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A response to Mr. Viet Than Nguyen
In celebration of the paperback release of Somewhere We Are Human, here is one response to one line in its foreword.
“Human beings have always migrated,” Viet Than Nguyen writes. This is the first sentence of the 2022 Harper Via anthology, Somewhere We Are Human, a collection of essays, poems and art by illegalized migrants that challenges hegemonic narratives and offers new perspectives on a theme that has been written about to near-exhaustion but never quite exhaustively. I am not shocked that Mr. Viet Than Nguyen begins with this bromide, one that is omnipresent and undergirds nearly all pro-migrant discussions around the world. It’s a simple statement, It’s an assertion that on the face seems difficult to argue against. The anthropological evidence is staggering to support the origin of our hominid ancestors in Africa and their millennia long trek to pry by force and ingenuity every ecological niche and then modify the collective metabolisms of every biome on every continent but one. Along this path modern humans emerged and survive as the only extant example of our species. Mr. Than Nguyen is stating a seemingly unimpeachable fact, humans have been in constant motion since before we were technically human. It would seem that Migration, like hunger and mourning, is an immutable fact of our reality and that the current political and social conflicts aiming to frustrate the natural claim to every inch on the earth’a surface is an abomination and a modern aberration that contradicts the laws of whatever God still exists. It’s this tacit theoretic appeal to the eternal, divine nature of human Migration that envelops all intellectual, political and artistic activity in defense of migrants. Indeed, Migration restrictionists as well seem to view Migration as a natural force that the state needs to build legal levees with their requisite carceral and deportation apparatuses in the way we build sea walls, pumps and catchments in order to prevent social deluge. Rarely, if at all, is this naturalness—and inevitability—of Migration challenged or qualified. But, when we collapse all human mobility into Migration as Mr. Than Nguyen did—as the movement does—we introduce a critical error into our imagination and vision of Migration that proscribes our vision both as we look back for inspiration and guidance and forward to develop survival strategies.
I’ve spent almost a year now attempting to understand the disquiet this assertion aroused in me. I know now. I cannot be a generous interpreter or extend my credulity to accept a definition of Migration that stretches back into a past so deep that it predates our genetic code. I fear it’s an equivocation that looks at the total of our anthropological history in toto and makes assumptions and comparisons that might not be true or useful. Because this epistemology of Migration in both form and function influences how we think and act in relation to Migration in our contemporary reality, it’s unsettling that this idea circulates more plentifully and unimpeded than foundation money in migrant and allied circles goes unchallenged or without serious reflection even by the handful of happy Oracles & brooding Cassandras who gift us serious thought about Migration beyond analysis of the political goals whose gravities distort everything around them (despite seeming to never to be achievable).
We are deeply invested in the eternal and inevitable nature of our collective Migration, we cling to teeth and all like a newborn on their mother’s teet. Just like a newborn, we cannot continence its loss. It swims like a lamprey in our ponds, an error of reason and a major leap in logic. We group together our Migrations with those of ancestors who lived before the advent of agriculture and states that would eventually build the hard borders many of us die attempting to cross. I humbly submit that humanity has not always been in motion. Migration in our epoch is unnatural and an aberration of nature and history. Humanity has not always migrated, in fact until very recently it never had to.
THE FIRST MIGRANT.
When I hear someone invoke the eternal spirit of Migration, my mind wanders nervously. I feel I’m on the edge of being rude though I don’t know yet what I might say. Instead, I imagine who the first migrant was and what the first Migration looked like. It is impossible. Eternity circumscribes the existence of a serial order. Thus, every Migration is an alpha and omega. The Geist of Migration was never born but has always been (engendrado no creado). But, among the seeming infinitude of human motion my mind insists that there must have been notable firsts.
My mind, out of necessity, turns to the first hominid ancestor who descended from the ancient castle-fortresses of the forest to begin walking on their hind legs. I admire the steel nerves of that first person who left their floating world of the immortal trees’ branches and began wandering beyond the canopy to where the mountain valleys stretch out their arms around open plains inhabited by all manner of unknown beasts and brocaded with wild flowers that do not grow in the shade of the forest. To feel the sun shine on her forehead unabated, to see for miles with a vision now unimpeded by the verdant stained glass of the first cathedrals. To descend in search of food, to flee violence at the hands of kin or non-human beasts. To sate curiosity and then to Return for safety or shelter. All of this seems to me a feat of bravery and self-confidence for humanity, one perhaps greater and one we would not match until our culture had wielded the earth’s bounty—down to its inertia— to descend to the depths of the ocean and the surface of its moon.
