Sunday, June 5, 2011

Zinn and The Father

In A People's History of the United States, one of the most poignant chapters is on the 'Indian Relocation' period. Zinn renders the history of the period powerfully. The Indians, after the widespread and relentless initial decades of Spanish and English extermination, continued to suffer greatly under the founding fathers of the newly 'revolutionized' and independent American colonies. Adrew Jackson was perhaps the most ruthless oppressor of the Indian peoples in America. In Zinn's history of the period of relocation, when Indians were forced off their lands, forced into the hinterland of the unchartered territories to the west, were massacred and executed when they resisted, a leitmotif is the constant betrayal suffered by the Indian tribes. The American colonists struck treaty after treaty with Indian chieftains, providing false pretexts to get tribes off their lands, and they betrayed every single treaty signed with murderous consistency. Every promise, every treaty, every negotiation ended in American betrayal of the indigenous peoples of America. In these treaties and negotiations, the president of the United States was constantly referred to as the 'Father' of the country, the 'Father' of the land and its inhabitants, the 'Father' of both indigenous peoples and immigrants. The word father is such a powerful word. Its biblical meaning has connotations of benevolence and love, but also omnipotence, omniscience, and complete jurisdiction. The American president thus became, in the collective colonial imagination, the omnipotent overlord of the country he had conquered by force and the territories he continued to conquer by dint of murder and betrayal through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In most of the interactions recorded between Jackson, a militia general in the early period of his career, and tribal chiefs, the Indians were called the 'children' of the country, their 'Father's' children. In treaties and legislative addresses, they were called the 'children'. The language of oppression was so deeply injurious that they too began to refer to themselves as the 'children' of the American rulers. The patronizing attitude of the 'Father' towards his 'children' never escaped them, but they had internalized the biblical vocabulary of conquest.

One Indian chief, revolted by the use of the term 'Father', laughed at his interlocutor and told him that the sun was his father, and the earth his mother. He resisted the language of oppression.

The use of this biblical trope continued well into the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. The period was a highly complex matrix of historical events, but one broad characteristic of the century was the total ascension of capitalism and private property. Corporations and rich 'barons' owned townships and huge tracts of land. The businessmen who owned these lands opened factories and manufacturing units which served as the heart of the towns' existence. He became the biblical 'Father' of the towns' hands, the 'children', the highly impoverished, starved and benumbed workforce he controlled. African slaves working on plantations, when instructed in religion, were taught to visualize their masters as the 'Father' that owned not only their labour but their hearts and souls.

The belittling of the oppressed and the denial of their personhood were effectively captured and propagated by the oppressor consciousness in American history through the Father-child dichotomy.

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