The Other Sides of Race
Reviewers discuss The Magic Children
In the Radiance Beyond
From Left Coast Press
The Magic Children:
Racial Identity at the End
of the Age of Race
What are people saying about The Magic Children?
Dr. George R. Price (Lecturer, Native American Studies Department and African American Studies Program, University of Montana):
I just finished reading The Magic Children, and I've gotta tell you, I haven't found this much delight in one book in quite awhile. Not only have I found a rare kindred spirit in the domain of anti-race, but also I now have a book on the fallacy and folly of race that my friends and colleagues in Native American Studies might actually read! I hope that I am not so excited that I am now about to burden you with one of the longest emails you've ever received. I will do my best to restrain myself.Peace,
As you well know, there are very few American academics who are willing to fully confront, deconstruct, and abolish the race paradigm – even fewer in Ethnic Studies programs, and practically non-existent in Indian Studies/NAS. As a matter of fact, besides maybe two of my former students, you are the only academic and citizen of an American indigenous nation that I have even heard of who believes that we should really stop doing race. (I would have said also including myself, but I am not an "enrolled member," or citizen of any one tribe, rather a descendant of the Wampanoags, Massachusets, Choctaws, and that other tribe that starts with a Ch that everybody in "Indian Country" jokes about the descendants of so I don't say it.) I have been involved professionally in "Indian Ed" for 26 years now: one year as a special services tutor/teacher, 10 as an art and history teacher in a tribally-run alternative high school, 3 teaching NAS, history, and sociology at Salish Kootenai College, and for the last 12 and a half years teaching NAS, AfAm Studies, and early American history at the University of Montana. I have raised the race-is-a-colonialist-myth-that-does-no-one-any-good issue in various contexts for many years now, and pretty much it’s usually only some of my students who are really interested and take the topic seriously, not my faculty colleagues.
I have never been able to accept the race concept, even though I have lived all of my 59 and a half years in the thoroughly racialized USA. My parents are both from mixed "Indian," "Black," and "White" families and I grew up surrounded by relatives and family friends who looked like all the different peoples of the world, mostly like what is referred to as "racially ambiguous," and nearly all of them categorized back in those days as "Negro." Race never made any sense to me and I never could buy into it. Fortunately, my parents admitted that the paradigm was crazy, too, and never really urged me to just accept it. Then, coming into my teenage years, living in California in the mid-1960s, I found a new identity niche that was completely strange and foreign to all my relations, and the natural place for any misfit questioner to go at that time: the hippies (another reason why I said "kindred spirit"). After years of utopian communalist experimentation and diverse spiritual journeys, I came back to participate in, or interact with as still an “outsider,” the larger, "mainstream" society. I went to college from 1977-1981, got my teaching degree, and after a few years found my way to a teaching job on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, and decided to try to find my "racial Indian roots." It was really all that genealogical research that first caused me to morph from art teacher to historian.
For a little while during my first ten or so years living with the Salish and Kootenai people (along with many Blackfeet, Cree, and others), doing the racial Indian thing had a little pull on me and was slightly intriguing. I was really fascinated by observing how racial Indians, many of whom "looked white" or mostly genetically European, played the race game and negotiated its murky inconsistencies. I was particularly interested, of course, in what they thought of me. (If you go to my faculty webpage you can see a photo of me – I'm thinking about putting an ancestral portrait gallery on my Facebook page.) It became clear to me right away, back in 1985, that most of my new Montana racial Indian friends and acquaintances were a little suspicious about the authenticity of my "Indian pedigree." Some thought I was just a "Black" person – as they had probably internally absorbed the "one drop rule" mainly by exposure to mainstream media – some thought I was "Mexican," and some believed that I really was "part Indian" but they couldn't feel safe about that until I proved it. It also became clear to me after a few years in "Indian Country" that, even though both my mother and father had nearly identical mixtures of the above-mentioned "racial" ancestries, it would be much easier for these Montana Indians to accept my mother as a racial Indian than my Dad, because she was more phenotypically European and my Dad was a little more phenotypically African. How on Earth does being more phenotypically European make a person more "Indian?" Because she looked more like them.
The other reason that it took awhile for people to accept me as an "Indian" or a "descendant" is due to that small isolated society phenomenon – whether its rural small town or Rez – namely, the suspicion that naturally falls upon people who "ain't from here." There is one very large Afro/Native family among the Salish people who are very deeply-rooted here, and although some of their fellow tribal members have given them a hard time over the years for being part-African, they are generally and unquestionably accepted as Salish people – curly hair and all. I resemble some of their family members and therefore it was not too hard for most people here to at least imagine that my claim to "racial Indianness" or "Indian descendancy" could be true. But not being from here or related to any of the local families made it take a little while for the suspicion to diminish. For the record, I should say that myself and my wife and kids have been deeply-loved here and many of the people warmly accepted and embraced us from day one. I've never felt a greater sense of belonging anywhere, even among the hippies. But, naturally, most people reserved judgment until they got to know me. But for some, my hair is just a little too curly and my nose a little too wide to not be a suspected wannabe.
