Rest in your power, Toni Morrison
News of her life and transition:
Toni Morrison at Princeton:
The Essential Toni Morrison Reader:
Rest in your power, Toni Morrison
News of her life and transition:
Toni Morrison at Princeton:
The Essential Toni Morrison Reader:
I have long been familiar with Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s brilliance; first through Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997) and then through Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Coast (2008). As a post-doc, I also had the privilege of attending a conference/gathering of several well-respected historians of the African diaspora held at NYU. I was deeply impressed by Dr. Hartman’s presentation as well as her numerous contributions and commentaries on the work of her colleagues.
I admit, I haven’t read her first two publications. One of the reasons I wasn’t particularly interested in Lose Your Mother was because I had spent six months living and traveling around Ghana and another year and some months in Benin Republic, both major hubs of the transatlantic slave trade, each for very different reasons. It may sound silly or strange, but I had no desire to have my own experience influenced or “tainted” by Hartman’s work.
While Scenes of Subjection was well-known in my doctorate program, sad to say, I never took a course for which it was required and I preferred to spend what little free time I had reading novels coming out of African and African diasporic traditions.
I, however, could not wait to get my hands on her latest publication, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019).
Unlike Scenes of Subjection, but like Lose Your Mother, Wayward Lives is a literary publication. It is meant to be read by lots of people. As such, it is stripped of the jargon-heavy, endnote-laden texts of academia.
Which makes it a must-read.
This is not to say that it is easy. While the language is highly accessible, the subject matter—black women’s desire to live life on their own terms while the white supremacist state was determined to circumscribe their lives—is the stuff of nightmares.
Nonetheless, it was my treat for several weeks just before bed after I’d spent my days working hard on my own latest intellectual project.
Wayward Lives covers the urban areas of Philadelphia and New York between 1890 and 1935. According to W.W. Norton’s website, the book explores the ways in which “In wrestling with the question “What is a free life?”, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.”
In her interview on Rustbelt Radio Hartman expands on the website description, remarking that the book explores the continuities between slavery, the ghetto as an open-air prison, and the contemporary prison industrial complex. She looks at the quotidian practices of women who refused the rhetoric of anti-blackness and begs the question, “What does it mean to love what is not loved?” This question still stands to be answered today.
Wayward Lives is a beautiful text, very well researched, and important. I could imagine it opening up several avenues for exploration of countless histories that have been subverted and erased. It also provides a roadmap for how to do it.
Let us all be inspired by Dr. Hartman’s work and continue the critical work that she has started.
Rustbest Radio Interview with Saidiya Hartman: Rustbelt Radio
Happy birthday Octavia Butler!!
The genius writer Octavia Butler would have been 72 years today!
An interview with Ms. Butler on “Transcending Boundaries”
An NPR interview with Ms. Butler and an essay by her.
She was the recipient of several Hugo and Nebula Awards. She was also the first writer of speculative fiction to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Three favorites of Well-Read Black Girl, a brilliant black literature resource:
Perhaps Butler’s best-known work, Kindred, reimagines the time travel narrative. The novel’s protagonist Dana moves between 20th century Los Angeles and the antebellum South, where she witnesses the savagery of American slavery. In the process, Dana recuperates some of the erased history that has led to her contemporary moment.
2.) Bloodchild and Other Stories
Bloodchild was a breakout work for Butler, earning her the Hugo and the Nebula in the novelette category. It takes as its premise a world in which insect-like organisms called Tilc establish a parasitic relationship with humans. The collection gathers “Bloodchild” with other works of short fiction by Butler and works as an excellent introduction to the writer’s work for those interested in shorter forms.
3.) Parable of the Sower from the Parable/Earthseed series
Parable of the Sower is the first of the two-book Earthseed/Parable series. Set in a future society that has been ravaged by climate change and economic stratification, its heroine is a young woman living in a gated community who suffers from “hyperempathy” which makes her feel the pain of anyone around her. When her home is destroyed, she leads a group to found a new community, Earthseed.
