The Longest Night: Inhabiting the Darkness

Antrum Platonicum (“Plato’s Cave) Jan Saenredam, 1604

(Disclaimer: the genre of this post is more prose/poetry/reflection/ quote collage/episodic etc. than argumentative or even coherent. So, keep that in mind.)

Can you stand the shortest day? Can you endure the longest night?
Or do you hasten the morning, disregarding the shadows?
Do you pull the people quickly out of the darkness, into the light?

This past summer I attended an event calling on the Harper government to honour a statement  of apology he gave to the Native peoples of Canada in 2008. Harper was to honour the apology by releasing millions of residential school documents it still has to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. An elder told those gathered about his experiences of sexual abuse at the residential school he attended. Those gathered, wept. I doubt there was a dry eye in the circle. I do not feel I can tell this elder’s story here, but this can give you a sense of the atrocities done to Native peoples in residential schools. “In 2001, a report issued by the Truth Commission on Genocide in Canada maintained that the mainline churches and the federal government were involved in the murder of over 50,000 Native children through this system. The list of offenses committed by church officials includes murder by beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation. Torture was used to punish children for speaking Aboriginal languages. Children were involuntarily sterilized. In addition, the report found that clergy, police, and business and government officials were involved in maintaining pedophile rings using children from residential schools.[1] Former students at boarding schools also claim that some schoolgrounds contain unmarked graveyards of murdered babies born to Native girls who had been raped by priests and other church officials.[2]

“In the colonial imagination, Native bodies were also immanently polluted with sin. … Because Indian bodies are “dirty,” they are considered sexually violable and “rapable,” and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count.”[3]

The U.S. has a very similar history. And like Canada, when the stories of abuse, of sexual violence, of suffering, surface, it seeks to erase them as quickly as possible. “For instance, when noted Native journalist, Tim Giago of Rosebud, South Dakota, wrote a book of poetry that addressed his nine-year history of abuse in Red Cloud Indian School, the priests expunged his records from the school and denied that he had attended the institution for more than six months.”[4]

As soon as the darkness surfaces, the light does whatever it can to drive it out.

Who inhabits the darkness? Who inhabits the light?
Others are strangers, shadows, in the darkness – almost unreal, to those accustomed to the light.
In the light we can see, we can make out who is our friend, our ally, and especially our enemy, our other.
Then we can en-lighten the world, cast out the shadows, drive out that horrendous darkness. That overwhelming negativity.

But perhaps, we would do well to do as Quentin Crisp did in his darkness: “So black was the way ahead that my progress consisted of long periods of inert despondency punctuated by spasmodic lurches forward to ward any small chink of light I thought I saw. … As the years went by, it did not get any lighter, but I became accustomed to the dark.”[5] His “advice is to adjust to less light rather than seek out more.”[6]

““Darkness … is an interpretive strategy,”[7] launched from places of darkness, experiences of hurt or exclusion; darkness is the terrain of the failed and the miserable.”[8]

To stand the shortest day, to endure the longest night, is not to hasten the dawn; it is to weep with those who weep, to sit with those who suffer, to stand by the abused, violated, oppressed, missing, disappeared, murdered. There is no light here. There is an overwhelming depth of darkness. And if in this darkness we will ever see the other, other than a dangerous, frightful, shadowy, stranger – almost unreal – then we had better accustom our eyes to the darkness.

In the beginning was darkness. It did not fall from light.
In the darkness was the face of the deep, the turbulent waters.
Today, still, the darkness, the face of the deep, the uncertain waters.
Catherine Keller wrote: “To love is to bear with the chaos.”
Can you stand the shortest day?
Can you endure the longest night?
To love is to bear with the darkness.

[1] Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1991 #1786; quoted in Smith, 40.

[2] Ibid in Smith, 40.

[3] Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Boston: South End Press, 2005), 10.

[4] Suzanne Fournier, “Gatherers Mark School’s Grim Litany of Death,” The Province, June 4, 1996 quoted in Smith, 40.

[5] Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (Penguin: 1997), 2 quoted in Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), 96. Emphasis mine.

[6] Halberstam, 97.

[7] Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent (Duke University Press: 2006), 109 quoted in Halberstam, 98.

[8] Halberstam, 98.