The Color of Suffering: Black and Blue

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

– William Blake, “The Little Black Boy,” Songs of Innocence (1789)

Othering is built right into the Latin word for Black. Westerners haven’t spoken Latin regularly in millennia, although we Blancos still use the N- word. We like the N-word. It differentiates Us from them. As we look out at the competition, maybe we muse that roughly 14% of the population is subdued and regularly beaten down by fascist forces of ignorance and dark energy that from the beginning of our illustrious culture and ballyhooed Constitution have regarded the Black race as not only Other, but Lesser, deeming him ⅔ of a man by law.  Black people love white people, and white people struggle to be human, writes Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks.

Luckily, for us and Them, our Constitution also has a set of splendid, if reluctant, Bill of Rights and amendments that tell the world we are willing to fix our evil ways. Freedom of Expression is key. Guns. Votes. 400,000,000 million guns at last count, as if we collectively intuited that they might try to take away our amendments and Rights. Even Michael Moore is a lifetime member of the NRA, displaying his membership card to Moses during Bowling for Columbine (2002). Hell, we may end up shooting each Other — in a Free for All.

Aside from Russkies being our worldview Klingons, I have been dealing with race, at home, for my entire life. Watching Black people get their heads bashed in, while crying “I can’t breathe,” or wondering, “Can’t we all get along?” or wondering when their best white friend will turn on them and play the race card, subtly or explicitly, for advantage over some obscure object of desire, and always irredeemably.  I have seen it with my own two eyes; I’ve probably participated in it at some early stage of my life.  There seems to be something infinitely cruel in us, watching our Black friend;s face as the race monster erupts from our chest like the creature in Alien to show him or her that, we, too, are infected with the monster molecule (hate-evil-anger), further deepening the 400 year divide.

Recently, in my dotage and despair, and looking forward to an Edward G.ending in a world that took “going green” the wrong way, surrounded by beauty and serenity at last, and letting go of the monsters that eat us alive as hosts to their parasitic desires and false consciousness of universal relationships, I came across an author, who’s work I have come to greatly admire, both for its scholarship and unique worldly experience, and coming at me in synthetic harmony.  Empathy happened, for a plight and its meager hopes of liberation from life as a horror movie (see my review). James Henry Harris is his name. He’s a reverend and Distinguished Professor and Chair of Homiletics and Practical Theology at Virginia Union University. He is also the author of several books, including Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope (Fortress Press, 2020). His latest book is N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic (2021). The classic in question is Huckleberry Finn and Harris has a different take on Finn’s value as a classic and Twain’s academic exemption from charges of racism (see my review).

I’ve been reading Harris’s Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope and enjoying it immensely and  I wanted to pass on to the reader why I’ve been enthralled by its message and scope.  Structurally the book has 13 chapters, including the Prelude titled “The Color of Suffering,”  and presents a mix of genres, including social-historical analysis, fiction, and, my favorite, sermons (or passages that are nearly so) that all work in the reader’s service.  As Harris puts it,

“I have sought to synthesize theory and practice in a qualitative analysis that includes stories, anecdotes, vignettes, history, and sermonic discourse—all in service to understanding and explaining the “mixtape” experience of Black suffering.”

I like the idea of  Harris as DJ at the spinny spin. But I don’t much like the picture I get of me dancing, stiff wooden shoulders, not a polyrhythm in my body, and I wouldn’t look at the overly hip expression I feel I have in the mirror either.

Harris and I are roughly the same age, mid-60s, and, for the purpose of understanding where our intended symbiosis begins, we could each start with Emmett Till, abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the year before I was born, and a decade before the momentum from LBJ’s Great Society initiatives helped drive lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that “guaranteed” Blacks voting rights at the polls.  (A half century later, as investigative journalist Greg Palast has detailed, Black voter disenfranchisement was still the favored way for Republicans to steal state and national elections, including the 2016 presidential election that saw Donald J, Trump win election.) Emmett Till.  His death shone a light on, among other things, the cultural divide between North and South, the latter still stuck in an unreconstructed past resentful of an “uppity” Chicago Black over-indulging in a freedom to express he had no right to expect in Money, Mississippi.  Folks pointed to the ugliness of the South, but the N-word was used liberally in the North, too and with the same venom and purpose — to subdue to by Othering.

