The idea of improvisation is not only central to jazz and the blues, arguably the first truly great American musical expressions, but is also central...moreThe idea of improvisation is not only central to jazz and the blues, arguably the first truly great American musical expressions, but is also central to the lives of those who originated this great art: the African Americans. Many jazz players can cross over to classical, but not nearly as many classical players have the life experience and/or skill to play jazz. Jazz/Blues evolved out of that great art-making substance called adversity, and no one did it better than John Coltrane. This book is about what many consider his greatest achievement.
The talent involved in creating a record of this caliber is mind-blowing. Just think that the sound you hear on this album was done in one recording session, on one evening, in about 4 hours worth of total time, straight to master (two-track) with no overdubs. Compare that to the typical high-budget pop, rock, indie, hip-hop, or even electronic/dance album that can take months with countless re-takes ,over-dubs, and it only adds to the mystique of this work of art. This is a much a credit to Coltrane's three bandmates as it is to the tenor man himself. Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones completed what was in effect a self-contained unit of one mind derived from the African-American experience, where life demanded improvisation.
A week before I wrote this review, I had the chance to hear Cornel West speak. He describes himself as a "jazz man" a "blues man", a man who faced the adversities of being black. This is the ultimate improvisation, learning how to survive as a member of a historically oppressed minority class in this country. West references Coltrane as one of his great inspirations, as one of those artists that was "a true original" as he describes it.
For many though, " A Love Supreme" was the last palatable serving in the Coltrane canon. Ascension, his other great piece released in 1965 was worlds ahead as far as vision and conception, but was out of reach (and remains out of reach) for many listeners. To some, Ascension had crossed a line into territory that wasn't any definable genre, let alone jazz. But to the discerning listener, it's soon realized that Coltrane was on a search, filled with restlessness that shaped his entire life, including his spirituality. He was reaching for the ultimate expression of honoring those mystical revelations he felt, as anyone who's also felt them can hear in his music. Ascension was just that - another higher level of the expression that he'd worked on his entire career, and that truly culminated in "A Love Supreme".
Author Ashley Kahn captures all of this intricate detail quite well, and even as an agnostic, honors the path of a man who was searching to better express his love of the divine. As some have said about him "if you're looking for popular music, don't listen to Coltrane". Yet the reverence in the music industry for this timeless expression of that which can't be expressed is undeniable. And despite it's relatively low profile, it remains one of the greatest examples of a talented musician who also happened to be at the peak of his art form, his spiritual awareness, and his ability to combine the two with a clarity that results in a masterpiece. (less)
This is a book that would coincide well with Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States. Lusane does an excellent job at structuring indivi...moreThis is a book that would coincide well with Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States. Lusane does an excellent job at structuring individual stories within a larger sociopolitical context. In that sense, many of the narratives and details (particularly concerning the stories surrounding the slaves of the "Founding Fathers") were new to me. However, much of the more recent history - as well as its presentation - will not be new to many who are likely to gravitate to a book like this. Lusane writes from a progressive - not radical - perspective, and names specific problems that minorities and race conscious individuals are well aware of in the age of Obama. This is perhaps the book's main weakness. Readers of this kind of material will be familiar with those problems. This is not to take anything away from the author's achievement in keeping the dialogue alive. Yet the question for intellectuals of all races is how to move from the continued naming of the problem to prescriptive pragmatic solutions in an increasingly complex racial climate. Discussion seems to be more taboo not less in a country that Lusane has correctly identified as wishing itself "colorblind". (less)
In recent years, the distinguished Dr. Cornel West has attracted not a small amount of controversy over his message vs. his lifestyle. He has been att...moreIn recent years, the distinguished Dr. Cornel West has attracted not a small amount of controversy over his message vs. his lifestyle. He has been attacked from both the far right and the far left for preaching his message of equality while sitting amongst the towers of the Ivy League. It certainly doesn’t help his case that he is a much desired speaker and has managed to make quite a good living for himself. I can understand the viewpoints of my fellow leftists who frown upon this, but I don’t believe that the message of Dr. West is worth discarding simply because he has done well financially.
