When I was a kid, my godparents lived on the island of Oahu in Hawai'i. I got to go visit them on two different occasions, and I remember those trips as nearly mystical journeys. Deep into the jungles and oceans of a place that hadn't lost its wild. The memories of a young boy. Where every tree is a monster, every river a place to play, and every vine a rope to swing on. It was in the jungles of Kauai, that I first told my family I wanted to be an explorer. I wanted to see the world. Journey into the unknown.
Little did I know that I would meet Hawaiians years later, and learn that the place I once saw as wild, was in actuality taken and controlled. That there remain Hawaiian communities who see themselves as sovereign, and the United States as a colonizing, enslaving force. That the wildness I so loved as a young boy, was land stolen from people who had lived there for millennia, so people like me could enjoy it as tourists. As paying customers. Fueling an industry built from colonial beginnings.
How can we rent and sell the land, if there are people already living there? People who have been living there, for thousands of years. In the case of Hawai'i, the tactic was simple. Military dominance. What were once bases we built in agreement with the Kingdom of Hawai'i, became bases for a hostile takeover. Regime change. A coup.
Today, Native Hawaiians represent less than a quarter of the islands population. And in every category of oppression that can be measured, they are the most afflicted. Relegated to the shadows, as tourism sells the sun.
Colonialism comes in many forms. In modern times, it is often through a vicious combination of debt, arms, coups, and industrial projects for power, waste and extraction. But what makes this system so powerful, is its story. A story of liberty. A story of democracy. A story of progress.
It's a beautiful story y'all. It really is. I spent my younger years, proudly wearing our colors, and singing about our greatness. And in truth, I love this country. I really do. I love the land. The endless expanse of hills and mountains and trees and desserts and swamps and plains and salt flats and lakes and rivers and every other imaginable terrain. I love the people. People from every corner of the world. Many of us, the descendants of those who left. Those who got on a boat or a bus or a plane, and left. Left somewhere at some time, but unless our journey was forced, always, always in search of something better. Something more. Something more, free. For ourselves and those we love. In a kaleidoscope of ways, we are a beautiful people. A people who love to create. To build. To go bigger and higher and to push boundaries previously inconceivable. This capacity to turn a dream into reality is deep within the fiber of America.
I've traveled much of this country. A year ago, the only states I hadn't driven through were Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. A year later, and Alaska is still calling to me. I've met people in nearly every state, and am blessed with friends and family from a wide array of races, religions, social classes. And to be entirely honest with you, I'm in love. I love the people around me, and the people I have met along the journey. I've not always done right by everyone, and not everyone has done right by me. But on balance, my journeys through America, and the world, have brought me into the living rooms, and around the dinner tables, of people who are kind, decent, hard working, creative, loving, and whether that living room is made of marble or mud - interested in a better world.
If only we could find common ground. I hear those words said often. By police and protesters. By power and the journalists who track it. By whites who would be allies, and by people of color who have been disappointed too often by a whiteness that centers itself by nature of a paradigm built for power.
That common ground continues to be elusive. There are many reasons of course, but perhaps the most glaring is that there are those who are willing to acknowledge the crimes against humanity perpetuated by the United States government in the vast genocide of indigenous Americans, the theft of millions of people over a dozen generations called slavery, and the violent removal of Spanish speakers to ensure white majorities. These three tactics have been foundational staples in the creation of an apartheid regime, in a war that is often called settler colonialism. A war many are still fighting.
And then there are those who are not. Those still unwilling to face the racism at the heart of our most precious institutions, often built by slaves, on land stolen through war and treachery.
Until we are honest about our colonial past, and our colonial present, we will continue to repeat the same conflicts over and again. The burden of this work falls overwhelmingly on the white community. We are the people who have been told we are superior, for centuries. We are the people who have largely benefited from a power structure designed by land owning white men, for land owning white men. Do we continue to struggle with student debt, and and jobs that don't pay well enough? Of course. Is there poverty and suffering in the white community? Of course. But are we subjected to the full pernicious violence of a State which has never, at any point in its history, not profited from the enslavement of brown and black bodies? No we are not. We are not preyed upon in our communities. We are not systemically harassed and accused. We do not live with fear for our lives when we are pulled over for a traffic violation, or live inside a reservation, built to bury the mass killing and displacement of our people.
