I am diabetic and I am gaining weight. These are not good things to do in tandem. As I rise and fall to correct my slow, steady march into the broad plains of health tragedies, I remember this is the first week of Advent. I thought it is a good time to break a taboo and talk about God. Not the moral God of right and wrong, of heaven and hell, of fire and brimstone, of love and wrath. Nor the God of the evangelicals of the right wing who seems to sanction their personal idolatry, nor the straw God of many atheists who insist and dismiss God as largely superstition and myth.
What’s left? Am I dismissing all of the competing narratives and banning their views to make an easier path for my assertions? Are you, Dear Readers, already on guarded edge? Especially as I eliminate the great and small Gods of the world, the theology issues of Christianity, and discussions of Christianity’s central beliefs. and promise not to try to convert you. (Already, doubts emerge!)
I confess, however, to enjoying the pageantry of high Christianity. Nothing is better than a tightly swung censer that billows a cloud of incense at the end of its arc, leaving the elders coughing and small children’s eyes burning.
But entertainment or cruel sting is not the source of my faith or belief.
I found re-centered grace in the stories, songs and voices of America’s enslaved and freed. Their faith barely visible and often wrongly attributed and interpreted, their grand embrace of God overlooked, under the dust of their historic footprints.
I read Luther and John Wesley, the Pope’s encyclicals, but the name that gathered the ideas at the center of my spiritual experience is of a black Baptist who became a mystic in the tradition of the Quakers. He was the former Dean of Boston University’s chapel. Born in Florida, the grandson of a former enslaved grandmother who raised him, he became a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in whom he had a special interest. He was a classmate, at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, of Dr. King’s father.
One of Howard Thurman’s well thumbed books was in Dr. King’s briefcase the day he was shot.
In my view, what Albert Einstein was to the inner workings of time and space, Howard Thurman was to the inner workings of things divine and eternal.
Thurman left home with a belt tied around a suitcase whose latches were broken, boarding in a nearby town for 50 cents a week to become the first student of his community to finish high school. Then on to Morehouse College on scholarship.
His life was changed by a simple proposition. His grandmother told him not to worry over possessions or people’s attitudes; he was a child of God. Thurman found the idea behind his grandmother’s words changing his life.
Thurman began his reasoning about the existence of God with a view typical of every faith: God acts through belief. So how does Thurman—or anyone—know it is God acting, and not science, chance, or just non-sense?
Thurman’s eureka: one knows by possibility. By endless creativity! What others saw as chaotic uncertainty, Thurman saw as a vast, open, available potential, an endless, ever changing bounty. What to many was an unreliable and overwhelming profusion, was to him an explosive reassurance. Instead of simplifying the patterns of living, Thurman grasped their richness.
Thurman saw a world that at every turn was transient and filled with ideas and actions. It was filled with surprises and reprises, with spiraling combinations of successes and failures. As he focused on Christianity, on the prescribed properties of God as Shepherd, Savior, Redeemer, Interventionist, Father, Human, Holy Spirit, none were more important to Thurman than the idea of God the Creator.
Birth, life, death, every leaf and million-year-old light from constellations, every transition of personal and social age, every storm, were a part of creation, and creation itself had no fixed or finite ends or beginnings. That creation had this property of being able to “outlive” itself—and by its presence bring creation anew to the world—was evidence and affirmation, for Thurman, of God.
The enslaved expressed this sense of creativity in the poetry of a spiritual: “Plenty Good Room in My Father’s Kingdom.” Healing, too, was important to creativity. (“Wade In The Water,” “There Is A Balm in Gilead.”)
Yet Thurman didn’t want to just “believe” in God. He wanted to know God. Tradition had made it possible to adore the deity, but for many, the deity was inaccessible. Thurman realized that belief was the act that made God accessible.
My sitting, half-reclined, cranking down to snack on cookies will not provide the experience or evidence of weight loss. Nothing will until I do something. I can only lose weight (or gain it!) through action—persistent action over time that will create change. Daily invisible, but finally manifested to my eye and senses. Thurman’s experience of God works the same way. He often quoted the folk proverb: “You can’t pour out corn from an empty sack.”
This is how one knows God, Thurman offers, by persistent effort which initially yields little results, but grows and manifests as an inner truth and blessings and gifts—as real as the loss of weight!
