Reclaiming and Feeding Roots Deeper Than Whiteness

Between the 18th and 20th centuries the élite of a handful of empires conquered most of the planet and justified their domination and exploitation with the myth that the “master races” alone were capable and worthy of wielding the reigns of power. Their superior civilization and genetic endowments – so the claim went – made them uniquely capable of mastering the physical plane and the social realm, so as to create the best of all possible worlds. Modernity, as defined and governed by those who promoted whiteness as the pinnacle of the human race, became the dominant theology of secular salvation.

A depiction of the supposed racial hierarchy from a textbook for American students
Maury’s New Complete Geography (1906)

This imperial order materially benefited some people, while oppressing many others and depriving subject peoples of their languages, cultures, self-determination, dignity, and humanity. It also set into motion the cult of consumerism and the triumphalism of materiality that has accelerated into the existential crises of ecological catastrophe that looms over our collective future .

Can we envision a more just, a sustainable, a nature-oriented world? How could people create a sense of meaning and purpose with their lives and communities if they could no longer rely on materialism and whiteness to fill those existential roles and serve those grand narratives?

Those are questions that have driven my engagement in Scottish Gaelic tradition and folk culture, which has helped to anchor and enrich my own life. A recent profound article about the many repercussions of environmental disaster strikes a similar note:

I don’t know how to disentangle myself or my family from this way of being, this web of extraction that surrounds us with objects that seem to pop up, magically, out of the ground. I don’t even know how to frame the question, how to name the work that’s called for. (It’s not a problem, I remind myself, it’s a predicament.)

One thing I know that helps – one piece of the work – is to gather and share the embers of other ways of being, blowing them gently into flame together, knowing how much unfinished history we carry with us. Listening to those who have more experience than I do of the ways life has been made to work in other times and places, one theme I hear is how much work goes into making a grown-up. It’s not just something you become by virtue of surviving childhood, or sitting out enough years in schoolrooms and lecture theatres. When the time comes, it takes a work of initiation on which much of the life of your community is focused. You have to be cooked in the flames, I’ve heard it said, and the frame of initiation which your culture builds is the vessel that gives you a chance of coming through the fire.

From “Notes From Underground #7: I Only Have One Prediction for You” by Dougald Hine Bella Caledonia 9th January 2020

Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems provide alternative ways of being and seeing that have nurtured communities for many millennia in ways that serve human needs without destroying the ecological neighbourhood in which they live. All of humanity was once indigenous – how can we rediscover, reclaim, and re-root those seeds of indigeneity?

The colourful iconography of the Scottish Highlands presents a kind of double-edged sword, or perhaps claymore. These images are ultimately derived from native Highland fashions to various degrees, and their unique charms draw much attention, but they can also act as a barrier to and distraction from revealing and exploring the deeper layers of indigenous Gaelic culture: belief systems, historical experiences, and diverse forms of cultural expression. In fact, these ethnic symbols have largely been co-opted by conservative groups and forces that would rather that we not pry too hard behind them, or questions whose purposes they truly serve.

I created Hidden Glen Folk School to provide mentor-ship and community to those who want to explore the nuances and complexities of the Scottish Gaelic world, one as elaborate, tangled, sophisticated, and rich as any other. And in thinking about this goal, I am mindful of the visionary work of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated in 1956:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Montgomery victory rally, 1956

Keep an eye out for announcements of the Spring 2020 course offerings (starting in March).

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