A graphic novel of Kindred by Damian Duffy and illustrations by John Jennings is also a great way to get started with Butler’s work for those who are not so much into the written.
Here’s an interview with the authors:
Let me state up front, just so we’re clear, I loooove Octavia Butler. She seems to make her way into my consciousness at least once a day, whether it’s through what I’m reading or a podcast I’m listening to, or just me going about my merry little day. When I first came across her, sometime in the late 1990s—I have no idea how—I fell in love. I have been in love ever since.
Recently, from a deep desire to expose the next generation of budding African-American scholars to her work, I assigned to my graduate student and reread Wild Seed, one of Butler’s earlier novels. The whole time I was reading, a quote that I heard or read from her—that when she was starting out and hungry–she would wake up at 2:30 am in order to write, kept playing through my head. According to Butler, by the time she arrived at the job that she cared nothing about or for at 9 am she was “evil” because by then she was exhausted. I often awake between 4:30 and 6 am. I do so so that I can write because I, like Butler, have a story in me that needs to get out. I am grateful for her as a mentor and as an inspiration.
I have, through many moves to different parts of the country and at times abroad, managed to hold on to my original edition of Wild Seed, the Warner Books, 1980 edition, and it was that version that I read in preparation for my bi-weekly meeting with my student. What I found during my rereading were typos, a consequence of the unsophisticated editing capabilities at the time, and understandable. The novel also strikes me, at certain moments, contrived in ways that an author, in trying to be thorough, appears contrived and overly didactic and which the contemporary editor and proofreader is able to edit out.
These flaws, so obvious to me, the slow reader, do not ultimately detract from the allure of Butler’s imagined world. Despite the issues, I was able to discern some of the many lessons that Butler wished to convey in her narrative as well as the beauty in the poetry of her words.
But one thing that was really cool about reading this Butler classic, Wild Seed, almost thirty years later is that I got to see connections between past and present and perhaps future, that I might not have otherwise seen.
What I saw in my second reading of Wild Seed, and which I believe is more important that any typos or inconsistencies in the narrative, is the way that the essence of the message is communicated to the reader. It is in the way that, once the efficacy of the transmission is decided upon, it shows up across generations, across time and space.
So, I don’t know if Peele has ever read Butler. I do know that Butler’s mastery of the fantastic/speculative is legendary. I also know that Peele’s foray into the fantastic/speculative with first, Get Out and then Us, has been met with high acclaim. I also know that there are many more gifted African American storytellers who have ventured into the speculative realm and once they say what was there, they never looked back. One of them I wrote about in my last post. It makes perfect sense that people of African descent would be attracted to science/speculative fiction. In the words of the master storyteller, most famous for his Easy Rawlins series, but also known to venture into the speculative, Walter Mosley, “The genre speaks more clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, escapist, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless. And this may explain the appeal that science fiction holds for a great many African-Americans. Black people have been cut off from their African ancestors by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.”
I have personally come to the conclusion that Everything is about slavery. This preoccupation with slavery is abundantly clear in the case of Wild Seed which takes place during the slave era and one of the main characters, Doro’s, relationship with “his people” can be likened to that of a slave master with his slaves. Slavery’s legacy comes through clearly in Get Out in which a white wealthy family zombifies African American people who are lured to their lair by their young pretty daughter. The preoccupation that the two “texts” share makes perfect sense. But here’s what I think also makes sense given the authors’ shared African ancestry and their shared history of being born and raised in the U.S.: The Sunken Place.
“The Sunken Place” is the aspect of the film that has gotten the most attention since the film’s release (Google it and you get over 35,000 hits). It even has its own Urban Dictionary entry.
For the two of you who have been hiding under a rock and not seen Get Out, the main character, Chris, is transported to “The Sunken Place” through the machinations of his girlfriend’s hypnotist mother.