The most basic tool of practice is a simple conversation called prayer. Songs are used, too. Thurman explored advanced tools, turning to the Quaker tradition of mystic mediation to put away “the outside things.”
Not that these outside things are lesser. The musician Sun Ra often pointed out the sustaining forces of planetary life come from outside of its substance; sunlight, rain—even life and death.
The mystic experience of the individual or community with God in direct was termed “a call.” (Other African-American names tied to worship services include “seeking,” “shouting,” and a sign was a shooting star.) Calls came in different ways.
Harriet Tubman experienced one of her calls on her first moment of freedom; she said it was as if there were “a glory of everything.” A major call took place at the 1963 March on Washington just before Dr. King spoke; the solo voice of Mahalia Jackson changed the mood of the quarter million people who stretched before her as she sang “How I Got Over.” In that hallowed moment, she urged Dr. King to speak of his dream, saying “tell them about the dream, Martin.”
Later, James Baldwin, writing in Esquire, would identify another important call, experienced as he left the church where Dr. King’s funeral was held. He wrote: “It was the silence that undid me.” Continue reading ‘God Is:’* Advent and Howard Thurman
I read and listen to a lot of historic voices. They gave me a long view of the ongoing conversation about how we as humans live in society. I listen to them to add their ideas to the contemporary conversation, the one about how we define ourselves, order the world, create economic value, dispense justice, feed the hungry, provide for the sick, teach our children, preserve our resources, and help our neighbors—the discussion of how we express our values. I listen to how we listen. And the special power of voices in American politics and in America’s communities is being lost.
Through most of history, voices were not intended to be produced, recorded, looped and repeated, printed and handed out as a daily list of talking points, published as headlines, or digitally repeated as sound to accompany a 90-second video, with a 15-second standup close-out. We now have an entire well paid industry devoted to pushing out the traditional use of the voice to create a work product that can be polled overnight and tested by focus groups to herd ideas and tell us what to think.
None of this work is tested against truth and common sense. Rarely does it involve any real evidence. It misses the subtle touches of the Dutch masters’ paintings or the art of Paris salons. It’s billboard stuff. Brazen. Brutal. And ugly. But commonplace.
For two weeks, I’ve been listening to the voices of the jubilee; my term for the formerly enslaved, whose voices were recorded in typed narrative reports between 1934-1936. I’ve been imagining how the stories would have differed with an entire social industry engaged in shaping their message and production—with unlimited amounts of money! I think about 90-year-old elders trying to remember the events of a war that only touched them in its final days, sitting on couches of late night talk shows.
Voices count. Even more, now that money is speech. Declared so by the Supreme Court! That decision has changed what voices say, how they are employed, what purposes, outcomes and accountability they seek. Yet the voice we hear—polished, milled, produced, tested, timed, repeated—sounds like a neighbor’s voice. Sure, the policies these voices suggest may differ, but the voice, the human connection, sounds the same. That sameness is increasingly an illusion to lead us away from common ground to battlegrounds.
Slavery was perhaps one of the first wide-scale national conversations where speech was crafted to serve an end in politics and society that benefited and served a broad, commercial marketplace with rigid social strictures. The enslaved not only generated tremendous value as labor in production, but added wealth as an active, open commodity trade, and as capital property that could be borrowed against (the use of the enslaved as collateral is understudied, but was an important function and source of expanding capital—the enslaved were mortgaged as property!).
The jubilee had wide points of view about their experiences, and at times in the narrative slavery sounded a little like Lake Woebegon, describing a time when no enslaved were hungry and all were well dressed. Behind their stories, their voices reflected a certain pride.
History’s conventions say they were intimidated by by the interviewers, usually white. It claims they were fearful, of an unequal relationship. So they painted a rosy picture. This view closes off the idea that the jubilee themselves had their own reasons to see themselves as well treated! Whether through fear, denial or pride, they assigned the role of victim to others.
Today, we reassign responsibility. We blame and deny. Continue reading The Thrum and Chum of Marketplace Speech
The Supreme Court never seems to see its own reflection in the law. I wonder if any of the current justices participated in a popular 1970s self-awareness training exercise, Johari’s window.
