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Building a nation is an intimate affair

I was searching for an old edition of Dazed and Confused on one of my daughter’s bookshelves and, as I was doing so, I re-discovered a booklet that had been published in 2006 to accompany Jimmie Durham’s exhibition, ‘Building a nation’. I liked the cover photograph on the booklet and so I began reading the accompanying text that was written by Richard William Hill. I’m interested in the way identities are constructed and Hill’s short introductory essay had something important to say about the way we fabricate (we make) persons. He wrote:

Jimmie Durham and I both collect horrible genocidal quotations by famous Americans. Our collections are substantial because there is no shortage of musings on the mass-murder of Indians once you go looking. Perhaps, despite the lessons of experience, we believe that with enough evidence the rest of humanity might abandon the dreadful mythology of cowboys and Indians and recognise that the United States (and the other settler colonies of the Americas) were built on theft and genocidal racism towards Indigenous peoples …

And the booklet includes reference to a number of the genocidal quotations that Jimmie Durham used in his exhibition. But Hill continues:

Some of the quotations are from well-known American political figures, but the most sinister, in my opinion, are songs for children. They are a reminder, despite the Anglo-American penchant for categorically distinguishing public and private life, that nation building is an intimate affair, completed one mind at a time in the ‘privacy’ of your home as you do the things you most enjoy, often in a state of childish innocence.

Immediately opposite Hill’s essay are printed excerpts from two hymns that may well be sung in school. The first, ‘Stand up Stand up for Jesus’ was written by George Duffield. It begins:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Ye soldiers of the cross,
Lift high His royal banner
It must not suffer loss;

From vict’ry unto vict’ry,
His army shall he lead
Till ev’ry foe is vanquished,
And Christ is Lord Indeed.

The second is ‘Onward! Christian soldiers’ by Sabine Baring-Gould. It has a similar call to arms and begins:

Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus Going on Before:
Christ the royal Master Leads against the foe:
Forward into Battle, See, His Banners go.

As I read the booklet and looked at the illustrations I paused and gazed out of my window. I could see a school:it’s a primary school and each morning the parents bring their children to the school and everyone waits for the gates to be unlocked by a caretaker. Then, once the gates are unlocked, the children and many of the parents enter – and walk across a large playground towards the various school buildings. Occasionally I can hear fragments of conversation between the parents and their children or simply between the parents themselves. In mid-afternoon the parents return to collect their offspring. And this gives me another chance to hear bits and pieces of conversation. Culturally it’s an ambiguous space for the parents and the children because it is neither fully public nor private. But it’s clearly somewhere in which some very definite nation-building occurs…

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