“Una and Mosese” Linocut print by author
Dreaming Black Love
My sister is beautiful. According to our mother, the story goes that I declared her the most beautiful of all of us when she was born. I was eight.
Una was born in Fiji, 12 years after independence from a little under a century of British colonialism.
doted dotes on her. She is 33 this month, and we still call her princess.
Fijians love! children. When I moved to the U.S. I learned quickly that you can’t just love a stranger’s baby; In Fiji, this is normal. Growing up, my cousins, my sister and I were all the shades you might find on masi—from the pale of the undressed bark to the darkest brown of its dyed designs. Outside of our immediate-extended family, we were sometimes compared when complimented—those of us lighter skinned, with straighter hair sometimes more favorably against those with darker skin, curlier hair. As her big sister, I began to notice these differences in reception more and more keenly.
Despite my own light brown skin and hair that only really curls in the humidity of the Islands, a childhood dream persists in my memory (sheer as butterfly wing) of waking up white—metamorphosed overnight into the beautiful of Australian television children.
In Fijian, there are words for black, like loaloa, that aren’t in and of themselves derisive, merely descriptive. But they can be used derisively, and they are.
On another slow and humid Fijian afternoon when Una was about eight, the two of us sprawled under the living room ceiling fan listening to FM96, she began to ask me about the musicians we heard: “is he/she black or white?” She was earnest, and took note of each of my answers. For a long time this afternoon was lodged in my throat, in my heart; it colored my consciousness. I’ve since come to believe that she was making a choice that day—at all of eight years old—to choose blackness, to love blackness; a choice that I have never had to make.
Black Lives Matter. I have been turning this revolution in three words over and over in my head and heart this year—pulled in with countless others around the world by its powerful call to rage and resistance, to speaking truth to power, to coalition/alliance/kinship, and especially by its call to black love. Like many others, I have been thinking about how the Black Lives Matter movement calls Pacific Islanders to respond to state terrorism against Black (as well as Native, brown and immigrant) women, men, children, and queer and transgender people. For us, this work can mean learning Black history and actively allying with our brothers and sisters against the brute violence of America; examining and identifying our own anti-blackness and anti-blackness in our communities; and fiercely loving blackness, including, perhaps even especially, our own.
There is a long and rich genealogy of African American-Pacific blood and affective kinships. African Americans and Islanders have been meeting since at least the early to mid- nineteenth century, with freedmen and former slaves intermingling with Islanders on whaling ships and being adopted into and intermarrying within each other’s communities, including pre-colonial Fiji, as well as the Independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, where African Americans were welcomed. World War II saw another wave of Islander and African American encounters and relationships in the Pacific war/theater, ultimately influencing Islander political consciousness and independence movements. The civil rights movement further buttressed struggles for sovereignty in places like PNG, Hawaiʻi, Australia, and Aotearoa NZ. The Polynesian Panthers of Aotearoa, The Niugini Black Power group, and Indigenous Australia’s Freedom Rides demonstrate the strong affiliations black and brown Islanders felt with African Americans in their own struggles against colonial white supremacy in the Pacific.
In the area of Pacific arts (particularly anti-colonial and anti-racist arts), the influence of the civil rights movement and African American protest literature, theater, music, etc. is widely evident—from the poetry of PNG’s John Kasapwailova in the early 70s to contemporary Pacific literature, theater, hip hop and rap. In the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder and the state’s acquittal of his killer, Officer Darren Wilson, Islanders have continued this tradition of echoing black calls to rage and love in Oceania on pages, stages, dinner tables and in the gatherings that are our social media networks. For Islanders today, Black Lives Matter represents a new (old) call for Oceanic solidarity in the legacy of Black-Pacific alliances, an opportunity to recognize and resist white supremacy and anti-blackness amongst and within us in the service of loving blackness everywhere.