The exercise, whose roots go back to Karl Jung and his archetypes and reflects the later influence of the popular Myers-Briggs assessment, replied on four windows that were intersections between self-knowledge and society, and the known and unknown. The facade window was unknown to society and known to you. The internet has turned the facade into a negative space; it is now the space in which you are known to others by dark secrets or ignorance, by insulting absurdities, vitriol and hatred, masked by a cute avatar and narcissistic screen name. Flaming in chat rooms has given way to trolls who are relentless in replacing logic with personal attacks, stereotypes, and repeated failures of common sense flaunted as searing insights, protected by their rights. It is closer to what Johari’s window labeled the arena, a place of shared exposure.
The exercise assumed certain psychological and personality customs that the internet has stripped away as it tossed the old facade aside. The exercise did not see this future.
Johari’s window also had a blind spot. It was a frame where others knew things about us that were oblivious to our own self-awareness. In the internet media today, its equivalent is a place of spin and denial. Denial not as a psychological defense, but as a social strategy of deceit and misdirection, positive or negative, that conceals real intent.
My favorite blind spot was Herman Cain’s. Framing opportunity and merit as entitlements, he shouted out in the last campaign about African-Americans being on Democratic plantations. He subverted the history of the institution from the horrific tragedy of enslavement to a place where its room and board was a poison pill that killed motivation and freedom! In the logic of Cain’s world, sleeping and eating—rest and community—broke the spirit and chained the enslaved in a way that the exploitation and supposed ownership of their labor did not!
That ownership, and the involuntary extraction of labor by force and law, was approved unequivocally by the institution of the American Supreme Court, then lead by Maryland-born Roger B. Taney, considered one of its greatest Chief Justices and the first Roman Catholic Chief Justice. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Taney and six other justices saw no contradiction in a creed of freedom that permitted the ownership of human families, or between human liberty and human property—and said so, from the highest court of the land.
In fact, in his dissent, Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, the Massachusetts-born son of a merchant vessel captain, painstakingly points out that the Dred Scott decision denies the court decisions that Africans and persons of African descent were given legal citizenship in the several states, and this legal grant of citizenship gave them standing before the Court—a standing that Taney, in his majority decision, denies, calling it “unagreeable.” Curtis then points out how ludicrous it is to declare Scott is without standing before the Court, and then to have ruled anyway!
If it looks at its own reflection, the Supreme Court would see how it avoids the institutional evidence of its own magnanimous failures, going back to Dred Scott. Perhaps we, too, forget that the Court was not intended to be an institution of democracy, or rather of democratic interests: the expansion of individual liberties and rights, the ending of discrimination, the leveling of the ever-expanding playing field. The Court did not rule in support of equal protection prior to an inclusion in the Constitution by amendment, nor for women’s voting rights prior to its inclusion, nor for civil rights prior to a Congressional act, or for ending slavery before a Constitutional amendment. Continue reading Gay Marriage and Deliberate Speed
One of my favorite diseases—and I say favorite because it has a great moral associated with its diagnosis—is an old, discredited but useful look at how the views of power filtered down to popular medicine, a disease named drapetomonia. Ever hear of it? It was one of the first illnesses to have a very clear ethnic identity—it only affected blacks. It was also one of the first specific mental health diagnoses. Declared an epidemic among its target population, shortly after being discovered by a Georgian physician in 1851, its treatment protocols involved harsh whippings and restraints in chains.
Today, it is one of the few discredited diseases reemerging as one of the false equivalencies that increasingly characterize American views of politics–and global warming, evolution, education, economic growth, race, and religion. I see a new strain of the disease emerging, and clearly we have no cure, or even treatment or care for it.
My old favorite, drapetomonia, was a response to a social condition, slavery, and was diagnosed as the condition that made slaves run away. Flee toward freedom. Hide in the woods, outside of civil authority, living in a place of fear. The new equivalency has jumped the old ethnic bounds. But it sees itself as flying toward freedom. Leaving behind civil authority—and also living in a place of fear. The new strain is tied to the older drapetomonia by its implied inability to accept reality, but it is characterized by far greater frequencies of delusions. The old and the new, the up and the down have been with us since the beginning. As the poet W. H. Auden said, “the situation of our time surrounds us like a baffling crime.” But this new strain forgets why the old strain was discredited, lost its potency and went bust: it described a wrong reality; it was a projection of its own delusions.
