Tao Te Ching & the Uncarved Block of Apocalyptic, Revolutionary Education

Recently in the course of an intense personal conversation with a family member about power and other necessary matters which need not detain us here, I found myself trying to explain a recurring concept from Tao Te Ching (15, 28). It’s sometimes translated as “grasping the uncarved block”.

‘What the hell am I talking about?’ I thought at one point. Here’s some Taoist sort-of answers I got thru further study of Tao Te Ching, and attempted overstanding / meditation deep in the heart.

Noted SNCC historian Peniel Joseph’s engaging double biographical sketches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, The Sword and the Shield, sent me back to Grace Lee Boggs’ seminal essay Let’s Talk about Martin and Malcolm.

Grace’s essay reads like Peniel Joseph’s marching orders for an always-fascinating story: dialectics, under real world social movement challenges and changes, during the pivotal decades (1955-72) between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the inflamed years after King’s and Malcolm’s assassinations, illustrate essential power dynamics chronicled brilliantly by Elizabeth Hinton in America on Fire:

“…[C]ommunity-based Black rebellions sought redress from authorities in the form of employment, housing, education, and law enforcement, as well as a reordering of the status quo so that Black people would no longer be treated as second-class citizens in their cities and in their country. … [E]ver since, Americans have been living in a national culture created in part by the extreme violence of the 1960s and early 1970s.” (AOF pp 3, 8)

The power structure’s brutal response was noted at the time for the historical record by US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s 1973 dissent in Milliken v Bradley (metropolitan Detroit inter-district school busing case): “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”

The high-water mark of a wave originating with Montgomery’s bus system crested and broke around opposition to busing children between Detroit and the suburbs for racial integration and educational equity. Transit isn’t simply “transit”. As Detroiters, grasping the uncarved block means confronting and dealing with the evil fruits of the seeds of today’s deep & structural educational mega-crisis.

Grace Lee Boggs notes how, at their tragic assassinations, King and Malcolm – like all revolutionaries – were works in progress. That tolled the bell for me in terms of “grasping the uncarved block”. The work in a progress of meandering analysis, overstanding, engagement, ensoulment, etc., ultimately leads to a famous, central paradox of Tao Te Ching: the profound, mysterious and politically very controversial (37) action-in/non-action (“Tao abides in non-action, Yet nothing is left undone”).

As our time’s leading fool might say, ‘so some legendarily named Chinese Poet says “Don’t act”, so what?’ This is the mystery of power, agency, soul force and overstanding. This is why philosopher Jacob Needleman calls Tao Te Ching an ancient “work of metaphysical psychology… It helps us see how the fundamental forces of the cosmos itself are mirrored in our own individual, inner structure.” Individually & collectively, just so!

I respectfully offer a preliminary conclusion and thought, regarding ‘the uncarved block’ and revolutionary life as praxis. I profess its challenging and personally rewarding vocational commitment to transformational change for justice and liberation; a generative contemporary work-of-reframing–in-process, toward a timeless new ‘creation myth’ for survival in impossible times. At best, grasping the uncarved block of reality is living and loving in struggle, for keeps & for real.

Tao Te Ching (70) teaches ‘the words are easy to understand and easy to perform / yet no one under heaven knows or practices them’. Like some strange syntheses of Cassandra, Marx, General Baker and John Trudell-after-Crazy Horse, we persist. Our intelligence, advice, warnings, prophecies and information are often disrespected, ignored and avoided – not least by our own selves – and we will keep offering them anyway!

Fragmented, confronting itself, the left opposition has the irrefutable honor of not having surrendered, of rising once again after each blow, of continuing to struggle in spite of everyone and in spite of itself, and of believing that the revolution is necessary – and possible.” – Subcomandante Marcos, Mirrors

Ref: Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu (Tr: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)


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Tom Stephens is a volunteer educator for the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) and a Peoples lawyer in Detroit.