Michael Michayluk’s – The Beginning of My Mimesis
22 June 2011
One of the most memorable passages from Rosenthal’s Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo comes in Chapter 5, “Parasites and Hosts”. Here Rosenthal lets her “moral imagination” run wild as she contemplates what could happen if Americans could become “mimetically capacious” and slaves were worshipped and divinized as the romantic foreign other. She states,
“What if descendants of both slave owners and slaves could become for a moment, those slaves, empowered and divinized, with African languages glossing their tongues, and the steps of ancestral dances enlivening their bodies the way Ewe, through trance, become their ancestor’s slaves from the north?
What if European Americans as well as African Americans (and all the other Americans) could become “mimetically capacious” (Taussig 1993) in this context? The slaves would come back to heal their descendants and the descendants of the slave owners and to cyclically receive payments for ancient debt, for lives and labor spent in the service of the white people. The African slave spirits would be the beloved stranger gods (although their own descendants are no longer foreign but also hosts); the descendants on both sides would be host-worshippers. The hospitality would be sacred and reciprocal, a seasonal remarking of history that cannot be undone but that must also be commemorated with full honors, gratitude, and eloquence. It would also be a request on the part of the white people generation after generation, to be forgiven for having inflicted the unhealable wound of slavery- not a request for this unspeakable injustice to be forgotten….Yet this commemoration would also be a reemphasis of the profound differences between cultures and peoples that can never be, and should never be effaced” (Rosenthal 154-155)
Surely this vision of Rosenthals will not be seen on America’s horizon any time soon but she made me think, what if it did? Would racial tension still be so prevalent? Would it change the way the way whites look at Africans as spear-chucking savages and African-Americans as gun-toting savages? Such questions are impossible to answer, but in my own beginnings of mimesis in Ghana (walking the path at Assin Manso, witnessing Elmina castle and hearing about the unimaginable horrors perpetrated, witnessing the power and intelligence of nature at Taipa, and seeing Gorovodu festival) my view of Africans and African Americans has certainly been altered.
Let me begin by reinforcing that not only is America far from becoming mimetically capacious, but is currently the polar opposite. In my experience growing up in rural Michigan, living in Detroit, and traveling around this large nation, many truly would have slavery be forgotten (Many I fear might even want it reinstated). They scoff at any idea of reparations, as those silly blacks must only want more welfare and are too lazy to work for it (quite ironic as it was the slaves sweat and blood the provided the foundation for this countries wealth and european wealth around the globe). Instead of commemorating slavery with profound festival and asking for forgiveness as Rosenthal dreams above, many instead commemorate the “unspeakable injustice” with a good ol’ confederate flag flying out their window or displayed for everyone to see on the back of their gas-guzzling trucks. “I didn’t enslave anyone,” they say. Why can’t they just forget about it already? Do they know that those flags which might symbolize rebellion and family history also symbolize one of the greatest injustices humanity has ever seen. How can there be any pride in that?
A couple weeks ago, I was home for a graduation party of a close friend. It was a beautiful summer day and I was having a conversation with a teenager from Atlanta, Georgia (my friends cousin) when he said,
“Wow! I wish I lived up here in Michigan, I live next to a bunch of black people.”
My jaw dropped as he said this phrase so nonchalantly.
“So do I,” I said. “I live in Detroit, what the hell is wrong with living next to black people?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, sensing my rising anger, “It’s just how I was raised.”
The rest of the conversation consisted of me yelling at this poor kid while my friend shrugged his shoulders at me.
When I made the decision to come to Wayne State University and live on campus, I can’t tell you how many people in Holly, Michigan seemed legitimately concerned for my safety. After all, Detroit is a Black city. “It’s safe down there?” they would ask. “Try not to get shot,” they would jest.
My personal view of blacks before the expedition to Ghana was the same as my view of all races and ethnicities, generalizations will get you no where. You can say blacks are this and whites are that but in the end there will always be individual people that break whatever mold you have constructed for whatever particular ethnicity. This is not to say I don’t carry my own prejudices and generalizations no matter how objectively I try to look, because certainly I do. (The previous two paragraphs are full of generalizations talking about whites). I don’t, however, let these generalizations create a false hierarchy of human species.
Beginning my mimesis in Africa did not change this part of my view about Africans and African-Americans and I’m not sure that anything can. But what I did start to realize is just how much Americans, as a former European colony, owe to these people who have been continually exploited by us for centuries and continue to be this day. The funny thing is I have known this fact my entire life. I have known about the Atlantic Slave trade, but it did not really sink in until I walked barefoot through the bush at Assin Manso and smelled the raw brutality and inhumanity of Dutch slave traders at Elmina Castle. I have known of the exploitation of Africa’s vast natural resources and but it did not sink in until we visited the farm at Taipa. I have known about the iron fist of colonialism, and its relentless unwavering attempts to stomp out every last bit of indigenous culture, but it did not sink in until we began to witness the power of Gorovodu in Tema. Because of this, I can now sympathize a lot more with Rosenthal’s dream of mimetic capacity for Americans.
This is not to say I necessarily think Americans should start making fetishes and worshipping the slave spirits to which we are eternally in debt, and this in fact is impossible. Rosenthal said it best when she states there indeed are differences in cultures and peoples, “ that can never be, and should never be effaced”. What I do think is that we are indeed eternally in debt and we damn well better remember it.