The Honolulu Museum of Art hosted Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation as part of the Honolulu African-American Film Festival 2018 program in celebration of Black August. Sponsored by The Pōpolo Project and moderated by the Founder and Director of The Pōpolo Project Akiemi Glenn, the two-part event aimed to explore the liabilities and boons for better understanding the intersection between the experience of Blackness in the Pacific and the experience of Blackness in the continental United States. The conversations aimed to address the question, “Can we better understand American racial politics and future if we further examine Hawai‘i’s position within this intersection?” Below are some highlights from the event.
The presentation of two short films served as primers for conversations contrasting a Black experience in the Pacific and an African-American experience in Hawai‘i. Blackbird, written and directed by Australian Solomon Islander Amie Batalibasi, tells the story of Solomon Islander siblings Rosa & Kiko who were kidnapped from their island home to work on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia in the late 1800s. Blackbird situated the historical realities of slavery in the Pacific so that we could think about how that history reverberates into the present day. A post-screening talk emphasized that the concept of Blackness in the Pacific takes on complex forms from an indigenous perspective: Dr. Ponipate Rokolekutu who researches the economic marginalization of iTaukei (Native Fijians) in the colonial experience and has contributed critical perspectives on the political impacts of the notion of “Melanesia” or a “Black Pacific” as a unifying identity in Pacific politics, was joined by Dr. Luafata Simanu-Klutz whose research, poetry, and playwriting focus on the often unknown aspects of Pacific women’s history, especially in political representation and empowerment in resistance to colonial forces.
In response to the question of how a European conception of Blackness entered into the Pacific, Dr. Simanu-Klutz said: “the politics of color among Pacific Islanders…is becoming more and more obvious in the younger generations reviving some of language that was derogatory during the colonial period, such as the term ‘afakasi,’ which was the term for the ‘hapa,’ or what we call the half-caste children, of Euro-American and Samoan parents. The revival of that term is something that needs to be talked about because millenials are coming out saying that it’s okay to be that, there’s nothing wrong to be ‘afakasi’…but, for people like me [who are darker skinned], what does that mean? ‘Afakasi’ with lighter skin was also very privileged—they were well received in both worlds. I worry that our young generations may be thinking that Blackness or the politics of color began with the colonizers, but let’s look before the colonizers to really understand what it means to be Black and to be dark. Because, in the islands, we have our own different terms.”
Dr. Ponipate Rokolekutu expanded upon the nuances of Blackness from the perspective of a Native Fijian, which goes beyond the black/white dichotomy: “The concept of the notion of ‘Black’ and the experiences of Blackness is complex in the context of the islands of the Pacific, in the context of Oceania. In the United States, it’s a binary…In the context of the Pacific Islands, it’s complex. What you see as ‘Black’ in the United States is not necessarily ‘Black’ to Pacific Islanders. When we talk about Tongans or Samoans or Polynesians, we don’t talk about ‘Whiteness:’ there is a concept that we use that is not necessarily ‘white’—and that is ‘red.’ The concept of ‘damudamu,’ [meaning] red…means something that is reddish. It connotes superiority, it connotes the idea of something that is delightful to look at. That is how we conceptualized ‘Whiteness’ in the islands of the Pacific, at least in the perspective of a Native Fijian.”
The short film Healing Traditions, created by The Pōpolo Project, a multimedia exploration of Blackness in Hawai‘i and the larger Pacific, localized the Black experience to Hawai‘i. It provided an optimistic view that healing from historical trauma is possible and that, in the Pacific, our relationship to the ocean is an important catalyst for that healing process. The film follows activist and Hawai‘i-based member of Black Lives Matter Prentis Hemphill as she describes her experience learning how to swim.
As moderator, Dr. Akiemi Glenn, founder and curator of The Pōpolo Project, wove connections between the first and second talk, unearthing intersections between the Pacific, Hawai‘i, and African-American experiences. When featured speaker Ta-Nehisi Coates joined Glenn on stage, it was eye-opening to see how the topics Coates addresses in his work – such as housing issues, reparations, and his analysis of Barack Obama – applies to the conversation of race and community in Hawaiʻi and the larger Pacific.