Unfortunately, I've spent too much energy during my professional career trying to prove that an Afro/Native mixed person has just as much right to claim racial Indianness as a Euro/Native mixed person. All along, what I really wanted to say was RACE IS A COLONIALIST MYTHOLOGY CREATED TO OPPRESS AND BAMBOOZLE US ALL! Sometimes I did say that (see the attached little essay/letter that I wrote to News From Indian Country a couple of years ago). But again, as you so clearly know too well, it gets a little exhausting sometimes telling people something that seems so vitally essential and finding that nobody really wants to hear it. I also agree with you that we should respect a person's right to hold on to their mythical, culturally-transmitted beliefs, if they really feel they need to, as long as they are not using it to do harm to others. I don't want to preach to or forcefully try to convert anybody to anything. But I do feel an obligation to share information and experiences that can help people to think for themselves and find their own way out of the limitations of the various mythical and ideological boxes that may presently contain and restrain them. I dream of someday having a symposium here in NAS at UM on the concept of race and alternative identities (like ethnicity, or simply being citizens and/or members of specific indigenous nations). I plan to read your essay on the Pawnees and race very soon.
I know this email is inordinately long and I hope I didn't waste any of your time. I hope that you received something of value, maybe even something that brought you a little joy, from what I have shared. And I hope that this is just the beginning of a sharing of common ground.
Larry Zimmerman (Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis):
You know those check boxes asking your race on census forms and surveys? Roger Echo-Hawk thinks well outside the boxes and asks you to put a big X though the whole section! Science has utterly demolished biological constructions of race, he contends, and he is puzzled about why we don't dump racial categories altogether. Rejecting race, Echo-Hawk labels himself a "former" Indian, and details an intense—often poetically described—personal journey that weaves its way through his childhood, his hippie youth, and his occasionally contentious engagement with racialist academic archaeology. All encounters with race ultimately are personal, and Echo-Hawk has gifted us with the best personal account of race in nearly a half-century.
Joe Watkins (Director of Native American Studies Program, University of Oklahoma):
Echo-Hawk questions the construction and maintenance of race from an insider's perspective. His discussions concerning his attempts to divest himself of his "Indian-ness" give insight into how racialism manifests itself as a not-so-subtle barrier to equality. It's not often you'll find someone willing to take on an entrenched idea of identity politics, but Echo-Hawk does it with such humor and acerbic wit that you'll shake your head, throw the book across the room, nod in understanding, and laugh at some passages. He'll force you to question your preconceptions about what it means to wrestle with "racial Indian-ness" at the beginning of the 21st century as well as some of the well-meaning supporters of ethnic solidarity or political separatism.
Richard White (Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University):
Roger Echo-Hawk is the purest intellectual that I know. If race is an invention, a political creation with no biological basis, then people have the option, he argues, to opt out. Roger Echo-Hawk opts out, and in doing so realizes all the more clearly what a powerful hold racial thinking has on Americans in general and American intellectuals in particular.
Sidney Goldfarb (Professor Emeritus, Creative Writing Program, University of Colorado-Boulder):
I hope everyone will read The Magic Children by Roger Echo-Hawk, not just those interested in issues relating to American Indians. Echo-Hawk has spent many years writing eloquently on the questions this book poses. Anyone who has struggled with the question of ethnic identity will find The Magic Children a pathway to Liberation from the lie of Race and a pathway to the truth of real identity, both inherited and chosen. In addition, it is one of the most beautifully written long essays of our time.Writing a review of The Magic Children for "Elevate Difference" – a website that embodies "the struggle for political, social, and economic justice" – Aneesa A. Baboolal says, "the ability to free oneself...is in itself the magic that will help us all...."
Carol Ellick, "Close Your Eyes and Listen to Their Words," Current Anthropology, volume 52, # 5, October 2011, pp. 759-761.
John O'Shea, The Magic Children, American Antiquity, volume 76, # 4, October 2011, pp. 796-797. Journal published by the Society for American Archaeology.
Lauren Lastrapes, "To Stop Doing Race," Anthropology and Humanism, volume 36, # 2, December 2011, pp. 280-283. Journal published by the American Anthropological Association.
Please share your opinion of The Magic Children at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Radiance Beyond
One morning I got an email.
This happened in the summer of 2006. By coincidence, I’d been thinking over some ideas for changing the world and I had quit my job a few years before so I could give it plenty of thought. I have the impression that if you plan to change the world, people will appreciate it if you schedule a good chunk of time to think it through.
Not everyone is well-suited for this kind of work. I fell into it very gradually. Over a period of about five years I slowly came to realize that it seemed to be my fate to change the world. Accepting this destiny, I made the announcement one day over lunch and it thereafter became a regular topic of excited discussion among my colleagues. After a few years, however, I realized there was a problem.
No one had any idea what I was talking about.
I didn’t necessarily like quitting my job. Up to that point in my rather distinguished career, I had the impression that I might well be essential to the whole operation. In fact, in my oral history of myself, when they hired me, I said they had to be on board with doing things the way I thought things needed to be done. Don’t bother to hire me, I emphasized quite reasonably, if you’re not on board. When I quit, it must have been quite frightening for some of them.
