Monday, September 17, 2018

THE AUTUMN OF WORN WAYS

The Challenges of Being and Becoming
The tension between who we are and who we must become in order to realize our fullest human potential is real. That tension is, for many, a source of great physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma.

The demands of growth and change can seem overwhelming, but to maintain our health and sustain our general well-being we must at some point make a determination to meet them. This process is without doubt uncomfortable, since it involves our breaking out of old ways into new ways of being and behaving. Some of us recognize and embrace the change that grows us; while some of us will have that change forced upon us in the very midst of our unwillingness.

Over the course of our lives, and from one generation to another, we develop a certain vested interest in keeping things stable. We do not like change. We work on the establishment of a certain status quo in our personal and communal experiences, and we invest substantial material and intellectual resources in its maintenance. We become comfortable with the ways we establish, and we resist any attempt to breach the walls that surround those ways. To keep those walls up we foster certain self-serving dogmas… We demand that others not rock our boats… And why?...  Well… We do not want our boats to be rocked! Simple. No more questions. That. Is. It.

Well, as for the no more questions part… Not so simple. For better or for worse, the rocking of boats is an inevitable fact of life in the very fluid course of our dynamic reality. The challenges of our existence are not just omnipresent and inevitable; they are necessary. They enliven us by stirring our creative juices. These challenges come and go like day and night. They are as present and as essential as Oxygen in the air we breathe. They are at once as certain, and as unpredictable as the wind. And, when they come, they demand that we make adjustments in both the perceptions and the practices of our lives.

Back Then, As In Our Time...
I experience a certain guilty pleasure from relating this experience of someone known to me. He is Caucasian, I am Black. Having examined my soul for traces of insensitivity, and after eliminating the possibility that I do not share his existential dilemma… I can now tell this story without the constraints of cultural sympathy, but with an appropriate consciousness of our shared humanity and the inherent frailties thereof.

This gentleman grew up in George Wallace’s South where the social, economic, and political prosperity of Whites was premised on the continued disenfranchisement and oppression of Blacks. He was probably there at Wallace’s inauguration as the Democratic Governor of Alabama in 1963, when in the face of the rising challenge to a racist status quo the newly elected Governor declared:

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Segregation forever? Well, maybe not.

All the passion in the world cannot make an untenable position durable. It matters not who it's proponent is, or the extent of his or her persuasion. Race was the outstanding line in the sand here; but color was not the only factor in the offensive and grossly immoral social dynamic of the time. The twin markers of gender and sexual orientation also played a role in determining social and political progress, and thus the possibilities for one’s overall prosperity. These things were true then, and they are still factors influencing a person’s ability to thrive in our time.

Back then, as now, the players on either side of the cultural divide weren't always who you would assume or expect. There were homosexual persons who publicly condemned homosexuality. Blacks were complicit in the oppression of other Blacks, actively promoting the self-denigrating dogma that ‘nothing black is ever good’. Women were activists against the political empowerment of women.

The late Phyllis Schlafly, an ardent conservative political activist who came to prominence as an anti-communist crusader in the 1950s spent much of her life championing the supremacy of “traditional values” over “progressive causes” like feminism and gay rights. She died on September 5, 2016 at the age of 92. It wont be long now till a woman is elected to the Presidency of the United States, and with this in mind many are mocking the declaration: “There will be a woman President over my dead bodywhich has been attributed to her. To be responsible I must add that this declaration has not been authoritatively verified as having come from Ms Schlafly, even though there is no doubt that this is a shared sentiment among many women who call themselves conservative.

The Not So Indelible Impressions of Our Dogma
The stain of our cultural myopia still colors the sentiments, and impugns the integrity, integumentary and otherwise, of many. Which takes me back to the case of this man, the subject of my story. He, while in his early twenties, had the Confederate flag tattooed …emblazoned across his sun-tanned chest… So that it would go before him wherever he went. This being the case, he would wear his shirt buttoned low, or open-fronted as often as fashion and etiquette permitted.

This son of the Confederacy himself became a father during the days of ‘Rock and Roll’. He thrived and raised his children during a period when the legacy of racial injustice and oppression, neo-colonialism, and the threat of nuclear war were ever-present themes. These were the overwhelming socio/political impressions of the time that led the inspired activist-artist Bob Dylan to pen such anthems as:

Blowin' in the Wind
‘’How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin in the wind
The answer is blowin in the wind”

And ...

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
“Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son ?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall”.

The season of Rock and Roll evolved into the season of Rap and Reggae… Reggae, a sound that has its origins in the shared dynamic syncopation of our heartbeats… This season mobilized a strident uprising against racism and apartheid, against wars and rumors of wars, against economic vampires and their bloodsucking ways... It shook the foundations of the System of Oppression from Jamaica to Rome to London to Paris to Washington to South Africa to Mozambique. This season spoke with an unmistakable force in the voice of prophetic luminaries like Robert Nesta Marley and the Wailers… A force felt in the well-fired architecture of renditions of:

Babylon System
‘We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be;
We are what we are:
That's the way it's going to be. You don't know!
You can't educate I
For no equal opportunity:
Talkin' 'bout my freedom,
People freedom and liberty!
Yeah, we've been trodding on the winepress much too long:
Rebel, rebel!”

