MATATU White Paper 2018
Prepared by Zoé Samudzi
“Is pain cultural? Yet…yet…yet…” — Saul Williams
What is the individual both within and outside of their group? What is the diasporic experience of group membership and how does geography shape understandings of identity? What are the implications for identity construction when one’s identity is shaped by two or more competing groups? How does one exchange one group membership for another? Where do we find opportunities for group identities to resist and subvert? How do we find ourselves invested in dominant understandings, and when should we reject them? How do these understandings shape the way we interact with members of our group — whatever it may be — and other groups? How do we knowingly and unwittingly negotiate or perpetuate group hierarchies within our society and between societies?
In this interrogation of the group, we must ground our inquiries in critical understandings of indigeneity. Not only because of the reduction of indigenous epistemologies to "non-expert," but because of our own productions on stolen and settled land—presently and historically, Ohlone land. We consider this decolonization-aspirant geographic orientation on and within Turtle Island just as “post”-apartheid southern African countries engage the long-standing land question, i.e. whether (and how) land can be expropriated from white land “owners” and returned to Black African natives without compensating said white “owners.” While we might support these kinds of policies in far far away South Africa/Zimbabwe/Namibia, how might we apply that internationalist support to our domestic non-indigenous possession and use of land in the settler kleptocracy that we call the United States?
Further, what implications would there be for our understandings of self if our senses of self, "us," and "other" were not derived/contrived from [culturally] imperialist "modern" or "Enlightened" ideals? What would our understanding of group identity look like if the ultimate sovereign was not the Westphalian nation-state, but rather one of the multiplicities of anarchistic confederacies or indigenous nationhoods? How would groups construct ways of knowing about one another and the spaces they occupy if so-called "objectivity" had not displaced the expertise of lived experiences (or if these disparate bodies of knowledge were more frequently reconciled)? What is the interaction of group identity and border [lands]/la frontera/the unceded or treatied land?
Consider, too, questions of group identity within the context of a rapidly gentrifying Oakland. Gentrification is a contemporary iteration and naming of long existing processes of capitalist enclosure and settler colonial displacement—the un-personed and un-humaned individuals, here, are the houseless “eyesores” detracting from beautiful urban Oakland sights and property values, and the even greater number of precariously housed and employed people living in The Town. The spaces in downtown Oakland where Matatu holds some of its events aren’t far from encampments of various sizes that are subjected to the city’s social cleansing (they’ll call it “street cleaning”). Under a pretzeled intersection of freeway overpasses is an example of the city’s “generosity” towards unhoused people. Rather than offering dignified and resource-rich affordable housing structures, Oakland erected what one might describe as resembling an internment camp. A co-option of the stylish environmentally conscious tiny houses, people are housed in the equivalent of garden sheds and subjected to regulations around entry/exit and visitors.
We process tales of atrocity whilst in the proximity of/inundated by/complicit in atrocity.
How do our differing subjectivities—where so-called “objectivity,” too, is the subjectivity of power and hegemony—shape the way we understand and consume and disseminate and even produce photographs and cinematic depictions (fictionalized and not) of atrocity, some for the sake of festival provocation?
Consider, for example, the contrived binary between the [economic] migrant and the refugee: consider the disparity between the former’s “leech on state resources” and the latter’s true innocence and “legitimate victimhood” seemingly deserving of our empathetic embrace.
There are the contemptible “illegal aliens” generally characterized as being Central American from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other places—so, just Mexico per racist logics and geographies—whom the state seeks to track down and expeditiously deport.
Solo voy con mi pena, sola va mi condena/Correr es mi destino Para burlar la ley/Perdido en el corazón de la grande Babylon/Me dicen el clandestino por no llevar papel
Pa' una ciudad del norte yo me fui a trabajar/Mi vida la dejé entre Ceuta y Gibraltar/Soy una raya en el mar, Fantasma en la ciudad/Mi vida va prohibida dice la autoridad
— “Clandestino” by Manu Chao
Then, there are Syrians fleeing unspeakable wartime violence and who are dramatically received by Canadians and Americans in picture perfect airport arrivals. There are also the Somalis and Eritreans and Nigerians and other dark and black-skinned people forced to the bottom of the unstable rafts crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and there are the lighter skinned travelers and traffickers assured a lesser degree violence and subjugation on that often treacherous journey.“Narratives of the arrival of Black people are often bound to water,” SA Smythe reminds us. “Blackness and the fear of Blackness seem to be below the surface, permeating through everywhere and every when.”
