Filed under: Correspondence
I wanted to add a little bit to what i wrote before. some things that have been going through my head…
December 16, 2007
Right now I am on a train traveling from New York to Seattle and am somewhere in the middle of North Dakota…I think. The landscape here is a bit how I imagine the moon to look, only here it’s covered in snow with the very occasional rusted tractor and shivering horse. Poor horse. Or maybe when I imagine Westerns, this is what I imagine. That’s more accurate, actually. Mean men on these poor horses arriving to reek havoc on white farmers that arrived in the wake of the Native American purges. All the people way back when who showed up with their plows after the Indians were chased off or killed. The white farmers then prayed for rain…which never really came.
This place is part and parcel of the North American colonial history that everyone in the States seems to not know or maybe just not care about. Not really. It’s a landscape belonging squarely within the vast plains of our American amnesia. That’s all I can think as we barrel through here on the train – the double decker Amtrak “Empire Builder” – that stretches from Chicago to Seattle. It’s a two day trip. Three from New York. With all this time and the rocking back and forth, it’s as if my mind is being jiggled. Burps of memory and old school lessons come up like acid reflux. As far as I remember…
Back then there was this thing called “manifest destiny” – basically a kissing cousin to what George W. Bush calls his right to “preemptive strikes” – a precept which allows the States to wallop anyone they want whenever they want to take whatever they want. I guess I’m showing my personal leanings here, but as far as I can tell Manifest Destiny was some cockamamy notion concocted by criminals running the new United States way back when that justified them taking over the continent, moving west, regardless of who or what was there. There’s a Bob Dylan song called “God on our side” or maybe that’s just the refrain. Aaron Neville sang a version of it. That’s all about “Manifest Destiny” Just like that Schoolhouse Rock cartoon called “Elbow Room.”
MD was a curious blend of faith in pre-ordained destiny, the “gifts of providence”, and the legacy of a protestant work ethic that required people to work hard to make that destiny a reality here and now on earth. Come hell or high water. And it had distinct religious overtones. The notion was that God somehow had chosen the new Americans to take over and by actually doing it, the Americans were doing “God’s will”. Part of that will was for them to spread their form of government – which had been elevated to an almost religious status in and of itself. The American Constitution is basically a quasi religious document in popular American culture…
The journalist John L. O’Sullivan popularized the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 when he wrote it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” and later when talking about the annexation of Oregon / Northwest territories from the British, Russian and French claims to the region, he wrote “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
This of course had some serious ramifications for the people who happened to be there already, standing in the way of the European Americans like O’Sullivan and their date with destiny (not to mention their “multiplying millions” and “federated self-government.”) To me it sounds a hell of a lot like, “spreading democracy.” In the 1830s congress had already passed the “Indian Removal Act” and the Georgia Cherokees were relocated to Oklahoma in what’s referred to as The Trail of Tears. And then just south of here in South Dakota was the Wounded Knee massacre from 1890 in which US troops killed a number of Lakota Sioux.
Hurtling through the countryside on this train, though, you’d never think of this. Hell, living in Manhattan, New York, you’d never think that the island was named for the Manna Hatta indians who used to live there. Outside of Detroit is the city of Pontiac – also the name of one of General Motor’s most popular line of cars. Pontiac was the name of an Ottawa/Ojibwa Chief – some even say he was a Miami. Dakota is a Sioux language. But you never really think about these things – like, where are they now? What happened to them? Where’s this name from? Living in America, I feel like most people don’t think about anything – not this stuff, anyway.
I guess it’s not that different from being in Europe and having no clue that the majority of your architecture and wealth comes from the former colonies. Iberia’s gold straight out of the mines of latin america. The money which built all of Gaudi’s modernist treasures in Barcelona coming directly from the Catalans that worked catching run-away slaves in the Cuban sugar trade. Slaves that came mostly from Angola. All of Belgium’s wealth from the rubber plants of the Congo. Merry ol’ England, a product of the triangle slave trade.
As far as I can tell our Manifest Destiny has distinctly European origins. The seeds of the phrase anyway. The mad colonial push that began 500 or 600 years ago, propelled by the wicked marriage of economic greed and religious fervor backed by military force. Old school “good cop, bad cop” – the military comes in and slaps you around a bit, steals whatever you have on you and then the missionaries come in with the soft approach, whisper niceties in your ear, promise salvation and get you to capitulate to their will peacefully. One way or the other, the Europeans took the whole rape and pillage thing to a new level only to be outdone by the United States of America in the late 20th and early 21st century. I mean, Attila the Hun had nothing on Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.
