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

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!  🙂

Breathing thru the pain

My dharma friend Maia Duerr has a beautiful perspective on the recent horrors of hatred and violence rife in our world: it’s all the pain of birthing a new life.

In her July Full Moon newsletter, Maia shared her thoughts and a wonderful new video from India.Arie, “Breathe”, which led me to a good cry that I knew I had been needing! Maia says she believes “we are in the throes of some tremendous birthing process.”

With every bone in my body I believe we are on our way to living into a more awakened way of being with each other and being on the Earth. But we are not there yet. Like any birthing process, the going can get very rough and it would be delusional for me to not recognize that things will likely get ‘worse’ before they get better. Those who are entrapped by fear and ignorance are acting out in ever-more terrifying ways. But always remember this is not the truth of who we are as human beings. 

As some in the #blacklivesmatter movement have pointed out, things are not necessarily worse now, they’re just getting uncovered. What we’re seeing is the karmic fruit of centuries of injustice and a mindless, grasping social and economic order. Maia says, “This brutally honest recognition of “what is,” painful as it may be, is a necessary step toward transformation.”

We can only continue to live our lives if we maintain some kind of confidence that this transformation, this world-wide awakening, is possible and is happening despite our difficulty seeing it.

Maia’s words, and India.Arie’s video, are helping me get through this week.

#blacklivesmatter

A different perspective on crisis

Charles Eisenstein, my go-to guy for understanding what’s happening in this crazy world, for making sense of it – at least the sense of seeing clearly what the causes and implications of it all are – has written another gem. Whatever he writes about, it seems that he’s able to clarify everything and bring a beautiful, open perspective to the world as he explicates the question at hand.

This one is on ‘Brexit’ – and by extension Trumpism.

He says that the conventional interpretations of the motives of the anti-elitist sentiment as expressed in both these current phenomena are flawed and patronizing to the extreme, blaming it all on the ignorant xenophobia and racist attitudes of the ‘yahoos’. He notes that there are deep and legitimate reasons behind both the anti-EU vote and Trump supporters’ anger.

We don’t agree on what to do, but more and more of us have lost faith in the system and its stewards. When right-wing populists blame our problems on dark-skinned people or immigrants, the response they arouse draws its power from real and justifiable dissatisfaction. Racism is its symptom, not its cause.

It’s the underlying assumptions and attitudes that are creating all of these problems, the ideas that drive people to fear, anger and hatred against someone – who depending on one’s social analysis.

 The right-wing populists incite hatred and anger at the blacks, the immigrants, the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the “libtards,” etc. The mainstream liberals stir up outrage against the bigots, the nationalists, the contemptible narrow-minded over-entitled “crazy” (a common adjective) climate-change-denying Bible-thumpers. Further left, the critics of neoliberal imperialism follow the same formula by invoking images of heartless corporate executives, greedy bankers, cowardly political elites, and drone-like bureaucrats and technocrats who should surely know better.

Understanding the causes of all this – and then communicating with each other about how to solve it – is the only way our world will come to find a way through all this that leads to a livable world for all.

Charles says the underlying issue is the mindset of modernity, the belief that we as humans are separate and set apart from the rest of life, and from each other.

 …it is part of a mindset that is integral to modernity and has roots going back to the first mass societies. It is fundamentally the mindset of war, in which progress consists in defeating the enemy: weeds or locusts, barbarians or communists; germs or cholesterol; gun nuts or traitors. And that mindset rests on a foundation more basic still: the Story of Separation that holds us as discrete, separate individuals in a world of other, in opposition to random forces and arbitrary events of nature, and in competition with the rest of life. Well-being comes, in this story, through domination and control: glyphosate, antibiotics, GMOs, SSRIs, surveillance systems, border fences, kill lists, prisons, curfews…

–Which pretty much describes most of the nasty stuff going on around us!

