Part 2: Discovering & Countering Ethnocide
By December of 2017, I was 95 percent sure that I would pursue the creation of Altars: A Cross-Cultural Day of the Dead, but it took a 13-hour car ride from Washington, D.C. to Chicago for Christmas to find that extra five percent.
Following the passing of my cousin and seeing how Day of the Dead could benefit my family, I already had a profound emotional connection to the project. Additionally, as an African American writer covering race, culture, and politics, my emotional connection also extended to my community and culture as I wrote about the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the cries for a cultural “safe space.” I realized that I needed something to help me make sense of the death and trauma that was seizing the African American community — a philosophy, a phrase, a word — in addition to the emotional connection to keep me focused and committed to a bigger project.
In the time leading up to that 13-hour trip I incessantly searched for a way to articulate this devastating cultural moment, and ultimately I found it hidden between the lines in my written work from the past 2 years.
In early 2015, I began contributing to The Daily Beast as an opinion writer, and in August of that year I wrote one of my biggest columns “OK, This Trump Thing Isn’t Funny Anymore.” This column was the first mainstream article to connect then-candidate Donald Trump to fascism. The piece instantly went viral. Readers had no problem associating Trump with fascism, but I was not sure how many people connected to the part of the column that theorized why America appeared tolerant of Trump’s brand of fascism.
From my perspective, Trump’s brand of fascism was not about early 20th-century European dictators, it was about a rich, landowning, white American male, who demonized and belittled non-white Americans, viewed people as disposable property, and either condoned or encouraged violence against those who opposed him. These traits are as American as apple pie and systemic racial oppression. Yet we still struggle to find a word to encompass attributes that go back to the founding of this country.
Throughout the remainder of the presidential race in 2015 and 2016 my columns followed the vein of an inevitable cultural unraveling that Americans struggled to describe and preferred to imagine could not be possible. For every cry from progressives that proclaimed America is better than Trump, I’d think, “What imaginary America are you from?”
I admit that I did not think Trump would win the election — far too many things had to go in his favor to believe his victory would be probable — but I knew that if he did win it would resemble the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877. Turns out his victory did, and I wrote a column — 2016, Meet 1877: Trump’s Ascendance Is Creepily Like the End of Reconstruction — explaining why.
After two years of writing analysis on American politics and culture, I attempted to publish a book, and agents and publishers repeatedly did not see how my articles presented a consistent narrative, despite their interest in my work. After about a year of constant rejections, I realized that I needed to find or create a word, a philosophy or a phrase to connect everything.
In the months leading up to Christmas 2017, I started trying to create words to describe America’s cultural affliction that I had detailed between the lines in my work. Eventually, I settled on “ethnocide” which means the destruction of culture. Starting with the cross-Atlantic slave trade a sustained ethnocide had been enacted against African people, as distinct cultures were systematically stripped away from enslaved Africans by European colonizers in the Americas. Africans worked to sustain their culture, and Europeans worked to destroy it. The colonizers profited off of the destruction of the cultures of non-white people. America, and especially the South, was founded on the principle of sustaining African American ethnocide to generate wealth for white Americans. As Trump demonized and demeaned Latinos, African Americans and women during his presidential campaign, I felt the continuation of ethnocide, but unlike fascism, I did not have the word to describe what I saw. This linguistic impediment had made it harder to be proactive in finding solutions, and instead, I had remained mostly reactive while struggling to find a way to better describe the world around me.
While I may have discovered the word on my own, I quickly learned that Raphael Lemkin coined the word in 1944 to describe the treatment of the Jewish people by the Nazis. Lemkin also invented “genocide,” — the destruction of people — around the same time, and while genocide went on the reshape how we see the world, ethnocide remained obscure. Ethnocide failed to catch on because scholars were uncomfortable with the idea that a culture could be totally or nearly destroyed while the people survived. No one had thought to look at the plight of Black people in America to answer this question.
During that long car ride to Chicago, and back, I did a lot of driving, thinking and discussing with my Mexican girlfriend, her sister, and her brother-in-law. We spent hours discussing ethnocide and my concept for Altars, a film that will document the creation of a cross-cultural Day of the Dead celebration for African Americans. Over 20 hours of conversations can facilitate a lot of progress and clarity, and by the time we returned to D.C., I realized that “ethnocide” was the missing five percent of both my written work and Altars.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the demands for “safe spaces,” and many other acts of civil disobedience by people of color in America were all responses to America’s ethnocidal society, which has aspired to destabilize minority communities and exploit their culture. Ethnocide does not destroy people per se, but it can create a constant state of exploitation and oppression. This can be implemented by many methods including terrorizing communities, destabilizing and breaking up families, and undermining education, employment, healthy food and water, access to political influence, and representation in the dominant culture.
My film aspires to address these systemic and generational issues by bringing together Black and Latino culture via Day of the Dead. I want to confront the ravages of ethnocide by bringing cultures together in order to elevate both instead of exploiting or oppressing the other. My team and I call the countering of ethnocide “ethnogenesis.”
That road trip gave me the extra five percent this project needed, and it strengthened my other work too. I found a way of expressing something that I believe African Americans and other minorities have struggled to express for a long time. Now, with your help, I will make this transformational film that will bring people together and proactively counter the harm of ethnocide.
Thank you for your continued support. You can learn more about this project and join our campaign to raise seed funding here: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/altars-a-cross-cultural-day-of-the-dead#story
Also please read “Part 1: An African American Day of the Dead? How it became personal for me” to learn more about this journey.