Coates’ recent visit to Australia set an appropriate framework for a conversation about expanding the notion of Blackness beyond the borders of our American imagination: “You have no idea what it means to grow up in West Baltimore where I’m from, to go to Washington D.C. where I went to college and met my wife and even to move to up New York and be in that, as I am increasingly learning, narrow world and have Blackness come to mean something to you – and then to go all the way to Australia, all the way to the side of the world, and to meet people who call themselves Black there…I didn’t expect, in the things I reflected on in my very narrow American view of what blackness meant, to find sisters and brothers all the way on the other side of the world. There’s a second, tragic part to that…What does it mean to go about as far from Europe as you possibly can, to be as far away from Europe as you possibly can, and for Whiteness to find you anyway? I don’t mean for people with blue eyes to find you, I don’t mean for people with blonde hair to find you, I mean people who have erected in ideology around the blue eyes and blonde hair, which justifies the extraction of wealth from other people. To be that far away and to find that present and to find people in such deep pain that far away and then to come back here [to Hawai‘i ]…I have quite a bit to think about.”
Coates went on to remark on how systems of oppression as human constructs became more clear in his travels abroad: “What you see is that these systems are made, they don’t evolve….Human beings decide X, Y, and Z is going to be true and then results flow out from that. And so if they can be made, then in fact they can be unmade.” In the exchange of ideas that followed, Coates and Glenn questioned existing mythologies in American history and the extent to which myths can be re-invented or unmade in order to reconstruct ideologies of race and identity.
Glenn situated Hawaiʻi within an American historical context, sharing her view on the reverberations of the American Civil War on Hawai‘i’s history: “For me, part of what seemed to happened after the Civil War is that the United States wanted to have a national project together—pushing the boundaries of empire seemed to be a really important one. And so, thirty years later after the end of the Civil War, we see 1898 [Spanish-American War], we see the [American influence in the] Caribbean, we see [American influence in] the Philippines, and we see Hawai‘i being involved in part of that project,” evoking the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the American Occupation of Hawaiʻi. She went on to articulate how issues of incarceration and criminalization take shape in Hawaiʻi as it does in North America: “We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. Here as elsewhere, what happens is that poverty is criminalized. We have a criminal justice situation here, in terms of where our incarcerated people are. The Sagauro Correctional Center is in Arizona. The majority of our incarcerated males are there instead of here in Hawaiʻi, and a majority of those males who are incarcerated are Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. Those stats are very similar to what we see with Black people in the U.S. and North American context. We’ve been having this conversation about what empire looks like, creeping, and these are systems that have been made.” She asked Coates about his perspective on the expansion of the carceral state in America and elsewhere.
Coates responded: “I think when you think about the carceral state in America, it is the thing I have the hardest time imagining being unmade at this point and probably my deepest source of skepticism about the idea of a post-racist society.” He went on to expand upon the staggering incarceration rates on a national and global level, then he evoked the problem of American storytelling in relation to our historical realities: “How does [America] begin to develop some sort of ethic that says there should be substantial decarceration? How does it begin to tell itself a different story that combats literally centuries of telling itself another story?…This is, as you exemplified, not just a problem for black people: it’s always the fact that this spills over, and there are other victims who suffer for it.”
Glenn again situated Hawaiʻi in relation to North American movements: “You talking about these myths that the United States has given us makes me think about Hawaiʻi and the myths about race here in Hawaiʻi ….I think about how Hawai‘i was made a State in 1959, right around the same time the Civil Rights movement was growing and becoming something that people couldn’t ignore in North America. In the work that I’ve done, it has been really striking to see how the commitment to presenting Hawaiʻi as a racial paradise pairs with the criminalization, the continued criminalization, of Black people and how Hawai‘i serves as a foil to that….”
