Together, we are the future: Going from here in N.K. Jemisin’s Walking Awake

The clarity of hindsight often lures us to become mired in blame and guilt. As we wake up and become aware that the world is the way it is because certain humans have shaped it in their interest, people who are oppressed are tempted to demonize and cast out those responsible for their oppression, while people who are oppressors are tempted to silence and suffocate those naming them as a source of harm. The complex reality is that all of us contain both oppressed and oppressor; all of us inflict harm on others in some way simply as a consequence of being born into an oppressive framework. Our social environment is constructed to facilitate oppression, and it sows division and conflict among the oppressed.

Instead of standing still as our pasts consume us, we must commit to a philosophy of going from here: as oppressed people, we acknowledge and honor past harm but do not allow it to cloud the future; as oppressors, we embrace being accountable but do not allow accountability to stagnate into guilt; together, we allow our experience to inform and guide us as we work towards a world without oppressive structures.

In Walking Awakethe main character, Sadie, is complicit in a system that raises human hosts for parasitic beings we later learn were created by humanity in the distant past.  She is also a victim of that system, as the only reason she holds the position she does is because her bipolar diagnosis rendered her unfit for “service”—the Masters, as the parasitic beings are called, only want to occupy the best specimens humanity can produce. Her position entails raising children for the use of the Masters, and she becomes particularly fond of a child she names Enri, who is taken by a Master early on in the story. On the night Enri is taken, he comes to Sadie in her dreams. During their conversation, she discovers that all the humans that have ever been taken over by the Masters still exist and can communicate with each other in another plane. Their consciousness is just suppressed under the consciousness of the Masters.

When Enri first sees Sadie, he tells he that he felt anger towards her after he learned that she was complicit in a system that was raising him simply to be harvested. The children in this system are not aware of the true nature of their sacrifice until a moment before; they are raised to believe the Masters are benevolent aliens and being their vessel is the highest possible purpose a human can have, but they are never told what the Masters truly look like (scary crab things), and they are never told how violent the process is. The betrayal Enri must have felt upon learning that his caretaker, who lovingly called him Enri instead of Five-47, was actually an instrument of his demise, is a version of the betrayal we feel when a supposed “ally” or accomplice sides with white supremacy or patriarchy. Yet instead of discarding Sadie, instead of succumbing to his desire to demonize, he decides to view her through the lens of transformative justice: he tells her he realizes how the system worked to harm her as well by forcing her to turn over the children she had grown to love, and he offers her the opportunity to be accountable through dismantling the framework that facilitated her harming him. And Sadie, to her credit, does not attempt to argue with him about her complicity, she simply goes from here, accepts her role as both oppressed and oppressor, and allows Enri to educate her about the true history of the world: a world where the Masters are not aliens at all, but the genetically engineered creations of a class of humans interested in control and domination. This new knowledge compels Sadie to work with Enri and the others whose consciousness is subjugated by the Masters towards destroying the system.

Sadie does not turn away from the truth of the world, nor does she attempt to deny how she has benefited from the current system. Enri does not allow his anger towards Sadie and his knowledge of her complicity to cloud his vision of her as a complete human being worthy of an opportunity at redemption. Because they approach each other with open hearts and minds, they are able to work together to destroy the system that subjugates them both. Together, they free future generations of humanity, although it requires them to sacrifice themselves in the end. Like Sadie, we are called to sacrifice our delusions about the nature of our world in the hopes a clear view of reality will compel us to change it; we must sacrifice our placid acceptance of the status quo in favor of radical resistance against dehumanizing ideologies, and we must sacrifice our comfortable numbness in favor of revolutionary awareness. Oppressors can render psychic reparations for past harm via ongoing acceptance of complicity, and ongoing efforts to foment change: If we are oppressors, every day we act towards undoing the framework that perpetuates that oppression, and through these acts we embody our redemption.

As oppressed people, we hold our oppressors accountable in a space of love: we do not excuse harm, or ignore it, but we also do not allow it to prevent us from seeing the potential for transformation coiled up in each of us, cowering behind our socialization into white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. Like Enri, we have to move away from the comfort and surety of anger and blame and move into the discomfort and precarity of imagining and building new futures with the same people whose ancestors inflicted harm on us in the past, or who themselves have inflicted harm on us in the present. We forgive but never forget, because forgetting does not benefit us, but forgiveness can.

The future must be built on a foundation that allows each of us to fully realize our humanity; our revolution must contain a mechanism for providing reparations to those harmed and an opportunity for redemption to those who have done the harming. We will only find permanent relief from the trauma of being oppressed and the burden* of being an oppressor when we transform our world so that no one has to be either.

 


* “Absolute power for patriarchs is not freeing. The nature of fascism is such that it controls, limits, and restricts leaders as well as the people fascists oppress.” bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981

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