So, too, today, in the new, unnamed strain is the double circle of logic whose answers assume the truth of its assertions. My favorite example this week was a radio interview with Virginia’s Attorney General, whose radio host pointed out that the President did not win the red states where a photo ID law was in place or early voting was drastically restricted, and the wins and loses of those states alone were sufficient to point to clear evidence of a pattern of widespread Democratic fraud being rampant throughout the country. Well, Barack Obama didn’t win those same red states last time either, in 2008, before restrictions of early voting or photo ID laws were enacted. And he won all of the states he won before, without a single reputable complaint of fraud, except in the mouths of talk show hosts and elected officials whose delusions are a double circle. Continue reading An Epidemic of Untreatable Illogic
Stand down from greed; strike the last word: I argue the real issue today is cultural literacy. This week, Ann Romney forgot her manners as she speculated on the number of vacations she and her family might take if in office. “Not as many as the Obamas,” she coyly pronounced.
Has Ann being counting? Is she envious of these trips where the dog doesn’t have to be tied to the roof of the car? Does she long for the common touch of the Obama vacations? Or will the trips to her five homes not count? Better to say, “I’m not thinking about vacations now when the recovery has left some many homeless and displaced.” But the homeless and displaced are behind Ann Romney’s invisible veil.
Also behind that veil is the need to redefine the public-private partnership between business and government and reset common and national goals. The wrongheaded approach of greed, deception and inequality cannot sustain itself in a global environment that is changing by leaps to cooperative measures.
For example, the Philippines has lent $251M to Ireland, Greece and Portugal and put $4.55B into a multilateral Asian fund. Thirty-two countries are funding a great Asian highway, connecting the economies of Vietnam and Cambodia to Europe, while the US squabbles over bridges and potholes and the GOP holds up a transportation bill. Japan has directly financed debt issues for other countries. The most successful efforts at eliminating poverty are direct payments to families tied to education (Mexico, Brazil).
My point is not the quality of the projects, but to highlight the underlying way of thinking—and its abysmal absence from discussions of US growth and priorities. The scatter-shot examples here only highlight hundreds of cooperative relationships involving government and business not feuding for advantage but teaming to productively expand into global markets.
The G-20 early this week focused on women’s and youth’s roles in economic sustainability. Heard any noise on the American front about forward plans for expanding the place of women and youth in growth?
More than labor costs led India to develop customer service outsourcing (now, expanding into the Philippines). Brazil, now larger than Britain’s GDP, developed the world’s fastest-growing middle class, reducing its poverty significantly in a decade. China, in the first quarter 2012, bought a million GM cars. Continue reading Digging Deeper: The Real Issue of Redefinition
If you work in cultural studies, there’s a place where myth takes over from fact. The meanings of things often overpower words and lie deep in silence, tangled and forgotten. This week’s brouhaha brings up a case in point: Mayor Cory Booker may be nauseated by the criticisms of equity capital, but he of all people should remember the most egregious example of equity capital and be nauseated. Equity capital brought us slavery.
Equity capital has had a spin machine since the colonial era when the huge profits that exploded from the trafficking of human beings for three centuries were interpreted as a response to a demand for labor. Not so. Labor was available. Europe was facing economic depressions and wars; poverty was rampant, and those trapped by class, circumstances and history were eager to better themselves. The cost of keeping and maintaining slaves were not significantly different from paying wages to immigrants. But importing labor didn’t double down (or triple!) profits. Trafficking in slaves created a profit center even larger than the crops the labor grew and harvested. The key difference, the most significant reason for the growth of African slavery in the Americas was as the world’s largest profit center for equity capital firms.
Ship captains and planters didn’t have the capital to “buy” human beings; ship captains and planters didn’t organize international markets or set up legal codes that stripped slaves of every aspect of human liberty. All of this was done and assisted by equity capitalists and political arm-twisting. Firms in London, Liverpool, Newport, Charleston, Baltimore, Havana, and cities around the Atlantic rim organized men of wealth to purchase shares in ships with human cargo and create a fiscal and legal infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic.
