Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Healing the Trauma of the Middle Passage
by J. Alfred Smith
For those of us who believe in the actualization of the high ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "beloved community" and the necessity of joining Howard Thurman's search for common ground, Tikkun nourishes these values. This is true for me and for many who reflect the ethnic colors of the rainbow. Rabbi Michael Lerner, with a unique synthesis of rational precision and compassionate intensity, calls all of us in our rich diversity and cultural complexity to rise above our narcissism for an altruism that will favor the living and the yet to be born in the human community. The way that Rabbi Lerner risks life and limb to help build the human community reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist of my own social location whose moral consistency harmonized creed and deed and who believed that self-sacrifice is the highest virtue and value.
Rabbi Lerner and Tikkun are an inestimable resource for all of us seeking harmony with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Such a resource is an oasis for desert travelers. When I critically read the articles in Tikkun, at times over and over again, I am helped to see my mental blind spots. I am more grateful for the richness of diversity in dialogue in the pursuit of holistic truth. I am motivated to walk through the desert with people of good will, even though many may not share my own cultural and creedal social location. John Donne, the English poet says it best: "No man [or woman] is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
Although John Donne wrote these words during the Renaissance when many sought isolation, modern society in pursuit of the comfort and security of nationalism must remember Thomas Wolfe's novel You Can't Go Home Again. No Tea Party can take America back to the illusion of prosperity and the hegemony of undisputed power at home and abroad or to a time of a manifest destiny when a backwater provincialism allowed the slaves to be legally trapped in America's caste of untouchables. Let not the sophisticated metropolis return to the restrictive, smothering mindset of oppressors of those who did not arrive on America shores in the ships of the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria. Between the arrival of the ships in 1492 and the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 was the first, in 1619, of countless nameless ships that would help establish a capitalistic, mercantile economy in which slaves on the ships had no intrinsic value in terms of human dignity, but only extrinsic cash value not as persons, but as commodities for economic expansion and growth.
Today there is the practice of objectifying persons as little more than chattel when some in corporate culture outsource their work for the cheapest labor in pursuit of profit. This use of Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages allows inhumane employment practices to be codified by law and by blindness to the far-reaching, harmful effects such practices have upon the employer and the employee. The practitioners of Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages scare the soul of the nation, and both the oppressed and their posterity feel the continuing shock waves of the middle passage trauma, even to this day, from being considered genetically inferior. This trauma of dislocation and dehumanization called for a redefinition of the oppressed by the anthropologists, biologists, and sociologists, and even the religionists who have been co-opted by the hegemonic power of social Darwinism.
Historians are in denial of this tragic transatlantic holocaust, which was supported by institutionalized expressions of bad religion. Dehumanized persons without identity and with natal alienation were no more than a component in the burgeoning capitalistic machinery that has grown to monstrous proportions. The current unrest in the country is not just about the Tea Party's angry desire to reverse the clock to the good old days when power was not defused to be shared democratically.
The roots of present-day disorder are about the inability of the nation's best economic theorists to untie the Gordian knot to solve the intractable problem of feeding the huge appetite of a large, bloated, and ever-growing economy in which expanding overseas markets cannot contain what was started when human bodies were sold as commodities, as simply material objects that wear out and are replaced.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, in The Social Construction of Knowledge, taught us that the social order is a human product or, more precisely, an ongoing human production. The full weight of solving the economic crisis calls for sub-universes that contribute to the social stock of knowledge to become activated in an effort to transcend the finite province of knowledge held only by economic theorists.
Alongside the search for economic insights to contain ever-expanding economic growth is the parallel challenge of bringing a tikkun solution to the tragedy of trauma experienced by the victims of the transatlantic journey called the Middle Passage or the American holocaust. These persons experienced the trauma of dislocation along with the sickening and animalistic cruelty of being chained to each other in the dark, dank underbelly of the ship, where each smelled the feces of the other. Generations of unhealed trauma and painful ancestral memories surface in the consciousness of their posterity to haunt invisible carriers of psychic pain.
The tikkun solution plays no games of mental gymnastics with theodicy, nor does it engage in the blame game of finger-pointing. Different ships brought different groups of people to America for contrasting reasons and conflicting purposes.
The givenness of our social reality says that global strategy for global life that is holistically healthy calls for a tikkun solution of mending, repairing, and healing the global village. As I personally renew myself to the tikkun vision, please permit me to conclude by using an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennysons's "Ulysses." These words best describe my social location and who I am in the non-ending struggle for building Dr. King's "beloved community" and for participating in Dr. Thurman's search for "common ground" with a tikkun solution. Says Ulysses:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. is pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., and a distinguished professor of preaching and church ministries at American Baptist Seminary of the West and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
Source Citation: Smith, J. Alfred. 2011. Healing the Trauma of the Middle Passage. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.