Where will you be? Why Black Lives Matter in the Hawaiian Kingdom

“The Elusive Jellyfish Nebula” by Bob Franke

Where will you be? Why Black Lives Matter in the Hawaiian Kingdom

by Joy Enomoto

The origin of the Kanaka Maoli universe begins with Pō, the deep rich Blackness found at the bottom of the sea and from which all life begins. Pō is the night and the realm of the gods.  Mai ka pō mai–of divine origin. One of Maui’s fiercest chiefs, Kahekili, tattooed half of his body black just like his namesake the god of Thunder. Pāʻele kūlani– the chiefly blackening. Pele is the chiefess of both sacred darkness and sacred light–ʻO Pele ia aliʻi o Hawaiʻi, he aliʻi no laʻa uli, no laʻa kea. We did not begin by fearing Blackness, but by revering its power, its sacredness, and its importance to our origins and our strength.

So how did Kānaka, whose origins are rooted in such beautiful, opulant, and powerful Blackness arrive in a world that has reduced Blackness to something marked inferior, criminal, filthy, lazy, unintelligent and evil? How has Blackness become synomous with state sanctioned homicide, lynching and enslavement?

How could Hawaiians ever take their cues about Blackness from the very people who overthrew our kingdom? Everyone from the whalers who gave us venereal disease, to the missionaries who called us heathens and savages and introduced the word “nika” into our vocabulary, to the plantation owners who stole our kingdom at gunpoint. These sugar barons enslaved millions of Africans, then came to Hawaiʻi and applied their white supremacist ideologies to Kānaka Maoli. They forbade our language and suppressed our culture in the same violent manner as those of African descent.

And yet so often, some of the most racist views on Blackness come from the mouths of Kānaka Maoli, who claim they believe in liberation and are opposed to oppression. What a powerful gift to give to your oppressor: to turn against the very people to whom you would otherwise be in natural solidarity.

They turned Blackness into a thing unpure, unclean, violent and inferior, by ranking the “purity” of our skin tone and adherence to Christianity. European men such as Jules d’Urville from France created the false cartographic divisions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, and placed Polynesians closest to whiteness. They marked Melanesians as black and convinced us that this was something that we should do too. We must rank each other in our proximity to Blackness. We must remove the “stain” of Blackness and push it far from us, although we can never escape its taint. This became the language used to justify genocide, lynching, and segregation. That violence and shame became so attached to Blackness, that all the colonizers had to do was to simply imply the mark of Blackness onto our cultures, to convince us to say–“but we are not that.” That is the insidiousness of colonization. But you know this.

“Tell them you’re not Negroes”
-Lydia K. Aholo, 1899, hānai daughter to Queen
Liliuʻokalani commenting on the advice given to
her and her  siblings by Prince Kūhiō while
traveling across the United States[1]

We must understand the context of how Hawaiians got here. In the mid-nineteenth century, Hawaiians were more than aware of the way America slaughtered Native tribes and enslaved Africans. So much so that, in 1852, Hawaiians outlawed slavery in their constitution and decreed that any slave that arrived in Hawaiʻi would be emancipated.[2] A few years earlier, in 1845, Prince Alexander ʻIolani Liholiho and his brother Prince Lot Kapuāiwa experienced American racism firsthand by nearly being thrown off of a train by a conductor because he assumed they were Black.[3] It was his memory of this experience that later enhanced his opposition to annexation. This shows that we knew we did not want to act as Americans, but as a free people who affirmed the liberation of others. BLACK LIVES MATTER. But between the time of Liholiho and Queen Liliʻuokalani, American theories of racialization had begun to take root in Hawaiʻi.

In the quote by Lydia K. Aholo, she recounts a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1899. Prince Kūhiō advised her and her siblings to “speak Hawaiian,” “sit where the white people sit and tell them you’re not Negroes.”[4] I believe this advice was given to prevent and protect the Hawaiian youth from being racialized and treated as inferior in a segregated America. It was an act of trying to retain their autonomy and resist Jim Crow. A gesture to say we are not inferior, we are the same as you and uncolonizable.  I cannot know what fears and threats of violence they faced from white americans during the those years surrounding the overthrow, but the choice made by aliʻi to consistently separate themselves from Blackness, even as a tactic for survival, has had far reaching implications.

In 1901, Queen Liliuʻokalani was turned away from four hotels in New York who mistakenly assumed her to be an “uppity” Negro. Had it not been for the makaʻāinana porter working at one of the hotels recognizing her and running ahead to the next hotel to tell them that the “Queen of Hawaiʻi is coming,” who knows how many more hotels would have denied her. The humiliation does not rest in the fact that the Queen was assumed to be Black, the humiliation comes in a society that determined that Black and Queen could not inhabit the same body. That a black body was not even worthy of entering the front door.

