1. Black Excellence and Achievement
Mama’s antidote to being born a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi is not for us to seek freedom; it’s to insist on excellence at all times.
– Kiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself
and Others in America: A Remembrance
[Some people burdened by racism] achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure.
– Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
When my father was a boy in the early 1950s, he was selected for a scholarship, plucking him out of the black projects of New Haven, Connecticut, and shipping him off to an elite prep school, where he became a proverbial fly in the buttermilk of white students, white teachers, and white ideas.
As he tried to settle in, my father was startled to learn that students’ academic rankings were posted publicly, following periodic exams, with the highest achiever’s name at the top of the list.
Determined to see his name rise, my father began to break school rules. Nighttimes, after lights-out, he would smuggle his coursework into his bunk, along with a flashlight. Clandestine study under the covers.
And sure enough, his name ascended. All the way to the top.
Now, if you knew my dad, you would understand that his subversion was motivated not just by a competitive spirit, but also by a genuine love of learning. The man is a sucker for knowledge. Hyped and jolly off of intellectual curiosity.
Still, behind the drive to excellence, and underneath the thirst for learning, for so many beautiful black people in America there exists this other thing. A need to prove that we are worthy.
So, uh … what does this have to do with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the White House visit?
Sorry, yes — we’ll get there.
The thought sprouted suddenly, unexpectedly, midway through my flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C., en route to the first-ever U.S. Buddhist delegation to the White House.
If Malcolm X were invited to the White House, would he go?
Before you accuse me of delusions of grandeur: I realize that I am no Malcolm X. So if you asked me who the hell I am to decline an invitation to Capitol Hill, you’d have a point.
And yet, here, sunk in my gut, was this fresh question, along with a full-body electric hum of new awareness.
I offer the question to you.
If you were invited into the White House, would you automatically say Yes?
Author, outside the White House.
3. Why Is Mindfulness So Darn Awkward Sometimes?
These days, mindfulness is often marketed as a kind of neurological spa treatment, melting away our daily stresses; or an all-natural Viagra of mental concentration, engorging our ability to focus. But if you’ve practiced mindfulness in the context of Buddhadharma, you might have experienced some of its awkward, inconvenient moments.
Under the magnifying glass of mindfulness, our habit-patterns and their fodder become more exposed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Or, in Buddhist terms, the wholesome and unwholesome; the craving, aversion, and delusion; the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.)
Likewise, striving to practice Right View, a.k.a. Right Understanding (the first step listed in the Eightfold Path to enlightenment) might not play out all sunshine and roses. True dharma teachers, teachers of wisdom, help us learn how to engage and explore the shadow side of life, too.
So, the White House. Obviously a big deal.
But what else? What else does it mean for me, as a black biracial woman, grappling with U.S. domination?
Am I being seduced by the prestige of the invitation?
The lightweight fame or honor implied in it?
The excitement of my family when they heard the news?
The personal worthiness it might affirm?
Buddhist training has taught me to keep an eye out for this kind of craving, with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s latest book — The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender — reminding me to look specifically at clinging and aversion related to racial identity. Whoever we are, wherever we come from, our social and political constructionsinform the ways in which we long tofortify the “I,” to bring yumminess and valor to the “me.”
The four fun ones of the Eight Worldly Winds, delicious in the moment but tending to knock us off our seat of equanimity, contentment, and freedom.
Are these winds blowing me into the White House without thinking?
Please understand: I’m grateful. I’m grateful to William Aiken and the other conference organizers for working so hard to create a container for this day of politicized community building and significant moral testimony. Brilliant Buddhist leaders avowing their commitment to racial justice and climate justice??? Yes, please. It was beautiful to see, and to take part in.
I have nothing against the White House staffers who were kind enough to take the time to host us. On the contrary, even if I wouldn’t choose the same path, I have deep respect and gratitude to those who give their lives attempting to wrestle and wrangle this historic beast into something approximating a fair and just society.
Nor am I foolish enough to take for granted the freedoms that I myself enjoy in this country. For example, I am unlikely to be dragged out and shot for writing this reflection. (!)
The Holocaust is in my blood. My grandfather survived multiple camps; most of his relatives did not. I do not take political privileges lightly.
But I don’t feel I can enter the White House without making something false of myself.
I don’t feel I can enter without tacitly signaling a belief that the U.S. nation-state, this (neo)imperial project founded in genocide and slavery, is, in its present form, salvageable.
4. Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean –
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today – O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home –
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay –
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine-the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose –
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain –
All, all the stretch of these great green states –
And make America again!