Slavery was a risky business. Disease wiped out the investment; even sailors on slavers (as the ships were called), died in record numbers. Abolitionists opposed the business. But the profits reaped made the capital risks and human costs seem miniscule. But Stanford- and Oxford-trained Cory Booker finds a silent place and missing ledger entries and voices no upset about the very forces that continue to see the world as a balance sheet.
When slavery ended, did equity capital reform? Did it question its profit-above-all approach, its strategy of ignoring any considerations other than profit and wealth? Or did it seek new opportunities? Trace the history carefully and you arrive at Mitt Romney—and Cory Booker and Harold Ford and Steve Rattner, who praise the benefits of the investments of equity without reference to its morality or history. Continue reading Digging Deeper: Cory Booker and the Anthracite Syndrome
“Lord, give them better,” goes the powerful prayer of a South Carolina woman, recorded in the 1930s on Hilton Head, South Carolina by linguist Lorenzo Turner and found in the Library of Congress archives. Lost in the broad annals of American slavery and its aftermath are the many prayers and individual acts of courage whose invisible silence is used today to shut down the struggle for better.
Ann Romney is so absorbed by this silence that she cannot clearly articulate the difference between wealth and privilege and poverty, and the dependency and submission it demands. Her incoherent failure of meaning, her mangled syntax, her non-existent sense of justice shows her lack of experience with and isolation from mainstream lives. That absence of reference belies her struggles to establish an ethic of knowledge about critical aspects of women, a majority but still marginalized population under attack. Trying to be authentic, Ann Romney authors confusion.
That old South Carolina woman knew there was little to love about being poor or doing field work, yet she offered a prayer bright with hope. She doesn’t want to fit in, doesn’t have to pretend to anyone what living has taught her, and her three-word prayer rises far beyond petition. It is a beatific prayer. She is directing God, commanding His will for her highest purpose. It is her commandment for him to follow, rooted in the same shared love; lay the burdens down: give them better.
Would Ann Romney speak these simple, clear words to her husband, her life partner who seeks our nation’s highest position of service? Is there a higher, more succinct calling then these three words the old woman places before God? Is there any doubt about what she means?
Powerful clarity takes courage. Courage rises with the same ease as prayer when it elevates not desire but love. In the dark era of slavery, couples whose love was a light of courage influenced the nation’s course and gave us better.
The women in these families faced more than ridicule or mockery. Daily they walked in circumstances a step away from death. They raised children whose education was illegal and whose bodies were sold. They loved their God but mostly hated their choices, but found the courage to act.
Nancy Weston’s prayers for the nation and her children are unknown, her words in time’s invisible veil. She was a Charleston seamstress, an enslaved woman. She worked independently to support herself and lived in a small house on St. Philip Street. She was member of a noted family of craft and trades workers tied to planter Plowden Weston, of European, African and native American descent, who were slave and free. After the death of his wife, she began a relationship with a prominent lawyer whose father was the Chief Justice of the State’s Supreme Court and a slaveholder with 14 children. Two sisters were later famous abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke.
The Grimke Sisters
Their brother, Henry, was smitten with Nancy Weston. As had his sisters, they soon left the city. But love drove him more than the politics of freedom. He resigned his law practice and moved her with him to his rice plantation, Cane Acres, in the country, built Nancy a house, and fathered her three sons. Small, intimate details of their relationship survive in his letters to his older set of adult children back in Charleston, whose mother Nancy once nursed through illness. At Cane Acres, Nancy carried authority. She overruled the plantation’s overseer, forbidding him to work slaves in the fields on Sunday and bring embarrassment to the family for violating the Sabbath; Henry backed her decision. She attacked Henry once in a domestic dispute and knocked him down. Mainly she tended her chickens and flowers. Her oldest child, Archibald, was given Henry as his middle name, but fate offered its twist; Henry died suddenly when the boys were young.
