The American Soul: Honoring Our Black Elders
Gurus, yogis, meditation masters, lamas—these are spiritual authorities for many New Age Americans who look to the East for wisdom. But while teachers from Gandhi to the Dalai Lama have shone fine Eastern light to illuminate our paths, this cultural turn to the East can inadvertently dismiss the spiritual wisdom of our own African-American elders—teachings rooted in our own soil, pain, and shadow.
These spiritual teachers are Fanny Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who faced beating and death with voices compelled by love. They are John Coltrane, whose vision of individual freedom and collective expression manifested in some of America’s finest music, as well as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, who brought soul to pain and misery. (Is there a finer thing for a spiritual tradition to do?)
They are Howard Thurman, who brilliantly guided the practice of a uniquely American Christianity, and Cornel West, whose intellect and spirit soar in pronouncement of a love-based ethic. And how could we leave out Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, African-American women who have revealed the glory and redemption we need as individuals and as a nation. These teachers don’t turn water into wine; they turn tears into the blues. They don’t walk on water; they create music that we float on. They don’t carry a staff and part the Red Sea, but they do honor to the Hebrew cry, “Let my people go.”
These elders, and countless others, have elucidated a spiritual wisdom that was born in the fires of America’s own alchemy, through a process of cooking the demons and injuries of injustice along with the spirit of love and perseverance into a unique brilliance. Their wisdom honors and redeems those who have bled for America’s soul.
To many, these individuals may not look like spiritual teachers—but not because they lack spiritual riches to offer. I remember wondering why I was listening to Buddhist chanting instead of John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” during my morning meditation period. I remember several black elders teaching me how to make heated dialogue into a meditation on relationship instead of an inner practice of loving-kindness. I remember Dr. King waking me up to the fact that spirituality is also a public practice when I heard him say that “justice is what love looks like in public.” I recall Maya Angelou teaching me how to turn great suffering into powerful humanity, a practice I had previously sought in Eastern teachings. I recall poet Etheridge Knight singing to me of desperation, imprisonment, and freedom, lessons that Eastern spiritual teachers had taught me years before.
Of course, these black teachers don’t don robes, hold weekend workshops, or show up in the kind of classrooms or retreat centers that many associate with spiritual teaching. Most Americans would liken these elders to artists and activists more than spiritual teachers. And sitting at the feet of these elders challenges our fundamental paradigm of education, especially spiritual education. Nonetheless, their spiritual powers cannot be denied. They offer a way of living, loving, and dying in a world of darkness as well as light.
To be clear, I have no inherent objection to Eastern philosophies and spiritual disciplines. I have been a student of many fine minds and hearts, from Sharon Salzberg and Pema Chödrön to Bhante Gunaratana, Stephen Levine, and Jack Kornfield, teachers who helped bring Eastern traditions to the United States. But when these teachings are highlighted at the expense of teachings forged on the backs of those who have suffered under the weight of America’s shadow, an injustice is perpetrated. For the purpose of righting this injustice, I offer the following critique of some Eastern and New Age teachings in contrast to the relative value and power of African-American wisdom teachings for all Americans today.
First, some New Age and Eastern teachings foster practices that avoid the shadow. Practitioners often attempt to relieve pain and suffering rather than investigating its meaning; they seek bliss even when their path is taking them into their deeper feelings; they can be found blessing each other while remaining unconscious of how they patronize. I have witnessed groups of such practitioners being open-hearted toward streaming tears but not toward screaming ire. I have seen competition and jealousy treated as negatives to be rooted out instead of as fire and heat to deepen the knowledge of self and the bonds of community. At its worst, this kind of spirituality can become a form of denial, a flight toward spirit that denies the soul’s descent, risking the same fire that brought Icarus back to earth.
In contrast, much African-American teaching is rooted in shadow. Its elders have sat in the fire of brutality as well as in projections of inferiority, aggression, and deviance. I am reminded of an African-American man who attended a workshop on conflict resolution with some 300 participants from over twenty-five different countries. Many of us grew to admire his wisdom, personal power, and leadership capacity when he helped to resolve our most protracted tensions. He had a hard-earned ease with anger and aggression that most of us didn’t. One night he walked into our workshop hall pushing a mop and garbage pail and singing a song from slavery times. He said that in his garbage pail was all that we throw away—aspects of our sexuality, our greed, our anger, our desperation, and more. “I eat this garbage,” he said. “I live on all that you throw away, and that’s what makes me strong, true, and a person you look to for keys on how to be alive.” His spirit had grown strong in the shadow of mainstream America’s compulsion to climb the ladder of success and higher states of consciousness, leaving behind the rags and bones of a true spirituality.