Other times I think of the first person to set foot on the far side of the Gate of Tears.To be tempted by the land on the other trembling, blurred shore. To need to know what lies beyond the barely blue waters shredded by rip currents not visible from the surface. I feel it in my heart that she was not the first to attempt the crossing. How many of her clan attempted it once before? How many did she see claimed by curiosity or ambition? How many hands did she see flutter at the golden-green edge where the still air meets the wobbling waterline until they stilled and became skeletal foundations for the reef corals? What drove her to cross? How far had she come from? As she put her feet in the cool waters of the Bab el-Mandeb, did she recall the walls of fire that had driven her from her home and the iconoclasts whose hubristic belief that they had domesticated fire destroyed the Garden of Paradise in a blaze that bisected Africa and forced her to the coast with her child in arms? Did our ancestors have a concept of home? Was she grief stricken by the belief she might never Return? Or was it too soon for us to know home, having yet not been tethered to the ground by the arrogant belief we were masters of the Poaceae who in truth would domesticate and tame us until these grasses were able to cover the surface of all arable corners of the Earth. Tears come to my eyes thinking of the relief and the tremendous feeling of doubt and insecurity of being in a new land. Did she have a name? She more than any great historical figure we can name is responsible for our contemporary reality. A singular triumph; a cross perhaps no one person or people should bear. She must have a name and a monument.
What set her motion in motion? Hunger. Certainly. Violence. Intuitively. But, hope? Curiosity? Did the first ancestor to paint the first mural in a cave in Palestine have a dream of what lay beyond the horizon. Did he look at Scorpius and Ursa Major above and feel within him that he must tomorrow set forth to see where the stars end and where the ocean resumes? Did he know he was an explorer on the edge of humanity or was that laughably moot in a world that was seamless and borderless and thus infinite?
There are infinitely many more pioneer ancestors I construct and pray to often: the first person to triumph over the waves in the first raft (a feat of ingenuity and faith more divinely inspired than our space shuttles), the first person to set foot in “America” following the great beasts who his ancestors would one day hunt to extinction, the first person to cross the Bab el-Mandeb in reverse and attempt to Return home once the fires had been quelled by the return of the tropical rain and humid ocean breezes.
The first mother to stay as her children left and invented Goodbye. The first mother who left her children behind and gifted Silence.
All these stories are forever lost to us. We can only feebly imagine them. We have only their contours on which to pin our great faith in their lost contents. Beyond the historical details of these earth shattering events in our collective hominid past, it’s those personal experiences whose eternal loss drives me to frustrated tears. The feelings and the cognitions of the people who slowly built the foundations of our modern world even before the fleeting moment when sabertooth tigers and wooly mammoths rose like pharaonic monuments in the endless panorama of the world’s plains— those are where I know the answers to my discomfort lie.
As I think through these moments and the wider arch of human mobility, I grow restless. It seems to me obvious that these ancestors could not be migrants. For one, our ancestors enjoyed a degree of mobility unimaginable to today’s migrants. These intrepid ancestors conquered or barely-survived every natural barrier, from glacier to volcanic floe. Today’s migrants instead perish at invisible lines amongst man-made barriers that our ancestors would not recognize. Today’s migrants are not pursued, as our ancestors were, only by famine, violence or the infinite other eternal natural catastrophes, but are now joined the homunculus-catastrophes which have only been with us for half a millennia—race, ethnicity, citizenship, nationhood, state, civilization and humanity (I see it). Today’s migrants are defined, sardonically, not by their mobility, but rather by the impediments to their mobility and the impossibility to Remain.
I realize that my point of contention with those who believe in the immutable, divine nature of Migration arises from the abject poverty of the criteria; a superficial analysis reveals instead and in fact that only one criterion defines their migrant: mobility.