It is from this story too that neoliberal capitalism sources its power. It depends on the idealization of competition, encoded in “free markets,” as a law of nature and primary driver of progress; on the sanctity of private property (which is a primal form of domination) and, most of all, on exercising control over others through the creation and enforcement of debt.

At some point, Brexit, Trump, or worse will shake us out of our trance, break our fascination with this world story, and force us to confront the beliefs that underpin it all. Maybe then humanity will embrace the interbeing that is our true home, and we can all live in this world together.

Coal Karma

There is a certain degree of karmic fruiting involved in the whole threat of toxic coal ash dumping in this little southern community.

I say this with trepidation and apologies to friends and neighbors involved, as I don’t mean to make light of the threat or the struggle to prevent it, but only to put it in the larger context. And certainly I’m not saying it in the sense that this county, this community, has done something to specifically deserve this fate. (Though our leaders could have been more astute!)

No, the choice of spots to dump on is pretty random in the rolling engine of destruction, the Leviathan that is big-coal/big-utility/big-disposal.

In the bigger picture, however, the cultural context of late-stage capitalism in the U.S., we all have brought this on ourselves, gorging ourselves on the material world without thought of the consequences for the past several centuries. In a capitalist system ruled by profit, if we want cheap energy for the vast array of “labor-saving devices”, entertainment, recreation, travel, business – and all in air-conditioned comfort – then we must burn coal, split atoms, dam rivers, drill and mine. All those things that are insult to the Earth and anathema to life.

Why have we done this?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his recent work Between the World and Me, [see my post], the same mentality that created and perpetuated the plunder of colonialism, slavery, and racism is behind our current ecological crisis:

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]

In another post, I noted:

Both [Coates and James Baldwin] 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]

So this threat of toxic destruction looming over small rural communities throughout the southern U.S. could be seen as the ultimate karmic retribution for our sins of racism, consumerism, plunder.

I believe that only as we can rise above these past divisions and join together will we be able to avoid this immediate threat and the long-term threat our way of life poses to life on the planet.

Related posts:

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/30/the-fire-next-time/

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/18/as-though-she-were-normal/

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/29/on-between-the-world-and-me/

Quivering with compassion, quaking with confusion-

From Buddhist Peace Fellowship: (this describes my state of heart – Perfectly!)
People need space to make sense of this political moment — Trump’s hate mongering, the daily stories of cops killing folks of color, and the inspiring brilliance of liberatory movements like #BlackLivesMatter. White Buddhists are reading about this in the news or seeing the stories pile up in their Facebook feed, with aching hearts quivering with compassion but troubled minds quaking with confusion. How could all this be happening — hadn’t they been told that racism was a thing of the past? — Dawn Haney, BPF co-director, in Growing the Ranks…
As my friend said yesterday, I find myself crying everyday, thinking, what is this place? Looking around at what people are saying, I wonder, who are these people? How can they have so much hate, anger, fear? Dawn’s answer to the venom directed at the Black Lives Matter concept, it seems so simple and obvious, I wonder why it’s so hard for some to get it. Dawn says:
We demand that Black Lives Matter, because in the relative reality, they don’t. If we want all lives to matter, its time we started making sure that black lives matter.
And I wonder what is the role we White Buddhists can play? This answer  from Mushim Patricia Ikeda is instructive:

If you’re at the beginning of your ally journey, there’s something you need to know, right off the bat, if you haven’t already given it a lot of thought. Beyond feeling good about being anti-racist, you’re going to need to face your fear of losing your protected status as a white person.

We can begin to see and feel that fear, and live with it enough to understand what’s driving some of those angry folks, without letting the anger rise in us. That means a lot of sitting with the feelings, because it’s not easy. I’m pretty sure almost all anger has fear underneath it, so there’s that natural progression that wants to happen. Just watching it, watching it, seeing it for what it is… that’s the only way I know of to be clear.

A lot of practice, some of it sitting. Some of it while walking around, talking, lying down, working, thinking. A lot of letting it sit in the heart without denying, excusing, suppressing, ignoring. That’s what it will take.