In previous submissions to CounterPunch, I refer to our little Cafe/coffee shop in Utica, New York as “a safe place for human beings.” I say this in almost no other context because the statement would be meaningless to most people, other than their assuming it means safe “for all human beings,” as in all colors, ethnicities, religions, immigrant status, LGBTQ, etc., a refusal of Trump’s xenophobic racist America. I assure you, it does mean that. But I am referring to some other rarely met condition that allows me – and this may be just me – to feel safe there, as I do in precious few other places.
Living on an inner city street as we have for over a quarter century, among multiple ethnicities, mainly poor, some working and a few middle class people, I’m clear my feeling of unsafety does not come from America’s “usual suspects.” Though not always pleased as punch with my neighbors, I am not especially afraid among them. It is among “my own kind,” that I feel unsafe, in particular when I am unsure of the unspoken underlying assumptions or of the understandings we supposedly share that others seem to take for granted. Oddly, unwilling outsider that I am, I am most likely to feel safe, that is, at home – when in the presence of art making, especially jazz performances and poetry readings held from time to time in our small art space next door to the Cafe. I feel safe when my friend Gene Nassar, retired English professor and Rhodes scholar, gives unfashionable literary talks on Yeats or Pound or Hopkins there.
Reflecting on this phenomenon, I conclude that art making, and reverence for its tradition, fosters ritual space, i.e., space grounded not in the in-common larger, disturbing culture, but in a “counter” culture of involuntary outsiders who value and feel at home in the presence of the mystery of creativity. It is not overstating the case to call such ground sacred; given opportunities like these I can feel something like joy in being human.
To me it is no small thing to acknowledge that most of the time, excepting those cases mentioned above, I feel unsafe, not physically, but in my being. Feeling safe as a whole human being anywhere in America is not something I can take for granted, not because I am a woman (though I recognize and empathize with that special vulnerability), but because my humanity includes a spiritual part (creative, untamed, still ‘hearing a different drummer’) not recognized in the dominant culture. A voice from my being insists humanity is not a given, a fully predictable outcome of having been born homo sapiens. Its aspirational quality having been forgotten by most people in my acquaintance, by most Americans as far as I can tell, it becomes impossible to feel safe in the very vulnerability of becoming human (except when paying a shrink for that privilege).
I wish – how I wish! – that at last we Americans might reach the end of this frustrating, presumptuous, highly defensive, and self defeating sense of entitlement, that which I think is meant by whiteness but is also thoughtlessness. If with the trauma of Trump’s ascendance it has come to pass that Americans are jarred out of our four century slumber, what a truly, truly great (though still awful) moment we are in! That we might again aspire to our that activity which defines us as humans, to wondering, pondering, to risk thinking matters through for ourselves, understanding the world for ourselves, sharing who we are through thinking with others! Is it possible that we might be clued at last that things are not just “the way they are,” end of thought, but all of it – all of it – bears thinking about?
I claim no proficiency in this regard. As a latecomer to thinking, I struggle. Dragged kicking and screaming to the deep well of myself, to face there the terror the writer James Baldwin referred to as white peoples’ “terror of their private selves,” I found there the basis for knowing. Over most of my earlier adult life, I believed my terror was only my own and that therefore it must be born somehow, managed, and above all, not acknowledged. My childhood, in its middle class ordinariness, its suburban tract housing setting, in the silences of my parents, terrified me. I was riven through with neuroses that I mainly handled privately because I saw no other option.
Fortunately the load became too much for me and in my early 40’s the entire edifice collapsed. In the aftermath, I have come to understand my terror as cultural and historical, not only personal. Existential terror is inevitable consequence of denying spiritual reality. This was caused not by my parents’ incapacity, but the incapacity of the culture to reflect back to me that I had a soul, that is, a real, existing interior being. In fact, the culture enlisted me in its war against the soul. The cultural narcissism surrounding me required only that I be a mirror for others, not a being myself. In my understanding this was not a gender problem, nor even only an American problem, but a human, a modern problem. Though raised by perfectly good, non-abusive parents in excellent standing among their peers, I was left with a huge piece of my humanity missing.