But, I can’t accept this after living in this world as an illegalized, clandestine migrant. To move and, maybe, re-settle is not the sine qua non that defines our condition, nor is it the necessary condition from which springs a chimeric ontology and renders it distinct within the infinite warm noise of something larger and deeper than History. The world of the steel-girded, desperate ancestor who was the first to become amphibious and who was the first to step foot in Asia is unrecognizable from ours. Everything has changed, from the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the contour of the continents whose form seems unchangeable and eternal on the timelines we can comprehend and experience (even just second hand). Our ancestors, just a crucially small subpopulation of them, moved and acted in space. We instead are moved to, are acted on. We cannot pass the Gate of Tears. We cannot cross our crossings and yet we are incapable of becoming fossil islands. We instead are caught in the empty, mute space of the strait.
THE FIRST BORDER.
Those events and processes we allude to when we say that Human beings have always migrated are pre-historical. They are in fact, pre-human. It was an ancestor we now refer to as Homo erectus who left east Africa almost as soon as they appeared in the fossil record. Just-shy of two-million years ago.Anatomically modern humans—us, we—are theorized based on archaeological and genetic evidence to have emerged roughly 3-200,000 years ago. There is a seemingly incomprehensible gap between movement and humanity, just as there is between civilization and nature. (Yes, I see it.)
Migration can be no more natural or eternal than agriculture. The first person or people who began seeking sterile figs and rescuing the genetic legacy of eunuch fruits were in fact planting and harvesting the first borders. By the time the grasses seduced us with their fat grains full of starchy carbohydrates, those 2,500,000 years of hominid mobility had come to an abrupt finale. Every flatbread and pint of fermented wheat broth was a revolution that toppled uncountable and unknowable ways of being.
The Poaceae created the conditions for human civilization, but they also led to an affective meteor strike. The grasses tamed us, in turn proscribing and encircling the amorphous, boundless distances humanity wandered through and broke them forever into more comprehensible units. Successive and iterative generations modified plots of primitive barley in what became a gradual but unquestionable terraforming. Our dreams of reliable calories created specialization and difference; now identities could form that were tied to the land and to the customs the land required and gifted. Instead of following great maned horses and cashmere-cloaked elephants within the boundless World Plain, humanity now occupied a town within a piece of just one valley. A fixed place in a world of fixed places, instead of a marker within an unfixable, endless placelessness.
The grasses and their germs gave us the hope our children would never know hunger pains. But, at a price. They mischievously birthed an even more powerful lack, a truly insatiable need—they created Home and the constant search for this Home. Agriculture, all hope staked on the generosity of these grasses, created the cemeteries where many mothers’ bones now could lay in one fixed place near us. These fixed places we now call cities. Leaving, in my imagination, is born here. Return, in my imagination, is born here. This is where the story of Migration must begin, if it does at all. The migrant must Leave if they can ever arrive (of course). They must be haunted by that one place until they Return, or they must forsake it and be reborn. This is incompatible with the nomadic mode of being. In constant motion within the great loop of infinity a beginning and end are meaningless.
And it is this that must force us, ultimately, to see how wrong we are when we speak in those same grand historical terms to say, “Human beings have always migrated.” It is clearly contradicted by the world around us, one built by those people, until very recently just a smaller subset of humanity, who must have and must be necessarily sedentary. In fact, isn’t the opposite quite true? (Here it is.)
It isn’t humanity—an extended, trans-species, eon-synched definition of it—that has moved, but rather a small subset of humanity. It has been the unfortunate who drift. It has been those unable to find and mind their ecological niche, who have moved. It has been those cast out by kin and beast, fire and famine who have moved after they had been settled. Just as today, the great and vast majority of the world’s billions do not migrate, so in our history has the majority of humanity remained rooted.
If there can be—now we dare again to speak in grand historical terms—any point or overarching goal of Civilization, it is to end the ceaseless wandering and rootless insecurity of the nature we had known from the moment we stood on our hind legs. The desire to Remain must have been so great to those tired people on the banks of the Euphrates or Yellow Rivers and the sugar-crusted shores of Melanesia that they clung to their pruned fields and first orchards despite the new vulnerabilities they birthed and the world-shattering crises their bounties would arouse. The desire to Remain in one place and cease moving was one stronger, we should understand in hindsight, than the atrocious scandal of the first War over land and resources that this remaining forced into being. The desire to Remain is the ur-desire of our iteration of humanity (I understand Genesis to Exodus differently now). To abandon this and take to wandering the anonymous face of the Earth once more is something so terrifying it must be done rarely by choice.
