Choosing Ancestors

Roots are unreliable. Once we go back far enough, identity rarely consolidates. As simple an act as stepping out of a privileged circle may compromise belonging. Take, for example, this opening section from Thiong’o’s The River Between

Leaders of the land rose from [Makuyu and Kameno]. For though the ridges were isolated, a few people went out. These, who had the courage to look beyond their present content to a life and land beyond, were the select few sent by Murungu to save a people in their hour of need: Mugo, the great seer; Wachiori, the glorious warrior; Kamiri, the powerful magician.

They became strangers to the hills. Thereafter, the oilskin of the house was not for them. It was for those who lived inside. (3; emphasis added)

Here the challenge: to become political entails deracination. And, perhaps, the even more difficult proposition, that the “truest” leaders understand the need for loss, understand, that is, the need to move from being synecdochic to metonymic: not one “with” the people but one “for” the people. A wealth of meaning lies in this distinction.

It is, of course, our fear of the stranger that lies at the heart of many of our ongoing struggles. Easy enough to acknowledge. I am more interested in “our” fear of the familiar becoming strange.

We gain some false comfort by saying that those who leave “haven’t changed,” which speaks to our own inability to acknowledge we move along with history (when you move, I move). It’s about time we abandoned the silly distinction between linear (Euro-American) time and cyclical (African) time. Judith Halberstam’s idea of generational time or what she calls family time joins these two concepts of time to history as biology, a way of naturalizing and freezing time (here, the formulation: women have always given birth!).

What is dangerous in this formulation—that one should remain unchanged, one should remain a synecdoch—has been too widely documented to merit comment. Yet it is such an ongoing burr in the realm of the public (politics, religion, culture) that one cannot avoid it. Much like the inevitable comment, “it’s raining.”

All this, to return to Thiong’o and elaborate on a somewhat lost point, somehow addresses the problem of citizenship. You see, I don’t believe that “tribalism” or “racism” or “sexism” may be our biggest obstacles, though obstacles they certainly are. I tend to think “citizenship” is one of our most endangered categories. Not from those shadowy outsiders trying to “steal” from us, a sentiment that is by no means confined to the US.

Instead, it tends to be an endlessly elusive category, a problem for illegals and refuges, migrants and immigrants. And the rest of us simply inhabit it. Yet, it is “how” we inhabit it, the structuring paradigms, the guiding assumptions, the reiterated practices that need to be troubled, made manifest and explicit.

To assume, as we seem to, that the mutual obligation of citizenship merely follows a (Christian) humanist injunction to treat each other fairly or a pseudo-kinship formulation, in which the nation is parent and we all shelter beneath wings, does not, indeed, can not work, must always fail.

I began with the problem of genealogy as a way to frame the political, in part because the two are inextricable. In turning to Thiong’o, I want to follow his lead that choosing politics demands a break with origins and roots. In the language I use here, the turn to citizenship requires one to leave the sacred hills.