So I jumped ship one day and a few years later I received an email from my former colleagues. A fellow named Terry had gotten in touch with them. He didn’t know I had moved on, but he must have heard rumors that I had indeed worked out a few ideas about changing the world.
For a moment as I gazed at his email this brought to mind something that had been bothering me. If people sensed that I might be on the right track, how the hell would they get the news?
This stumped me for a while. I felt bad about it. Because if people lacked a convenient way to check on the progress of my thinking... they might not get the most up-to-date breaking newsflash alerts right away.
So it was a vast relief to get that email because Terry wanted to know if I’d be willing to share some of my thinking with his organization at their annual conference. They would all get together to hear my speech, and afterward, feeling inspired, they’d gather around the podium to heartily slap me on the back and none of them would ever again have to worry about normal things like getting tenure or what to put in their next set of footnotes.
I thought he made a great deal of sense. He hadn’t ever met me in person, and I felt willing enough to help him fix that part of his life, but... well, I just didn’t quite have all the details in hand yet. Knowing he might panic if I turned him down, I took a couple of hours to think it over before I wrote back to him:
Hello Terry:I have received your message regarding “a possible speaking engagement.” I don’t usually accept commitments for conference presentations, publications, or consulting. But I appreciate getting invitations; I discuss each one with my wife when we go out to breakfast. I go over the pros and cons of the invitation and she helps me decide what to do – sometimes we reminisce about the good old days when I was an Indian and I had a lot to say about what it meant to have race and be an Indian.
Lately I’ve been thinking of a twist on this.
You see, for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, in our house at the top of our stairs we have what looks like a podium overlooking our living room. I’ve often thought of standing up there and practicing at delivering one more serious academic paper, maybe my last ever. A dramatic moment in anyone’s life, for sure. And it would help if I had an actual venue in mind, like, for example, the next annual meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
A plenary session would be nice.
It would take place in Hawaii in a huge hotel ballroom with fancy fixtures and a sea of interested faces. I’d be introduced as Roger Echo-Hawk, a former Indian etc., and I’d walk up through the silence to the podium with a paper in hand and everyone would want me to give a good delivery and avoid odd words like “non-racial” and “anti-race.”
In reality, I’d just be standing at the top of some stairs in my house looking down at our two cats. Most likely they’d actually be napping somewhere and not very interested in my paper, but I’d put my heart into it anyway.
I’d start off with a little joke of some kind. I’ve found that an unprepared humorous remark works best, even though it’s difficult to think of something off-the-cuff. If it so happened that I couldn’t think of anything funny, well, I’d just get right on with thanking ACRL and you for the invitation and for the helpful travel funds and hotel accommodations as well as the unusually hefty honorarium.
I’d bring along a mostly empty briefcase to carry all my cash home to show my wife and two cats. There might be just room enough left for a book full of relaxing light reading. I’d read this book in the airport and on the airliner to Hawaii between those tense magic-wanding-moments when I’ve been requested to surrender to Homeland Security my quaintly old-fashioned rights that used protect me against police searches.
Lately I’ve been reading Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy and Richard Dolan’s UFOs and the National Security State and Richard Brautigan’s An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey. These books all run together in my mind so it’s a story about how the CIA and OSS got together to cover up the enigma of UFOs while the Southern Baptist Convention slowly slid in and out of power across America and Richard Brautigan touched down briefly in the midst of his journeys and stepped forth from a UFO to poke a little fun at the vast NSA/fundamentalist conspiracy, but I suspect it will turn out in the end to be a tragic tale because Richard Brautigan doesn’t have a prayer of getting very far beyond the edges of that particular universal story, does he?
In any case, Terry, I assure you that I’d give a really good paper and everyone would be, by turns, as I rummage along from point to point, thoughtful, amazed, delighted, and pissed off at the social injustice of it all, because my paper would have to do with race and how it’s not a useful description of human biological diversity and doesn’t this mean something greatly important for the way librarians traditionally shelve books? Or else I might change my mind at the last moment and decide to read a really cool narrative poem that I wrote earlier this year and have been eager to read somewhere.
So after making a humorous remark, I’d stand there at the podium shuffling my paper and my poem trying to decide which to read. But in reality – and I’m sure you’ll agree that this is the amusing thing – I’d just be posed at my pseudo-podium at home. I’d be looking down at the place where my two cats may or may not be sitting.
While elsewhere in the world the real ACRL conference would be happening and I’d know that someone else would just then be walking up to give a paper (no doubt the usual critical race theory stuff about structural racism in the academy) and I’d picture that person standing over there in a ballroom in Hawaii with a briefcase full of money right where I could’ve been standing, had I chosen to accept your kind invitation.
So I’m looking forward indeed to hearing what you have in mind.
July 21, 2006
I sent this email off and went on with the rest of my life. I still had a few more things to work out.
