By The Light of Buddha, I Navigate (my) Darkness
I seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
And to Siddhartha’s everlasting praise, I always find it.
Oakland is a city that loves its street parties; the last one I went to was a spirited celebration of the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act. Bouncing slightly to the familiar strains of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, I was enthused watching the LGBT community enjoy their well-deserved victory. It wasn’t enough, however, to mask a pang of distress over the repeal of a key component of the Voting Rights Act the day before. What exactly is behind this unsettling discrepancy, ironic since some from the LGBT community have labeled their struggle the “new Civil Rights Movement?” Let me first say that any triumph for love in this time of cholera (desertification, species extinction, austerity, surveillance, etc.) should be celebrated. A number of factors underlie the inconsistency according to this very cogent article by Tikkun Magazine/Network of Spiritual Progressives founder, bestselling author, longtime peace and justice activist, a person I’m glad to be able to call a friend and comrade, Rabbi Michael Lerner. Gays and lesbians, building on the achievements of the actual Civil Rights Movement, fought an increasingly intense battle over 20 years to force the nation to rectify its outdated legal prohibition of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, instead of pressing their issues with equal force, many African Americans circled the wagons around the first Black President – justifiable given US history. In the midst of attempts to shield him from torrents of criticism, he did nothing for black economic parity per se, in fact scolding African American fathers and the Congressional Black Caucus… the former being one item on a tiny list of actions actually approved of by his detractors.
But there’s more to it.
As the Rabbi elucidates, a significant qualitative difference exists between a bid for integration into mainstream American life and a challenge to the US political and economic order itself. That order is propped up by a neutered, superfluous mass of unemployable workers – people whose numbers might better serve other purposes. African Americans have routinely been at the epicenter of the nation’s most transformative social justice crusades. For this we have paid dearly at the hands of the KKK, strike-breakers, COINTELPRO agents and the like. Today, there needn’t be any overt struggle for rights or justice. Many black communities across America are under de facto militarized lockdown.
Where I respectfully disagree with Rabbi Lerner is in his assertion that Civil Rights leaders eschewed the training of new movement activists for the sake of achieving wins in the legal system. As the born-in-1969 son of a former SNCC field organizer and part of an effort to start a Black Panther Party chapter in the city of Boston, I witnessed firsthand the real reason a new generation of activists was not forthcoming – many of the young mantle-inheritors were simply gone: murdered, imprisoned, or strung out on the narcotics surreptitiously smuggled into inner-city neighborhoods by extrajudicial operators.
What does that mean in 2013? And how is a person mindfully carrying that label supposed to proceed? Considering the prevailing racial climate, I think these are worthy and indeed vital questions to pursue.
For starters, I’m brown, not ink-on-paper perfectly black, and neither is anyone else, though there certainly are some very darkly pigmented people. This of course is irrelevant in the wider sociopolitical reality. Separation of human beings into allegedly differently-abled color categories is a project that’s been running for over 500 years, commencing roughly in 1492 with the final expulsion of Moorish rulers from Spain and Christopher Columbus’s landing on Hispaniola, beginning Western European colonialism. The Scientific Revolution, beginning slightly earlier, displaced Christianity with empirical rationalism but imported Biblical notions of a stark, irreconcilable duality between “bad” (symbolized by black) and “good” (symbolized by white). Thinkers in Europe, America and Australia then began conflating “black people” and “white people” (a formulation widely attributed to German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach) and the corresponding Scriptural intimations of defilement and purity, dramatized memorably in this scene from Spike Lee’s 1992 groundbreaking biopic Malcolm X.
Waves of commentary about a post-racial America have emanated from every corner of that cavernous echo-chamber the mainstream media ever since Barack Obama’s 2008 ascension to the office of Commander in Chief.
Is that what we are?