“What do you think about the presentation of Hawaiʻi in President Obama’s memoir?” Coates asked.
“It’s a good question…,” Glenn said. “One of the things that I find in the work that I do with the Pōpolo Project is that the experiences of Black folks who grew up here are very different from those who have come here as adults….Race operates very differently here. You mentioned the binary we have in North America: black or white are the categories we see people in. In Hawai‘i, there’s a lot of mixed race individuals who are able to be multiple things at once, which is a little different than how it works elsewhere. But at the same time, the racial paradise—in which everyone is friends, everyone is fine—seems to be complicated by the facts in a couple of ways: for someone like Obama or any of us Black folks here, Black people make up a very small number of the population. We’re around two percent of the population here…We can also talk about how Black folks are overrepresented in the military and end up being the face of Blackness here in Hawai‘i, which is an issue….It seems that people need that story that there is a place in America where everything is okay, where everyone can show up and be safe and fine.”
Glenn then asked Coates, “Why do you think we need these myths? There’s a whole storybook of them: there’s the racial paradise of Hawai‘i, there’s the American dream…”
“I think people find it very difficult to get through the world without myths. I think the world’s a very difficult and tough place. And I think people want to believe that humans can be better than they are…,” Coates said. “As we critique these myths, I would ask two questions: 1) is it true that human beings generally need myths period?…and 2) What myths will we replace [existing myths] with? Are myths actually useful, even if they don’t tell the whole truth?….The myths that have traditionally undergirded America are actually under assault more than people actually realize….Who gets to have myths and who doesn’t? We’re in this period where a lot of ideas are under assault. It is one the few things I’m actually hopeful about. But what are we going to replace them with? Do we need to replace them? And will we in turn replicate our own half-truths in doing that?”
Coates and Glenn discussed the impacts of the film and comic Black Panther. Glenn expressed how Black Panther “speaks to Hawai‘i, how Wakanda is an example for what Hawai‘i could look like when it’s de-colonized.” Glenn asked Coates a question that opened up the possibilities of building a more globalized view of Blackness: “I wonder in your writing for Black Panther, in your work more generally, or even in your recent travels, have you thought about or reckoned with the concept of indigeneity, thinking about the kinship ties and ties to the land?”
Coates was open and honest in expressing that, currently, he does not know enough to be able to speak intelligently to the question of global kinship and indigeneity. “It is pretty clear that the people who oppress us are finding kinship around the world. Whiteness is very clearly making ties around the world. What our [global kindship] looks like is a new question for me….,” Coates responded. “I was raised in a heavy nationalist, Pan-African household, and so I have the imagined part of it, that’s probably what I use in a lot of Black Pantherˆ… but the hardcore practical aspect of it, which I try to bring to bear in, for instance, my work on incarceration or reparations…I can’t give answers [about indigeneity and global kinship] that informed yet. I just don’t know enough yet….” Glenn asked him about the questions he grapples with in regards to indigeneity. “What am I supposed to do as a black writer?” Coates replied. “Because in my writing, the foe in general is American Whiteness, that’s what I know, that’s what I write about, but is there a way of me doing that that is more globalized? That’s harder than it sounds….I have to know on some deep profound level what I’m talking about in order to speak. For me, the threshold to speak globally would be to look at the aboriginal experience, look at the black experience in Australia [and elsewhere] and be able to speak with that kind of specificity. And then I can make real links in an intelligent way….There is a level I’m really trying to get to, that hopefully I’ll be able to get to. There are questions even in my limited world that I still haven’t answered.”
The challenge of expanding our understanding of race, identity, and systems of oppression beyond existing borders is all too real. On one level, Coates’s perspective and understanding of American history, political movements, and myth-making helped us think about how the African-American experience on the continent is relevant to race relations in Hawaiʻi and, reciprocally, Glenn’s input presented how Hawai‘i informs a deeper understanding of America. On another level, through that exchange, a more globalized landscape of questioning opened up, one which needs to be further explored and which we all are striving to plant our feet on.