It is only relatively recently that I myself have seriously read the work of Dr. West. It started 3 years ago when I first made my way through the dense prose of The Cornel West Reader which included his philosophical musings on the Marxist tradition alongside American Pragmatism and some of his more academic writings. It was certainly a stimulating read, and, for an Ivy League professor, somewhat of a radical worldview.
In the past month, I have read the two most popular books of Dr. West, Race Matters and Democracy Matters. Reading these two back to back was particularly rewarding as West himself considers Democracy Matters to be a sequel to Race Matters. They are both eloquent and articulate as one might expect from such a great orator. However, they are accessible to a wide audience.
It saddens me that in America whenever a strong African voice speaks out against injustice it’s ironically called racism. And it angers me that these charges come from WASP’s and other white elements of society. West addresses some of the common charges thrown against African Americans in Race Matters. These include high crime rates in African American communities, welfare queens, high unemployment, etc… West hits hard by saying “Conservative behaviorists talk about values and attitudes as if political and economic structures hardly exist.”
At the same time, a common theme in both Race Matters and Democracy Matters is nihilism. “Any disease of the soul is conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth.” West makes an emphasis in both books of the nihilism of the Western world, and primarily among the poorer and minority classes by “This market way of life promoting addictions to stimulation and obsessions with comfort and convenience”.
In listening to or reading Dr. West you will find yourself coming across his description of arriving from a blues tradition. This partly involves West’s embracing of the pain of his ancestors and the color line that is still so clearly defined in present day America. West encourages us to NOT look at a color blind world. That would be a mistake that discards the unique and sometimes painful traditions from which we have arrived. Instead, he exhorts us to EMBRACE the rich cultures of the different ethnicities, religions, cultures and countries that make up our world. It is only through appreciating the equality yet uniqueness of the other that we can develop the proper respect and love for humanity.
“The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Dr. West would subscribe to the belief that the very nature of Capitalism leads to racism. The idea of competition, of survival of the fittest, of being the better man naturally incorporates nihilistic elements of race and class.
At the same time, West also has a deep hope for America. Democracy Matters acknowledges the democratic traditions that are underneath the surface. The book was quite prophetic in this sense by the reaction we saw to the election of Obama. FINALLY, the people felt that they were really making a difference in their society. Unfortunately, as the Obama presidency has had some time, this “hope” has been misplaced. It is now clearer than ever that our SYSTEM is broken, although one of my criticisms of Dr. West is that he publicly voices a little too much confidence in our current President. As a Socialist, Dr. West should realize that it will require much more than a new face in the White House to change the rule of the plutocrats in America.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Christianity from Democracy Matters in which Dr. West broke down modern day American Christianity into two main strains: That of the Prophetic Christians vs. the Constantinian or Imperialistic Christians. One of the main identifying factors between the two is separation of church and state. The Prophetic is more likely to hold the government accountable for its actions whereas the Constantinian has BECOME part of the government. This is evident in the view of the right-wing evangelicals that the wars of America are “holy” in the sense that we are spreading Christianity and democracy to a heretical part of the world. This is hubris in its purest form, and is blindness from the nihilism of American politics in the sense that the Constantinians are playing right into the imperialistic government agenda. This can also be seen by the undying Zionistic support of the Constantinians which spreads the illusion of divine blessing on the actions of America’s client state Israel.
Prophetic Christianity is the blues tradition of which Dr. West speaks. It calls out injustice. It speaks truth to power. It follows in the great traditions of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and ultimately Jesus who condemned authority for being drunk with power. It challenges America to follow the all-embracing love of Christ which looks at the poor not as “unintended consequences” of American domestic policy, but as equal humans to be loved, respected, and if necessary, cared for by our government. It preaches equality in health care, employment and civil rights. It calls for a respectful attitude towards the sovereignty of other nations and the immigrant looking to come to OUR nation. It is the true spirit of Socialism that is inherent in the very message of Christ. This is the common strain of love that all of the world’s great ideologies strive to achieve.
