Revisiting “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

[This was first posted in 2015, but the current social climate has persuaded me to re-post this, and perhaps some other pertinent posts, as a response to what I hear out there.]

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

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
blessings,
Maia
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

A Powerful Woman Speaks Truth

The essay “Women Policing Women: the Prison of Belief” is a very powerful, clear, and truthful statement addressing the issue of women who oppose feminist ideas and who shame independent women. I really love the analogy to religion — if something questions one’s beliefs, the human tendency is to “double-down” and trash whatever it is that brings up the question rather than look honestly at one’s own belief and sort through to the truth.

That’s what Etomi says is happening when women criticize other women for being “too independent” or expressing any kind of feminist ideas. Patriarchy is first of all a belief system, a “religion” of sorts, especially when it gets entwined with fundamentalism in various religions. Questioning it then becomes questioning the whole religious foundation of someone’s life. For most people, it’s just too hard to go through the analysis and truth-seeking required to come out on the other side of that, so they just harden their positions with attacks on others who differ.

It is a very worthwhile essay, though a bit long, and I recommend it highly to anyone who would maintain a life of integrity.

Women Policing Women — by Ozzy Etomi on Medium, from Athena Speaks.

 

Ta Nehisi… again

Ta-Nehisi Coates may be the best social analyst and writer currently working in the American press. I am once again astounded at the clarity and honesty he brings to bear on the Obama presidency in his recent — long! — article in The Atlantic, My President Was Black.

Witness this passage, in which he says Obama’s speech to the DNC in 2004 belongs to:

… the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.

While one might expect Coates to engage in apologetics for Obama, it doesn’t happen. Though he is honest in his baseline admiration for the man and the work he’s done, he steadfastly holds the Presidential feet to the flame:

Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.

These excerpts, though disconnected and probably disorganized, serve to show the remarkable depth of analysis and penetrating gaze that Coates brings to the subject. He also unfailingly puts it all into a social/economic context that makes it both understandable and sad. And he is unflinching in calling out the deep-seated racism in American history and society.

The mark of that system is visible at every level of American society, regardless of the quality of one’s choices. For instance, the unemployment rate among black college graduates (4.1 percent) is almost the same as the unemployment rate among white high-school graduates (4.6 percent). But that college degree is generally purchased at a higher price by blacks than by whites. According to research by the Brookings Institution, African Americans tend to carry more student debt four years after graduation ($53,000 versus $28,000) and suffer from a higher default rate on their loans (7.6 percent versus 2.4 percent) than white Americans. This is both the result and the perpetuator of a sprawling wealth gap between the races. White households, on average, hold seven times as much wealth as black households—a difference so large as to make comparing the “black middle class” and “white middle class” meaningless; they’re simply not comparable. According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University who studies economic mobility, black families making $100,000 a year or more live in more-disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000. This gap didn’t just appear by magic; it’s the result of the government’s effort over many decades to create a pigmentocracy—one that will continue without explicit intervention.

……

When I asked Obama about this perspective, he fluctuated between understanding where the activists were coming from and being hurt by such brush-offs. “I think that where I’ve gotten frustrated during the course of my presidency has never been because I was getting pushed too hard by activists to see the justness of a cause or the essence of an issue,” he said. “I think where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it. And that sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Usually I’d just smile.”

He laughed, then continued, “The reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?’ ”

……

The thought experiment doesn’t hold up. The programs Obama favored would advance white America too—and without a specific commitment to equality, there is no guarantee that the programs would eschew discrimination. Obama’s solution relies on a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country. My own history tells me something different. The large numbers of black men in jail, for instance, are not just the result of poor policy, but of not seeing those men as human.

The most recent Congress boasted 138 members from the states that comprised the old Confederacy. Of the 101 Republicans in that group, 96 are white and one is black. Of the 37 Democrats, 18 are black and 15 are white. There are no white congressional Democrats in the Deep South. Exit polls in Mississippi in 2008 found that 96 percent of voters who described themselves as Republicans were white. The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness.

…..

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

I encourage everyone to read this wonderful piece of journalism.

I liked the article so much, I subscribed to The Atlantic. And sent them a letter saying I did it because I liked the article. Hope they appreciate it!  🙂

A miracle at Standing Rock

Yes, a miracle is what we need, what the world needs. Charles Eisenstein suggests that the miracle could begin at Standing Rock. The miracle of action out of compassion, seeing the Other as oneself, opening one’s heart to the realities of all beings – a miracle of love.

The halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be miraculous simply because of the array of powerful ruling interests that are committed to building it. Not only has Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the pipeline, but a who’s-who of global banks has committed over $10 billion in lines of credit to ETP and other involved entities. Those banks, many of whom are facing financial stress of their own, are counting on the profits from the loans at a time when credit-worthy capital investments are hard to come by. Finally, the United States government has (in its estimation) a geopolitical interest in increasing domestic oil production to reduce the economic power of Russia and the Middle East. To hope to halt the pipeline in the face of such powers is in a certain sense unrealistic.

But, Charles says, things could go differently this time, if we all stay off the warpath, as the elders have advised the Water Protectors to do. “… at Standing Rock, something different is possible. It is not because the Dakota Sioux have finally acquired more guns or money than the pro-pipeline forces. It is because we are ready collectively for a change of heart.”

That’s pretty strong. This is an opening not seen in a long time, and one that could stand as a non-violent model for all the confrontations we’re likely to see over the next four years or so. If the pipeline is re-routed, it establishes a precedent – we can affect even these huge corporate projects if we stay focused, unified and nonviolent.

It will be a victory whether to pipeline is stopped or not: “This has already born fruit: if not for the resolute nonviolence of the resistance, the government would surely have forcefully evicted the Water Protectors by now, justifying violence with violence.”

Each of these invitations onto the warpath also presents an opportunity to defy the enabling narratives of violence and to take a step toward victory without fighting. It is an opportunity to employ what Gandhi called “soul force.” Meeting violence with nonviolence invites the other into nonviolence as well.

Beyond that, this action has the potential to awaken the world:

… when we choose love in the face of enormous temptation to hate, we are issuing a powerful prayer for a world of love. When we refuse to dehumanize in the face of atrocity, we issue a prayer for universal dignity. When thousands of people sacrifice their safety and comfort to protect the water, a powerful prayer issues from their gathering. Some day, in some form, it will be answered.

Charles’ essay is very much worth reading:

Standing Rock: A Change of Heart

Joanna Macy – heart wisdom

Joanna Macy, a wonderful Buddhist teacher with many years of deep practice and profound teachings, shares this wisdom on the dark times we live in. I’m paraphrasing…

These times, The Great Turning, call for Shambala Warriors wielding the twin weapons of Compassion and Insight – Compassion to provide the heat and motivation to get out there and do what needs to be done and the cooling wisdom of Insight into the ‘radical inter-dependence of all phenomena.’ And we must understand that it is not a war between the good guys and the bad guys, but that ‘the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.’

Deep wisdom that only true practice can help us bring into the world.

Joanna shares this in her movie, The Great Turning, and this clip is available to view on Vimeo – Joanna Macy on the Shambala Warrior.

Metta for All Beings

In these dark times, times that demand such awareness and commitment to strong action, we need to build each others’ heart strength for the suffering we will encounter, for the hard work we will do, for the long struggle we must endure.

One way of building this strength is to send out heart-felt messages to others, spoken and unspoken messages that come from the meditative state and have power to spread encouragement and support. In some Buddhist traditions, this process is known as metta, which is usually translated ‘loving kindness’, but goes far beyond that when part of a deep practice of compassion and compassionate action.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel composed this poem, whose words speak to us so strongly in light of recent words and actions, in the spirit of that powerful form of metta:

 

For All Beings

May all beings be cared for and loved,

Be listened to, understood and acknowledged despite different views,

Be accepted for who they are in this moment,

Be afforded patience,

Be allowed to live without fear of having their lives taken away or their bodies violated.

May all beings

Be well in its broadest sense,

Be fed,

Be clothed,

Be treated as if their life is precious,

Be held in the eyes of each other as family.

May all beings

Be appreciated,

Feel welcomed anywhere on the planet,

Be freed from acts of hatred and desperation including war, poverty, slavery, and street crimes,

Live on the planet, housed and protected from harm,

Be given what is needed to live fully, without scarcity,

Enjoy life, living without fear of one another,

Be able to speak freely in a voice and mind of undeniable love.

May all beings

Receive and share the gifts of life,

Be given time to rest, be still, and experience silence.

May all beings

Be awake.

The poem was published in Turning Wheel by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 2009. May it be spoken, heard, understood and enacted throughout the world.

Metta!