Me llaman el desaparecido/Cuando llega ya se ha ido/Volando vengo, volando voy/Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido
— “Desaparecido” by Manu Chao
The constructions of victimhood and vulnerability and migration into clear hierarchies are among the most tangible examples of hegemonic weaponizations of language, and impositions of identities and worldviews that have material consequences. It is neither mere coincidence nor painful irony that those who maintain a mastery over this language and discourse bear responsibility for driving the conflict and instability that compels “forced,” “irregular,” and otherwise “un-orderly” migration (to borrow from official lexicons). Our inquiries about vulnerability and stratification in these migration stories get at the heart of our imaginings of nationhood (and statehood): about the group sovereignty and the ability to be affirmed by a/the state sovereign, the ability to transfer group membership (i.e. gain/confer upon someone citizenship), and the legitimacy of the different matrices of identities we all possess.
So what is the individual within and outside of/beyond their group? What is the diasporic experience of group membership and the geography-dependent conditionality of identity? What is the transmogrification of identity and the individual exchange of membership from one group to another? Where do we find opportunities of agentic creation and subversion? How do we find ourselves invested in these dominant understandings, and when and should we reject them? How do these understandings inevitably shape intra- and inter-group relations? How do we knowingly and unwittingly negotiate or perpetuate hierarchies?
Herein lies a tension, one reproduced by and perpetuated everywhere from our colloquial understandings, to policy discussion, to the academy that is often used to legitimize and make invisible the identity politics and embedded interests of state violence. The tension is in the temperament of these identity schemas constructed vis-á-vis the colonialities of power (as posited by Anibal Quijano, and furthered by the likes of Nelson Maldonado-Torres and others).
A matatu is a means of public transport used by people around the world: despite the word’s derivation from a Swahili colloquialism, the concept of ridesharing is global. there’s the South African kombi, the Thai tuk-tuk, the Brooklyn dollar van, hell, even ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Like its East African counterpart, the highly mobile Matatu Festival duly seeks to be a vehicle: a mode of collective and publicly accessible transportation rooted in community & diaspora and that shuttles audiences and participants and presenters alike from one experience to the next. Regardless of thematic nature, the mode of conversational transport, transport through conversation, remains constant.
Let’s consider the matatu—the van, the festival— a repository of knowledge: a memory bank for theory and practice of global narrative dissemination. A repository, too, is an archive. The Archive is commonly an instrument of power. Archives are the things that hold and convey Official Stories and Narratives and Images; they are maintained and guarded and iconized by sovereign forces’ sovereign archives in an attempt to exercise control over our memories and pasts, and so our presents and futures. Instead of requesting some inclusion into a master Archive, the matatu—Matatu—guides us through the creation of our own archives and canons. Through, maybe, a new vernacular, new vernaculars.
Accessibility, then, is of paramount importance because we all deserve (and demand!) the ability to add content to and share content from this archive. Relating festival storytelling themes to local community discussions entails consideration of material realities, and it also requires programming that is deliberately curated to reject the elitism of the academy and its monopolization of “legitimate” de/anti-colonial conversations (such as this). General admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is $25 for adults; admission for San Francisco museums, while they boast about the wealth of knowledge contained within and claim to be institutions of and for public education, is anywhere from $10 to $25. Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington D.C. do not require attendees to pay admission. For whom are these knowledges? For whom are these memories and what are the implications of a singular hegemonic memory or entry contingent on disposable income? Who is deserving of knowledge and access to it? What is the nature of knowledge and knowing processes when these archival spaces as fundamentally exclusionary?
One of life’s only constants is that we’ll always have more questions than we have answers.