Just a few pages before Wild Seed ends, the main character, Doro takes Anyanwu to his own kind of Sunken Place. When Doro grips her, “Abruptly, she is in darkness, falling through darkness toward distant light, falling. She felt herself twisting, writhing, gasping for some support. She screamed in reflexive terror, and could not hear her own voice.”
According to Urban Dictionary, The Sunken Place is “The metaphorical place an oppressed person goes when they have become silent or compliant to their own oppression. More often the sunken place is used to describe a disadvantaged person who is ignorant or unwilling to see that they have been conditioned into acquiescence. However, the sunken place can apply to anyone who chooses to stay silent in the face of discrimination or injustice, usually of their own.” While the protagonist of Get Out, Chris’ relationship to the sunken place is pretty in-your-face, in Wild Seed, Anyanwu’s relationship may seem a bit more obscured. After all, Doro is also of African descent, although he is able to take on different bodily forms regardless of race. But if we consider how systemic racism works, then it doesn’t matter that Doro is ostensibly black; he’s a dehumanizing, abusive, exploitative prick whose ultimate purpose is to control Anyanwu, body and soul. He represents racism, patriarchy, numerous normative ideologies that keep all of us imprisoned.
So I guess in the end it doesn’t matter if Peele has read Butler. What matters is that both artists have tapped into what it truly means to be black in this country, deeply engulfed by “the sunken place” that is white supremacy. Knowing so is irrelevant. It’s doing something constructive to get ourselves the fuck out of it that matters.
Butler, Wild Seed, 255.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (2018) by science/speculative fiction writer extraordinaire N.K Jemisin is another title that showed up in my Amazon recommendations this past December. The title itself had me hooked; it amazes me that the title had not been snatched up before now!
And that cover!!! holy smokes!!
Because I teach what I do, Black History is not relegated to the shortest month of the year; I (and my students, whether they know it or not) live it EVERY DAY—as we all should. It’s the cure for what has ailed this society since Europeans first landed here.
Jemisin is a New York Times bestselling author. She is the first one in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards as well as the Nebula, Locus, and Goodreads Choice Awards.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is Jemisin’s first collection of short stories and is a much-needed contribution to our understanding of and imaginings about the past, present, and future of this country and this world as well as our relationship to other worlds (and lest you think we are it, I’m here to tell you, we are not).
Jemisin is a master storyteller. So, even though I am not what I call a “hardcore scifier”—my imagination only extends so far—I stuck with the more far-reaching narratives because I knew, in my bones, that there were lessons to be learned from her words. My hunch was right. For example, “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” is a window into a future dystopia comprised of screen names and blog posts—a world with which we are all too familiar ;).
For most of the narrative I felt like it was treading water, trying to get a handle on where the characters were located, when they were. My patience paid off. The last couple of pages provided necessary closure while leaving me profoundly haunted. Another story, “The Necromancer”, about a different time and place, is a beautifully haunting tale of dreamers and healers, hopes, and futures.
I had several other favorites: “Red Dirt Witch” is a brilliantly understated commentary on the prices that have been paid for the “successes” that we witness amongst African-Americans contemporarily. While reading “Pauline got married, dreamt of fish, and made her own daughters to carry on the legacy. After a few more years, she ran for city council and won, and nobody strung her up. Then she ran for mayor, and won that too. All the while she turned a tidy profit from her sideline barbeque business” (56) I thought about the record-breaking number of women of color who have been elected to political office in just the past year (in the age of Trump) and the brilliant speech by the incomparable Congresswoman Maxine Waters at this year’s NAACP Awards ceremony (spoiler alert: she and her family have been threatened with bodily harm and death numerous times by white, scared conservatives).
Close to the beginning of “Red Witch Dirt” the story hints at the role that hate plays in the nation’s many ills. The author: “And late one cold winter’s night, Pauline dreamt again of the White folk. She saw how lean and poorly they were looking these days, deprived of their prey, and as the hate of the world dwindled and left them hungry” (57). Not only does this line reflect the fear that keeps waaaay too many white people hostage to violence—that they will end up lean and hungry if others “succeed”, but it also provides a glimpse into the otherworldly contributors to events that reveal the devastating effects of racism and white supremacy. A prime example of such an event was the debacle that was the (absence of) governmental response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. In the final story of the collection Jemisin takes up the hurricane, hovering between what we might consider the real world and the otherworldly.