Sure, I felt bad about passing up a briefcase full of money when I had gone by then for over three years without earning any money and without any vacations or promotions or hope of tenure. Thinking of those days, I just don’t know how I did it.
This is exactly the kind of challenge you face when you’re on the verge of changing the world. I’ve been through it and it isn’t very easy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
So understanding this or something like it, a few months later Terry wrote back. In his very gracious email he seemed to understand my problem.
I couldn’t very well accept a briefcase full of money when I didn’t yet have all the details worked out.
Every so often as I grappled with the details, I did a certain amount of wrestling. And I occasionally did this in an almost mythic realm that doesn’t quite appear on any earthly map of familiar destinations.
The enchanted Closet Chicken Coop.
In those days the fabled denizens of the Coop gathered to share their strange tales and their vexing dilemmas. And since they often considered how best to change the world beyond, I felt right at home in the Coop. And when I spoke my mind, everyone very patiently listened; and if patience is a virtue, the Coop indeed had plenty of virtuous Chickens.
Speaking my wisest sayings and feeling quite clever about it, one niggling matter in particular kept troubling my words as I spoke, and Chickenry became ever more virtuous as I went to & fro, flickering in & out of view, proposing what might be done, suggesting some of the possible futures for those days as each one slipped into the past.
I tried to explain how it takes a lifetime to invent yourself, to settle upon the most definite notions of yourself, to smoothly thread one moment into the next. I learned things like this long ago in a city with a magic fountain, sitting with my friends. We sat upon a green bluff overlooking the future, and tiny zephyrs flitted about with sparkling moments of moonlight and starlight in their hair.
In the Coop it seemed to take a lifetime as I drew lines in the ever-shifting sands of selfhood, and as I spoke of excavating layers of identity. Everything I said in the Coop helped me to make up my mind.
Then one day in 2007 I sat down and my thoughts suddenly felt quite orderly, and my mental powers suddenly felt quite considerable, and I realized I ought to say something unusually weighty, speaking my mind not very far into the new century which followed the old one, and virtually at the beginning of the next millennia which followed the one before, and in those tales of the Coop and among its virtuous fabled creatures, I wrestled with the Wizards of Gizzards and their magic beyond culture, and I grappled with their enchanted sovereign citizenships....
But 2007 isn’t where this story starts. See, before I could even begin to think about changing the world, I knew I had to start with myself. I had long ago learned that in order to change things for the better, one had to begin with fixing personal foibles, lingering grievances, ambitions that had been foiled.
So I sat down one evening and... and nothing came to mind. I discovered I didn’t have any noticeable dilemmas regarding my part in the human condition. So where to start?
It came as a huge relief in 1996 when I began to hear the news about race. This news sounded important. Much to my amazement, I learned that the whole idea of race suffered from quite a serious problem.
Race doesn’t really tell the truth about who we are. I found that science and scholarship had gotten together and had agreed to treat the idea of race as a fictional depiction of human biological diversity. Having grown up in the 20th century as a believer in race, an adherent to racial Indianhood, I sat there reading about how the power of race to authoritatively explain humankind had already died in academic thinking.
Although race seemed very much alive in our world, it was dead. This presented, I thought, quite a big problem for the practice of race.
I shivered. Because race had taken no notice of this news. It had just kept on going in our midst like it was... alive! But it wasn’t! It felt spooky to look up and see race walking around in the world. Even though it was dead!
I wondered what this unexpected and alarming reality might mean. What would other adherents to racial identity make of this news? I quickly grasped how this rumor about the end of race would touch something very deep and dismaying inside racialists. Dispassionate discussion about the problem of race would be difficult because racial identity accounts for a powerful bond, a sense of comforting recognition – it provides us with automatic acceptance of a unifying story and a history that feels indispensable, alive.
People live race as though it is very much alive.
But it isn’t! It’s dead!
By 1998 I decided I had to take action at a personal level. Race distorts the truth of our humanity. It provides the fundamental truths that empower racism. And it urges us to twist the truth in the stories we tell.
What truths should we hold to be self-evident?
In the end, I decided I didn’t much like race. With this decision in hand, I soon got tired of lugging my racial identity around with me and propping it up in my life as if it were alive. I simply didn’t want to live anymore as if race told a truth worth perpetuating. So I chose to give it up.
Let me tell you, it was a relief. I felt glad about that decision right away. But giving it up, what exactly did this mean? It turned out that I didn’t know. I had no idea what to do and where to get started. You can’t just take race out in the backyard and bury it and go on with the next thing that must be done. It isn’t that easy.
Then it so happened that a few years later in 2003 when I quit my job, it seemed a perfect opportunity to experiment with my role in the racial world I’d grown up in. I decided to stop being Indian.
But could I really give up race in a racial world that insisted on seeing me as an Indian? I didn’t bother to bury it in my backyard. I just didn’t take it along with me anymore when I got in my car to do the things I did while not doing race.
In hindsight, I guess I didn’t consider how foolish I might look, or how appalling I might seem to others, going around like that without any race to hold up like a big blurry lens to force people to focus... on me or something like me.
