I’m driving down North Carolina Highway 158 late at night, the peninsula woods flanking the road. It’s so dark here.
The moon is about half full. Clusters of trees stand bare and stiff in the black.
I can see the stars through the windshield. Orion’s south of me, lying on his side like the prophet who dramatized the fall of the two kingdoms, not moving for hundreds of days at a time. I wonder if Orion will watch this kingdom fall.
At barely 8 p.m., but for the pig barbecue restaurants and gas stations, the area seems deserted. This is a universe away from Ferguson “Ground Zero” Missouri, or #NMOS14 in Baltimore or Die-Ins in Boston or #BoycottBlackFriday in New York or #FloodWallStreet or the People’s Climate March or the lobbying networks of Washington, D.C. There’s nothing so banal as international politics and nothing so earnest as dead human bodies on a dark highway in North Carolina.
I first crossed the bridge into the Outer Banks a year ago, two short months after the U.S. government granted me residency status. The form letter I was afraid to open transformed me in an instant from “non-immigrant” with uncertain options to “permanent resident” with all the mythology of progress and opportunity in my lap, staring me down, asking me, “Why aren’t you already succeeding? This is the Dream!”
And then I drove out to North Carolina, and crossed the Currituck Sound toward Nags Head. Eventually I came to Roanoke Island and walked around a mound now enclosed by a small, manicured government museum.
The exhibition marker said the mound marked the site of the village where one hundred and eighteen 16th Century English settlers encountered the Croatan people and their leaders Manteo and Wanchese. There the English saw how the indigenous people thrived, what they fished, what they traded, which crops they grew—crops like tobacco, and what else the English would be able to take back east.
What they could take for the glory of the Crown: Gold and goods for the glory of God.
Wanchese and Manteo joined Walter Raleigh on a fundraising and PR trip back to England. Both helped Raleigh’s linguist to interpret the Algonquian language, and their presence—proof of the new people over the horizon—supported Raleigh’s campaign to raise more money for more settlements across the ocean. Both Wanchese’s and Manteo’s names survive today on their own land. But only Wanchese nursed doubts about the settling English.
Within three years of the English settlers’ arrival, Manteo had submitted to baptism into the Church of England—and hence positioned himself under the authority of the Queen. I find no record of Wanchese’s conversion. Today, the town named after Manteo is a quaint, self-consciously historical place that hugs the waterfront and hopes strangers will stop by. I wonder if Manteo’s spirit has ever left his land.
A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I searched for some of the native peoples indigenous to the area of Maryland I live in. The internet told me that the majority of those who’d received the English in the 1600s had fallen to genocide, disease, colonialism, or displacement by the 1700s: the Tutelo and Suponi languages are extinct, the English pushed the Suponi from Central Maryland into what is now Ohio, smallpox and lynching destroyed the Susquehannocks who once lived to the north, and the Accohannocks lost their land up and down the Eastern Shore.
I learned for the first time about the headrights land distribution system concocted out of thin air in New England and exported south to Maryland. The English settlers told each other that the Crown authorized them to grant and gift this land to other English newcomers. Settlers who brought more servants and more slaves would get more land in proportion to the number of humans that trailed them.
More servants and slaves? More land granted. As the colonial religion taught, “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”
I learned about how quickly tobacco enmeshed itself with the colonial economy and the emerging racial hierarchy: Scharf’s History of Maryland from the earliest period to the present (1765-1812) traces the connection back to the mid 1600s and the nascent “negro code.” The crop became a currency used to trade for Black freedom or compensate society for Black “crimes” or White “permissiveness.”
“In addition to being employed for purchasing goods, the tobacco currency was also used to pay fines and taxes. For example, persons encouraging Negro meetings were to be fined 1000 pounds of tobacco; owners letting Negroes keep horses were fined 500 pounds tobacco; if a person wanted to become married, he had to go to the rector of his parish and pay the man so many pounds of tobacco; a man’s wealth was estimated in annual pounds of tobacco.
“Tobacco also affected the government as all laws were made more or less with reference to it: to protect it, and to maintain its value in price, so that many of the civil and some of the criminal processes, were affected by it.” (Emphasis added. Read “Economic Aspects of Tobacco during the Colonial Period 1612-1776” for more.)
If a 3-minute video is more your speed, check out the History Channel’s beatification of the colonial cash crop: “Tobacco is the leading edge of colonial commerce,” Wesleyan University’s Richard Slotkin tells us.
Two days before I left for North Carolina this year, a New York grand jury reviewed the death of Eric Garner and chose not to indict the officer in whose hands he died. I heard the news on Twitter. I didn’t have the energy to be angry and I couldn’t even muster up surprise. After the non-indictment in Missouri, I saw no reason to expect an indictment in New York.
But puzzle pieces were rearranging themselves in my subconscious mind, and it wasn’t until I walked around the Peninsula that they finally clicked in place.
Jon Stewart recently excoriated Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) for suggesting that Garner’s death was due to overzealous taxing. The segment was amusing, and the senator’s attempt to derail clumsy, but there is a story under the story. Both Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s last days included the sale and policing of tobacco as a legal drug. Today, as in the colonial 1600s, the trade of legal and illegal drugs “affects the government as all laws are made more or less with reference to it.”
The Western Hemisphere drug trade almost permanently undermines the stability of our southern neighbor Mexico: to simplify, demand and selective prosecution thrive on this side of the border, and supply and selective prosecution thrive on that side. The trade is entangled with other resources we desire, deem national interests, and generate criminalization and foreign policies to secure. The national desire for fuel is another major entanglement that not only interacts with military policy but also circles back to the production and illicit trade of drugs elsewhere around the world.
So the drug trade is a silent, deadly cast member in the modern political farce otherwise known as immigration reform: US non-immigration, immigration, and the matrix of natural and civil rights that most citizens expect but some never get—rights like due process.
(Sidebar for my US citizen readers: non-immigration involves entering a nation-state’s borders to visit, study, or do temporary work without the intent to permanently reside. Immigration involves entering a nation-state’s borders with the intent to make a long-term or permanent home [residency] or become a citizen.)
Migration has happened in this hemisphere for thousands and thousands of years without states to control it. But non-immigration and immigration are comparatively new and depend on the shifting definitions of the nation-state. The value of our lives also depends on the shifting definitions of the nation-state.
A year after becoming a resident, I’m still working out what it means to participate with my presence in the settling and displacement project that the Spanish and English began here in the 1500s and 1600s. But I’m also genetically, historically, and viscerally connected to that part of the Black diaspora that was ported against its will to the Americas to support the colonial drug trade.
After four hundred years of colonization here, certain kinds of lives lost—indigenous, Black, poor, queer—are still accounted disposable and can still be deemed acceptable trades as long as the overall logic of the system is undisturbed. As long as only authorized hands administer the manufacture, sale, and taxation of our favorite plants and resources on this continent or far, far from home, what are a few lives?
I’m not adjusted to that. One of my deepest worries: that I will adjust, that as I’ve adjusted in diet and speech over my last decade, I’ll adjust in philosophy too. A writer imagines the Pilgrims and the Borg disembarking in Massachusetts and co-intoning the futility of resistance.
And, looking into the woods of Roanoke or the dead-empty eastern Carolina horizon, I have no solid proof that they’re wrong except, perhaps, my own existence. Some of us do survive, and we call on Orion to witness us.