The story, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” is another one that haunted me long after I finished the last line. “Sinners” is about a young man, Tookie, one of thousands of African-Americans who did not have the means to leave New Orleans, despite Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation announcement, left to fend for themselves. Illustrative of the kind of community commitment that saved countless lives, Tookie rescues his elderly neighbor, Miss Mary, from sure death by, if not drowning, starvation.
The otherworldliness of the story can be found in the noble talking lizard-like character who helps Tookie. This symbiotic character is countered with an adversarial underwater creature or “haint”, as Miss Mary calls it, that represents hatred, white supremacy, and disregard for others’ humanity that made the horror of the U.S. government’s shameful response to poor, mostly people of color, possible. These otherworldly elements are intoxicating in and of themselves, but the many levels of commentary that they provide on the history of this country, its troubled contemporary reality, and its uncertain future make the whole story magical, and dare, I say, enchanting.
The whole time I was reading the story I found myself recalling one of my favorite films: Trouble the Water, a documentary that was initiated by a young woman, Kimberly Rivers and her husband, Scott, who when they found themselves unable to flee Hurricane Katrina like their wealthier, mostly white New Orleans counterparts, grabbed their handheld camera and started filming. Where in Jemisin’s story a mystical underwater creature is to be feared and avoided, in the film, the “haints” are found in Nagin, President George W. Bush, head of FEMA turned motivational speaker Michael D. Brown, the police, and military officers who first abandon, and then vilify the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Another favorite narrative was “The Effluent Engine” about a young Haitian woman who is on a secret mission to New Orleans shortly after the Haitian Revolution has made the United States’ acquisition of New Orleans possible. The young woman, Jessaline, is looking for someone to turn the “effluent” that she has brought with her into methane that can be used to power dirigibles, a kind of airship to be used for travel around the Caribbean region. But more than a story of espionage, “The Effluent Engine” is a love story; one that literally left me clapping my hands in joy at its conclusion.
N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is 400 pages of imaginative genius. Several stories beyond those mentioned will stay with me: “The Alchemist” about an elderly jaded chef who discovers new life in unusual ingredients, is great fun, “The Valedictorian” brought back memories of The Matrix (red pill or blue pill), and “Cuisine des Mémoires”, an homage to the incredible Marie Leveaux and a cautionary tale about the importance of letting go of that which no longer serves us left me nodding my head in agreement; a timely reminder.
I absolutely loved these stories and would recommend them to both lightweight sci/fi/ speculative fiction writers like me and the more hardcore of us out there. Whichever your thing, you’re in for a treat.
I recently heard one of my favorite storytellers, LeVar Burton read one of Jemisin’s stories and interview her afterwards, solidifying my awe. Check out the story and interview here:
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), edited by Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, highlights the work of the Combahee River Collective vis-a-vis poignant and illuminating interviews with The Combahee River Collective founders, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier and its legacy with an interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It ends with comments from the historian and author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21stCentury (2018), Barbara Ransby. While it is not a blueprint for collective freedom, the text definitely is an arrow pointing the way out of the darkness that we currently find ourselves stuck in politically, economically, and socially.
Not only does Dr. Taylor give careful consideration to the kinds of questions she poses to the women, with each one driving home the revolutionary work of The Collective, but the way that the text is written is extremely accessible. By that I mean that, as a reader, I felt almost as if I were eavesdropping on an easy flowing conversation between a deeply curious mentee and her generous mentors. As such, Dr. Taylor’s questions and interjections are revelatory in their deep engagement with the subject matter and the revolutionary thinkers she interviews.