It’s indisputable that the racial order has undergone significant changes for the better. African Americans have gained, over the years, more access to various kinds of jobs, homes in suburbs, and educational options. There are more black mayors, governors, Congressional members and other highly ranking political appointees than ever before. Government policies promoting segregation have been replaced by ones (officially) promoting inclusion. Antidiscrimination is firmly entrenched in the corporate workplace. The Civil Rights movement provided a template for cultural pride and self-esteem, and at the same time official recordkeeping allows people to designate themselves as belonging to more than one race, effectively creating various possibilities for self-identification. Young people especially, of all colors, exist in a social context that perceives and practices race flexibly.
And yet evidence that you can’t legislate people’s hearts, as the Right Reverend observed, can be found in the persistence of structural racism, an invisible reality pushing back on all the above mentioned advancements and spawning appalling new twists on old problems. A whole class of black political leaders, responding defensively to a national climate of resurgent racialized tension, is apparently stymied against effective representation of African American interests. Black unemployment rates are consistently twice that of whites. African Americans endure a host of healthcare disparities as well. We were disproportionately targeted for subprime loans, and because home ownership is linked to financial liquidity, when the subprime lending market tanked a generation of economic progress was wiped out, and mortgage lending to blacks and Latinos has since plunged precipitously. Privatization, neoliberalism and penal populism have led to the prison-building boom, militarization of minority schools and hyper-criminalization of youth culminating in the school-to-prison pipeline.
And these last developments in particular, combined with the recording industry-enabled hijacking of Hip Hop (the global phenomenon I and my peers came of age creating) by rapping minstrels, have aggregated into an exceptionally toxic cultural environment ultimately resulting in extrajudicial killings.
When I think back to why I started rapping in the first place, it’s clear that Hip Hop was the one and only way I could fully express my outrage at social inequity. Yet, for inasmuch I fancied myself in righteous opposition to “Western” conventions, my underlying belief in the improvability of the human condition was actually thoroughly Western. Under Gautama’s tutelage, this fundamental assumption comes into question. Is it truly possible to transmute human nature in a way that is reflected in systems and institutions? What is absolutely possible is the transmutation of the self; whether or not enough transmuted selves can achieve critical mass necessary for structural transformation remains to be seen.
So let’s get it all out in the open.
As long as the speculative conflation of race and color endures, I am mourning. I am high fashion, elegance. I am the end, violence. I am occult, secret. I am in fact the embodiment of “dark theory” – a societal ‘negative space’ (and it’s up to you to define what is meant by negative here) defined by blocs, by special ops, box projects, flags. Like tinted milspec steel on a military vehicle I absorb all light, similar to why you feel hotter in a black tee shirt. Like nonrenewable oil and coal, the death of organic bodies buried in the earth under great pressure for long periods, I have tremendous potential for the release of energy. Indeed the very melanin in my skin is a biological converter of solar energy for human use.
Of course what I am insinuating here is that I am power – black power, simple and plain.
And more importantly, with undying gratitude to Siddhartha, I am at peace. My trajectory through the Dharma has demonstrated the capacity to distinguish, to demarcate and in the end, to disengage from any and everything I do not find to be wholly and authentically me. I’m no longer required to accept ANY of the definitions I’ve itemized above. I am free – free to pick and choose what serves my purposes.
Concurrently, I’m trapped: in materiality, in unrevealed configurations, in space-time. It’s easy to be fooled or confused by what seems, on the face of it, an unsolvable paradox. Nagarjuna instructed, rather cryptically, that it is not. The Absolute (unity) and relative (plurality) truths are one. We are, one and all, entangled within a vast and unfathomable Mystery. This fate I share with all sentient beings: on land, in the sea, and in the sky. All here together are we, a miniscule blue speck drifting in the black infinity of deep space, with a distant Awakened glimmer to provide succor.
Bezi is a Hip Hop recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, producer/composer, former member of “the Subterraneanz” rap group/band, documentarian, urban philosopher, strategist, activist, aspiring author and launcher of a dharma-influenced political third party.