West is on a mission of hope. His belief that the restoration of democracy is critical to the future of America can only be accomplished by a more level playing field. Plutocracy and oligarchy control our country. We as the PEOPLE must take our country back. We can do so through the Prophetic tradition of which Dr. West speaks by educating and waking up our fellow citizens from the nihilism that currently controls our Race and Democracy Matters. As Dr. West says “We must all strive for justice. And justice is what love looks like in public.” (less)
The genius of Cone's writing lies in the dialectics, the tension that finds truth in the midst of an identification with oppression as the only route...moreThe genius of Cone's writing lies in the dialectics, the tension that finds truth in the midst of an identification with oppression as the only route to freedom. The tension plays itself out in both the abstract and the empirical in liberation struggles. In the 1950s-1960s, these two men represented the tensions of righteous indignation as both justice and love. It was further represented in the emphases both placed on their religions of Islam and Christianity, and through the open racism of the South and the more "politically correct racism" of the North. That tension still exists today as we look back and compare the racism of the 1960s to now. Even as Cone wrote this book in 1990, he stated that the condition of poor blacks was worse than in the time of Martin and Malcolm. It is even more true today, with the largest prison population (comprised primarily of minorities) in both United States history and of any nation in the world and obscene rates of poverty and income disparity in black communities. Cone - like Malcolm and Martin - states the hard truth without anything to make it more palatable. His is a voice that needs to be heard, and his writings on Liberation Theology as well as who Martin and Malcolm were and what they represented needs to be considered over and above any mainstream interpretations that are outright lies and distortions in most cases. Both of these men would be castigated in today's American political climate, and it is a dishonor to their status as martyrs to co-opt them for purposes other than complete revolutionary upheaval and destruction of racism in modern-day America. (less)
There is a degree of lifelong passion in Nelson Peery that I can see starting to well up in me. His convictions were solid, and he has never let them...moreThere is a degree of lifelong passion in Nelson Peery that I can see starting to well up in me. His convictions were solid, and he has never let them go. It was disappointing to see that more are not reading books like this. It was only published in 2007, and I found it in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble for $1. It's excellent reading and gives an insight into the Black freedom struggle that a white man like me can never fully understand. I like his quote which sadly sums up most Americans..."There goes the American. Generous, decent, and so damned dumb that all his good qualities are blocked". He was referring to a couple he had met that were kind to him but completely unaware of the social and political situation around them, that can apply to so many who are disengaged. (less)
People can say what they want about Karl Marx, but no one is or has been more prophetic when it comes to an analysis of Capitalism. This is not the pl...morePeople can say what they want about Karl Marx, but no one is or has been more prophetic when it comes to an analysis of Capitalism. This is not the place to expand on the theory of dialectical materialism, but we are seeing the final stages of unsustainable Capitalism very much as Marx thought it would occur. This book of course is a radical examination of racism from a radical writer and publisher. Yet no one can deny that the history of this country is itself a history of tension - a history of "the land of the free" and the "ideal democracy" using an economic system that gained its initial wealth from the forced labor of human beings. This forced labor system developed structures of hierarchy and dehumanization that continues to the present day. Racism may not have started with Capitalism, but Capitalism certainly began with racism as a fundamental element of its rise to global dominance. Shawki accurately extends this from the way the United States has dealt and continues to deal with issues of race at home to the way we treat nations deemed "inferior" to the United States abroad. American exceptionalism and racism are very closely intertwined. The "two-party" system in America has arisen out of a racist Capitalist construct, therefore the mechanisms of this political system will not be able to dismantle the structural elements that have engrained racism into the very fiber of our society. A form of dismantling these structures will have to occur, and it will likely have to occur by default as we are dealing with a very powerful system that is nevertheless reaching its limit of sustainability. What the future will look like is anyone's guess. This is where I part ways ideologically with the author (although not entirely). As my own political consciousness has advanced, I see myself incorporating elements of anarchist thought - specifically the more mystical and spiritual "anarchism" of