The Introduction sets the stage for the rest of the text by discussing the role that African American women did and did not play in the “disastrous 2016…election” (1) of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. After weaving together a deft overview of Black women’s historically and contemporarily oppressed position in American society she ends with the declaration that “we talk [about Combahee] because “black women are still not free” (14). Although Combahee had been meeting since 1974 and published its Statement in 1977 Black women remain one of the most disenfranchised groups in America.
The actual Combahee River Collective Statement, profound in its simplicity, follows the Introduction. The Collective asserts from the outset that
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face (15).
Readers will recognize the foundation for the concept of “intersectionality” that was coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in their words.
The Statement traces the evolution of The Collective before, in the second section, delineating what they believe; simply put, that Black women are inherently valuable. This was, and I believe, isa revolutionary declaration when we consider that Black women have been some of the most devalued beings in the United States from the time they arrived here in chains in the 16thcentury. The inclusion of the word, “inherent” is important because it implies that Black women’s value is not contingent upon her relationship to anybody or anything else. It simply is.
In a world where it is normal to attribute value to women primarily or solely through their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, church members, etc. the thought that they are important because they exist potentially created a paradigm shift for those fortunate enough to have been exposed to it at the time.
It is also in that section that The Collective introduces the term, “identity politics”, which, like intersectionality, has been appropriated, misunderstood, and misused over the decades. Barbara Smith clarifies the women’s understanding of “identity polities: “What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based on that reality”(61). This is very different from the way that the phrase is commonly used today; as yet another tool to exclude people.
In the third section, The Collective explores some of the challenges they faced in coming together and organizing. One of the most difficult challenges that the women faced was openly claiming their Black feminism when the very country in which they had been born and raised rejected their whole humanity and insisted that they choose one or two fights from amongst the many. The Feminist movement demanded that they put their blackness on a backburner and the Black Nationalist movement demanded that they put their womanhood on a backburner. As they state, “The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight on one front or even two, but to address a whole range of oppression” (22). The women of the Combahee River Collective, inspired by the work of the revolutionary Harriet Tubman at Combahee River in which she freed 750 enslaved people, would not be compartmentalized.
In the fourth section, with an eye toward the future, The Collective introduces some issues that they planned to take up and projects that they were working on; one of which was challenging racism in the white women’s movement. Another, though they don’t mention it, was starting their own feminist press, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was active from 1981 until 1992 with the brilliant Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde’s passing.
One of my favorite declarations from the Statement is at the very end:
In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society (27).
This revolutionary philosophy seems to undergird the work of the founders of #Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the last of whom Taylor interviews for How We Get Free.
The (almost) final words of the text come from Dr. Barbara Ransby, Distinguished Professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. Dr. Ransby, in her remarks from the 2017 Socialism Conference, echoes the counsel of the Martinican intellectual Frantz Fanon many years ago: that “each of us has our own work to do in our own time” (177).
The final words are left to Dr. Taylor in her Acknowledgements and should not be skipped as it is indicative of the impact of the firm position that The Combahee River Collective took, explicitly anti-capitalist. Her last line, which reads as a kind of prayer, is also a call to action: “Let us end the economic system that devours the people we love” (186). Amen.
I am an admirer of the African American Buddhist writer cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Johnson. Johnson is the recipient of several awards including the coveted MacArthur “Genius Award” as well as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. I was introduced to his work through his fiction; initially, Middle Passage (1998), which won The National Book Award for Fiction in 1990. I then moved on to his short stories, one of which I have written about*. Finally, I ventured into his essay collections: one was Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003). Another was Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1990).
This all happened while I was a stressed out graduate student and single parent of a beautiful precocious preteen African American boy in middle America. I was looking for an anchor at a time in my life when I felt like I might blow away at any moment.
I found that anchor in Johnson’s work, as well as in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1992) and Reverend angel Kyodo williams whose Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (2000) provided more than an anchor. It lit the tunnel that I felt I was trapped in so that I could see my way forward.
