My latest literary companion, Umair Muhammad’s Confronting Injustice, features a sentence that was so arresting that I had to look up both the source and its author. (Get Confronting Injustice the way I did, via Haymarket Books.)
Eduardo Galeano wrote through the second half of the 20th Century about the political struggles of his native Uruguay. Celebrated across South America, Galeano appears in Muhammad’s book on individualism, neoliberalism, and climate change:
Our system is one of detachment: to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.” —Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
I wrote last fall about growing up in two subcultures in which no one around me spoke of or taught about non-heterosexual people. I therefore got through my first two decades with an unfinished map of myself and all of the people I lived with and went to school and church with: a culture’s symbolic blackouts affect everyone in that culture, not just the people they target.
It’s because of my experience that Galeano’s phrase “keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces” stood out to me today. The entire sentence is striking.
Perhaps more than 20th Century Uruguayan culture did, US culture thrives on the myth of the intrepid individual who forges alone into the wildness of life, or, in extreme cases, the actual wilderness.
As feminist writers pointed out in the 1980s, this culture’s success myths typically don’t include the network of people around the Great and Inventive Ones. In media profiles, we might learn about an entrepreneur’s favorite teacher, or a librarian who took extra time to nurture a budding scientist’s interests while they were in elementary school, or parents who doted and sacrificed to pay for a prodigy’s piano lessons.
But the rest of the genius’s support system—spouses and partners, training colleagues, secretaries and assistants, house staff and those delegated or relegated to tasks like laundry and cooking, let alone all who fund the public services that make unusual individual advancement possible—this support system remains background material. We’re used to phrases like “social construction” but they haven’t changed how we perceive the individual self. Confronting Injustice is a book-length objection to that.
I’m slowly cracking open this weekend and thinking about how my social networks have crafted my sense of who I am and the symbolic languages I use as I interact with the world. I’m also thinking about how my social networks have “kept silenced people from asking questions” about the philosophical foundations of our world and the spaces we allow for ourselves and others.
How might human culture be otherwise? What are the impacts of not changing? These are the questions Muhammed believes activists should be asking. We should be working to manifest our answers too, because without manifest alternatives to the way things are, we’re resigning ourselves to continuing generations of people silenced, judged, and solitary who have no inkling that what is isn’t all that can be.
The Book of Embraces is now on my wishlist.