The makaʻāinana who went out into the diaspora on whaling ships and as migrant labor did not travel first class on steamers and trains across North America as the aliʻi did. Kānaka Maoli, unless traveling with white missionaries, were living among Native American, Black, and working-class immigrant communities. In the 19th century, to be  a Hawaiian commoner in the United States afforded you no protections.  This meant that many Hawaiian workers, far from Hawaiʻi, were often taken in and fed by other Native and Black communities. It also meant they faced the same dangers of racialization, segregation, imprisonment or possible enslavement or lynching that Black folks faced.[5]

But when Hawaiians are taught about our history, it is not filled with moʻolelo regarding the lives of the makaʻāinana who lived abroad and had to negotiate life under Jim Crow. In fact, we rarely discuss the true depth of anti-Black and anti-Native racism that any of our ancestors and aliʻi nui had to face. Instead we would rather talk about our fully-functioning government, our envoys to Europe, and treaties and letters of recognition from European nations affirming that we were sovereign. This is true; this is important to know. But we must also ask where were those nice countries when American businessmen stole our country at gunpoint? How much did traveling and dining with white elites slow our overthrow? How different would it have been if, while traveling, the aliʻi insisted that Blacks on the train be allowed to sit with them as a sign of solidarity to show their disgust with the American system? Impossible to imagine, but what if?

If we fast forward, after nearly a century of imposed Americanization[6] and the attempted obliteration of our language and our culture, the Hawaiian Renaissance became a part of the global uprisings demanding decolonization and civil rights. In Hawaiʻi and throughout the Pacific, you see people inspired by and learning from the Black Power movement and applying their strategies and tactics to their own movements. The first time that I ever heard Haunani-Kay Trask speak in person was at an Empowering Women of Color Conference in 1997. She quoted Malcolm X, Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, to name only a few of the African Americans who informed her politics. For me she was a game changer because she was the first Kanaka Maoli I had ever heard stress the importance of internationalism and intersectionality in our struggles. She was the first mana wahine I had ever heard call out the police violence aimed at Black communities. In fact, in a speech she gave in 1994, she stated,

…it is everywhere now. The violence of a police state protecting itself, and its white citizens. The violence of a political system dependent on mass exploitation. Looking into the heart of whiteness, I do not see a willingness to change only a ferocious determination to keep the black masses at bay.

Listening to her as a young woman of both African American and Hawaiian ancestry, I learned from Dr. Trask all the ways that Hawaiian Sovereignty could be something more than narrow nationalism. Because rather than distance Hawaiʻi from Black Liberation, she aligned the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement with Black Liberation. She was clear that although our struggles are distinctly different, we need solidarity to have true sovereignty. She spoke of women at the center of liberation movements worldwide–in Palestine, the Americas, Aotearoa, Papua Niugini, the Marshall Islands and Australia. She spoke out against the nuclear testing in Micronesia and demanded a nuclear free Pacific. Her ability to “weave ropes of resistance,” as my friend Noʻu Revilla recently said, showed all of us the kind of nation we could build together.

So now it is 2017. There is a fascist in the white house who has no respect for humanity and who is being funded by the Ku Klux Klan. Countless Black lives have been killed by the state and now this killing will intensify with little to no consequence. But we are also in a world whose eyes are finally opening to what we have been saying about the lies of the U.S. all along. The streets are flooded by those who want to build a movement for liberation that is intersectional, powerful and filled with love. It is our turn to speak, to rise-up, to dismantle, to change and to build.  We no longer live in a world that allows us the luxury of ranking oppressions. Our liberation is tied to the liberation of all oppressed peoples– this includes women, refugees, queer and transgender people, I mean ALL oppressed peoples. As Bryan Kuwada said in an earlier post on this blog, “the idea that we can create a safe space, a puʻuhonua, here in Hawaiʻi is still something worth imagining.” We must not only imagine it. We must be a place of rest and healing and sanctuary within each other. We cannot survive otherwise.