Harris’s critical analyses of the Black experience and its myriad sufferings was both a reiteration of Critical Race Theory (CRT) I’d already been exposed to as an undergraduate in my literary studies and later, in grad school, while learning to become a teacher.  I like his chapter on Nat Turner, the forerunner to Malcolm X, who acted on Malcolm’s slogan ‘by any means necessary,” even killing in his quest to be free. Harris uses Turner as a kind of focal point to bring in the views of  Franz Fanon, W.E.B DuBois, and Hanna Arendt, who all describe processes the Black experience must go through — dialectical differencing, the development of consciousness, and the nature of evil. Harris cites Du Bois and the veil of doublehood:

“The Negro is the sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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 twoness—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. “

This doubleness is a strain that runs throughout Black literature — through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Almos’ A Man, Langston Hughes’s simple but tense “A Dream Deferred,” John Edgar Wideman’s Pittsburgh Homewood series, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, James Baldwin’s Fire, and so on.

Harris often compares and contrasts the travails of Jews and their historical encounters with evil.  He quotes from the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence,” through which he has her tells us:

“Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence.”

This ponderment allows Harris to apply it to the Black experience. He writes

“…the enslaved were thought to be absolutely powerless—unable to think, read, write, plan, or act. This thinking is demonstrated in Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, when Jefferson’s defense attorney describes him before the jury as a hog, an animal unable to plan. Nat Turner is the antithesis of this pervasive dialectic. He is the sublation of the intent of slavery.”

Harris is out to skin that pervasive dialectic.

And while he’s at it, and speaking of dialectics, Harris wheels in Hegel, who Harris onec referred to as “the poster boy for racism.”   Master-Slave triadic dialectic, my ass, he seems to say.  They don’t need each other. And it brings to mind other stuff  — the distrust Nietzsche, the horse whisperer, had in German systems, their intrinsically totalitarian nature (I suddenly recalled a poetry commune I rhymed in during the late 70s where an Abbie wannabe hogged all the girls with an abundance of curls. and there were often coos from the shower.) Well, Hegel led to Marx, which led to a lot of meaningless undergraduate stem cell intellectuals arguing over the “hermeneutics” of their interpretations. Some of these gizzes grew up to write pseudo-intellectual books based on Hegelian motifs, such as Francis Fukuyama, whose End of History was a comic book expression of the complexity of Hegel’s fine mind.  Natch, as if to prove the point, within a year or so, Francis was backtracking — whoa, Nelly! — and had to game us with a follow-on bestseller to correct his all-too-human analysis.  Oy!

Anyway, Harris is not going to keep on truckin’ what he regards as dialectical nonsense.  He writes:

“There was no opportunity for the enslaved to fight fairly to achieve independent consciousness. As for the moral integrity of Black people, a so-called “superior morality” professed by the master allows him to put forth a dominating perception while the slave assumes one of peonage. This inequality, combined with the differing “essential nature” advanced by Hegel, is the essence of racism and white supremacy. When the master perceives and treats the slave as “other,” the slave is regarded as a “thing” over which the master has power.”

In short, he seems to imply, to my chagrin, Nat Turner would have kicked Hegel’s white boy ass, and said to the prostrated Absolutist, as Harrs does to the reader, “This is the nature of oppression. By mimicking the master, the slave is acting with a false sense of self-consciousness that is itself dehumanizing in nature.”  Understand???

In a series he calls Interludes in Black Suffering, Harris offers up another way of considering the  daily trials of the Black experience  — fiction.  Factuality followed by fictionality, and, these days, often combined into a blurry hybridization genre called creative non-fiction. There are four Interlude stories included — “Brothers of Randolph Street,” “The Prison Visit,” “Plantation,” and “Powell Street Station—Purgatory in Paradise.”  Typical settings for the Black experience.

