Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tried Them on at the Gates of Hell

The 1963 birthday revisiting continues. Last week as I was surveying my bookshelves for a copy of slave stories from the Georgia Coast, I found another part of the birthday gift my family sent me while I was sitting in a house of studies in rural Minnesota. Inscribed:  “To Joseph Brown, N.S.J—for Birthday—September 5, 1963—from the Family.” It is in my mother’s handwriting. From the Family. My, what that simple line says to me, fifty years later.  The book was retrieved and sent to me by one of the dearest friends I could ever hope to have.  “Dear Joseph, Birthdays are appropriate occasions for reconciliation. Please accept this book from the “Society” as an apology for the ignorance of the former days . . . discovered this in the library. By returning it to you, I hope to express at least some understanding of its contents.  Happy Birthday.” [Editorial comments: “N.S.J”—“novice member of the Society of Jesus.” “Society”—internal shorthand for “the Society of Jesus”]

The book? Strength to Love, a collection of essays by Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining in the clearest language possible the truly life or death choice behind his theology of non-violence.  The friend? One of the first people to prove the possibility of James Baldwin’s understanding that a bonding occur between: “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others.” [Again, from The Fire Next Time]

In an interview published in The Black Scholar [reprinted in Conversations with James Baldwin), Baldwin puts it plain, as plain as he could be when his interlocutors would allow him room to soar like an eagle.  He is asked whether political themes play a role in his writing. Oh, the man reminds us all that he left the church but the church never left him: “The role of the artist is exactly the same role, I think, as the role of the lover.  If you love somebody, you honor at least two necessities at once.  One of them is to recognize something very dangerous, or very difficult.  Many people cannot recognize it at all, that you may also be loved; love is like a mirror.  In any case, if you love somebody, you honor the necessity endlessly, and being at the mercy of that love, you try to correct the person whom you love. Now that’s a two way street.  You’ve also got to be corrected.  As I said, the people produce the artist, and it’s true. The artist also produces the people.  And that’s a very violent and terrifying act of love.  The role of the artist and the role of the lover.  If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.  Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don’t see.  And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me.  No one wants to see more than he sees.  You have to be driven to see what you see.  The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love.  You can call it a poem, you can call it whatever you like.  That is how people grow up.  An artist is here not to give you answers but to ask you questions.”

My family sent me Baldwin and King. These men anointed me from afar, as a child in the wilderness is claimed for some task that will benefit the people. “Find the words and use them well. Speak honestly and tirelessly to those you love, even when they allow you ‘no name in the street’.”  That is all right, in the long run. “I told Jesus it would be all right if He change my name…” I never told the world it had anybody’s permission to call me anything but a Child of God.

King's acceptance of that name, “Child of God,” influences his writings in Strength to Love. His variation on the theme of consciously loving the other is to talk about having a “tough mind and a tender heart.” Both King and Baldwin start with an assumption concerning the dominating culture that is America eternally (or at least from then to now) about African American people. African Americans are, in the mind of the other, incapable of the “higher faculties” (as Jefferson claimed about Phillis Wheatley). But we actually do know what we are talking about, when we talk about racism, prejudice, violence, economic inequality, oppression, and abuse. We remain ignorant only at the risk of death. “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”  And for King, making America conscious meant forcing the guardians of power and domination to see the hatred that was soul-destroying for all concerned. Deciding to love the one who seeks to destroy you takes the “dogged strength” of Du Bois; the artistic genius of every singer and dancer and preacher and comedian and photographer and poet (traditional or contemporary) we have ever allowed to correct us. From Frederick Douglass to Richard Pryor; from Sojourner Truth to Nina Simone; from Bert Williams to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke; from Wheatley to Nikki Giovanni; we have always given birth to the poets to call us all to consciousness. 

But who are they today? And where do they prophesy and challenge us? What dismays me more than a little is that in the face of the rabid forces that refuse to admit the reality we all share, the artist/poet/prophets have gone underground or have become nearly mute in their utterance.  King demonstrates a pure joy in his rhetoric when he describes “softminded individuals.” (Ah, so, yes; he is a poet, too.  A purveyor of terrifying love.) “Softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears....The softminded man always fears change…For him the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea…Dictators, capitalizing on softmindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.” And then King introduces a reference that is as pertinent today as it was fifty years ago—and also eighty-eight years ago: “Adolf Hitler realized that softmindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.’”  

Leaving absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone who has picked up this book to read, King says, finally,”Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice….Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings…There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.  The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.” (Strength to Love, 2-5).
Young females shot and raped in Afghanistan for attending school. Children beaten, tortured and killed in Syria.  The lost children of the Congo. Orphans in Haiti. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant.  The Tea Party. The denial of essential validity for Barrack Obama. Sequestration.  Homeless veterans. Hungry children in the U. S. al Shabaab - a Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate group, murdering the innocent in Nairobi.

We know whereof we speak. We have always known that we began in hell and had to fashion our wings so that we could fly away.  Ah, but then, we – as profoundly as Melville’s Ishmael – “we have returned to tell what the end will be.”  “We know our wings are gonna fit us well…We tried them on at the gates of hell.”  Without love, for ourselves, our children and those humble enough to be conscious, we would have crashed long ago. Or believed that the fire was fatal and never tried to fly.

Who is there today to sing the truth-telling song we need, so that we can learn to move in the darkness?