my head. Brendan writes, ““Holding nuance,” as has been taught to me, is the balancing of sometimes completely different views that sometimes come in conflict with each other. It’s intellectually challenging, and when rooted in an anti-oppressive/justice-seeking approach, it’s emotionally grueling. For me, I try to hold nuance when looking at my family and my communities. I hold nuance when I recognize that although members of my family hold harmful xenophobic and Islamophobic views, these same family members are navigating legacies of settler-colonialism that disconnected them from their homelands, language, culture, and traditional livelihood while also subjecting them to a lot of hardship. Now with that being said, I don’t claim that nuance means we don’t address harm. I think nuance means the opposite. It means recognizing a person’s complexity while also helping them work on learning and restorative justice (opposed to writing them off or cutting them out of our lives)…Perhaps the take-home is this: in our families and in our communities, we need to honour each other’s complexities, especially when they are informed by legacies of violence, trauma, and resistance.” I would also add that by recognizing how our struggles and histories are intertwined, we have the power to dismantle on a personal level the boundaries that have been and continue to be created. The friendship that Morgan and I hold has always felt sacred to me. The unlikely event of it has allowed both of us, I believe to taste the sweetness of what might be called, our own liberation. A possibility brought forward by the chains of both our ancestry. I am compelled to write about and share this story now, because of the ever-divisive culture that we are being coerced into participating in. Last week an individual, who does not really know me, wrote me an awful message on Facebook after a combative conversation in a comment section on one of my posts. I had re-posted an article titled, “The Midterms Are Our Chance To Vote Out White Supremacy”. At the top of the post I had pulled a quote from the article that read, “On this year’s ballot, there are a historic number of black women and progressive candidates ready to fight for their communities. If we don’t show up and show out at the polls, with a fierce dedication to voting out white supremacy, there is much to lose.” Above this quote, I had written the words, “Hello midterms. Let’s vote the WOC in Please!!!!” This person was angered by the fact that I was encouraging people to vote for women of color. From this statement, they created a whole story about me. Unable to hold nuance they assumed I only voted based off of gender and race. What they were unable to understand was how exciting it is for a woman of color to have the opportunity to vote in individuals who represent not only my politics but also how I look. In a private message after comparing me to a Nazi who is, “contributing to the rapid disintegration of this great country”, they informed me they would be “terminating our Facebook friendship”, and then ended the message by writing, “you seem like a very lonely person who finds power only in blaming and inciting hatred to those who are not like you.” The greatest irony was that this person’s supposed position was based in a desire to find a way forward together and that what prompted this message was that I refused to have an argument in a comments section online, not to be confused with having a conversation. By deleting me on Facebook, they ended the possibility for a real dialogue, instead inciting the trap of “us against them”. This drawing of a “hard line” is something that I see done every day online, and it worries me. To draw a line is easy, but fighting for our collective liberation was never going to be easy. I realized upon receiving this message that our ability to hold nuance and to walk into what will likely be uncomfortable territory is to be vulnerable and that for many this might look or feel like defeat. To be challenged and uncomfortable is not the same thing as losing, and winning a debate should never be the point of starting a conversation. To begin from the standpoint of having to be right is to lose the real opportunity of dialogue, which is to hear another’s truth and maybe even expand one’s perspective. As we ready ourselves for Thanksgiving, I know that many of us are holding questions around what it means to be an American today. Especially as some of us prepare to sit around a table with family members and friends who have different perspectives around this question, and what this day represents. Through the desire to build a wall our current government role models acts of division. The Trump Administration believes that drawing a line is a necessary act for our own survival, standing by the argument that we do not have enough to share and that there will never be enough space for us all at the table. By lived experience, I feel and know differently. To not be in dialogue is to succumb to the greatest lie of all, the myth that we have time to be at odds. Our planet and societies need us to choose a discourse that will breathe life into something new, our collective liberation. As the chorus to one of my favorite songs articulates so clearly, “It is time now. It is time now that we thrive.”