I spent decades denying I was an optimist before copping to it, and now – instead of trying to live the label down, I find myself trying to live up to it. I’d say this year has left me with an acute case of whiplash.
Turn my head one way, and I see activism at a height I haven’t observed since the Sixties (which lasted into the mid-Seventies, by the way). The humongous People’s Climate March in September, the colossal outpouring of sadness and rage at state-sponsored killings of black people: impressive, overwhelming, and even in the face of the devastation being protested, encouraging.
But when I turn in the other direction, it takes a powerful act of will not to be dispirited by the hardening of the hearts of entrenched power. I hear myself saying that I can’t understand how a human being can remain unmoved at the sight of broken-hearted parents consumed with grief at the deaths of their children, at the sight of the fear that evokes in other parents’ hearts.
But really, I think I do understand it. Those with hearts of stone put bereaved parents and dead children in a category marked “other,” marked “less than,” refusing to see the life-spark that mirrors their own faces in the eyes of others. I have been writing for years about the Golden Rule, the universal exhortation to avoid doing to others what would harm ourselves. This is from an essay I wrote for an art exhibit on that subject by Bay Area artist Beth Grossman:
In Deuteronomy, and in Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations, the Hebrew bible’s references to the pupil of the eye are almost always translated as “the apple” of the eye, symbolizing what is most precious, most in need of safeguarding. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,” reads Psalms 17:8.
Literally, though, the Hebrew text reads “bat ayin,” “daughter of the eye,” greatly resembling the English word’s Latin original, pupilla, a diminutive for child. Why? When we gaze into another’s eyes, the etymologists say, we see our own image in miniature reflected there. The Golden Rule is inscribed in the apple of each person’s eye.
Although all spiritual systems exhort us to follow The Golden Rule, I’m not foreseeing a Kumbaya moment in which we all reach across the very real barriers dividing society to join hands. I think there is a price of admission to the full human community that many are unprepared to pay, thinking their special privileges deserved, perhaps, or at least dearer to themselves than justice and compassion.
On this new year’s eve, I want to offer some words from myself and others that may help to diagnose our whiplash. As Gandhi said, “A correct diagnosis is three-fourths the remedy.” And then I want to tell you about something that gives me hope.
In the introduction to his 1985 essay collection “The Price of the Ticket,” James Baldwin, whose burning heart and intellect inspire me every day, points to the way that whiteness is a choice. He offers a description of structural racism as powerful as any I have read. I want to quote several excerpts:
The will of the people, or the State, is revealed by the State’s institutions. There was not, then, nor is there, now, a single American institution which is not a racist institution. And racist institutions – the unions, for one example, the Church, for another, and the Army – or the military – for yet another, are meant to keep the nigger in his place. Yes: we have lived through avalanches of tokens and concessions but white power remains white. And what it appears to surrender with one hand it obsessively clutches in the other.
Spare me, for Christ’s and His Father’s sake, any further examples of American white progress. When one examines the use of this word in this most particular context, it translates as meaning that those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slave that freedom which they never had any right to endanger, much less take away. For this dubious effort, and still more dubious achievement, they congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated: in the coin, furthermore, of black gratitude, gratitude not only that my burden is (slowly, but it takes time) being made lighter but my joy that white people are improving.
My black burden has not, however, been made lighter in the sixty years since my birth or the nearly forty years since the first essay in this collection was published and my joy, therefore, as concerns the immense strides made by white people is, to say the least, restrained.
Leaving aside my friends, the people I love, who cannot, usefully, be described as either black or white, they are, like life itself, thank God, many many colors, I do not feel, alas, that my country has any reason for self-congratulation….
A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State. The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob. That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State. And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black (I hate to say I told you so, sings the right righteous Reverend Ray Charles, but: I told you so), I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the Western world, including those architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope. The American Jew, if I may say so – and I say so with love, whether or not you believe me – makes the error of believing that his Holocaust ends in the New World, where mine begins. My diaspora continues, the end is not in sight, and I certainly cannot depend on the morality of this panic-stricken consumer society to bring me out of Egypt….
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.