For many of us who are white today, the crimes of colonialism feel far away. The history of what Western Europe has done in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, was intentionally kept from us. Certainly in my schools, this genocidal legacy was glossed over as the natural consequences in the larger fight for democracy and freedom.
We did not commit these crimes. Or at least, many of us do not feel that we did. We simply were born. Born white, in a nation that has always exhaulted whiteness. We will each have our own journey of discovery. But at the end of that path, if we are willing to spend time with those who have lived on this land for all time, or those who have been subjected to an apartheid regime for centuries, it will likely become harder to reconcile the history of liberty that is sold to us in schools, film, advertising, and institutions- with the obvious realities of racial hierarchy and profitable violence within our power structure.
So it is not particularly surprising when Jeff Sessions calls Hawai'i an "island on the pacific." For him, the great islands of Hawai'i are merely another colony. Another place we conquered. Just as Standing Rock is just another reservation. Rather than a sovereign part of the Sioux Nation.
I love this country. I truly do. I love the people and the land. But we've got real work to do. Deep work. The internal kind, that has so often defined generations. What kind of society are we willing to tolerate. What kind of world are we ready to create. One in which more black men are killed by police, than at any other time in our history? Or one in which crime is treated holistically, where we address the drug trade, gun sales, militarization of police, and systemic poverty, that drive so much of our violence. Are we going to continue bombing countries all over the world, creating a generation of people who will give everything to avenge their loved ones? Or are we going to dismantle the war machine, in addressing the global arms trade, oil subsidies, mining subsidies, forgiveness of debt owed by former colonies, the surveillance state, and so forth. Are we going to continue to ignore the millions of indigenous people across this land, who are demanding the United States Government respect both their legal and inherit sovereignty? Or are we going to continue pretending our Constitution doesn't call Treaties the Supreme Law of the Land, while hundreds of Treaties remain in an ongoing breach of contract, protecting millions of acres of occupied land for those of us who have settled here.
I'm not sure how we find common ground in any of the major conversations of our time, until white people, myself included, begin being honest about colonialism. How can we talk about the inherit rights of an undocumented person, if you believe your citizenship isn't directly connected to our military slaughtering and displacing millions of indigenous Americans?
How can we talk about the rights of life, if you continue to believe that Europeans brought democracy to this continent? For while the longest continuing Republic in the world is in North America, it began centuries before Columbus arrived in this hemisphere.
We will not be able to run from our past forever. At some point, some generation will have to face the crimes that built the foundation of this nation. Truly face it. And begin the long work, of doing right by those who have been wronged. Perhaps then, we will be able to begin the far larger conversation; how do we create a society for all? A world for all. How do we share resources to ensure all people have access to food, water, shelter, energy and information. It is a conversation we must have. Or continue to suffer from needless wars, and a police state behoven only to those who own the land.
My sense is we will not be ready for that conversation, until we are first honest about how the existing power structure came to be. Until we are first honest about the genocides that shaped the modern world. Their enduring consequences, are a testament to our need to consider war and peace, as a generational work. Never has there been a war, which did not wage violence on children. Never has there been a child born into violence, who did not suffer the scars for many years. Who did not share those scars, with those who came after. If we wish to create a safer world, we have to do all in our power, to ensure fewer children are being born into violence and war. Such work will be forever strangled, until the people of America are willing to face the global contortions of a war machine that continues to devour cultures, land, water, and innocents alike, to ensure profit for the few.
I believe this work begins in our hearts. The courage to have empathy for another human being, allows us to then imagine what would have to change for that person to live in dignity. And if you have the courage to imagine such a world, then all that is left is the work of our minds, hands and feet. To conceive, build, and march. For no idea can be brought to life merely through words. Or even only through labor. Truly great ideas also demand resistance. Protesting what is, and working toward what ought to be.
I am grateful to be in a generation that is beginning to step into the full power of our protest. To live among leaders who are leading from the ground up, and visionaries who are building from behind. On this quiet Sunday afternoon, I can hear a new world calling. Quietly, nudging us toward herself. Every generation chooses whether to face the challenges before them, or hide and pass those challenges to those who come after.
I pray we face our past. From Hawai'i to the Dakotas, the South of my childhood to the Coasts we so love; all was claimed in genocide. Only in understanding where we came from, will we be able to create what must come next; an America for all Americans. And with it, a future for our grandchildren.