Tolstoy or even some Sufi Islamic thinkers who could rightly be said to have "anarchist" tendencies. Whatever the future looks like, it will have to incorporate a more horizontal view of community vs. the hierarchical competitive and individualistic elements of the current system. Such a system as we have right now will always label someone "inferior" to another, and will continue to do so through blanket labels applied to entire sections of society. Shawki's analysis of all this is spot on, yet I could not give the book a full five stars as it failed to give space to the criminal justice and prison system in America, as well as The War on Drugs. As the book was written in 2006, I find that inexcusable and crucial to a proper examination of racism in modern day America. Otherwise, a fantastic read, and one that steps outside of normal boundaries to present American racism in all of its ugly historical manifestations. (less)
Probably the most powerful book I've ever read on the civil rights movement. I've found a kindred soul in Stokely Carmichael. His common sense way of...moreProbably the most powerful book I've ever read on the civil rights movement. I've found a kindred soul in Stokely Carmichael. His common sense way of talking about the rights of MAN vs. just civil rights is unique in the way that it draws from the thoughts of MLK, Lenin/Marx, Malcolm X, some of the great Pan-African leaders, the Black Power movement, and the various socialist and African-American freedom organizations to combine the best of each into a cohesive worldview. His adoption of the African name Kwame Ture is a consummation of this worldview and his rejection of the blatant evils of Western Capitalism, racism, religious oppression, exploitation of man through globalization, the plundering of African resources by Western Powers, and the decadence of secular humanism. At 795 pages the book is not a quick read, but it is a story that is indispensable to the history of the African American. Eukwame Michael Thelwell deserves credit as a superb interpreter of the spoken words of Carmichael into a language of the pen that captures all the passion of a fiery, kind and unforgettable African American revolutionary. (less)
One of the classic essentials of American Black Literature. W.E.B. Du Bois takes the reader through various stages, examples and figures of black cult...moreOne of the classic essentials of American Black Literature. W.E.B. Du Bois takes the reader through various stages, examples and figures of black culture at the turn of the twentieth century. His final chapter on the sorrow songs was fascinating to this student of music as it created an even more detailed picture for me of the origins of modern Western music - which is directly tied to the sorrow songs of the Black tradition. Blues, Jazz, Rock and its modern variations, and even the beats of modern club music all owe their origins to ancient rhythms of black music, Africa and the life of the slave. It's fitting that "The Sorrow Songs" was the final chapter and that Du Bois included a bit of a spiritual at the beginning of each chapter as the songs of adversity not only define the black experience, but are the most genuine and meaningful form of musical art. (less)
Education, Economics, Power. Exploitation of human over human. The revisionist accounts of history. All of these elements which lead naturally to raci...moreEducation, Economics, Power. Exploitation of human over human. The revisionist accounts of history. All of these elements which lead naturally to racism have a central role in this monumental effort by W.E.B. Du Bois. He received a Rosenwald scholarship and two years time to research and write this book, which was a one of a kind when it was published in 1935. Most studies of the 10 years immediately following the Civil War (the period known as Reconstruction) had naturally extended the assumed inferiority of an entire race of people into a level of laziness and corruption that appeared to be unprecedented. These versions of history have extended up to our present time, as this is the first encounter I have had with this view of Reconstruction. It is certainly not the common view that is taught in our schools and colleges. The reasons for this “historical blind spot” are debatable. It could be the Marxian economics that are obvious in the text, it could be that this period of history is an embarrassment to the nation, or it could be that racism is still inherent and blatant in our culture. I believe that all three have a part in the writing of today’s textbooks. Du Bois had to begin this book by stating that he wrote this version of Reconstruction with the view that the African American is in fact a human being. That statement alone summed up 300 years of assumed inferiority that continues in the re-writing of history to this moment. To many of us it is hard to imagine the level of ignorance and the false sense of superiority that would have to be achieved in order to directly hold another race of people involuntarily in servitude. At the same time, we engage in work and consumption in a Capitalistic society that makes our way of life possible by exploiting the work of other humans at below subsistence wages…or in virtual slavery. These faces are not always as obvious as they were in period of chattel slavery in American history, but they are just