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
5. The Karma of Slavery is Heavy.
The Karma of Genocide is Heavy.
The Karma of Colonialism, Imperialism, State Violence, is Heavy.
The Karma of America is Heavy.
From my perspective, the ground beneath the White House is soaked in blood. So saturated in blood that the foundations of the buildings are rotten. Sounds dramatic, but for me it doesn’t even feel like a fiery condemnation, so much as a plain observation. Baldwin made a similar point in a debate with William F. Buckley.
From a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country … the economy … especially of the Southern states, could not *conceivably* be what it has become, if they did not have, and do not still have, indeed, and for so long, for so many generations … cheap labor.
I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: that **I** PICKED THE COTTON.
James Baldwin, Is the American Dream At The Expenseof the American Negro? (1965)
Can we consider the possibility that the United States was built by slaves and grounded in genocide?
Can we consider the possibility that today’s outsized prison system, the largest in the world, is filled with descendants of slaves?
Half of my family is black; the kind of black that involves the Middle Passage. So what does the White House mean to me in this context? What does it mean in my bones?
Yes, I’m aware that the President of the United States is black. And handsome. In 2008, I flew from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Zainesville, Ohio, to knock on doors for him. I wanted to be part of making history, making progress toward racial justice. Even as I performed my little part for the campaign, pounding the pavement, climbing old creaky porches, easing past angry dogs frothing behind fences, I couldn’t really believe that America would elect a black president. Not until the results were firmly, finally in.
And when they did come in, it was magic. Magic for me, magic for so many of us, crying, rejoicing, embracing strangers on the street.
I hate to belabor the point, but black people in this country have been considered less than human. Counted as 3⁄5 of a person only to bolster white Southern political power.
Black people in this country were forbidden from learning to read – not too terribly long before my dad’s contraband flashlight and illicit nighttime studies. People in my family were restricted from certain bathrooms, certain schools. Could not feel fully apartof this political system.
And today, yes, the President is black.
Freddie Gray’s spine was severed. Oscar Grant was shot in the back. Tamir Rice didn’t live to see thirteen. Rekia Boyd’s killer has gone free.
How many black people are imprisoned in this country? How many are shot to death by police each year? How many black six-year-old children are suspended, even handcuffed, because teachers are afraid of them? How many descendants of slave owners still benefit from the financial inheritance of human bondage?
This is just some of my ancestral story. My ancestral loyalty. But of course, it’s not just black people.
Reflected in the White House, do we see the tens of thousands of Central American children who were literally locked in cages at the border?
Do we see how U.S. corporations, completely enmeshed in government, feed on child labor and suicide-inducing sweatshops?
Do we see how U.S. companies clear-cut forests, drench entire horizons in oil, and ruin indigenous people’s lands in pursuit of profit, national interest, and a higher GDP?
Do we see the behemoth that is the U.S. military? Do we contemplate the trauma of children who have come to fear blue skies, because blue skies signal ripe conditions for predator drones?
I will gladly talk with staffers outside the White House. I will happily meet with them out in thesoupy Washington air. (The lush green leaves of the city right now are making my heart soar.) But the prestige and assumed legitimacy of the place, I can’t pretend to believe in.
Whatever transformations, karmic restoration, and redemption the U.S. government might someday invite seem too massive, too profound to take place on their turf — one of the major seats of top-down power in the world.
To become the more globally-oriented citizens that it seems we must become, if there is any chance for peace in human future, will require a radical rethinking of the location of legitimate power, prestige, and that great beaconly buzzword of the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign …
Where do we place our hope?
6. American Dream: Let’s Wake Up
Outside the gates, sitting on the curb, not condemning those inside, sending lovingkindness to all those working for a new paradigm of freedom, I am even more hopeful than in 2008, when I saw an American dream realized before my very eyes.
The next American dream to which I aspire is not a dream at all, but an awakening.
A realization and dissolution of America itself — beyond borders as we know them. Beyond the dualism and domination of the nation-state, toward a reverence for life and generous caretaking of the global commons. Toward everyone having enough food, water, shelter, medicine. Toward healing, compassion, and trust in our fellow beings. Toward liberty and justice for all.
And even if this awakening never comes to pass – aren’t we here to try?
7. Clarifications: On Sellouts, Haters, and Panaceas
I arrived at the White House, and didn’t go inside.
Let’s take a moment and clarify what I’m NOT saying, here.
I’m NOT accusing those who went inside the White House of selling out.