You see, I knew then that without race I might look stupid in a spooky kind of way to some people, but those same people probably suspected I might say it is really race that is frightfully stupid. They might be afraid I’d say something like that and they’d probably be even more afraid I might be right.
This must be why people didn’t go along with me when I went on about race. They didn’t want race to be a stupid thing to do. They didn’t want people to think race was dead. They didn’t plan on getting rid of it and burying it anytime soon.
Sometimes I think race is a dumb thing to do, but sometimes it would be callous to say that. Or worse, to take pleasure in saying that to people who do race the way they do things with their minds and their hearts. It would be fair enough to say it every so often. But... I like to see what people do with their minds and hearts.
If I make people feel bad about the doing of race, maybe they’ll know that I’d be clumsy about it because without race to make me feel super-intelligent and full of social graces and certain of my certainties, I might well be more inept than ept.
I might be inept without race, sure; but race is inepter.
I guess people do race because it feels good to do it. It makes them feel like they’ve got a lot of ept. To know the many rules of race and to do your best to enact them is certainly a very successful way to get a plenty of ept in your life. I don’t really need to spell out for racialists the arguments for doing race. The sunny world of race casts its dazzling beams and blessings upon us as we go forth to multiply the doing of race. And everyone is happy. Everyone is beaming.
Well, not everyone. Because race is malicious; race is dark. It hates. It enslaves; it jim crows; it lynches; it lies; it discriminates; it oppresses.... It’s ugly, the awful things that race does to us all. The way it makes us all so... inept.
I have read many important books about this. And I have noticed how people who enjoy race also firmly believe that we ought to keep ourselves busy reading and occasionally writing important books about how the history of race is frequently stupid and often ugly, but everyone should keep on doing it anyway.
From the very beginning, from the first days of race, racial idealism quickly made for itself an ugly history; it wasn’t nice, the terrible things it could do. But if you really thought about it, maybe it wasn’t very long before race had become a condition for being human. You had to do it.
People looked around in their new world and they enthusiastically launched themselves into the projects of race. Whatever moral judgment one makes about the practice of race today, when our ancestors became racial, together they made race real in America. This racialization process changed everything. It is arguably the most important cultural event in recent human history.
I picture all those important people looking at themselves and I picture them suddenly seeing race. Maybe they stood there seeing race for the first time and they felt amazed and a little silly. It could have happened like that. I don’t know.
But maybe the rise of race happened gradually over several decades and no one could see it happening. Maybe people didn’t think much about it. Slowly they became adherents to race. It snuck up on them and at first it was amusing and maybe for a moment it felt weird and then it just seemed natural at some point. Logical. Biological. Hadn’t they always been racial? Sure, they said to one another. It seemed like a smart thing to do all of a sudden, now that they had become racial.
It could have happened like that. I don’t know. For sure, in certain ways the concept of race isn’t complicated. It tells a simple story about humankind that is very powerful. It doesn’t take a college degree to figure it out. People didn’t need experts in molecular biology to help them grasp the fundamentals of race.
So now... today.... For race to be dead, destroyed... well, what will become of us?
This is a good question. I wish I knew the answer. I’m hoping for the best, of course. I want everything to turn out well for us all in this story. In our happily-ever-after we’ll all get together and slap one another on the back and we’ll cry tears of joy and we’ll laugh about what happened.
Or else maybe nothing will change. Race might prove to be permanent no matter what. What if race is here forever? What if people hear the truth about it and nevertheless decide that we might as well just keep on doing it forever?
They might decide that it’s even a good thing to do. Sure, they’ll say, we’ve all been hoping that race can be done even better tomorrow than the way we’re doing it today....
But here’s one thing to ponder. The idea of race is a lie. And race twists our humanity harshly. And race is dead and it always has been dead.
By the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed possible to imagine race inexorably fading in the American world – as it had begun to do by then among white people and in the academic side of the American world. Would race inexorably fade away? Or would it prove inexorable? So here here in the story at the beginning of the third millennium, as the mirror of race ripples unexpectedly with unforeseen mortality, who would have ever thought that things would turn out like this? I know it doesn’t seem real to say it will all go away. Race. And it could even happen very suddenly. Any day now it’ll all be over.
Or else it could just sneak up on everyone. Losing race might happen so slowly that people won’t notice. But whether it happens suddenly or slowly, it will happen. And someday people will look around and see that race is over. It might even be very amusing at first; then maybe for a moment it’ll feel a little weird; and then it will just seem natural at some point.
This future might seem odd to us right now, but it won’t seem strange to non-racial people where they are, in our future without race, looking back to see us in their past, looking for who we were or who we thought we were when we did race....
But for now, at this moment back here in their past... what in the world will we do without race?
So by the time 2005 came along I’d been very busy for the previous few years figuring out what to do without race. Many excellent ideas had come to mind. Even my doodles were beginning to make a lot of sense, the more I stared at them.