as human. Du Bois touches on this topic in the book, and makes the startling (and prophetic) observation that more often than not these peoples are those of color. If we think about the worst exploitation on the planet today, we can see that this is true. It is the northern hemisphere of the planet that seems to keep the southern in subjection, striking a startling parallel to the North and South in the period of Reconstruction. The Civil War itself is approached from a different perspective than what we are taught in our schools. Lincoln is portrayed fairly and accurately as a man who only came to terms with the idea of freeing the slaves when he saw how effectively they fought in the war. It is a shame that it took this bloodshed for him to see the humanity of the race. Perhaps the most important element of the book for its time was the account of the eagerness of the freedmen to build schools and to hold political office. The freedmen took these efforts seriously, and against all odds, kept basic education and their power with the ballot alive. It is only due to the fact that the various economic forces were able to keep the war going that the African American was once again subjected to virtual slavery. It is beyond the scope of this book to examine the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century, but an important and truthful foundation is laid here. Without reading and understanding this work of Du Bois, it is hard to establish a clear picture of the era of race relations that was to follow. From an economic perspective, it is easy to see how the negative aspects of race relations are essential to the power of the rich. This idea permeates the book and shows the roots of the hatred that created one of the great travesties in the history of mankind.(less)
The absurd is central. It’s central to any life (whether or not the mind is conscious of it), and it is central to the protagonist in "Invisible Man"....moreThe absurd is central. It’s central to any life (whether or not the mind is conscious of it), and it is central to the protagonist in "Invisible Man". In a book that is literally (at times) dripping with metaphors, we see moments where the crazy path of our own life is articulated. Life is never a set of the known and perfectly pre-determined plans. No, it takes a bit of being knocked around and a sense of reality to make one realize that all is not how we first thought it would be. This process of living life and learning from experience slowly begins to draw back the curtain. We are then able to see how some of the “chance happenings” around us were not so accidental after all, but were part of a much larger plan.
This plan that society has for us is rarely what we thought it would be. In fact, most people can go through life never having the awareness that they are living the dream of another. They are told what to think, when to think it, who to think it for, why it is to be thought and where it is to be done. Oh sure, they can be paid good money and experience all the material benefits that are available to a person. However, the real questions remain. Do they know what they see when they begin to examine the internal? Do they know where to find the internal? Do they even know what the internal is?
Our unnamed protagonist is black, which further buries his identity. In the white man’s world, he has to dig much deeper to find the mark of where his subconscious realization of self begins and where others have trained him to stop looking. Society and “culture” can become, and really are, ways of trained thinking; of groupthink. It extends from the economic system in which we provide for ourselves to the way we accept or decline the notion of a Higher Power to the patterns in which we dress, talk, walk, speak and relate to others. This situation is further complicated when the individual loses or has never gained the sense of BELONGING in American society. THAT condition of the absurd applies to the black person and other minorities.
The grasping and searching that result from the absurd lead the unprepared mind into ideologies, institutions, groups and cultures that become a definition. This is where the symbolism opposing dogmatic thinking enters Ellison’s writing. For while we may look to find meaning OUTSIDE of ourselves in these defining factors, it is only through looking INTERNALLY, VOID of all other elements that we can see who we are. When we become too dogmatic or hold too tightly to anything in life, we fold or melt into it.
Our protagonist found this out when he devoted himself to Communism or “The brotherhood” as it’s described in the book. Ellison’s novel would be tainted were he to make obvious his political affiliation, so we can not say whether the corrupt bosses of the Communist party were a symbol with which we could pin him down. Rather, Ellison is warning us that no matter what the ideology, when we lose our sense of self, then we lose our ability to love; our ability to understand justice; our ability to empathize. Instead, we become a cold part of the machine. We are easily manipulated. We cling to the external with all our might to find fulfillment. It will never come through the external. Our identification with our amount of education, our job, our contacts, our politics, our religion or our friends can not provide it for us. We MUST look within.