There were many Buddhist leaders at this conference, people I deeply admire, who decided to go into the White House for the afternoon session. Each person had their own reasons, their own process, and I don’t presume to know what it was.
Meditation teachers sometimes caution against the “comparing mind” — our tendency to measure ourselves against what we THINK is going on with somebody seated on the cushion next to us. A fellow meditator might be sitting perfectly erect, impeccably pretzeled in full lotus position, their serene face garnished with the wisp of a knowing smile just like the Buddha statue on the altar. Or a dharma buddy might report an experience with a high jhana (stage of concentration), seeing mystical lights in their meditation, or being visited by an auspicious figure in a dream. Regardless,We Don’t Knowwhat those experiences mean on their path, and it’s not terribly helpful to try to compare our spiritual progress with somebody else according to superficial appearance and conjecture.
So I don’t claim to know other people’s thought processes for going inside. My intention was not to cause a scene or force others to justify their choices; it was simply to make my own decision.
So why write about it? Why make a fuss about it now?
Fair question. I’m explaining my reasons because, as much as I want to see women of color visibly represented in locations of power, you know what I want even more? Women and gender-nonconforming people of color expressing skepticism of the dominant power structures themselves, and aiming for transformation into something better.
Hey, it takes all kinds, right?
I’m NOT saying we should all be haters, give up, and do nothing.
Even though I have my methodological doubts about a visit to the White House and an attempt to ideologically seed-bomb the administration with Buddhist political rhetoric (however wholesome and clarion that ideological seed-bombing may be);
and even though to be honest, appealing to government ‘change-makers’ kinda reminded me of the part in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where he’s applying for jobs in the City and realizes that being politely ignored by powerful people in the North is just as messed-up as being openly reviled by powerful people in the South;
it doesn’t mean I gave up on the whole affair. In truth, there was a lot to appreciate.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s morning presentation on the Four Noble Truths of Climate Change was piercingly clear and outstandingly organized in its analysis.
angel Kyodo williams gave a talk on climate + racial justice that had folks musing and reflecting long after the conference and into dinnertime that evening.
Duncan Ryûken Williams presented a rich and moving history of Japanese-American Buddhists interned in U.S. camps during WWII.
LOTS of great teachers and scholars were present, including a larger-than-I-expected proportion of Asian-American lay dharma leaders, professionals, and monastics.
And from what I hear from my dearest dharma sister and BPF Board Member Sierra Pickett (one of those who for her own set of reasons chose to go in), the presentations inside the White House from Susan Hayward of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, as well as some thoughtful questions from folks like Larry Yang of the East Bay Meditation Center, raised extremely important and valuable issues, rather than pandering to power.
So, already great. On top of this, we at Buddhist Peace Fellowship decided to contribute two homemade political art actions to the affair — separate from the official conference, but open for conference-goers to join. The banner action is already stirring up some controversy and lively discussion here and on Facebook; and the personal political portrait action, to be released next week, turned out quite sweet.
All in all, my abstention from White House time was very small, hardly noticeable to anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for me. And rather than let it sour the experience, it simply became one dimension of the day.
I’m NOT claiming to have a quick-and-easy solution to this mess.
As a U.S. citizen, I am to some degree complicit in U.S. systemic violence, and who gives two hoots about whether or not I enter the White House. This is not about being pure.
It’s also not about offering a quick fix, a shining silver Apple-store solution to U.S. domination. I don’t know how to do that. All I know is we have a fetid, fertile mulch of resistance, a messy compost of visionary political movements, that millions of people are cultivating and trying to figure out how to apply.
The historical trauma and injustices we face are not new. And America is not the only blood-soaked ground in the world.
My hope is in the refuge of awareness and awakeness. The teachings of the Buddha show us that we can seek to understand our circumstances and respond, rather than react.
So if an invitation to the White House comes, we can genuinely ask ourselves,
Shall I go?
– and –
Crossposted from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
Katie Loncke is a Co-Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Born in Sacramento, California, and now living in Oakland, she is the curly granddaughter of Negros and Jewish refugees. She believes in the possibility of enough food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, and education for everyone. She started organizing in high school as a straight ally with a Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance, and currently organizes around social and economic issues with a group led by Latin American immigrant socialists. Following her graduation from Harvard, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center offered Katie a warm, life-altering introduction to Buddhism. Her writing on Buddhism and politics has appeared in The Jizo Chronicles, The Buddhist Channel, make/shift magazine, Flip Flopping Joy, and Feministe, as well as on Turning Wheel Media.