One day, feeling unusually astute, I decided the time had come to write a book. I sat down at my glass desk and decided I knew many wise things that readers would need to know. It’s just... well, some of the details still seemed very slippery. This made everything uncertain, somehow almost unknowable. Like whatever had to be done in the world couldn’t actually be grasped just yet as I sat there ready to write down my thoughts, figuring out slowly what had to be done.
I paused every so often in those days in the course of 2005. I would look up and not know where to go next because some of the more slippery details were proving so devilishly difficult, like someone had snuck into my mind to dab those details with bacon grease.
What to do? I didn’t always feel very certain. Still, I persevered and I finally began to write my book. Various certainties came and went as I got it written. So when I finished my book I held it solemnly in my hands. I knew I had just finished something special.
I knew that many major publishers out there would feel great if I got in touch to tell them about this major new manuscript. For the moment, it would be available to publish. I didn’t know how long this opportunity would last for them, so I decided I had to write right away to some of those presses. I smiled, picturing how they would eagerly write back.
Having a keen grasp on the realities of the publishing world, I knew that when those publishers looked in their mailboxes, they’d feel honored. See, even major publishers rarely get to publish a book that actually changes the world. You’d be surprised. It doesn’t happen as often as you might think. And now here I stood, holding a major manuscript in my hands.
Every press does its best to prepare for books like my book, but in this case – for somewhat inscrutable reasons that would be scandalous and maybe even actionable were those reasons to become scrutable to stockholders – I guess my major manuscript took them all by surprise and every single one of those major publishers very reluctantly admitted to me that they just weren’t ready for it yet.
I still have a copy of that major manuscript around here somewhere. I dubbed it The Magic Children. Finally one day, giving in to reason, I decided I’d better send the manuscript off to the foremost publisher in the land – they were used to dealing with major manuscripts and knew what to do with them... maybe I had no choice in the end but to generously agree to put my book in good hands.
When I took my book to the post office, as I stood in line holding the package, I happened to look up and there stood an old professor of mine. Well, he wasn’t old yet. But the long-ago days when I’d been one of his students had happened long ago. I knew he’d want to have a look at my book.
When I look back on my days as a student, now I can see clearly how everyone expected that someday I’d write a book that would change the world. Every so often in my classes with this professor, as I threw forth a few preciously hoarded pearls of wisdom, some student would halt the discussion to provide me with the proper spelling of his or her name for the book that I would someday write.
I pulled it out of the package and we stood there. We marveled over it and I could tell what he was thinking. He was thinking of how he’d portray this celebrated moment in the bestselling memoir that he would someday write about it.
And then he seemed to take another few seconds to picture how this scene would go in the major Hollywood action adventure summer blockbuster that would someday hit the theaters in Colorado and around the world. He’d sit there in the theater and there would be some actor playing him up on the screen. He’d take a bite of popcorn in that future and he would know exactly what the actor would say next, because those were his words and it was what he had said standing there long ago in that quaint early 21st century post office, and the popcorn wouldn’t be good for him but he would eat the whole bag anyway.
Talking to him, I got the impression that he didn’t want to embarrass me with his plans for the future so he simply told me how he’d just been doing some interesting archeology in the next state over and how he’d like to talk to me about it.
He was an archeologist and I guess he still is.
He knew I would be very thoughtful about his most recent archeological findings, but more importantly, he wanted the actor who would play him in the future to say something intelligent about archeology because all archeologists want the public to have the right attitude about the archeological record. He doubtless imagined how all his peers would be sitting in theaters worldwide watching his character up on the screen, judging the quality of his professionalism.
I can’t quite put my finger on his exact words – if you really must know, I presume that he went home and wrote them down for posterity, inserting plenty of excellent jargon and maybe a footnote or two. I do recall how I felt very magnanimous at that moment, standing there holding a book that would soon change things in a big way for everyone. So I politely said, sure Doug, give me a call, we’ll get together sometime.
His name was Doug. I guess it still is.
Then I handed my book to a mail clerk and he put the correct postage on the package and I noticed that he seemed completely unaware of how the book inside that package was poised on the verge of changing the whole world. Oblivious he seemed; completely!
Taking note of this, I felt amazed. Stunned even.
Some people are horribly baffling as to what it is they think they’re doing with their lives. In the future video webcast of that moment in the post office, which some diligent researcher will unearth from old government footage, the scene will show a mail clerk with a villainous look about him, terribly twisted by an indifferent fate, and my expression on the old film will appear somewhat noble, vaguely forgiving.
But at that moment back in 2005 I didn’t quite know what to make of it, so I went home and I sat down in my yard with one of my cats and I thought about how my book would change everything even though I couldn’t see very far into the future just then, but I knew it would all change someday, maybe very soon.
It’s like watching a historical docudrama made about that moment. Millions of viewers have tuned in because they have all spent plenty of time trying to picture the scene on their own without any cinematic expertise at the helm of their fevered history. The actor playing Mitch the Scriblerian would be a famous actor who could have easily commanded an immodest fortune for doing this docudrama, but instead took on the role of “Mitch” for free as a personal favor to me.