We have built on this will to stay ad infinitum until we arrived at this moment where the Roman limes became the San Ysidro Point of Entry. The border was a gene inside the kernel of civilization; one that expressed itself relatively late. It is the birth of these borders, these immobilizing systems and structures that birthed the migrant. I argue again, to migrate is not to move, but to be unable to move and yet see yourself forbidden to Remain. Those who enjoy mobility today are not migrants, but people whose capital of all kinds makes them frigate birds or man’o’wars amongst us; those riding currents. These tourists and fair-weather settlers are dandelion teeth-people. But, the migrant is the damned. The migrant is the sourceless and destination-deprived refuse. The migrant is the vestigial, increasingly-surplus negative-caloric variable in the cruel calculus of political economy.
HUMANITY HAS NEVER MIGRATED.
That this small subset—us, we—and their epic misfortunes have been taken as the normative state of all humanity and are presented as eternal and inevitable should give us great pause. It’s an unspeakable indignity; to think our endless, yet-unfurling banner of placelessness could be the flag of Humanity. Migration, we must understand if we are to win, is not natural, but a catastrophe. We should not assign agency to the collective history of desperate action precipitated–precisely–by a lack of agency and choice. The point of our advocacy is not only to rescue the right to move in the world we all inherit, but also the right to remain in acknowledgement that it is the infringement of the latter that often necessitates recourse to the former.
War, including those undeclared, births migrants. Crop failure—as at the beginning as now—due to climate change, births migrants. Violence amongst kin, births migrants. All the ghoulish forms of marginalizations we endure, births migrants. Migrants—us, we—are the consequence of calamity. Humanity has never migrated, only its damned have seen themselves forced to.
We must begin here
IMAGINING THE END OF THE MIGRANT
Without a doubt many more, unimaginably more, will too soon be uprooted and then find themselves pinioned to a soilless Earth and immobilized by the bulking, seeping carbuncle of surveillance, imprisonment and death that we still refer to bafflingly as borders. Unlike our ancestors who left ribbons of hair, blood and thick skin on the acacia thorns above the hunting grounds of better mammals, there will be no scavenged bones to break on rocks in search of still-warm marrow. There is nothing to keep us in the crook of Africa’s arm for millennia. Already for today’s migrant mothers there aren’t bones to crack.
Once, when our children sank like copper ingots into the global ocean, a poet might have been tolerated for saying that he would become a reef, that every urchin was a mother’s tear, every fish her prayer. Not today. Not anymore. The carbonic-green ocean gyres of today and tomorrow will simply crush our babes against bleached corals as dwindling numbers of fish fight to devour increasing numbers of human remains that will simply dissolve into bone slurries that can never become the resting place for new polyps. We are trapped again at the straits.
In view of these calamities, we must see Migration—our immobility and placelessness—not as eternal, natural and inevitable, but as modern, tragic and preventable if our political goals are to meet our true needs.
We must insist: human beings have never migrated.
Mr. Than Nguyen,
My apologies. I’m sorry it took all this to say that: I disagree.
I contributed a brief essay in this anthology. It’s good! Buy it!
Scientists still debate whether the Bab el-Mandeb, the strait that separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, had a land bridge due to lower sea levels during the period where Homo Erectus is theorized to have crossed within the Southern Dispersal Route theory of Out of Africa Migration. Whether wading or swimming, the Gate of Tears saw the first human attempts at trans-continental migration.
A drying climate combined with fires caused by lightning and early misuse of fire by Homo Erectus around 1.8 million years ago are theorized to have been among the principle factors that drove Homo Erectus from Africa and into Asia.
Accounting for hominins’ fast exit from Africa (“The Out of Africa Event 1”) due to widespread wildfires, accidentally and inevitably ignited by them, c.a. 1.8 – 1.6 mya. Michael Iannicelli. Journal of Anthropology and Archaeology December 2017, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 1-15)
Barely more precisely: around 1.8 million years ago.
The discovery of figs and fig drupes outside of Jericho that dated to one-thousand years before the domestication of wheat suggests it was the fig that began the human chain of agriculture. Because these fleshier figs produce neuter plants and sterile fruits, their propagation must have been human-driven and maintained. This gives me pause and makes me reflect seriously on the biblical account of the Garden of Eden in Genesis.