And…

War
“Until the philosophy
Which holds one race superior and another
Inferior
Is finally
And permanently
Discredited
And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say war
That until there are no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
Me say war”

And it was in these days that this man became a great- grandfather… To a black baby boy.

You see, his granddaughter was a student at one of our now desegregated colleges here in the South. Yes, the ones that have the authors of those strident racist dogmas - ‘Segregation forever!’ - turning over in their graves. And it was while she was a student there that she fell in love with an African American classmate, a not so uncommon occurrence nowadays in the new evolving multicultural reality that a Barack Hussein Obama demographic represents. Oh, you did know that his mother was a white woman… ? Of course you knew that. And he went on to become POTUS… President of these United States of America; a world leader second in popularity only to this current Pope. Nothing said about him by a certain Donald J. Trump and the bigots among his followers can change that. And did I mention that these United States of America continues to include the great States of Alabama and Mississippi, and Georgia, etc. But I digress. Let's return to our new great grandfather.

Being and Beneficence
There is a well repeated fact that we regard and repeat with a kind of liturgical steadfastness: The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. We say this with the reverence it deserves. Amen. When this man first learned that his granddaughter was expecting a child ‘‘by a colored boy’...that's how it was presented to him by one of the young woman’s aunts…he was speechless. By his own words, he ‘didn't know what to feel or what to think’.

In the months preceding the birth of the child, they were introduced to the youngman over and over. If nothing else, these reintroductions provided opportunities to get over the very real awkwardness that existed on both sides. The initial tentativeness wore thin with the experience of a growing familiarity. By the time the baby was born our great grandfather had gone from soft hesitant handshakes, to firm but still awkward embraces of the now husband of his grandchild.

And so that moment came when, as he sat in the well-worn, white rocking chair that adorned his verandah in rural Georgia; the baby boy…the black child of his white grandchild… was brought and placed in his arms. He held the child up to his eyes with his arms straight at each elbow, and then he slowly brought him to rest on his chest...his suntanned confederate-flag-emblazoned-chest. It was a moment like none that he ever expected to experience. Rocking back and forth in that chair, his chest became more expansive with the deepened breath that came to him in that very moment - Some would say a sigh - I say a deeper breath than he had ever taken in all his years.

And he became silent as something happened inside that flag-stained domicile of his emotional being. His face became flushed as his once very stubborn heart opened up and gave space to emotions that were more compliant with the demands of a deepened humanity. And as he experienced the liberation that Love brought, the tears that ran down his face became a libation to the sacredness of the moment. It moistened and lubricated the now non-existent space between his cheek and the soft innocently fragrant face of his new great grandchild. And some of those tears rolled to the edge of his lips, and he licked them in - savoring the essential blessedness of the new cultural reality that beckoned.

Love, we can affirm, is an agent of change. It carries the full force and authority of the essence of what it means to be. It comes to break down barriers cemented in the substance of our convenient dogmas. Love came. And change came. It did like a raging torrent in that moment.  And the tears that flowed in its track washed into oblivion the brokenness of a cantankerous past with all its coarse debris. And the child looked up at his great grandfather’s face and smiled. And he… He groaned in relief, as if to lay a burden down.

Until We Open Our Hearts...
The next day came, and not a moment too soon. He woke up early, and with a newfound determination he took time off from his usual chores. His world had changed. He must now become a willing agent of that change. Change does not require our permission or consent. It comes. And when it does we either flow in its course, or remain stubborn… But then, like unmovable rocks in the course of a determined river, we get reduced to sand and silt. We either comply with the demands of change, or we become the fertile remnants of a non-compliant past.

And so this man went about the business of finding out how and where he might go about removing that tattoo from the flesh that housed his heart. He had for too long walked down that road where some men are not regarded as fully human… as truly men. He was once a man who was ‘wounded in love’, who now felt the urgency to stop being an agent of hate. No more would he trod the winepress of bigotry. A new consciousness dawned in his blurred world when his heart was touched by Love in all its eloquent splendor.

In his quest to blot out that old symbol of hatred and oppression he was not totally successful. But he did manage to get that flag reconfigured to look more like the Star Spangled Banner. Not a perfect outcome we can agree, but one more in keeping with the promise of a more perfect Union.

In the face of everything that we are taught about being, we remain yet ignorant until we open our hearts to each other. Our dogmas serve to indoctrinate us in the ways of our cultural biases; but they are no substitute for the true learning that comes from the affirmation of the needs and the potentials of our common humanity. Beyond the narrowed perspectives and the practice of the dogmas informing the status quo in our lives, a real education awaits. To summarize a wiser soul than myself, …At the very heart of that education, is the education of our hearts.

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