This will happen in the future and the real Mitch will have earned a lot of money from The Magic Children. But he wouldn’t have made a dime from the television broadcast rights because he had let me keep them entirely. He would have gotten very rich anyway. Speaking engagements. Endorsements. Stuff like that.
And by then Mitch would have driven about five trucks – or maybe six – to my new corporate office complex to unload money from The Magic Children, but I would feel generous and I’d let him keep some of it.
Maybe. I really don’t know about that last possibility. Until I get some lasik surgery done on one or more of my eyes, I can’t actually see very far into the future.
But in the docudrama, the actor playing Mitch the Scripturient would hurry into the frame holding my manuscript. Zoom to shining eyes, a murmur: I guess he decided to put his book in really good hands.... Then to Mitch’s hands grasping a manuscript... The Magic Children – and here the famous but aging actor playing Mitch would be replaced by a body-double with very handsome hands. I admittedly haven’t ever seen Mitch’s hands, but I assume that they’re handsome enough.
When you get to that point with your own manuscript, when you’re selecting a likely publisher, give some thought to posterity, and don’t be stingy when thinking of the prospective movie ratings for the film based on your book, and be sure to put the manuscript into good hands.
In hindsight, looking back on those days, time seemed to slow down – or maybe it sped up very fast. I stood there thinking while years went by like that, very slow or very fast. I tried to think of some alternative. But nothing came to mind as I stood there watching all that time slip away.
A couple of years went by.
This is a true story. Nothing changed for several years. Then several more passed quietly. Standing there lost in thought, I often wondered about this unexpected outcome, the way time had become fickle and it seemed like years flew on without me while I stood holding the book I had written. Did this have something to do with my dreams... the ephemeral ambiguities, the weird sense of fateful purpose that kept evaporating around my mind every morning?
With intractable questions like that on the tip of my tongue, in those days I didn’t hesitate, but I did pause.
Upon my familiar remnant of the earth, one night I took off my glasses under the moon, getting ready for sleep. And I tried to think of what should happen. But I have never liked the way things look without my glasses. Everything gets distorted. I can’t see very far into the future; I can only speculate about what might happen next.
And descending through glittering starlit shadows... lost in a shimmering golden mist... floating under the falling symbol for the moon, adrift in a nameless light....
Everything faded softly and kept on fading as I slept.
I guess I glimpsed things that seemed incredible.
The next day... I persevered; I resumed working away at all the intractable details. Gradually the many elusive meanings of various unfamiliar elements began coming into focus and the clarity of it all sharpened for me day by day, and the irreducible complexity of every evolving feature very smoothly began threading itself into the next sequence of events. And at last the moment came when I knew I had written another book.
This new book delved further into my dreams. It sought to unearth and hold on to a few of the more marvelous innermost enigmas of that world, where the half-seen ephemera of selfhood become momentarily visible.
I also called this book The Magic Children. When you invent the title of a book that will change the world, you don’t just lightly keep thinking of other titles. That wouldn’t make much sense, so naturally I kept that title and I put it on my new manuscript.
Meanwhile, the other day I got out the original version of The Magic Children. Back when I wrote it and when I contacted all those publishers about it, I guess the world still had plenty of yen for more of the same, and copious quantities of both status and quo could yet be mined. I might as well have written about aliens wearing silver suits.
Here in the depths of a beautiful mist, where I am free of race, where my dreams shape my mysterious inner outcomes, maybe that first version of The Magic Children doesn’t deserve to slip away forever into the ever-deepening past.
But excavating it now from the overburden of forgetfulness, now it makes sense to call that book something else, because The Magic Children is a good title, but it isn’t the only title that makes sense. So now the original version of The Magic Children isn’t The Magic Children. It moved on to become Kennewickman and the Funhouse Mirrors of Race. It begins with a visit from Kennewickman, like this:
Kennewickman stood up out of the earth. He had been dreaming. Running. Through an infinite darkness. He ran backward and forward along the curvatures of real time and imaginary time. A hollow river of gravity pulled him through a churning cosmic dreamscape.
It goes on like that for a while.
And at the end of everything that followed, at the end of the book, I return to Kennewickman for a final conversation. He is standing there saying something to me and we talk for a bit and then I stand up out of my own stream of consciousness and the book comes to an end.
Everything becomes real in that old version of The Magic Children.
That whole world and whatever it meant at last became the past, my friend. That nothing-is-real version of the world ended and the end of it cast you like a shadow into your next life. Everything became real.
Okay, Kennewickman. But I need a moment to think about what will happen now that everything is real.
Yes, of course. This is the future, the fun beyond the fun of race.
But... but I’m not sure, Kennewickman. What if I feel lost – more lost beyond lost than fun beyond fun.... I don’t know what it will be like in this next world without race. With race you knew something about the future because you knew where to fit in and where not to fit in. We could communicate with one another even if what we said wasn’t real.
Well, it was real enough to your senses – your senses with their invisible capillaries absorbing invisible experiences that felt real enough. That time had plenty of meaning, for sure. But what kind of meaning?