I am talking, in my way about the curse of whiteness laid out so clearly in James Baldwin’s essays and speeches that form the substance of the movie about him called I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck. Due to that curse, more powerful than the curse of the fairy not invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday celebration, more powerful than God’s curse on Adam and Eve, or the curse on poor Orpheus who looked back, it’s come to pass that thought has ceased in America. At a few cultural oases, among a few public intellectuals the tradition of thinking goes on; for the rest we are surrounded not only by the ceaseless flow of cars lined up at McDonalds, but the hundreds of thousands glued to the news to receive the latest Trumpian blow to decency and to Saturday Night Live to be washed clean by parodies of the same. Our conversations limited to vacation cruises and technology purchases amidst unspoken and shared understanding about the tragedy of the last election, meaning Hillary’s loss.
People are nervous, frightened, but do not necessarily know how to get back to being people having genuine conviction. One prerequisite’s for sure: if people are ever to risk the joy of thinking again, is that they must not allow themselves to be enforcers for the culture’s phobia of inwardness. Obedient religiophobia, the projected fear of inwardness supported by compulsive valorizing of scientific truth above all other, effectively keeps people persuaded that the materialist, capitalist world we’re presented is it, the only reality. That one assumption, amplified by shallow mass media and its reduced conversation, aggravated ever more by convenient private access to a virtual world, as opposed to Nature’s world, abetted by material sufficiency, makes thinking unnecessary; it makes community – that is, relationships – unnecessary and impossible as well. If we fail to put our real “counter cultural” thoughts out on the table between us, share our thinking and amplify it through conversation, what then truly exists between us? How do we find out what the other’s otherness really consists of except through sharing our thoughts? Other than that, we are restricted to keeping our masks in place, and left with the terror of existing in a society of masks instead of human others.
The consequence of mutual mask-wearing, the unspoken agreement to keep them on, to never confess the fear underneath, to keep the soul an outsider in our shared world, is the society that insists upon black people being what they must be for us, “our Negroes.” In our false shallowness, it is difficult for us to appreciate the degree to which our humanity is achievable only if we can reconcile with our depth.
To invite the soul back in is not a simple task; it’s a task for the individual – an artist’s shamanic task – not for the group. One does it for love, and no other reason. James Baldwin, taking up that difficult work of speaking, of sharing his thinking with white people across the gulf of incomprehension, the immense sacrifice he made, was for love. Not to mention that every effort one makes toward befriending one’s inwardness makes the world feel safer, and be safer in fact.
That bedrock precarity existing below the terror, assuring the terror remains in control, is the unsafety felt before the wilderness of our own souls, the overwhelming amount of grief contained therein from an accumulated history premised in violence and subjugation, in an environment we have made unfriendly to the soul’s reality. Baldwin said, “There are days…when you wonder…how precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy—the death of the heart—which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.”
In our delusion, white people no longer know we are human; we lack, through long practice of willful innocence, the interiority to give us that knowledge. Having sealed over the pain of our own history, we have lost access to imagination and thought, leaving the soul a banished outsider. It’s possible, echoing Baldwin, to imagine the anguished soul of each of us asking: how can I communicate to you, in your unthinking, cruel heedlessness of my real existence, that I am real? My disruptions, depressions, anxieties and despair are no match for your powers of distraction, sublimation, repression. I cannot compete with your phobic projection of my reality onto everything smacking of “religious superstition,” your dogmatic insistence upon the “safe”bedrock of materialism and positivist thinking. I cannot make you stop what you are doing; at some point of either extreme pain or bliss, you must volunteer to take up your moral duty.
Surely this trauma being visited upon America in the form of the man Trump is enough to shake us out of the complacent banality in which we’ve slumbered for so long and get back to the project that we are uniquely suited for, which is to become human, and to think.