By supporting Black Lives Matter, we do not lose Hawaiian ways of resistance and knowing, we do not stop perpetuating our culture or lose our language. By supporting Black Lives, our ea is enhanced. As a sovereign people we are saying we will stand as an example to those that would do us all harm, that their old tricks can no longer divide us. There is nothing more threatening to the state than mass solidarity across race, class and gender differences because there are far more of us. As long as we let the label of Blackness be seen as something less than beautiful, we are consenting to white supremacy. But when we embrace Blackness in all its forms, we no longer let the mark of Blackness hurt us. If we instead say, “Thank you, I am proud to stand in resistance with my sisters and brothers in the struggle,” then we can be better than we were yesterday. Onipaʻa ana ka pono–let the right stand firm. Let us stand up for Blackness and protect Black lives. BLACK LIVES MATTER IN THE HAWAIIAN KINGDOM.

Furthermore, the first people of the Pacific were Black. Hawaii belongs to the Pacific. And so we must act against the genocide that is happening in West Papua being imposed by the Indonesian Army to protect mining interests, we must support the Kanak liberation struggle of New Caledonia as they continue their struggle for independence from France, we cannot forget the islands threatened by climate change in Vanuatu, Fiji, the Cook and Solomon Islands. BLACK LIVES MATTER IN OCEANIA.

As people with powerful histories of resistance, Hawaiians and Black folks have so much to learn from each other, and we welcome you with all of our aloha. However, that aloha comes with certain expectations of mutual respect. That means when Hawaiians stand up for Black lives, you show up for Hawaiian Lives and Pacific Lives, you show up for us as many times as you want us to show up for you. It means we all must expand our definitions of Blackness to include our Pacific sisters and brothers, whose lives have been marked as black while respecting how they define themselves. I say all this to mean, that undoing the impacts of our colonization is a process of reciprocity, but the result is our freedom.

As a closing thought, I have written a variation to Black lesbian activist, Pat Parker’s poem “ Where will you be?”

Where will we all be when they come?
And they will come —
they will come because
we are defined as opposite
and we are perverse.

Every time we watched
a queer hassled in the streets
and said nothing
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we did not interrupt racism
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we heard,
someone say that Muslims
are all extremist terrorists
and said nothing
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we let
a Black mother lose her child
and did not fill
the courtroom
fill the streets
take over buildings
shut down cities
–It was an act of perversion.

Every time we let
our friends and family
accuse Micronesians
of being welfare burdens
and say nothing
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we hear
the State proclaim that
there is no such thing
as a climate refugee
and refuse to open our
our borders
our homes
– It is an act of perversion.

Every time we heard
a transgender woman
lost her life
and the killer is set free
and we did not
take to the streets
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we made excuses
for rapists
for misogynists
for transphobia and homophobia
– It was an act of perversion.

Every time we watched
Zionist expansion,
Israeli checkpoints and
the genocide of Palestinians
and did nothing
– It was an act of perversion

Every time they build
and expand military bases in
Puerto Rico
the Philippines
and do not fill the islands with bodies of resistance
– It is an act of perversion

And they will come.
They will come
for the perverts
& it won’t matter if you’re
homosexual, not a faggot
lesbian, not a dyke
gay, not queer
It won’t matter if you
own your business
have a good job
or are on S.S.I.
It won’t matter if you’re
Native American
or White
It won’t matter if you’re from
New York
or Los Angeles
or Standing Rock
It won’t matter if you’re
Butch, or Femme
Not into roles
It won’t matter if you’re
or Mormon
They will come
They will come
to the cities
and to the land
to your front rooms and in your closets.
They will come for the perverts
and where will
you be
When they come?


[1] Sandra Bonura and Sally Witmer, “Lydia K. Aholo- Her story: Recovering the Lost Voice,” Hawaiian Journal of History 47 (2013): 127

[2] Hawaiian Constitution. Article 12 “Ke Kumukānāwai o ka Makahiki 1852”

[3] Liholiho, The Journal of Prince Alexander Lliholiho, 108

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. 2016.

[6] Denationalization through Americanization/

4 thoughts on “Where will you be? Why Black Lives Matter in the Hawaiian Kingdom

  1. from deep in my heart i thank you joy for this amazing, profound, powerful message that is so needed, so healing, and so galvanizing all at once!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember being in the car when my mother was pulled over by a state trooper in Maryland in the early 60’s. In the course of the conversation I heard mom say “I’m not black, I’m Hawaiian.” The trooper’s face changed. All of a sudden this dark-faced woman was exotic. He wished her a good day and let us go. Mom smiled until he was gone and then cried all the way home. Later, when she designed a float for the state of Hawaii for the Winchester Apple Blossom parade, she put one of her colleagues on it – an African-American soldier from the base she worked at. She wanted as many races represented on the float as she could and he stood on this float in his uniform. My mom loved the diversity she grew up with in Hawaii. She instilled that love in all of us. It was one of the ways she lived aloha. Thank you for this post.


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