Maybe most of us don’t care. It’s just meaning, and you don’t always have to know what it means. But with race you knew you’d be reassured that something meaningful would happen next, even if you didn’t necessarily like it or understand it. Is that gone now? I don’t want to lose all my reassurances.
Don’t worry. That’ll never happen because there’s so much else. There always has been so much else. Think back. Was there no time in your past without race? I know something about looking back while going forward. For a very long time I traveled obliquely along a gradient path into the present. Lots of everything happened along the way, both certainty and uncertainty, and we need both, but I didn’t need race to do any of that. Race is just that tiny moment we know right now, a wispy thing.
Yes, I see what you mean, Kennewickman. You know the past because there was so much of it behind you when you first entered the racial world that followed your non-racial world. I can understand that race may well seem wispy to you, but maybe we will forever be the wispy things of race. I just don’t know about certainty or uncertainty.
Maybe uncertainty means you must explore, you must keep going, and certainty should really mean feeling oriented in your explorations.
If I look back every so often to see where I’ve been, Kennewickman, it’ll help to keep me from getting anymore lost than I can handle.
Having a little certainty and a little uncertainty might help. Whatever happened in your once-upon-a-time origin stories was surely real enough to count for something, real beyond that racial nothing-is-real, fun beyond that racial everything-is-just-fun.
Sure, Kennewickman. I can think of it that way. There was a period in my life when race didn’t seem to matter.... But the things I look back to see might not seem particularly real to anyone else – not any more real than when we had race.
That’s okay. You don’t have to win people over. All of them have had plenty of moments when race didn’t matter. Just say things that matter to you. When you turn off the light, what do you see?
Once upon an imaginary time in a distant realm at the edge of a forest – a forest that grew from the floor of an ancient sea – a long-vanished people built a city with a magic fountain. Fabled creatures galloped through the mist, becoming many things. A hidden river curved gently through the nearby hills.
I dwelt in the midst of the forest and I gathered with my friends at the fountain and on the shore of the secret river. We sang and we laughed as we listened to the beautifully disintegrating music of that time.
At the center of our circle, it seemed to us, a wizard walked. Making anew the enchanted circle that blazed around us in our youth, the wizard spoke without speaking – enduring and shining sayings.
This happened long ago. That forest and the city and the river might well still be there. None of those things had a good reason to go away. Even so, maybe someday I’ll discover that everything is gone and the forest is another city and the secret river has dwindled and become lost, forgotten... absorbed into antiquity by a mundane and thirsty world....
Maybe your past will very readily vanish. Origin stories always unfold in a very fragile realm. Does it worry you to know that people will think it strange to believe such things?
Well, I don’t want my past to vanish, Kennewickman. When those moments and their truths happened in my life, everything felt very real. What followed after that time was real only in a nothing-is-real kind of way. I became an Indian.
I see what you mean. In the age of race people grew up thinking Indians were more real than wizards. But people might not understand if they think you’re suggesting that they replace racialism with wizardry.
I’m talking about certainty and leadership and selfhood. There is hidden magic in us all, like uncertainty, and it doesn’t seek to dazzle, but instead urges us to explore. The wizard long ago inspired us to look within ourselves, at selfhood. He didn’t urge us to do anything. Trying to be himself, he didn’t know what that meant, and he couldn’t tell us how to be ourselves. The wizard spoke without speaking. Every so often, for the rest of my life, I paused to listen.
Getting race means many curious things, but maybe it distracted you from listening to yourself. I’m curious to see what it means for the future when we can hear again all those sayings that get spoken without speaking.
Well, Kennewickman, maybe you can help us all enter the next version of the world, or at least give us a sense of hope as it rises up before us out of the past. You’ve seen the past turn into the future and how the future becomes the past. You’ve lived and died without race. Tell us what to expect.
Okay. All the things that will happen to you along the way – you’ll argue and debate and you’ll make both useful and useless decisions. And everyone will laugh about it later and it’ll be real laughter, not the fake canned stuff you fill your lives with today.
You sound like a wizard, Kennewickman!
We’ll blow away together. Like the wind through story after story. Into our next world. We’ll open our eyes and we’ll see some wonderful things. On the other side of the blinding light of race –
Maybe we’ll see wizards!
It’ll be fun beyond this racial nothing-is-real sad crazy fun. Ha-ha-ha!
...and so I seem to have the sense of seeing many things, many wonderful things – things that seem incredible. But it all feels frictionless, coated with the slippery truths of real time.
I stir awake. In the dreamy depths of imaginary time, I look forward at an angle to see if I can see what happened in the future that became the past.
Ascending through layers of humid shadows... into a shimmering golden mist... a rising sun....
I shoulder aside the soil; shallow rivers swirl around my feet. I push away the depths of all the things that have happened and the horizons of whatever will happen yet. It’s as if I’ve been recently moving, running. But it’s difficult to describe exactly where I’ve been and how I got there and what it meant. I don’t mind wondering where I’m going next.
Every oblique moment is fixed upon a gradient curve somewhere beyond the past and the present and the future. Soon another moment will swerve into being.
I stand up. All these new truths.... I feel ready.
I take the first step.