“Drowning Above Water”
word by Liam Lachance
colour by Kosisochukwu Nnebe
I can see so much from up here: the sky, a bird, the hills, each segregated from the other. As usual, I yell to her. She yells back at me, over the water. I nod to make her feel heard. I’m not listening. We talk about things – everything but her husband. We never talk about our boards that slide into the water, and what, on the other end, holds us up. Of course we don’t. Who would want to talk about that instead of all the beautiful reflections that flip off the water?
After the incident with the boat, where the waves drowned her husband, I do.
Have you ever thought about the politics of see-saws?
It’s the only thing I’ve ever known, she says, a sort of noncommittal comment. I don’t probe further, putting fingers in the fresh wound of his death, but my concern for myself, and my family, is real.
At the same time, I wonder about the people on the boats: how did they get inside? I’ve seen at a distance, and, until the drowning, I’d never been close enough to notice a person driving.
You worry too much, she says.
Haven’t you ever wanted a boat?
Where we’ll all go, after fifty years of service, she says, reciting the corporate-national anthem.
Amen, I respond, in the usual question-answer of the song.
If only I could glide, as the fish do, I could consider checking out what is holding me up, among all these weeds… I’m afraid that I might not enjoy my perch as much, and it sure is nice to look over life passing by, with all of its colour and movement. Everything I know is so full of colour, I have to say I don’t believe it, when people talk about bodies, because it’s stupid to think about things in gray-scale.
All of these convenient ideas before yesterday. It was like any other, with all of the sparkly things keeping my attention. And then, there it was. It had a different colour than everyone I have ever known. At first, I thought it was driftwood. It moved, and I wanted to yell to her for help. And then, like the fish, I noticed the arms of the body cutting the water, gliding away from me.
My voice, bouncing off the bay, caught the bodies’ attention.
I repeated, looking into the eyes of the body. It (they?) turned away, returning to move through the water. How could they ignore me? I am at the centre of the debate on boats, and so my voice should be the loudest. Did the body not notice how the birds had flown, when I yelled?
She was still asleep, but I considered it important enough a thing to wake her.
My perch began to sink. I feared for my life, sure, but more for what Jenna would have to see, when the other end of my board was raised above the surface. She wasn’t waking up. What a thing to see the first thing in the morning, what a way to wake up.
From the author: “1. It matters that I’m white, writing this.
2. The ferns in the middle of the painting and the separated feeling of the disjointed parts and it brought me to think about separation and dehumanization that’s necessary for my support for sketchy things to work.
3. By sketchy things I mean systemic racism that has always relied on the tacit support from the white population, made possible through unofficial segregation.*
4. See-saws best characterized my idea that even white men don’t benefit from their relative privilege.
5. This is not to compare the safety of their bodies while walking around a white supremacist society compared to, say, an aboriginal or black man. It is to say that the advantages they hold rarely bring real meaning to their lives because too much of their identity is based on freedom of an ability to exert power.** When this is realized, usually in mid-life, men often go into deep depression, assuaged by the affair, purchase of new material, or by killing themselves.
6. So, although white supremacy certainly does not have the bodies of white men in constant danger in public, it does not even benefit them.
7. This is the reason for the see-saw: although the black body is required to give them the leverage, the white body is sitting around consuming, alone, immobile. They can see boats, but, because they are never forced to swim, they never learn. Their identity is too tied to power. This race division, as a see saw, is imposed, and tied to the way our society functions in terms of safety and wealth.
8. The white man does not want to look beneath the water, to see the body that is paying for his relative privilege, because it would inspire guilt.
9. The dehumanization of black bodies in this way is a nice way to justify not looking under the water: the bodies do not count as persons deserving of empathy.
10. The isolation of see-saws is a comment on the lack of community and identity when whiteness is tied to power and raised through a focus on capital rather than empathy, self-awareness, and shared growth.
11. The black person who swims away in the end is meant to signify the reality that those who are oppressed have historically not sat around, hoping people would look under the water. If that was the case, nobody would be around today but the most violent.
12. The resilience of the oppressed is meant to be represented in the swim away from the see-saws, and amplified by the white man’s fury over not being considered the most authoritative account on the experience of everyone.
13. The goal of this writing is to place a flashlight on what is required for white people to stop supporting systemic violence, as is usually avoided through avoidance or fury.
14. Because see-saws have very finite limits, it is not in the benefit of white people to continue supporting the system because it does not bring them meaning. This is on top of the whole required violence against all non-white people to give them leverage.
15. Violence has never been solved by avoiding talking about violence because it felt too uncomfortable.
16. We love watching shows where killers are brought to justice, proportionate to their intent. Whether or not prisons work,*** this shared desire for accountability is evidence that this process of reducing violence is what we want as a collective.
17. If white people can surpass our own guilt, and hold those who taught us to avoid these issues accountable, less people will die in prison, period. Less people will die of starvation in Canada. Dehumanized bodies are required for the current form of capitalism to survive. It is about race. It is also about gender. It is also about sexuality. It is also about physical ability. It is also about land. And all of those things must intersect when we discuss any vision of a sustainable future for our species. Otherwise it is simply a sparkly version of a diseased plan, diseased because it is not in our best interests.
*Drawn from a reading of Patricia Hill-Collins’, From Black Power to Hip-Hop
**Drawn from a reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’, Between The World And Me
*** Depends on your definition of, ‘work.’ To punish? Yes. To rehabilitate? No. Ask Angela Davis.
****The use of ‘our’ throughout refers to white people in North America. I also like Coates’ characterization of white people as people who are trying to perform as white, mentioned in a talk by the BSN at McGill, because race is a construct, and a group that the Irish, or Italians, for example, actually achieved through government-funded training. Despite the ideas that race ‘shouldn’t matter,’ living in a place where it has been tied to survival means that we have to be concerned with it – it will continue on the same, no matter our individual opinions to the contrary if unacted upon.