I’ve begun reading a bunch of black Buddhists writing again, mostly because so many more writings by black Buddhists have been published in the past, say, ten years. A few: Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist–One Woman’s Spiritual Journey (2008) by Jan Willis, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016), edited by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, PhD (2016), Spring Washam’s A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Love, and Courage at Any Moment (2017), and Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out (2018) by Ruth King as well as several by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel(it does not escape me that women are leading the movement).
(As an aside, I got to spend some time with Spring at an amazing women’s retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this past September. She is a powerful Shaman and thought leader, full of love and compassion)
Another that came out in 2014 is Johnson’s Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice, a collection of writings that have been previously published elsewhere in diverse venues. The author announces in the Preface to the collection that of all the books he’s published—and there have been quite a few—both fiction and nonfiction, the most spiritually rewarding work was Turning the Wheel. According to Johnson “On its pages, the two activities that have anchored my life for sixty-five years and reinforce each other—creative production and spiritual practice—were humbly offered to readers as moments that crystallized what I have learned during my passage through American literature, the visual arts, and the Buddhadharma” (ix). Ten years later, Johnson felt like it was time to publish another such work; one that honored the recent creative work of others, the changing socio-political conditions of the country, and developments in his own personal life, not the least of which is his becoming a grandfather.
The book is divided into three sections: Part One: Essays, Part Two: Reviews and Prefaces, and Part Three: Stories. Part One is the longest section and covers a wide range of topics including how the Dharma has influenced his artistic work, the Dharma’s influence on the philosophy, teachings and work of the venerable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the importance of Buddhist participation in the political process, to why Buddhism is a viable path for Black America in this current moment. He even does a treatment of the election of the man who was then to be elected two-time president of the United States, Barack Obama before ending with treatment of George Zimmerman’s murder of sixteen year old Trayvon Martin through a Buddhist lens.
Part Two, consisting of prefaces and introductions to others’ texts and book reviews, was a nice break from all the heavy thinking that I had to do in Part One ;), what with trying to remember Buddhist terms and concepts with which Johnson is intimately familiar (and which to his credit, he clearly defines several times), and the nuanced way that he works through his exploration of the intersections of Buddhism and several diverse topics that bear down on American life in each discrete essay. I was especially interested in his review of two books by two African American women Buddhists that had recently been published; both of which I’ve mentioned: Being Black (2000) by ordained Zen priest Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and the other, Dreaming Me (2001) by Jan Willis, a Sanskitist and Indo-Tibetan scholar who is professor emerita of religion at Wesleyan University.
Johnson’s review of Willis’ work is rightfully glowing. However, when he gets to Rev. Kyodo’s text he almost seems to not get it. While he notes that the book is written with urgency and humor, and clearly understands that the author seeks “to deliver to black America the tools for survival and self-transformation” (107) he seems to have a problem with the way that the message is delivered. Channeling a poet friend of his, Johnson remarks that Being Black tries to do too much in its compact 192 pages, “resulting in congeries of well-worn Zen chestnuts” (107). He also seems to object to the the language that Rev. Kyodo uses, asking rhetorically, “Are black Americans unable to understand and accept the Dharma, or for that matter anything that originates outside their historical experience as a group, unless it is delivered with a supposedly ‘black flavor’?” The answer is, of course not, evidenced by Willis as well as, as he remarks, black (and Latino) members of Soka Gokkai Buddhists who do not need copies of the Lotus Sutra written in ‘black English’” (109). Johnson knows this, but nonetheless criticizes a work that serves an important role in the black community. Who knows how many people have been drawn to the Dharma after picking up Being Black and seeing themselves within its pages as Rev. Kyodo writes
Funky attitude, arrogant, self-pitying, too fat, kinky-haired, pimpled, freckled, too tall, too short, not enough money, always late, high-strung, unmotivated, skinny as a rail, high yellow, chinky-eyed, Kunta Kinte-looking, half-breed, flat-nosed, dim-witted, still living with your momma, working at McDonalds, conceited, know you better than anyone else, Cuchifrita, Coconut, Spic, Negro…”
There is something to be said for the use of the “language of the people” when the goal is to welcome different bodies into the fold, especially when those bodies have been traditionally shunned. I wholeheartedly agree with the founders of the black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective’s, assertion in their defining statement that “Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political”. There is a time and place for language that holds resonance for people. Rev. Kyodo recognized that time and place and acted.
