Something Within | February 6, 2022 by Dr. Kathryn Benton
The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I do not know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings. Precisely what does it mean to experience oneself as a human being? In the first place it means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him ethnically or “racially” or nationally. He has to feel that he belongs to total environment…
As a human being, then he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all the lives, and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived.
The burden of being black…the burden of being white is only a burden when we quarantine ourselves, says Thurman. If we are able to share this burden and recognize our shared humanity, it is no longer so heavy. But this experience of our shared humanity is often difficult to find. It is possible to experience each other as fellow human beings only, “when the relationship between groups is devoid of fear”, says Thurman. It is the fear that keeps us apart and the fear that keeps us from recognizing that we have much more that unites us than divides us.
And, of course, the less real contact we have with others, the more fear we experience. Thurman called this “contact without fellowship” …contact that does not allow us to truly experience “the other” over a significant period of time. He says we must have “sustained exposure” to each other in order to overcome this fear. Thurman goes on in the book, The Luminous Darkness, to quote Olive Schreiner from her book, The Story of an African Farm…she wrote:
I like to feel that strange life beating up against me. I like to realize forms of life utterly unlike mine. When my own life feels small, and I am oppressed with it, I like to crush together, and see it in a picture, in an instant, a multitude of disconnected unlike phases of human life – a mediaeval monk with his string of beads pacing the quiet orchard, and looking up from the grass at his feet to the heavy fruit trees; little Malay boys playing naked on a shining sea-beach; a Hindu philosopher alone under his banyan tree, thinking, thinking, thinking, so that in the thought of God he may lose himself; a troop of Bacchanalians, dressed in white, with crowns of vine-leaves, dancing along the Roman streets; a martyr on the night of his death looking through the narrow window to the sky, and feeling that already he has the wings that shall bear him up; an epicurean discoursing at a Roman bath to a knot of his disciples on the nature of happiness; a Kaffir witch-doctor, seeking for herbs by moonlight, while from the huts on the hill-side come the sound of dogs barking, and the voices of women and children; a mother giving bread and milk to her children in little wood basins and singing the evening song. I like to see it all: I feel it run through me – that life belongs to me; it makes my little life larger; it breaks down the narrow walls that shut me in.
Schreiner is describing the hunger of the heart for wholeness…the feeling within that there is something missing. It is the search for a deeper belonging to life…across the barriers, across the walls that divide…the walls of culture, of distance, of circumstance. It is a hunger within that will not let us settle for a limited view of ourselves. But many of us ignore this hunger…or we try to fill it with a sense of being right…of belonging to the winning side. It is when these “narrow walls shut us in” that we fully experience that burden. And when we fully experience the despair that this burden can cause we may lash out in hatred.
The following news report from central Florida illustrates how far we have to go in this struggle for a realization of our common origin and common future. Here is some of the most recent proof of this lashing out in hatred…
Former judge: Expose the ‘dark, ugly head’ of hatred showing itself in Central Florida. Report from ABC/WFTV Florida.
It is surreal that we can see, in the year 2022 a Nazi symbol being publicly displayed…a bomb threat to an educational institution. But this is not an isolated event and is not only something that is happening in this country. The consequence of this hatred…of the belief that we are different from each other…that we are not made of the same stardust…the same DNA…the same substance is further separation and fear. This “dark, ugly head of hatred” is real but as the former judge noted, keeping it in silence and secrecy only gives it more power. Instead, we must expose it for what it is. It is a symptom of the fear and isolation these individuals are experiencing…made worse by the consequences of the corona virus pandemic. It is a lashing out, instead of searching within for comfort and security…for love and belonging.
There is indeed something within that tutors our spirits, if we allow it…that reminds us that we are human beings…in Meister Eckhart’s words, “Royal people” of infinite worth. When we feel this way, then Thurman says that this consciousness “expands and expands until there is involved the totality of life itself”. When we believe that we are of infinite worth, it is a small step to regard others in this way as well.
Fourteenth century Persian poet Hafiz knew of this need to spread this belief in the “royal personhood” and the need to achieve union…the need to see our differences as small and our similarities as great. I love how he speaks of this process of coming to the realization that “we are one”. He wrote:
There Is A Wonderful Game
There is a game we should play,
And it goes like this:
And scan each other's face.
Then I say,
"Now tell me a difference you see between us."
And you might respond,
"Hafiz, your nose is ten times bigger than mine!"
Then I would say,
"Yes, my dear, almost ten times!"
But let's keep playing.
Let's go deeper,
For if we do,
Our spirits will embrace
Our union will be so glorious
That even God
Will not be able to tell us apart.
There is a wonderful game
We should play with everyone
And it goes like this...
This playful…even lighthearted “game” actually documents the process of what Thurman called The Search for Common Ground … the search for the ground of our existence…the place where there is neither black nor white, gay or straight, American or African, disabled or able-bodied…a place where all the categories dissolve and we are able to be brothers and sisters to each other and perhaps to all that lives. Hafiz speaks of the “glorious union of our spirits”. What a beautiful vision…a place where our spirits will embrace and interweave. Is this not the natural process that, if left to its own devices, will result in a humanity that is so full of a sense of our relatedness that we can no longer tolerate being apart? It is this very process that may be causing the backlash of hatred we are experiencing right now.
It is not easy to get to that place. It requires a lot of work…spiritual and psychological work…work that requires more of all of us, not just those who have historically been oppressed…not just those who are the victims of discrimination and violence. It is a work that requires all of us to come to the table of understanding and love. This may not ever happen, but it is the hope that we become closer to that goal that keeps us inspired to keep doing the work. It is the hope gleaned from the lives of so many people, especially African-American people who have been able to sustain this great effort…who have endured the history of hatred and death…without succumbing to the stress and strain of the struggle. So much can be learned from their stories that can inform the way forward for us today. May we use the occasion of Black History Month to learn and be inspired by the lives of so many…of Howard Thurman, of Nina Simone, of Sojourner Truth, of Mary McLeod Bethune, of Ida B. Wells, of James Baldwin, of Carter Woodson, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of so many other ancestors without whom we may not have had a Dorsey Blake, a Courtney Brown, a Carl Blake and so many others that inspire us today. We do indeed stand on the shoulders of those ancestors and are exceedingly thankful to them.
James Weldon Johnson and his brother were the authors of what is known as the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Of the first performance of the song in 1900 Johnson wrote:
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music.
May we heed to the words of this powerful song…this vision of a future where the “harmonies of liberty” can be heard everywhere. And may we forever stand in solidarity…true to our God…the all-pervading presence that is something within and something that surrounds us and loves us. May we sing together in this time of contradiction and ugliness…so that we may transform our time into one of beauty, reciprocity and strength.