So I’m sitting here reading a book by Karl Maier, an American journalist, called “Angola: Promises and Lies”. And as I head west looking out the window thinking about my own colonial legacy, it puts somewhat into relief what I am reading here about Angola and the Portuguese. What does it mean that after 500 years of occupation, the Portuguese left Angola with a 90 percent illiteracy rate and phenomenal social discord? How and why did the country explode into a 27 year civil war with South Africa, Cuba, Zaire, The United States, China and the Soviet Union all with their hands in the pot? And now what is China up to? Securing oil rights and 70% of all reconstruction contracts for Chinese companies in return for several billions of dollars in loans – to be paid back in barrels of oil. The reports I read say there’s tons of construction going on but no education of Angolans to be able to take over their own country. There are even Chinese farmers moving in and buying up Angolan farm land. State of the art hospitals have been built and all the manuals for the various machines are in Mandarin.
Angola exists in my mind, perhaps not unlike Karl May’s America. It is an imagined space pieced together by news reports, google earth maps, blogs, photographs, history books, songs, interviews and hearsay. I am wondering what the paradigms are on which I construct my image of the place, the people and the way of life. Karl May was in prison when he started to write about Winnetou the “wise Chief of the Apaches.” Old Shatterhand was “his white blood brother” and the narrator / alter ego of May himself. Oh – and the Indians were sort of noble savages set upon by bad white people.
Apparently May was suffering from multiple personality disorder and began to steal things. He lost his post as a school teacher and was eventually incarcerated. His America, I’d guess was a sort of a mental lurch into freedom and possibility to channel his imagination and personalities.
So what’s my Angola? How influenced am I by the popular colonial narrative of “the dark continent” – obsessed with the darkness, mystery, death, dying, war, famine, and cannibalism all set off by deep mysticism, animist religions, the music and dancing, the big animals, the laughing children and a sense of things being “more real” there? There are all these things in my head, I’m sure, that have just as much to do with Angola itself as Karl May’s America had to do with this North Dakota I’m passing through. That is – very very very little.
My projections on and extractions from this imagined country in my head probably have more to do with me, my situation, my psychological and cultural make-up than anything to do with the actual physical place at 12º 30′ South of the Equator and 18º 30′ East of Greenwich that’s just under twice the size of Texas and full of 12,263,596 people and 6 – 20 million land mines. It’s hard not to ask if documentaries have more to do with the people making them than with the subjects they are made about. Or at least if the documentary investigation existing between it’s maker and it’s subject is best thought of as a documentation of that particular encounter.
In New York and Brazil, I’ve played Capoeira Angola for over 10 years. (Probably even longer by this point). Mestre Vicente Ferreira Pastinha in Salzvador Bahia coined the phrase “Capoeira Angola” to differentiate the style from the popular form developed by Mestre Bimba called Capoeira Regional – the one they use these days to make Nokia and Yamaha commercials. Mestre Pastinha wanted to refocus the practice onto it’s African roots in lieu of the local Brazilian context that Bimba favored. Of course, no one really knows where Capoeira comes from other than a mix of various influences including the various cultures of African Slaves, local Native Brazilians, and European settlers all squeezed through the filter of slavery and colonization. Mestre Pastinha focused on a dance he thought came from the port of Benguela in Angola called N’golo of “The dance of the Zebras” which was developed into a foot-fighting technique. Mestre Pastinha and followers believed that Capoeria – the name of the fighting form of N’golo – was used by africans and Afro-brazilians to “maintain themselves spiritually and physically under the harsh circumstances of slavery and plantation life.” Mestre João Grande in New York – a student of Pastinha and my Mestre – always focussed on intelligence, cunning, humor, dance and surprise as a way of confronting forces stronger than you. Mestre Morães, a student of João Grande, and another teacher of mine in Salvador de Bahia talks about “movimento só” – pure movement as being the aim of Capoeira Angola – maximizing your own movement while minimizing the movement of whomever you are playing with. Basically you keep flowing. A deep resistance to being incarcerated or enslaved.
I don’t think any of the old Mestres made it to Angola any more than Karl May made it to the American West. (May did make it as far as Buffalo, NY and Pastinha and João Grande did make it to Dakar, Senegal). But again, I think Africa provided a mental freedom. A mythology that was brought by forbearers or ancestors that ghosted the present day. That existed in rhythms and movements and stories and speech patterns. Like up in Detroit, where I am from. But like in Detroit, I always think that the documentation of Africa that exists in Capoeira Angola, has more to do with Salvador de Bahia than the port of Benguela. Or at least it has to do with the encounter of a place living the legacy of Slavery with the imaginative space before slavery.
So here i am chugging along through North Dakota, thinking about this place quadruple removed from anywhere I am, and still there is something there that tugs at me. Or some part of me. I wonder what it is.
So renata, you suggested that we have talks with people from angola living in lisbon and we record these meetings and use them for the reports back to helmut and APAP. seems like a fine idea to me, but I’m not in lisbon until may. so i will just have these open conversations with myself/you in the meantime and use these as a way to report the development.
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