Second, practitioners of New Age and Eastern traditions often urge individuals to handle disturbing feelings like hurt, anger, insecurity, and impatience by looking inside themselves. Many use these same practices as a way of avoiding relationship difficulties and conflict. When the practitioner is angry with their partner, they may turn to their meditation cushion instead of learning to address the issues directly. When they have judgments about their families and communities, many practice letting go of these feelings rather than using the power and impulse of their judgments to speak out for change and healing.
In contrast, through music, protest, and the church’s call and response, African-American elders teach dialogue and the fine art of democracy. Like the conversation between voices and instruments in jazz music, this dialogue makes beauty and moral/spiritual development out of engaged interaction, even when it is heated.
Third, some practitioners of New Age spirituality promote the concept that we choose our reality, our emotions, and what comes into our lives. But this perspective can inadvertently deny the genuine victimization and collective responsibility for injustice perpetrated against groups—from blacks and women to Jews and gays—by suggesting that all responsibility lies with the individual’s consciousness and not with the collective unconscious. It is worth noting that this kind of denial is less likely to be promoted by people who are marginalized by mainstream culture, people who are more likely to be treated as members of a group rather than as individuals. A friend recently quoted an Eastern spiritual teacher as saying that working on our own individual consciousness is the most important thing we do. I responded that I had a slight allergy to spiritual ideas that highlight the consciousness of the individual over that of the collective.
In contrast, I am reminded of Emmett Till’s mother, who said in front of the open casket of her murdered son, “I’ve not a minute to waste; I will pursue justice for the rest of my life.”1 She practiced a spirituality aimed at awakening a whole culture and freeing their hearts and souls regardless of their personal choices or practices.
Finally, while many who turn to the East consider themselves to be progressive, their progressive attitudes often manifest in condescension, caretaking, and charity towards blacks and other marginalized groups. While they may be involved in working toward social justice, they don’t treat our African-American wise women and men with the same authority, respect, and reverence they do their Eastern spiritual teachers, whose feet they are more likely to sit at.
In contrast, some of our African-American teachers once sat at the feet of those who spoke for America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. I am reminded of the slave woman who, on her knees, prayed to God to forgive her Christian slave owner, who stood above her, believing he was spiritually superior. She prayed, “Oh Lord, bless my master. When he calls upon thee to damn his soul, do not hear him, do not hear him, but hear me—save him—make him know he is wicked, and he will pray for thee.”2 She who was on her knees was the teacher; he who stood above was in need of redemption. Is this not the kind of reversal as well as and spiritual/moral education Americans still need today?
As an ethnic Jew, I am aware of how African-Americans have enriched the story of Moses. Zora Neal Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain presaged the Civil Rights Movement, and civil rights activists embodied the great prophet’s story of freedom. This poetic irony highlights the depth of a people who were often more spiritually developed while assuming a station of inferiority.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggested, almost one hundred years ago, that people in the West suffer a kind of soullessness and have lost their spiritual way. As a result, their children may need to go far out into the East, “towards that same church which [they] forgot.”3 Rilke’s words were prophetic—a whole generation did indeed go far to the East to find their “church” unconsciously turning a blind eye to their African-American elders.
Why look to the East? Why not sit at the feet of America’s African-American wisdom teachers? Let me suggest that reaching out to this tradition, especially as white folks, means bearing a certain pain and, yes, responsibility for a legacy of suffering. In this way, many of us don’t walk into this “church” with clean hands—a darkness we need not face in the ashram or zendo. However, bearing this darkness may be just the deepening we need.
The “color line,” in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, still demarcates social boundaries.4 And while many of us have joined our voices with those who call for social justice, this attitude doesn’t embody the same valuation as looking up to folks for spiritual wisdom and development.
James Baldwin wrote, “The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”5 It’s time to shake our foundations, root out our negative projections and stereotypes, and end the unconscious devaluation and patronization of America’s black elders. While much wisdom can be found in Eastern New Age traditions, there is a rich tradition of wisdom grown right here, paid for in blood and tears, and ready-made to speak to the souls and psyches of Americans today.
- Cornel West, Never Forget: A Journey ofRevelations (Los Angeles: Hidden Beach Records, 2007), compact disc.
- James Melvin Washington, ed., “A Slave Woman’s Prayer (1816),” found by Stephen Hays, Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994): 19.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, trans. Robert Bly, posted by Nebraska Zen Center Heartland Temple, accessed March 28, 2016, http://www.prairiewindzen.org/zen_european_poetry.html.
- “Du Bois and the Question of the Color Line: Race and Class in the Age of Globalization,” Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy Online, posted April 19, 2011, accessed March 28, 2016, http://sdonline.org/33/du-bois-and-the-question-of-the-color-line-race-and-class-in-the-age-of-globalization/.
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: The Dial Press, 1963), 23.