When my friend April suggested buying a sign and putting it up, I hedged. I hedged but wasn’t sure why. It took me some days and a movie to realize that I was looking in the wrong directions for an authentic explanation for my discomfort.
My first hunch was that this gesture would feel too self-congratulatory, putting a sign up that is. I felt I had more work to do before I could begin to celebrate in the recent mass and vast movement throughout a good portion of the world that, after the gruesome death of George Floyd at the hands of police, had become so forceful a presence.
I had been planning to re-watch “I am not your Negro” whose words and content were those of James Baldwin who had been commissioned to work on a script about three black giants who were killed, Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. While I watched this film for my fourth time and took notes, I realized my reasons were right here.
I am not new to the core philosophy expanded upon in the film. It is the core also of my own work as a psychotherapist, and of my writing. It centers on our needing to begin to see, to bear and to own our own experiences and our own emotions. To own them so we can integrate them and tame them, so we can bear to also take in the external facts of a matter without relying on the projection of our unwanted emotions onto “the other” whom we come to demonize and blame for everything.
The film is riveting as it is deep. The footage is haunting, because of the brutality we have witnessed, if we are looking, toward people of color, from the 1960’s to today, and of course earlier on as well. Baldwin saw the white culture we have inherited as diseased, as sick and as in some ways dead, empty, as sad. Baldwin, in his critique, throws on its head the notion that black people ought to conform to what white people have created or that they ought to idealize our cowboy heritage of violence and domination as just one example.
The center, the punch of the film arrives in the delivery of another deeper truth, namely that white people have needed the “Nigger” as the projection of things they could not stand, that they feared. The theme of fear is all over the movie. In light of the American illness of an insisted upon exceptionalism, rendered even more absurd in the context of Covid19 and American’s pitiful response full of grandiosity and denial to the result of vast devastation and danger, it is vital as it is painful to hear him speak. To hear him say that we, white America invented the “Negro problem” so as to safeguard the notion of white purity.
Baldwin’s words come, again, as follows: “Brother has murdered brother, knowing it was his brother. It is not a racial problem. It’s about whether you can look at your problem and do what you need to do to change it”. He said, so profoundly, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
At such a delicate time in our history, I conjure up Carl Jung. I conjure up his work on the shadow that says that unless we own up to our own lusts and violence, to our tenderness and fears, we are destined to blame and hate and demonize. For James Baldwin, unless we, and here he speaks of white America, reckon with our own fears of things inside us, we will need a scapegoat. We will create the bad in our mind’s eye, not because the bad exists, but because our fragile ego and insides need something and someone to make the enemy.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” When I work as a therapist, the concentration is often on why it can be so hard to see what is right under our nose. We can hardly actualize the meaning of “If you see something say something” because the seeing in itself is too scary. And it is scary also because we risk the controversy of calling those who we have put on pedestals into question.
I can’t put up the sign, the Black Lives Matter sign as it turns out, also because at this point it doesn’t express what I would want to say. This is not, as it turns out, only about prizing the equality of black people and people of every color and every immigration status. It is, I feel, as much about prizing the QUALITY of our lives. It is about NOT ASSUMING WE HAVE ENOUGH OF A SOLID QUALITY OF LIFE EVEN IF WE ARE WHITE. Nobody has to play catchup in other words, but rather we have to do the work of catching up with some of what we know about the quality of life coming with authentic meaning. We have to cultivate a practice of moving into awareness and into facing the conflicts in our world and also inside us.
We need to focus on what it might take to shift from being colonizing to being equal, from feeling superior to feeling and being co-creators, from being plagued by constant fear to daring to face those fears and the emotions the fears contain. It enriches me to hear Baldwin say that for him the issues of race were not racial per se but human. He didn’t feel racism was unimportant, not at all. It’s just that we are racist because we don’t have dignity within and for ourselves, for all of our people and those beyond our borders.
For those who are angered by the notion that white America was and might still be ailing, I would add that to care about a person, a thing or a country, means to try to face as much of the realities involved, and then to try again to face what was too hard the first go round. The idea of us ailing can be epitomized by the many who say the American economy is good when to value dignity would be to say that when our nation has at least one in five who are poor, our economy cannot possibly be good.
James Baldwin was a piercing and poetic spirit and human being. His words are still wise and searing, running deep: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I want those words on a sign so I can see them over and over. I want to use this sign to share the notion for so many arenas: the virus — the coronavirus, climate change, the need for dignity of all of us. For dignity to be a value that is real and attainable, we would need the help of people who are capable of translating ideas into practical realities. We would also need the energy and motivation for change to be sustainable: it would need to last beyond the present moment.
Signs can mean different things to different people. They can provoke us to emotions and to actions and to considering what we may not have earlier or even a day before. To me, the signs we need most would be those that would provoke us to also want to see our own insides. And with this, to face — to face and to address — whatever continues to propel us to hate and to blame and to divide, as well as what might compel us to stay complicit by looking away.
#racism #Black Lives Matter #James Baldwin #white people