Monday, February 24, 2014

Black History Month: Why It Matters

There are people who really believe Black History Month exists to make the ancestors of slave owners uncomfortable. I can't

The lessons learned through 244 years of legal slavery and 81 years of Jim Crow aren’t solely for blacks seeking a knowledge of self, but for all who seek courage in the face of injustice. The fight for freedom and the continuing fight for equality isn’t gender or race specific. Telling the truth in the face of public scrutiny requires courage. If John Brown, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and countless others could risk their lives for freedom, why should I stop writing about injustice in our time because it makes me unpopular and some of my “friends” uncomfortable?

Every February certain political outlets restart their push to delegitimize black history month by calling it’s usefulness into question. I often see memes on social media that ask the question: why isn’t there a white history month? I wonder; how would a white history month curriculum differ from our current primary and secondary requirements in history.

I get a burning in the pit of my stomach when someone down plays the role of race in today’s America. Denial of a race problem isn’t the same thing as ending racism. I live in a community where, often, I’m the only black man in a restaurant, sporting event, or church- depending on which denominations service we attend. In my home town we’ve shuttered the doors of two black churches in the last 10 years. The oldest black church in our area (Mt. Pisgah) is down to two services a month with no full time pastor. The church I attend has seen its attendance fall dramatically in the last 15 years.

The biggest problem is a lack of opportunity for minorities. Many of my siblings and friends have had to make their lives far from home. The largest employer in our county (a resort that I won’t mention by name) and the county government itself has a horrible track record of employing minorities in high positions. Many of our parents worked in the service industry waiting the tables and making the beds in order to educate their children. I know people who got their degrees, returned home, and were offered the same jobs they held in high school.

The argument that the election of a black man is proof that racism is over is a disingenuous argument that asks one to forget all of the heated rhetoric and blatant racist attacks on him, his wife and their kids. If we had a Jewish president it would be unthinkable to protest at the White House with a Swastika, yet the stars and bars, nooses, and other relics of America’s dark ages are common place.

I want people to understand that denying opportunity implicitly or explicitly is a way of placing and keeping people in a caste system. Yes it’s true that opportunity in many of America’s small towns is scarce, but opportunity for racial minorities is almost nonexistent. My county is less than 5% African American. In my old Neighborhood (one of the two predominantly black neighborhoods) there’s one child of mixed race that catches the bus to school. The high school has fewer blacks enrolled than at anytime since segregation ended.

The picture at the top of this post is from a dedication ceremony in 2013, commemorating Union Hurst and T.C. Walker. (schools for blacks in our area) This is important to me because my parents and my future wife’s mother attended theses schools. My mother was Jim Crowed. Let that resonate with you for a minute. My mom! Not some person in a book a hundred years ago, but my mom. I will always tell the truth about these issues. I would rather sleep with my conscious than pretend the things I write about aren't real. 

We are a culture ducking and hiding from our feelings. Most of the people I know are on some sort of drug, whether it’s a legal prescription pharmaceutical, an illegal substance or good old fashioned alcohol. Many choose to ignore or run from the problems in life. When you are a black man in a community like this there is no hiding. There’s no amount of denial that can change the reality of the situation. So, yes, I choose to make trouble for all of the old teachers I had that think I’m obsessed with race or the leaders of religious flocks that find the fight for equality a laughing matter. 

Pictured below: Joyce Lewis and my future wife Renee Cardwell

Monday, February 10, 2014

Divided Ideology: Why We Rarely Practice What We Preach

Cultural relativism:


The view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.

It's natural to judge ourselves in relation to another. We gain a sense of superiority when we're able to point to what we perceive as defects in other cultures. As long as there's another (that we regard as less than us) we don't have to hold ourselves accountable for our lack of consistency when it's time to follow our principles

My criticisms of modern Christian ideology and American exceptionalism are rooted in a love for Jesus and America. The fact that Jesus wasn't like modern Christians is a big selling point for me. My love for America is predicated on the belief that her foundation allows prophetic voices of all stripes to drag her kicking and screaming down the road to equality. Some view any criticism of religion or nation through a defensive lens that prevents them from seeing the love at the center of it. I'm a fallibilist; I could be wrong about most (or all) of my critiques. So with all of that out in the open: is it wrong to point out the obvious hypocrisys in the prevailing dogmas and ideologies of our times?

Christianity has provided a spiritual safe haven for the economically, culturally, and religiously oppressed. America, at her best, has been the manifestation of many prayers. We market America as a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world, yet so many of our citizens are crying out for help? 

Our nation is full of politicians and religious leaders who profess to be Christians, but when you get down to it the only people they seem to love (or like) are Christians who look like them. Dealing with the religious aspect of our ideological problem is necessary in order to show how deep the hypocrisy runs. How can we expect people who believe the bible is the literal word of God to take the founding documents written by men seriously? The next time you hear a politician condemn someone who doesn't look like them, worship like them, or live like them watch how quickly they use the flag as a shield and the Bible as a sword.

The past few years have been a case study in adding qualifications to rights granted to us in the Constitution. I remember all of the fury over the "911 Mosque" which was 2 blocks away from the World Trade Center. In the land of religious freedom we actually had politicians (who claimed to be strict constitutionalist) support a separatist agenda aimed at denying the first amendment rights of citizens to worship. 