Ellison has provided a path towards discovery. However, even the strict following of the path that Ellison himself has set up in "Invisible Man" would be to defeat the purpose. Life is NOT about how someone else says it should be. This is not to say that we think only of ourselves when we are finding the way. On the contrary, when we are able to LOVE, when we are able to KNOW our own humanity, we begin to recognize it in others. What we then owe to ourselves is NOT to follow someone’s pre-designed system, but to get a grasp on our how our own INVISIBILITY is directly tied to the strict dogmatism of conformity. When we realize that the world viewed through the external will only de-humanize us, then we realize that to truly serve the cause of justice, love and empathy requires us to cast aside definitions and BECOME that person we always were. WHO ARE YOU? Think about how to answer that question without restriction. That is true freedom, and that is the challenge which Ellison leaves us in the life of the Invisible Man.(less)
After reading such an emotionally charged book as Kennedy’s, I am almost hesitant to write a review. Anything I say as a white man about the linguisti...moreAfter reading such an emotionally charged book as Kennedy’s, I am almost hesitant to write a review. Anything I say as a white man about the linguistic term that is the title of this book is liable to be controversial to someone. However, it IS a book that I believe readers of any ethnicity owe it to themselves to absorb. I can appreciate how Kennedy doesn’t explicitly forbid the usage of the word (OF COURSE considering the user’s race and context). He emphasizes that there are free speech debates that are quite relevant in considering censorship, and rightfully so. No one should be forbidden to speak as they will in a free society. At the same time, we can not overlook the fact that this IS (in my opinion) the vilest word in the English language. It has created the setting for murders, fights and court cases. If there is a criticism I would make about the book, it is that there is not enough history as to why the word has become so volatile. To many, it should be common sense, but those that need to hear the message the most perhaps are unaware of WHY this one word carries so much negative meaning to an entire race of people. One wonders for example, what would have gone differently in John Mayer’s recent Playboy interview if he had just put down an appropriate study of the history of this word. I will keep this review purposefully short as it is not my place to elaborate on who should or shouldn’t, can or can’t, or does or doesn’t have the right to use this term. I would simply encourage all who doubt the magnitude of one word in the English language to spend some time with this book. It is important for everyone to understand the proper context, background and appropriate usage (or lack thereof) of this powerful, insulting, sometimes bonding and always controversial word. (less)
Anyone who has been through adversity knows the view. It’s that view of life stripped down to nothing but the basic. All you’re left with is your brea...moreAnyone who has been through adversity knows the view. It’s that view of life stripped down to nothing but the basic. All you’re left with is your breath, and sometimes that feels like it’s slipping away. But you still have something, even if it’s ugly, even if it has no map, even if no one cares. What happens next is a choice. You can choose to take the basics of life that are left and build around them. What you weave becomes something on your terms. Why else does adversity create some of the best art? It sheds that which arrived from the outside.
On a large scale, adversity is represented in oppression. Old paradigms no longer apply. Either something new is created, or death occurs. Jazz, because life requires improvisation; this is a route that no one has traveled. People constantly thrown into immobile structures have to re-create themselves to absorb the impact. Adaptation regains control.
Understanding WHY is not always the intention. A Toni Morrison novel is beautiful through the way it weaves in and around. You ride on the words, seeing areas that compliment rather than obscure. Stay on the surface, don’t drown. Like the voice guiding us through “Jazz”, life calls for your touch. In a society where imitation is expected, individuality becomes destroyed.
Your heritage merges with the present, and becomes the future. But the route is quickly adjusted to accommodate the other. Recognize the part. Move, bend, and retain your tone. Someone else is not playing your role, but you do live among them. Hate stops the music. To keep the interplay vibrant and tonal, we love.
Open up and learn how to live. Music is able to be enjoyed because one note leads to the next. Why move so quickly? Slow down and listen. Once it’s over, that time and place are gone.
Morrison confounds in a world where we don’t know how to experience. Just be. Soak everything in. The journey is seen through your lens. Let all you are and all you’ve ever been become your expression. Then learn to see through the lens of the suffering. Bring more and more artistry to the piece by allowing their voices to bend around your own. Beautiful harmonies are then created.
Sometimes dissonance will occur. Like jazz, life is improvised as you go. The exact same note-pattern-tone never occurs twice. Learn from that. Move with it. Look for the best. Make the tone return to a rich, sweet sound.
Don’t let others put restrictions on your artistry. Never conform. We are here to complete, not to take away that soul, that deep passion from our fellow musicians.
