The Fire Next Time

That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and control my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me…

–James Baldwin

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – about which I blogged earlier this week – sent me back to reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I had not read since 1999. And there, on page 27, is the quote above with its unattributed reference to the same line from Richard Wright which gave Coates his title.

Wright’s poem of the same name, from White Man Listen! (1957), says:

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….

These lines have drawn me in to the many points of similarity in the two writers, and especially reminded me of how much power and depth there is in James Baldwin.

Coates has drawn much inspiration from Baldwin, and seems poised to fill Baldwin’s role as a leading intellectual and articulate voice for the inchoate rage now welling up among Black Americans and their friends. Coates and Baldwin both reject the church, the street, the schools, and all other forms of escape and denial as beneath us, distractions from the worthy goals of freedom and dignity.

Both maintain that the same forces that have driven black people into slavery have created the degraded forms of life now ruling the ghettos and the suburbs alike, and promise to destroy all that is lovable in human life as well as threaten the very biosphere – at least the parts of it that we depend on. Baldwin sees our only salvation in “transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.” [p. 81]

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin lays down the philosophical basis that informs much of Coates work, the idea that white people – or people who “think they are white” as he says in the essay “On Being White… And Other Lies” – are harmed as much by racism as are black people, and that it is in order to maintain their very grasp on reality, their sense of themselves, that white people today cling to racism so tenaciously.

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. [p. 21]

Baldwin is profound in his understanding of the realities of life, and warns against retribution: “I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

His deep spiritual understanding of life is reflected also in these incredibly beautiful, perceptive and sensitive lines:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. [p. 90-91]

He doesn’t shrink from the horrors of the American system or the cruelty of the situation, but he finds, as does Coates, some light of hope for our future. “…the white man himself is in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks – the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. … In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

On “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies*”, James Baldwin laid the creation of the racist society that threatens our very existence at the feet of those waves of European immigrants who left behind their separate national/cultural identities to come to “America” and become white.

In his new work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up where Baldwin left off, explicating the idea, describing in heart-breaking personal detail this deeply rooted cancer, and painting a richly textured vision of what it’s like growing up black in America today, the America of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, this book pierces to the heart of the moral bankruptcy that is being revealed in greater detail with each passing news cycle.

To say this book is profound, deep, pivotal is almost understatement. This book is a samurai sword cutting off the head of the monster that has arisen from the festering evil pit of “white supremacy”. It makes as clear as seems possible exactly how and why this situation has come to pass, exactly how horrendous it is, and lays out a vision of what just possibly could be a way through to a future for humanity.

Coates articulates so clearly the perspective, the experience, the human tragedy of Black America that it seems to me that anyone who reads this book would experience at least a crack in the armor of hate and apathy that perpetuates this evil situation. He allows one to get inside – as nearly as possible via the writers’ craft – how it feels, the fear and insecurity, the anger and loathing that permeate our streets. With the added dimension of the father’s deep sadness and fear for his son, that most deeply human quality of love and instinct for protection, he buries his message deep in the heart.

Tony Morrison says this book is “required reading” and that Coates fills the intellectual void left when Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe it could open the hearts and minds of even the most mean-spirited, small-minded, low-life racists and haters, and if it could truly become required reading for our next generation, we might have a chance.

As you feel Coates’ love for his child, this so-familiar human emotion, his deep humanity comes through, and you understand in this deeply visceral way that his color, his appearance, his “race” is such a small and superficial aspect of who he is that one can only see, however dimly, what an absurd notion is “race.”

But this book goes far beyond debunking racism, far beyond a simple diatribe on the evils of racist white society. It provides a deeply honest inquiry into what it takes for one man to be free, a lyric anthem to the meaning of the struggle, and a truly profound vision of humanity at its heart.

Coates also makes it clear that the black people of America are not the sole victims of the flawed vision of life, which he calls The Dream, but that this habit of thought, this conception of the human role on the earth is creating a violent, authoritarian nightmare that is laying waste the people of the earth and the Earth itself.

