Unbelonging: on reparations, Landback, and Property

My partner, Dr. Gayatri Sethi just released a book entitled Unbelonging that is a profound gift of freedom and the reclaiming of humanity. It contains prose, poetry, art, essay, insights, prayers, mantras. It deconstructs what we thought was belonging to create spaces where all human life is sacred. I think that one of the more profound passages in the book is a verse entitled What does it mean to be a Bahá’í — a meditation and offering of love to our family’s faith tradition. I quote from that meditation, italics mine

I am deeply distrusting of nationalism & patriotism. I participate

in my own unbelonging by refusing to become a naturalized U.S.

citizen, choosing precarity in the form of permanent residence

applications that are subject to expiration. I also refuse to own

property in the sacred lands where I reside.

Gayatri Sethi, Unbelonging

Why is the refusal of property ownership tied to faith practice?

My partner leaves that question for the reader to ponder — i think it is intimately connected with the attainment of Black freedom within north america and throughout the African diaspora.

Some context. The first home my partner and I had with our children was an area near to Sandtown — a Black community near Atlanta’s airport. For hundreds of years, if not millenia, Sandtown was the site of a joint Cherokee and Muscogee settlement near the Chattahoochee River. Today, many Indigenous and Black Indigenous members our faith community continue the struggle for sovereignty in opposing the Line 3 pipeline, seeking justice for many missing and murdered Indigenous women and third spirit people, and seeking the return of lands stolen by the united states.

Some of my mother’s ancestors were enslaved near the Ocmulgee river in present day Macon georgia. The Macon of today was built (over?) an established Indigenous city called Achese. Muscogee language speakers from around the southeast gathered in the 1500s to collectively plan and execute defense against the expanding threats of european colonization.

Marker at St. Simon’s Park, St Simons Island, georgia. What the marker does not elaborate is the extermination of the Mocama by Spanish, French, and British settlers. The Muscogee Nation was formed in part as response to repeated genocides in what is now the us southeast.

This solidarity movement initiated the wider notion a Muscogee Nation. My father’s ancestors were enslaved in and around Covington, georgia — land stolen from the Muscogee by treaties that were even repudiated by the united states government. In recounting the stories of my ancestors, there are no dearth in which kin, newly emancipated after the civil war, acquired some small land for farming, only to see the land stolen through the systemic racism of the property system.

Outside the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park in Macon

I offer this “history” and context to say that reconciling enslavement and land are very present in our family. Reconciling how Black people view private property including land is essential to getting at all aspirations to freedom and abolition, including discussions of reparations. It is a recognition that all viable indigenous spiritual practices in Africa and in the Americas acknowledge the importance of human connection to the Earth, our Mother. To quote from the Landback Manifesto, Indigenous Landback is :

It is a future where Black reparations and Indigenous LANDBACK co-exist. Where BIPOC collective liberation is at the core. 

It is acknowledging that only when Mother Earth is well, can we, her children, be well. 

It is our belonging to the land – because – we are the land.

Landback Manifesto at https://landback.org/manifesto/

That is, landback is returning to a grounded relationship with the Earth, it is about returning to notions of Indigenous care of the Earth. It is not about centering private property.

In his book On Property, Rinaldo Walcott locates the core problem associated with private property.

Black people will not be fully able to breathe—a word I do not use lightly—until property itself is abolished.

Rinaldo Walcott, On Property

Walcott calls us to remember that property lies at the heart of Black enslavement. George Floyd was murdered over a “property crime”; Eric Garner was murdered by police in connection with a “property crime”; my daughter and I witnessed un-housed people, most of them Black, removed from the sidewalks of Atlanta for the “crime” of being homeless and on the sidewalk. The “40 acres” promised to the emancipated enslaved people of south carolina, georgia, and florida under Sherman’s Field Order 15 was land stolen from the Indegenous people of the Atlantic coast.

Walcott writes further

Our idea of property has been reduced so as to become synonymous with real estate, and everything that this entails. We are told that other kinds of property, such as motor cars, boats, jewelry, phones, running shoes, and so on, an immeasurable register of things, need to be protected from those not fortunate enough to own such property. We must be protected from the covetous by the police and the entire carceral system.

Rinaldo Walcott, On Property

What would the abolition of private property look like, and what would that mean? How can there be a Black liberation or freedom without land?