There is a hierarchy to this shit:
that it’s not always people of color vs. white people
Most times its black people vs. the rest of us
It’s afakasi vs. full-blooded
It’s your family vs. your family
It is you vs. the mirror
–Terisa Siagatonu (excerpted from “Uli Uli”)
A substantial challenge to loving blackness in the Pacific, and simultaneously a challenge to Pan-Pacific solidarity may be found in the nineteenth century European scientific mapping of Oceania into Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. While much has been done to refute, resist and re-vision these divisions, the white supremacist ideologies undergirding them (and the anti-blackness inherent in these ideologies) have staying power, the effects of which Terisa speaks to with courage and alofa in her poem “Uli Uli” excerpted above. Although Melanesia (named for its black inhabitants) makes up a substantial percentage of Oceania’s population, land mass, and resources, European (and often our own internalized) preferences for Polynesian phenotype, culture, and civilization as closer to white, continue to influence the way the Pacific is seen by outsiders and the way we are able to see and love ourselves and each other. Popular representations of the Pacific (especially outside of the Pacific) continue to erase Black Oceania (Micronesia too often is also disappeared against the Polynesian/Melanesian binary) in favor of envisioning an almost white Polynesian Pacific. Importantly, Hawaiian scholar and writer, Maile Arvin argues that the scientific production of Polynesians as almost white supports settler colonial possession of Polynesian lands, culture, and identity. As the excerpt from Bryan’s poem below makes clear, Polynesians are also easily revisioned Black with American imperial and settler colonial greed at play, in this case to force Hawai’i’s illegal annexation to the U.S.
Terisa’s and Bryan’s poems (excerpted and linked on this page) reach out to Ferguson, to Black America in rage and mourning, with alofa/aloha, and interwoven with love and kinship, responsibility and reciprocity. They recognize and forge connections that carry great responsibility. Where we have so benefitted from the victories of black resistance in the U.S., and not carried the full weight of its consequences (even if despite our distinct histories Islanders in the U.S. are sometimes also racialized and criminalized similarly), we are compelled to do the work of real solidarity with Black America–including accountability for the way we can and do often appropriate black culture as our own–of loving blackness, including our own. These poems hold up mirrors to the Pacific—identifying the ways we have been complicit in anti-blackness against our Black families and friends, and in denial of our own blackness.
We have suffered at their hands as well children Lost land to their guns, their laws, their paper love Love lost land children lost paper laws lost guns Fill that blank But we hurt you too Abolitionist missionaries railed against slavery then taught us to call you “Nika.” The syllables are rounder now But the word still fits in our mouths Too many forget our history forgot our princes, called “niggers” on a train Our queen, turned away from a hotel for being too uppity, too dark, too black Too many turn away from the memory Want only to imitate power Want only to insist that we are not you
-Bryan Kuwada (excerpted from “Dear Ferguson”)
In the last two months, I have been blessed to spend time with my family in Australia (which many Indigenous people identify as blackfella country), affording me the perspective of thinking on Black Lives Matter outside of the U.S., and outside of Hawai’i too, where American racialism is pervasive in spite of alternate, expansive indigenous understandings of belonging. Writing in Australia, I have been able to think about blackness outside of what can sometimes seem like (to someone raised in Fiji, a former British colony at the border of Melanesia and Polynesia) its bounded context within U.S. geography and history. It is difficult to write about Black Lives Matter as an Islander who is not African American (though many of us are). It is difficult to write about blackness and anti-blackness in Oceania as a light-skinned, Melanesian-identified Fijian with Polynesian heritage. I take courage from the history of our people forging solidarity, love and kinship with black America (the Caribbean and continental Africa too), in the work of Islanders who have written/spoken/made art in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, from the movement for Melanesian and Oceanian unity in support of West Papua, and from my sister’s example.
“The ferocity of white supremacy and structural racism rooted in anti-Black ideologies has exposed itself time and time again, to the detriment of our movement.” Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder
White supremacy and anti-blackness continue to foster conditions where whiteness (and let’s be honest, Polynesian-ness) is often judged superior and beautiful in the Indigenous homelands of brown and black children. Anti-black racism and colonialism permits with impunity Indonesia’s 50-year occupation, settler colonization, ecocide, and mass slaughter of Indigenous peoples in West Papua with the complicity of the U.S., U.K. and Australia (as well as Pacific nations like Fiji), and the funding of American corporations such as Freeport-McMoran and the British-Australian Rio-Tinto. For decolonization in Oceania to succeed, we must root out anti-blackness and white supremacy in our communities wherever they are. For true Oceanic unity in kinship, we must commit to loving blackness.
While in Australia, I was able to watch the South Pacific Games, which took place in Port Moresby, PNG this year, on NITV (National Indigenous Television). Although not a sports fan (making me almost alien in a large Fijian extended family that lives for rugby and footy), I sat riveted to the television, in love with Oceania as I watched Indigenous and migrant/settler Islanders, Micronesians, Melanesians and Polynesians gather to compete and celebrate. Turaga, how our people are beautiful!