We should change the 1st Amendment from, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances", to: Thou shall not worship any deity that is deemed to be an enemy of the state, nor shall any monuments be erected for the worshiping of said deity on any land considered to be hallowed ground.

It's not fair to measure other cultures by our standards. (standards we rarely follow) The first paragraph of  the Declaration of Independence should be read and reread by all of us:

We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,"

This declaration has no qualifications; it's a statement of shared unanimity. A statement made possible by the dispossession of native lands, the subjugation of women, and the enslavement of Africans. I long for the day when we don't place groups of people into secondary categories to be pushed to the margins of society.These promises apply to Muslims, Gays, Lesbians, and brothers and sisters of all colors. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Du Bois, Sartre, and the Double Conscious Gaze of the Other

I often hear people say they don't care what "others" think of them. For some, I'm sure that's true. I don't know if it's a testament to their journey of inward discovery or if it's just the Paxil talking, but some people truly don't care. The rest of us are left with doubt, stress, and the task of finding our place in a world eager to dish out judgement.

The major theme of my writing has been ideology and the role ideology plays in our lives. The ramifications of many of our interactions aren't tangible, but in our hearts we know how real they are. Everyday we have interactions that are shaped by the way "the other" views the world and our position in that world. Even if we (on a personal level) are able to overcome the prevailing ideologies of our time, we still have to deal with their effects on those around us.

I'm going to focus on negative Ideology, and the power stereotypes and expectations have on our psyche. I'll introduce some language and ideas, and then attempt to relate them to our time. This being black history month I feel it's fitting to start with W.E.B. Du Bois and his notion of Double-Consciousness. Then, I'll move to Jean-Paul Sartre. I want to finish with the role men have played in forcing the notion of ideal beauty onto women.

Here's a quote from Du Bois:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. 

Du Bois, who wasn't educated as a Philosopher, eloquently laid out the struggle for sanity under conditions in which a person's humanity is called into question. Although his double-consciousness is given from the perspective of a black man in 19th century America it transcends time and race. Waking up everyday and negotiating life from an assumed position of inferiority is a reality for many. These assumptions are based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or class. The "otherness" of a classified existences is a crime that strips us of our individuality and places us in a box to be labeled based on the experiences of another.

Jean-Paul Sartre developed a concept he called "Bad Faith". This concept is rooted in the idea that not only are we often classified by our Job, religion, race, sex, and other socioeconomic identifiers, but that some of us actually start living out stereotypical traits associated with the existence we've been associated with. Sartre felt we had to break out of the roles society put us in; if we didn't, we could never separate our humanity from our social functions. 

If we don't draw a distinction from our social functions and classifications we will never find our authentic self. We can overcome the way others make us feel, but we can't negate the original phenomenological exchange in which we were subject to those presuppositions. In other words we can't change the ideology of another, so the goal should be to accept the shortcomings in people and work around them. This isn't a default position; of course on an individual basis we can alter the way some people think about us, but every new encounter places us back in the gaze of the other.

Here's a passage from Sartre:

I rule the space around me but when my environment is intruded upon by another person I have to share it with this Other in an indeterminate manner. The freedom of the Other destabilizes my own freedom and disintegrates the preconceptions I had previously existed in. As a human being, I naturally tend to objectify the world around me but I must also presume that the Other also objectifies the world as well, including me in it. I have now become an object in the Other's vision and, because I realize this innately, I have become an object even in my own opinion. I am imprisoned in the Other's vision and, therefore, pass judgment on myself as a mere object. This causes a shameful feeling similar to if you were to spy through a keyhole and became surprised to see another eyeball staring back at you. If you privately do something so natural as to pick at your nose, for example, and come to realize that someone was watching you the whole time - you are inevitably reduced to shame.

The idea of the "gaze" is something Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Cornel West have written about. They weren't alone. Many feminist have talked about the male "gaze" We can't escape the constant judgment of those around us. Am I tall enough? Am I thin enough? How am I being received by the other? This line of questioning is more commonly found among women- especially young women who may still be unsure of their place in the world. 

Men have created and sold women our fantasies about beauty. We've imposed this ideology on our women starting at a young age. I'm not sure, (and don't feel like researching it) but I bet a man decided how Barbie should be shaped. Men are somewhat responsible for the eating disorders in our women. We've been complicit in the destruction of the female psyche. I know women are capable of making their own decisions, but how can we expect young girls to overcome the images that fill their smart phones and iPads? If society tells you beauty consists of blond hair, long legs, and big breasts, how do we make the women who don't possess these attributes understand that these traits are a type of beauty, but not constitutive for the presence of beauty? 

All of us are susceptible to snap judgments. We can acknowledge them or avoid them, but either way they are still there. Many societal problems can be linked to the power we place on the gaze of the other. I know people who are in debt for the sole reason of living up to an unreasonable expectation placed on their life. We all know people who live in paralysis because they find themselves on the outside of societies normative gaze. (A phrase coined by Dr. Cornel West) The sooner we overcome ideology, the sooner we start living the life inside of our life.