The answers reside in ancestral memory.

The Seminole nation evolved out of Muscogee resistance to the expansion of the settler state. Black escapees from american enslavement were harbored and welcomed into the Seminole Nation, and enjoyed autonomy including the ability to farm land and to give their children an ecology centered on the preservation and uplift of Black life. This revolutionary anti-colonial multi-racial formation waged a 40-year war resistance (in reality the longest war in united states history).

A bend the Chattahoochee River near Carrollton, georgia. Muscogee land defenders took action to prevent land theft a few feet from this location in 1825.

At the end of this war of resistance (1830s/1850s), significant numbers of Muscogee and Seminole people were forcibly and brutally relocated (the “Trail of tears”) to “Indian territory” in present day oklahoma. The town of Tulsa (Tallasi) in the Muscogee reservation was settled by Black people — some of them members of the Muscogee nation, some of them migrants from the former confederate states — with the support and cooperation of Muscogee allies.

Indigenous legal scholar Maggie Blackhawk (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) in her examination of the wider implications of the recent us supreme court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma writes

Recent work by David Chang and others documents how Native sovereignty over territory that became Oklahoma fostered the empowerment of racialized communities more generally and a more idealized egalitarian society—including both Black and Native communities that had settled into the Indian Territory in the late nineteenth century

Maggie Blackhawk, On Power and the Law: McGIRT V. OKLAHOMA


Although less widely known, the city and county of Tulsa, or Tallasi in the Muskogee (Creek) language when governed by Native nations as part of the Indian Territory, housed at the turn of the twentieth century two of the wealthiest communities of color in the country—the Osage Nation and the Greenwood District, colloquially known as “Black Wall Street.” Some historians have speculated that the more racially egalitarian and socially democratic governance instituted by the Native nations in the Indian Territory may have contributed to the success of these communities.

Maggie Blackhawk, On Power and the Law: McGIRT V. OKLAHOMA

Black narratives of the Tulsa Massacre often obscure the degree which Tulsa existed as a haven for Black and Indigenous inhabitants of all classes, highlighting Black Wallstreet to the exclusion of the majority of residents who were not wealthy. The narratives exclude the presence of indigenous collaborators and hosts. We — Black people of the united states — still tend to think in terms of an aspiration to inclusion in a capitalist system predicated on premature Black death and subjugation, predicated on the private ownership of stolen land.

The struggle of Black Indigenous Muscogee and Seminole citizens still continues. But these are the essential working conversations in bringing about a grounded freedom.

So what would a new concept of land relationship look like? What is the plan?

Recently the city of Macon announced that it was re-examining the connection of nearby Mercer to the enslaved labor of people like my mother’s grandparents. Mercer is beginning to ponder reparations. Macon announced a plan to turn much of land along the Ocmulgee into georgia’s first national park, with some of the nearby land allocated to Muscogee Nation of oklahoma — a first but woefully inadequate step towards necessary healing and land return. For the first time in united states history, the director of the national park system is being lead by an Indigenous person, Charles F Sams III.

What if Macon took the revolutionary step of linking the landback and reparations? What if the thousands of acres were directly ceded back to the only people on earth with over 17,000 years of collective knowledge of Ocmulgee land and water management — the Muscogee? What if Macon were to develop plans for communal land trusts that provided the resources for the revitalization of Black and Indigenous farmers? What if Mercer provided free tuition for Black and Indigenous students for the next 200 years as part of a comprehensive reparations agreement? What if it were to lead the georgia in a legitimate curriculum that centered the millenia before colonization?

Dare to dream with me. There is so much possibility in unbelonging.

If you or your family own land in the united states, consider transferring all or portions of it to the Indigenous people from which it was taken. Research the history of the region in which you live. Build community with the Indigenous keepers of the land on which you live. Dream.

I invite you to read the 10-point plan of the Red Nation which articulates core principles of abolition and land back movements.

Consider contributing to and participating in active land return (rematriation) efforts — among them The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and Ekvn-Yefolecv.

Follow and contribute to the work of Black organizations working for reparations and autonomy — Community Movement Builders and Cooperation Jackson are active in the southeast.

I invite you to sample some the discussion from the last year’s Abolition on Stolen Land discussion

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