Those people who need and seek the Dharma will recognize in her language “The Dozens”, a game many African-Americans grew up playing, and that for all of its problems, in a world that doesn’t love us, signaled that we were accepted as part of a community that loved and supported us even though we were all of those things. And sometimes that’s needed—that thread that reaches out and connects.
In that sense, Being Black has its place in the Buddhism as it is emerging and evolving, including the faces, experiences, and voices of the many. I see it as a “by any means necessary approach” that is both appropriate and warranted.
Part Three is comprised of several short stories, all of which I devoured. My favorite was “Kamadhatu, a Modern Sutra” about a young priest named Toshiro Ogama who has taken over the care of a fourteen-hundred-year-old Buddhist temple called Anraku-ji, which means “peaceful, at ease”. However, rather than being at ease, the priest, having lost his parents in a car accident when he was fifteen years old, is painfully shy, and feels like “a failure, an outright fraud”(152). He hides from the world, a recluse.
His life changes when a young African American woman Buddhist scholar, Dr. Cynthia Tucker, whose work he is translating, shows up at his doorstep requesting to be his student. He, of course refuses, but agrees to let her be of some service to the temple cleaning out one of the small storage closets, which contains items that the last abbot fifty years before had left behind. What Dr. Tucker unearths, a film about a funeral ceremony that had taken place during the Korean War in the very room in which they watch the film, opens the priest’s eyes to “his own self-nature” and allows him to shed his “sense of twoness”(159). Quite a feat indeed as this twoness, this splitting of ourselves in two (duality), our need to compare ourselves to our past selves, others to us, who we could be and who we are, is a constant struggle. The fact that it is an African-American woman who aids in the priest’s revelation is icing on the cake.
I also really enjoyed the last story in the collection, “The Weave”, for very different reasons. The story, based loosely on a news article of a robbery that took place in 2012 and with an epigraph by Chris Rock from his film Good Hair (2009) is about a young African American hairdresser, Ieesha, who wears her hair natural and shuns make-up and her boyfriend, Frances, who adores her natural beauty. The two rob the beauty parlor that Ieesha has been recently fired from of its human hair supply.
Johnson seamlessly works into the story the history of the hair, collected from Indian women taking vows of renunciation of vanity, taken from Buddhist temples, sold to Korean merchants for pennies, and after being cleaned of lice, sold by those merchants on the international market in a $9 billion industry “devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others” (190).
Johnson makes a heartbreaking connection between the misuse of this sacred cultural practice and the exploitation of poor, mostly black women who, “forced to choose between food and their winter fuel bill, go into debt shelling out between $1,000 and $3,000, and sometimes as much as $5,000, for a weave with real human hair” (188).
I will close my review of Taming the Ox by quoting from Johnson’s essay, “Why Buddhism for Black America America Now?”. He says,“Like the narrator of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, many black Americans today possibly feel ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’” (63-64). I feel immensely grateful to live at a time when Buddhist writers and scholars who look like me and share many of my concerns, preoccupations, and fears generously share their knowledge and deep wisdom to help point us/me in the direction of freedom. I am grateful to have discovered Charles Johnson at a time when I desperately needed his words. I am grateful to rediscover him during a time of renewed commitment to growth, spiritual and otherwise. I see him and the other writers whom i highlight here as purveyors of transmissions that will be instrumental in showing the world “how we get free” to quote the title of Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s edited text on Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), the gorgeous text that I’m presently deep into. Stay tuned!!
* See Pressley-Sanon, Toni. “‘A Lion at Pendleton’: Charles Johnson’s Reimagining of a Moment.” Obsidian: Literature and Arts of the African Diaspora 41.1-2 (Spring 2016): 195-208