“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” —James Joyce
“100,000 slaves, black or mulatto, work in sugar mills, indigo and cocoa plantations, sacrificing their lives to gratify our newly acquired appetites for sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, needs unknown to our ancestors.” - Voltaire: Essay on Morals and Customs 1756
So you wake up in the morning, put on your cotton shirt, get your coffee percolating, have some cereal with banana, put some sugar in the coffee, pack your lunch in a plastic bag and get in your car to go to work. It doesn’t matter if your job is to save the rainforest or destroy more to make grazing land for McDonald’s, whether you’re white, black, man, woman, gay, trans, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican. If you are alive in this moment, you are benefiting from centuries of genocide, slavery, environmental destruction, brutality. You may think you’re doing something important by choosing not to sing a song with kids that minstrels once sang, but the cotton from your shirt began in slavery’s cotton fields, the coffee or tea or sugar from other slave plantations, the bananas from the havoc wreaked in “the Banana Republic,” the plastic bag and gas for the car from the petroleum in Iraq’s fields that we killed thousands for a mere 20 years ago. Perhaps you bike to work and feel proud of that, but the rubber that made your tires came from historically from forced labor in the Congo, where King Leopold cut off worker's hands who didn't meet his quota. Oh, and if you live in the U.S. or Canada —or anywhere in North and South America or Australia, for that matter— did I mention that millions of Native Americans were displaced and killed so you could live where you do?
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that sugar is bad for your teeth, weight and overall health, coffee is an addictive substance, tobacco as well and can give you lung cancer, plastic is choking the oceans and car and plane emissions are eroding the ozone layer. It’s one thing to battle over land and resources in a struggle for survival—all human groups have done so— but another thing to create so much human misery to feed our unnecessary and even harmful “newly acquired appetites.”
So I repeat. No one’s hands are clean. We are all (see list above) enjoying the inheritance carved from relentless human brutality, each and every moment of our 21stcentury day. Now that you’ve read this (and watch the film Exterminate All the Brutes for more), are you having a nice day?
But having recognized the story, isn’t it time to awaken from the nightmare? To understand how it keeps playing out in the daily news and still is echoing in our own breast? To consider how to refuse it, how to transform it, how to grieve for it and rise stronger to carve the new story that awaits? Watching that film above was a heavy weight on my chest, reminding me of what I already knew, but feeling beaten down by the sheer enormity of culturally-sanctioned evil yesterday, today and tomorrow. But I am a teacher of children and have taken an oath for hope, have bought a ticket on the freedom (solar-powered) train bound for the glory that also lives in us and shown its face it works of great beauty and acts of great courage and small gestures of great kindness. As I wrote to a fellow teacher who recommended the film: “Such hard, hard reminders of the darkest regions of the human being sanctioned by the masses at the time who have been brainwashed into hatred and fooled into ignorance. And yet still we do our daily work to lead forth children's capacity of beauty and love in each class we teach."
Having woken up today, let’s do the work to truly wake up. The world is waiting.