Given a small pension, Nancy returned to Charleston, educated the boys, and made them recite aloud long passages as she listened. Just before the Civil War began, one of the older siblings claimed the brothers as his property, ignoring Nancy’s assertion not to, as they were his brothers. One ran away and one was purchased as a body servant by a naval officer stationed in Charleston. (One, the youngest, has been lost to time.) After the war, two brothers reunited and made their way to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Notice in a Boston paper of a Grimke winning an oratorical contest caught the eye of their aunt, now a famous abolitionist. On the strength of the last name, she wrote to him, offering her praise, asking if he were one of the children of their family’s servants. He wrote back, informing her that he and his brother were her nephews. Continue reading Digging Deeper: The Courage to Love
Earl Butz probably began the movement toward political correctness, but his comments were said in jest. Indiana-born, Purdue-trained, Butz was Agricultural Secretary under Gerald Ford and told a racial joke that got him fired (rather, he resigned; nobody gets fired for racial jokes!).
In discerning the motives of Negroes (as they were then called), Butz suggested there were three top priorities. One, loose shoes. (Many blacks of that generation, especially farmers and country folk, had severe foot abnormalities and pain.) Dare I mention the other two? Tight pussy. (The outrage—and outrageousness—was as much in the use of the term; this slang was prohibited in polite or public conversation and it was startling to make any reference to the sexual proclivities of blacks, who were widely thought to constantly engage in hot monkey sex like rabbits. The use of the slang to refer to a vagina was seen neither as outrageous or funny, but dreadful; sex and women had not entered comedy.) The third? A warm place to shit. (Which dismally failed in its humor. For a generation who had grown up using outhouses on winter mornings, there was nothing funny about recalling the bone-jarring cold or the walk in the wet dew.) Yep. Got ol’ Earl fired. Hoisted pathetically on his own petard. And two-thirds of it was more true than funny.
Today the scatological comments about a black President are neither funny or obscene—or true; no line of public or private sensibility exists, no boundary of behavior is off-limits. Lost is any connection to reality, to any semblance of actual experience or cultural memory; missing are any ties to the hidden contradictions that elevate life beyond being a mere record of good and bad. Humor is no longer a guide post, a way of embracing the true-hearted. Why did political humor die?
My earliest recognition of political humor was in the slave tales. I was astonished that tales of laughter told by people denied freedom were filled with a subtle, complex, thoughtful humanity that soared above the conditions that bound their lives. More so, the punch lines were pure revolution. They told of how situations can be best met—humor was used to change the odds, to open windows, to build community, and often, really, outrageously, just for laughs. This simple minimalism was dangerous. How dare those enslaved find time and means for the joy of simple laughter, to replace paralyzing fear and the intrusion of control on every aspect of their lives, with a free moment whose joy even slavery could not kill.
Today, does anyone remember that slaves told jokes? Rather than feeling slighted by ‘ol Earl, they would have taken him under wing and taught him better technique. Prayer was an important part of that technique and the enslaved frequently prayed for freedom. Often they found a particular tree near the edge of the fields and in the afternoons fervently asked God for freedom. One day, a voice answered an especially prayerful member of the enslaved community and promised the money to purchase his freedom if he passed the trials of faith. Each day the voice said, ten dollars would be found at the base of the tree. Each day, the faithful slave found what seemed to be this divine gift. Fifty dollars was the amount needed to purchase his freedom and soon the total reached forty dollars.
But that day, the voice placed before him the test. Bring the entire forty dollars tomorrow and leave it. Come the next day and you shall have your fifty. The slave thanked the voice profusely, but he finally picked the money up and replied he’d get the other ten on his own.
Make no mistake that this lesson on self-reliance has any resemblance to Rush Limbaugh’s vicious putdowns. He attempts to disguise attacks as irony, parody, sarcasm, or surreal engagement. But they are none of these. His conclusions are false, his purpose is to intimidate. He uses words as stones and calls it funny. But his words are simple confessions of hate and fear and proffers of threats.
One woman who applied as a CIA agent early in the days of women applicants exhibited no fear during a training exercise. To test her commitment to completing any assigned task, she was given a gun (which unknown to her, had been disabled) and was told her husband was tied to a chair in room behind a closed door. To prove her loyalty, she must go in and shoot him. She took the gun and entered the room. Violent noises drifted out. Finally, she emerged, out of breath, flushed, and handed back the gun. “The gun didn’t work,” she said. “I had to beat him to death with a chair leg.” Continue reading Digging Deeper: Somebody Tell Republicans to Hook Up the Jumper Cables