As Baldwin makes clear, individual acts cannot lift the heavy hand of institutional oppression, which still presses hard three decades after he wrote these words. But the acts that situate an individual in the category of Baldwin’s friends – “who cannot, usefully, be described as either black or white,” who cannot be reduced to functionaries of a system – are worthy and necessary along the way.
There is no real choice: those whose vast economic and social power depends on depriving others of human rights and well-being must follow in the tradition of Moses, Siddartha, and Gandhi, committing what the brilliant educator Paulo Freire called “class suicide,” placing themselves on the side of the oppressed, which is a form of dying to the collective self-serving interest of the group sharing their extreme privilege. As every spiritual system tells us, it is never too late to exercise this option. So long as we draw breath, every human being has the capacity to step off the chain of causality that leads from greed to oppression.
I don’t see much likelihood that most will do this. That truth came into focus many years ago for me when in Washington, during the Reagan administration, I met a man who had been a fighter for social justice in his youth and had become a far-right functionary. I asked him to explain this change. “It’s simple,” he told me. “I was young and poor and now I am old and rich.”
These choices are not predetermined by race. As my DC friend showed me, sometimes silver is the only color that matters. Consider the letter that Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders had to write to NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, schooling Barkley following his egregious remarks on slavery.
Skin color and history no more confer virtue (or its opposite) than any other accident of birth. As individuals, all who are born are faced with the same central choice, although the conditions under which we enact it differ greatly on account of the racist institutions Baldwin describes. Gandhi said it again: “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavor consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.” The reward for choosing life and love is the very freedom we exercise in making that choice. It can seem cold comfort at times, but it is comfort nonetheless.
There’s a lot of chatter still about the demeanor of protestors. Embedded in this claim of the right to judge whether someone’s behavior entitles him or her to free speech is the power relationship Baldwin describes: “those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slave that freedom which they never had any right to endanger, much less take away.” What is lost here is for me as fundamental to any hope of a beloved community as the Golden Rule. Let me say it again:
Human rights are not earned.
Either they are conferred on every human being as a condition of living, or they are not rights but privileges: someone has the power to dole them out, someone is on the dole.
It doesn’t matter if you or I dislike someone’s words or tactics: every human has rights.
When acts of the state and its agents transgress this deep truth, they must be opposed, they must be stopped, the damage must be acknowledged and addressed.
What gives me hope is that you and I can live by these truths.What gives me hope is that we can exercise a kind of citizenship that transcends the institutions of the state, rejecting and rebuking their authority in favor of one much higher in all ways. What gives me hope is the struggle I wage every day with my own reactivity and the loved ones who do the same, a struggle we often win.
When I look back at this year, I could say it’s been one of obsessively investigating our “eternal rejections and acceptances,” but that wouldn’t much mark it off from other years, since my obsessions seem pretty enduring. What does mark it off is the huge amount of time and energy I’ve been investing in a project I’ve written about before, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.
What gives me hope is that you and I can sit across from each other, face-to-face and soul-to-soul, honoring each other with revelation and the deep listening it deserves. What gives me hope is that when we do this, it becomes much, much harder to perform that act of heart-hardening distancing that removes fellow human beings to the category of “other,” to the category of “less than.”
What gives me hope today is the People’s State of the Union, the USDAC’s next national action, joined by many partners. Between 23 and 30 January, 2015, in the week following the President’s State of the Union speech, hundreds of story circles are forming across the U.S., inviting each and every one of us to speak our truth about the state of our union and to be heard. These stories will be shared through an online portal. The USDAC’s National Cabinet members will share their own wisdom. And in a culminating act, a remarkable group of poets assembled by Bob Holman, our Minister of Poetry and Language Protection, will compose a collaborative People’s State of the Union address in the form of a poem. It will be performed and live-streamed from Bowery Poetry on 1 February, and available after that as both a film and a text.
Some days lately I wake up thinking, “Our State of the Union address is a poem!” and that cracks my broken heart in a way that lets the light re-enter. You have more than a week to sign up to host a story circle event – large or small, in your own kitchen or in a community center – and I’ll be one of the people offering online training in how to use this easy and powerful dialogic tool to create beauty, meaning, and connection. Sign up here.
All blessings for a new year of love and justice, healing and light, the fall of institutions that cannot hold the light, and the rise of new ones in their place.
Danielia Cotton, “Purple Rain.”