Morrison comes from a people who have mastered this art. However, we share life, and improvisation is required from everyone to make a unified expression. We all have our own forms of adversity. Use it to learn how to express. Take the experience, and don’t regret. Move forward never back. What you played in the past is over. The future is always a new piece. But the musical proficiency is easier as you go, and the fun part, like reading Morrison, is experiencing each note in that one moment it’s played. (less)
“Mr. Max, how can I die”? Those words from the ending of Richard Wright’s powerful novel Native Son leaped out of the pages at me. To learn to live, w...more“Mr. Max, how can I die”? Those words from the ending of Richard Wright’s powerful novel Native Son leaped out of the pages at me. To learn to live, we must learn how to die. The realization finally comes to our protagonist Bigger. All through the story, we see the process of societal conditioning expressed in the form of race shaping the actions of a confused young man. He is full of fear, hate, shame and guilt. He knows that he hates the whites because they own everything and they tell him what he can and can not do. He hates his fellow blacks because he sees in them the same faults that he sees in himself. In fact, these faults become the only thing he CAN see. He knows he is black, and black is not “good”. He hasn’t found his identity.
Throughout life, one of our strongest searches is that of identity. The search for identity is so powerful because it’s about purpose. Identity is the search for ultimate meaning, for love, and because of that people are afraid. They are afraid because they attach their identity to the external. The African-Americans surrounding Bigger in his home and community wanted what they didn’t have. They wanted something to call their own in a world dominated by whites. For centuries, the process of conditioning had been passed down from white to white and black to black. The hate, xenophobia and fear were prevalent on both sides.
However, to find identity we need to turn to the INTERNAL. This is not to discard external oppression but to explain it. There are multiple layers to the idea of the internal in Bigger. First, Bigger doesn’t know why what he has inside of him is there. All he knows is that it’s the way things are, and he hates. He is bearing the results of the conditioning of a race. We communicate in more ways than just the verbal, and he has always known oppression even though he couldn’t put a finger on it. It is in the very fiber, the DNA of the city around him. He recognizes it to a degree outside of himself. The segregation, ruling class and unfair economics are in his face and obvious. But he can’t see inside. He can’t get down to the root of his humanity.
Bigger’s very name carries so much power and meaning. Wright, (even if didn’t understand his entire novel, as he claims), is inviting us into more than just one man’s world. Bigger represents the ugliness that we all have to face inside of ourselves. It is said that Bigger committed many more murders than just the external two we see in the book. He killed in his mind whenever he looked at someone with hate. He hates because it brings fear. He fears because he doesn’t understand. He is the consummation of a part of our being.
The more we love, the more we erase fear. However, love takes understanding. This is how Bigger represents the internal workings of groups as well as individuals. From nations to ethnicities, we fear what we don’t understand. We perceive things to be a threat to us when they are different from us. We feel something rise within us. What if their way is better? What if they don’t like us? What if they choose to take over our world and run things the way they want them to run? It becomes dualistic. We immediately react instead of searching for the humanity in the other. This happens because we haven’t been able to recognize the humanity in ourselves. Therefore, we cling to the familiar on the outside. We attach ourselves to ideologies, groups, our own race, our nation, our work. We let all of this take the place of the much more difficult process of trying to recognize our own humanity.
So racism and hatred become imbedded in society. People separate from the unfamiliar, and the ruling class/race pushes the other into a “safe” zone. Laws are set up, business arrangements are understood, politicians make deals and everyone is kept in their “appropriate” place according to conditioning. Children are raised in an “us” and “them” environment. We quickly become accustomed to that environment and learn unconsciously from others that it is safer than the risk of the unknown. The more we continue on this path, the more separation that occurs, the harder it becomes to recognize the shred of common identity that we all share. The process of understanding becomes more difficult because we have no idea of how to relate. Things just are the way they are and most people simply acquiesce.
