The Dharma of Black Feminism: Zenju Earthlyn Manuel on bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry
A video conversation with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry
Held at The New School in New York City, November 8th, 2013
My family ran to the TV to see black folks faces across the screen. I still run to see but rarely do I stop these days. When I saw the taped conversation with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, I ran towards it. I listened and their words stopped me for a very long time. Their message from a black feminist perspective moved me in good ways and challenged my dharma practice as a Zen priest. But I didn’t move to say anything publicly as I hoped others would speak my mind and heart. I sat with the conversation for many days waiting for commentary from others about the conversation. Most reviewers of the taped conversation were overjoyed to see that a public dialogue on black women’s voices even occurred at all. Of course, I was excited as a writer and an advocate of bell hooks’ work. I don’t have cable so I was unaware of the new superstar, Melissa Harris-Perry, whom bell hooks claimed at the end of the video to be her soul sister. I loved it. But let’s get on with the grit of the messages they brought to light. I wondered about the audience of this video. As the titled suggested, “Who was listening? I wondered were they preaching to the choir?
I shouted amen, but as a choir member I had a few riffs of my own that sometimes were in alignment with the speakers and sometimes not. I do not speak the language of academia but I do understand it. I found their delivery exacting, caring and cautious not to harm others. I found myself joining the conversation in my head. However my words had the flavor of Zen and the creativity of my own mind. What hooks and Harris-Perry were saying sounded like the dharma of black feminism. What came to mind was that intellectual black women’s voices, when speaking of liberation from suffering, tend to go against the stream. It is said that the Buddha described the Dharma as “going against the stream” of our conditioning as human beings. Instead of fixing or running away from our conditioning we investigate it and learn from it. Swimming against the stream you realize the strength of the waters in which we live. Some might say to go against the stream would be to let go of being black, being woman, being this or that which is relative to certain conditions. Some might say to embrace the absolute of having no self is supreme. However, to investigate race, sexuality and gender is to go against the stream that the self is not dependent but interdependent of everyone and everything. In essence, the practice of “no self” has often been linked to having no identity. While espousing the practice of no self in Zen training, I find that the critique on identity leaves out the emotional, empowering or positive effect of identity on those who are socially and politically objectified. It was through such identity with black people that the civil rights and Pan-African movements of the 70’s provided a powerful sense of my ancestors. Leah Kalmanson, a professor at Drake University, philosopher and author, has written, “if this emotional dimension is not brought to the foreground, it threatens to sabotage the practice of identity critique by preventing a person from taking a hard and honest look at herself.” In other words, in order to study the self, which is one of the main tenets of Dogen Zenji’s (founder of Soto Zen) teachings, then one has to look at the identities the self is emotionally attached to. This is a life long practice since identity is ever-evolving. On the other hand, clinging to an absolute disembodied, disconnected self is also conditioning.
In the video, Harris-Perry and hook’s voices of black feminism were going against the stream of what hooks calls white male heterosexual patriarchal dominance which she says is the root of suffering within systemic oppression (on a global level). I understand that in the way bell names dominance is uncomfortable for many white males however in context she was pointing to the enforcement of a particular embodiment as superior. The two speakers were delving into their interrelated experience of living in this country and yet not of it (i.e. not heard). With the conversation they were taking action and attending to structural realties that distort black women’s voices when they are making an effort to meet at the place of liberation in which many other voices of opposition have already been situated. In conversation, Bottom of FormHsrriHarris-Perry and hooks cut deep through the waters of contemporary issues of black people across the lines of racism, homophobia, sexism, and the dehumanization of transgender people. I heard hooks say black women need to carve out a place for true dissonance of thinking and being as well as carve out different ways of living our lives as black women. As a dharma practitioner herself hooks asked the question, “Who are we and where do we place ourselves?” Is this not an inquiry in which we all have had on the path of life, which is the path of Dharma.
Is it possible that the very thing we seek liberation from is the very thing that will lead us to it? In essence we must challenge our lived experiences through critical analyses in order to experience awakening. We must study the self in order to forget the self. We must study the self in order to awaken to the connectedness we came into the world with and often yearn.
I cannot delve into everything that was said in the video or argue a thesis with book references here, but I can say that the reason I sensed the dharma of black feminism in their talks is because of the content under investigation. Perception, image, suffering, change and interrelatedness were simultaneously central in the dialogue. These tenets are core to the teachings of liberation from ill being and accessing well being. I would like to discuss a few for the sake of showing how critical it is that these voices go beyond the choir, into other sanctuaries, and into the world at large.
Early in the video, hooks asks a question of perception: Is there a shift [in the world] or is there still a characterization of the black female voice [as angry or difficult]? Harris-Perry proclaims that while there maybe a shift in representation for profit (meaning her presence on TV) the perception of the [intellectual] black female voice (i.e. black feminist) remains stereotypically “The Angry Black Woman.” This perception is based on race and binary gender that excludes every other angry person who is not a black woman. Herein lies the reason for our need as practitioners of any spiritual path to consider race, sexuality and gender as locations of awakening. Perception (sanna) is based on appearance of a material body (rupa) and the feelings of that body (vedana). Appearance is filtered through our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thinking. Our senses create consciousness.
The astute dissection of perception by Harris-Perry and hooks in the video leaves one to question representation and its interrelationship to dominance and power and ultimately our suffering. The question is asked, “How can black women sustain an oppositional radical self-invention without having to lay down and be vulnerable in the face of oppression?” The question is answered, would if black women’s voices instead of “angry” they were perceived as insightful, awe, throwing-down, exacting or precise? Harris-Perry says she was angry (in reference to an encounter on her TV show). I googled and watched that video as well, and while there was much confusion and misinterpretation on everyone’s part in the video she proclaims to be angry, I perceived Harris-Perry’s anger as coming from what hooks called optimal emotional well being. It did not come from a place of ego or woundedness but from a place of having sat still with the question over time and passionately articulating the impact of our lives on each other.
Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, and Zora Neale Hurston as non-fiction black women writers were honored by hooks in the video as black women voices of dissonance. Although Alice Walker was not mentioned, the word “womanist,” which she coined, did come to mind. Womanist, derived from a black southern word of womanish, referred to black feminists and feminists of color. It brought out a different perception of feminism as being outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Although this word womanist brought dissension within the feminist movement (and definitely was not part of the dialogue in the video), the word and its meaning helped me to understand the reasons my mother called me the Creole name Choquette, which means sassy. I felt included. In the end the dissension the word womanist caused within the feminist communities went against the stream and it was a powerful swim for some black women to pursue.
How does perception arise? An image is presented and we began to make a story of it before we can just see a object as it is. The image may not be what is true and usually it is not but we rely heavily on false images for our knowing rather than accessing the wisdom in our bones. The movie industry is one of the most powerful image-makers of our time.
In a workshop I attended many years ago, a facilitator asked participants where did we get our notions of love as children? What appeared for me was a show called Lassie, about a boy and a dog, neither of which I was as a black girl child without a dog (but I did beg for one later and got it). The feeling between Lassie and his owner, which I saw as love, made it difficult to relate to other people if they didn’t show the love I saw demonstrated in Lassie. I make this point because images presented in the world of each other have distorted our genuine encounters with each other as human beings.
Harris-Perry and hooks referred to the recent movie 12 Years a Slave in which they pointed out that the black female body was brutalized. In addition, hooks felt that the image of the brutalized black child played by Quvenzhané Wallis in the movie, Beast of the Southern Wild was stereotypical. Harris-Perry noted that Quvenzhané Wallis, the same little girl stars in the movie (and appears in 12 Years a Slave as the daughter of Northup before he his captured) was called a derogatory name in public. The point they make is that the life of African Americans being perceived and imaged as available to brutality produces acts of violence against dark bodies off screen.
In addition, Harris-Perry spoke on Michelle Obama and how the nation dissected her body: her arms, her behind, etc. She summarizes what she wrote in her book Sister Citizen, about how the first lady because of erroneous images of black women was treated as an object in a way no other first lady has ever encountered.
What I sensed from this part of their conversation is that it is crucial that we closely examine our use of images in place of a direct experience with each other. Do we really know who we are encountering in the presence of each other? hooks goes further and calls for a broadening of the imagination. If we must see images because we are after all human, then why not craft other images that exist of black women for the screen such as writer, professor, etc. The complexity of black women is lost in traditional portrayals of black women as maids, and enslaved. There is a call in this video by hooks to “decolonize” black women’s images as they affect how we are included or listened to. There is a call to note the impact of colonized images upon our interrelationship as human beings.
Emotional Well Being
The night I watched the video I fell asleep with the word “sentimentality” on my lips. hooks said that sentimentality in [novels and movies] is taking us from forms of critical analyses. She stated there is much melodrama these days. Then she asked why? And before I could get the words out of my mouth (as I do talk back out loud to videos and films), hooks said it, “Grief.” But I added to her words and I said it loudly, “black people are still grieving the loss of a savior since the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a group we have felt the very benign neglect that the civil rights movement were to eliminate.” Therefore, we are seeking love in this tender place. We are seeking ourselves. How do can we “be love” and sustain a radical self? Is it possible? In optimal wellness I feel we can. Right in the moment, Harris-Perry expressed love by walking off stage to go hug a weeping black woman before she gave her an intellectual answer to the woman’s question. We can honor grief, complete tenderness, and the critical analyses. I think they would both agree.
Concluding But Not Ending
Harris-Perry concludes that humanity isn’t entirely oppositional and that there is humanity within slavery and that we all want to overcome our circumstances. hooks says in the end there is no solidified blackness and that our differences are growing especially around class. I say, yes, we are unfolding as all other phenomena in this world. Once the words written here are understood there is no longer a need to trap these ideas within them. We cannot cling to any of what we discover in our investigations because there is so much more to come. As life unfolds, the critical analyses changes, black women’s voices change and we must allow for that change of how we view each other. And from what I understood from the conversation, hooks and Harris-Perry, spoke out for this transformation and liberation but from the base of exploring our human conditioning. Can we hear all the cries of the Earth? Who’s listening?
“The evolution of my life keeps me from saying I am this or that. My priest robe wraps around and embraces all the ways in which this life expresses itself. If it is the robe that you see, I bow to that. If it is the robe that you don’t see, I bow to that. Aché.”
- Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Marselean Manuel, author, visual artist, drummer, Zen Buddhist priest, and former Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, lives in Oakland, CA. She was ordained by Blanche Hartman and her priest training is being guided by Abbess Kiku Christina Lehnherr. Her book Tell Me Something About Buddhism (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2011) includes a foreword written by Thich Nhat Hanh, with poetry and illustrations by Zenju Earthlyn. In addition, she is contributing author to many books, including Dharma, Color and Culture: Voices From Western Buddhist Teachers of Color (Parallax) and the upcoming Record of the Hidden Lamp: 100 Koans and Stories from 25 Centuries of Awakened Women (Wisdom Publications) edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon.
Zenju, her Dharma name, means “complete tenderness.” She was named Earthlyn by her mother weeks after she was born. Her middle name, Marselean, is the Creole name of her paternal grandmother who experienced slavery. Manuel is a Haitian Creole last name.