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” [p. 98]

“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”[p. 111]

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

Coates’ vision for a transcendent future is not an overly hopeful one. But it likely is the best we have. “I do not believe we can stop them,” he says of The Dreamers, the “white” power elite who are destroying black people and the world. He goes on, speaking to his son, Samori, who is named for the late 19th century Guinean who resisted the French colonial powers:

“…because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

If we who call ourselves white can step off this stage, shed this absurd notion of whiteness, abandon the destructive pursuits of the ill-conceived ‘dream’, and learn to struggle, to find the meaning in the struggle alongside those who have suffered so much and know its lessons, then perhaps there’s some light at the end of that long dark tunnel we’ve made. Perhaps we’ll find our way together to a new story that includes everyone and everything.

[*For a PDF of Baldwin’s essay, visit Collective Liberation]

http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

As though she were normal…

Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son recounting his early life experiences, is breaking my heart. This passage has left me shattered, breathing in labored snatches:

I fell again… for another girl, tall with long flowing dreadlocks. She was raised by a Jewish mother in a small, nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania, and now, at Howard, ranged between women and men, asserted this not just with pride but as though it were normal, as though she were normal. I know it’s nothing to you now, but I was from a place — America — where cruelty toward humans who loved as their deepest instincts instructed was a kind of law.

A wonderful book, and one I hope to share more of here…

Gate Gate…

Gate Gate, ParaGate, ParasamGate, Bodhi Svaha.

Doing the dharani this morning during my meditation. A nice round of 108 of those does wonders for one’s stress level. Which I was definitely needing this morning.

The chanting and a few capsules of “Calm the Bitch” and I’m feeling much better! Ah, yes, that’s an herbal blend with an inappropriate name, perhaps, but an effective blend and a perfectly descriptive name!

Not sure exactly what’s in it as it’s a personal blend from our friend Hsin-Hsin, a Chinese Medicine practitioner who manages the herbal pharmacy at East-West College of Natural Medicine. One of her students gave it the name after discovering its power to calm anger and relieve stress. Mostly citrus and a little He Huang Pi (Collective Happiness bark), I think.

But, back to the chanting. It’s the dharani from the Heart Sutra, one I’ve been chanting for nearly 30 years now. Its literal meaning, if such can be assigned to a dharani, is something like: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. Enlightenment be praised.” Some English versions include the phrases “gone to the other shore” and “having never left.”

Its real meaning is more in the sound of it than the words, and that sound can be transcendent. Especially if one is immersed in the Heart Sutra itself. But that’s way beyond the scope of this blog entry! Red Pine has a great book on the sutra if you’re interested.

Chanting dharanis or mantras is not something I do much of. It is more like medicine to me than a practice. I use it often when driving to help with the stress of that situation. I don’t think a practice built on daily chanting has the power to bring the kind of liberation, deep and wide liberation, that I see a true meditation practice as capable of bringing. I could be wrong about that, but it seems so to me.

I needed its medicine today, though.

Life has been rather loaded with stress, even anger, lately. I find that dealing with the stress via meditation and herbs is better than living in denial or escape. Much of the social malaise which plagues us nowadays could be laid at the feet of a public who would rather ignore, escape from, or deny social problems.

Much of my stress comes from the deeply sad, wounded nature of the world today. Though I live in this quiet, lovely community, word seeps in of the incomprehensible terror and pain that so many in our world, our sweet and beautiful world, live in. So many of my fellow beings, human and otherwise, find their daily lives surrounded by a hostile world of greed, anger and delusion, a world where these three poisons are taking human form in monstrous ways….

Monstrous ways that seem to threaten the very lives of all of us on so many levels. If it is true, as some propose, that we humans have developed to be the means by which this planet or even the entire cosmos is self-aware, then we are sensitive to all this pain and agony to good purpose. Which is why I think it’s better not to hide from or deny these realities. But it can be unpleasant and stressful, to say the least.

This stress can impact our lives and relationships in many ways. The most difficult thing for me, in trying to live a meditation-based life, is that I find myself in a near-constant state of frustration that cascades into irritation and anger, with an occasional outburst leading to more stress and unpleasant, hurtful feelings for ones I love.

A recent outburst and the fallout from that is a big part of my current need for stress medication! Things are improving greatly today, but the last few days were — well, not so good.

The positive side – the “wisdom side” as the Tibetans say – of this experience has been that it shows me once again how important it is to be consistent and deep and real in my meditation practice. My first Zen teacher always said that his teacher said, “One hour or meditation, one hour of enlightenment.”

Keep sitting.

Or, as that great philosopher Dave Mason said long ago, “Can’t stop worrying about the things we do. Can’t stop loving, without it nothing would seem true.”