Bigger didn’t know how to relate to the world of white around him. That world also didn’t know how to relate back. Bigger saw and judged through his lens of inferiority just as the white world represented by the Daltons judged through their lens of superiority. This situation can take on broader tones than that of race. It is oppressor vs. oppressed. It is more than injustice as Max says. When one or two people are harmed indiscriminately, that is injustice. When entire ways of life or people are pushed away from the rest of the world, then it becomes oppression.
The oppressed eventually get backed into a corner and strike out. Bigger’s hate was so strong that he started swinging and anyone in his way was caught. Mary tried to reach down from her table of privilege to lend a hand to Bigger, but she was at the wrong level both externally and internally to do so. Bigger recognized nothing but her whiteness and position in society, and he hated. He didn’t “really” intend to kill HER per se, but he wanted to blot out what she represented because it made him what he was. Oh yes, he hated her because she belonged to THAT world. But there were many Marys that he hated.
The white world, in turn, hated back because of its own interpretation of why the blacks act the way they do. Once again, we come to a lack of understanding in the vicious cycle of oppression and violence. The oppressors don’t understand that the violence of the oppressed is a direct result of the condition that has been forced upon them. So, they oppress some more by trying to cure the symptom rather than the disease. They attempt to distract through community centers and philanthropy rather than leveling out the playing field and acknowledging the humanity of the oppressed. The best gift of philanthropy is the acknowledgement of the humanity of the other. At this point, the patronizing term philanthropy becomes inappropriate. When you recognize humanity in others, philanthropy turns to love.
Max and Jan were examples of honest whites who were trying to understand. They genuinely desired to have better relations between the races, and had devoted their lives to that effort. However, the dynamic between them and Bigger is strained. This is a very important point in Wright’s examination of race. No matter how much they wanted to help Bigger, they needed to realize that in order to achieve equality, they had to EMBRACE the UNIQUENESS of Bigger. Instead of attempting complete integration and looking outside the color lines, they needed to let Bigger be WHO HE WAS just as they needed to embrace themselves for who they were. They could never be Bigger, but they could love him for his own unique expression of humanity. Bigger had never had his uniqueness embraced.
Humanity denied is racism defined. We see Bigger at the end of the book begging for a map to the internal. He gets a taste of it from Max and allows his thoughts to open up and guide him. He feels that there is a common connection in the world, but he can’t push himself above the surface to discover what it is. He senses that we all share something. He begins to realize that in the end everyone FEELS. They may not know why they feel, but they feel. The fear, they hate, they love. They are all on the search just as he is. He knows that he has something powerful inside of him; something worth fighting and even killing for.
It is perhaps absurd to think of a murder giving someone freedom. However, isn’t that how we think in war? Max asks that question to illustrate the insanity of clinging to the external for identity. Killing is part of the absurd human condition. Bigger kills, and for a moment he feels that he has exercised a CHOICE for the first time in his life. He doesn’t realize that that choice was just as conditioned and programmed as all the other choices he KNOWS that he is forced to make as a result of his race and status. In a very real way, he was guided to the murder by a sick society. This is a powerful reminder of how our actions both as a group and individuals carry profound significance in the lives of others.
We can not choose who we are when we are born. However, we can choose to DISCOVER our humanity. Bigger did discover his humanity. We may not have liked what he discovered at the end, and Max was indeed scared of what he saw in Bigger. But Bigger realized WHO HE WAS for the first time in his life. However flawed his external may have been, Bigger was able to embrace himself. His uniqueness, his humanity, his individuality, his internal could never be taken away from him. He had discovered life and how to have life. Because he had managed to drill down into his interior and take a look around with knowledge and recognition, he could now die. He knew that even in death he would still have something that no one else had. He would have his identity.(less)
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham head up the editorial team of this incredible reference book. 611 notable African American Lives...moreHenry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham head up the editorial team of this incredible reference book. 611 notable African American Lives are profiled here (some famous, some not but all making their own contributions). These names were chosen from a total list of 11,000. You will most likely not find yourself reading this book cover to cover, but if you want background information on everyone from Cornel West, Toni Morrison, Jackie Robinson and more obscure names like Noble Drew Ali (introduced Islam to African Americans on a large scale) or John Robinson (pilot for Haile Selassie), then this is an excellent resource.(less)