“Randolph Street” is a good example of a lifestyle full of events no white person could fully fathom. It’s brief but rich.  It tells the story of the studly Alixx whose single mother dies when he’s a teen, and he becomes “a man-child of the streets, lost to despair and a certain hopelessness.”  Alixx eventually discovers a con to make money “legitimately” by selling tap water with sugar, as an “elixir.”  and it’s a huge hit: “Within a year, he was selling 10,000 twelve-ounce bottles a week for fifty cents each, grossing close to a half-million dollars.” It’s a business that is so successful that when whites start buying the water Alixx is suspicious that they may be “FDA or the FBI working undercover.”  Success leads to a new car, which leads to the inevitable pull over by a cop leading to Alexx’s murder ny cop:

“Allix got angry and refused to do it, so the police officer yelled and pushed him to the ground as he uttered expletives and racial epithets. And then, just that quick, there were four pops, like firecrackers. Pop, pop, pop, pop. Allix slumped over on the concrete street. Breathless. Dead. His hand clenched a bottle of water.”

This is what seems to happen almost every day in America to Blacks. Whites, not so much.

And so it goes similarly with the other tales. In “Plantation,” a trip from Charleston, SC to New Orleans becomes a trigger for lost or stuffed or undesired memories. He hears the wash of NOLA’s famous sounds — “trumpets playing the sweet, jazzy, soulful blues sounds of the not so-happy South.” The narrator sees a Black man on the ground who’s been stabbed in the foot; he has a blood-stained sock. He tells us:

“My mind rushed to the thought of a runaway who had his foot amputated for attempting to escape to freedom. No one was allowed to tend to his wounds—lest they be taught a lesson of their own. That was in the past. Or was it?”

The evocations don’t end there.  On a group tour of the Whitney Plantation, “a stone’s throw from the Mississippi,” he thinks of the reality of the river’s historical function:

“The Mississippi River is America’s most notorious river where the bodies of thousands of Black folk are interred from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It is an American trope, a symbol of the slavocracy transporting slaves, cotton, cattle, tobacco, and everything else from one plantation to another, as well as to markets all over the known world.”

Suddenly, I can understand Harris’s racial understanding of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  — a white teen adventurer and a runaway slave set off on a raft on the river as a kind of bracketed experience for the off-setting skin tones,yin and yangin’ out together,  but Harris, when he reads the novel as he alludes to in his memoir, N., knows that the river holds skeletons, has its own past, and is not merely a surface-level conduit of neutral people and happy commerce. The narrator has another trauma-trigger moment when he across the cages of a slavery market and recoils, as history and memory merge in horror:

“When I saw the small, metal cage used to hold the enslaved for the auction on the Whitney Plantation, I felt the pain and fear of death. I felt sick to my stomach. I could see it. It was a sickness unto death. There was sorrow in my soul. My spirit grieved mightily. For some reason, though, I was compelled to take a closer look, to step inside the torture chamber, the metal cage where ten Black naked bodies would be held in place by chains and shackles.”

This is moving stuff. Here Harris seems to allude to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who is an appropriate spiritual guide for the great leaps of faith one must make to get from one light in total darkness to the next. And it also conjures up the existential quease of Sartre’s Nausea.

The third major grouping of Black Suffering is actually my favorite: sermons or homilies of a sort.  The last chapter of the book, “Suffering and Hope,” tackles the question I had about Harris personally — how he manages to take on the world of Black suffering, as a scholar, as a writer, as a teacher, and as a minister.  Where does he find the inner guidance and the seemingly tremendous amount of psychic energy required to be a beacon in church and a pastor among the fold on a daily basis?  But he does it.  He refers to it as The Calling. And you listen as he tells a congregation of his deep-rooted empathy:

“To be poor is to suffer in silence or in protest. It is to suffer hunger, poor health, and ridicule from the rest of society. I know the meaning of the gratuitous amelioration of suffering, and I know the searing pain of a toothache that lasts for endless days and nights because we could neither afford to go to the dentist nor the doctor unless it was a serious life-or-death issue.”

This is vital, true, and has a touch of parable to it.  Also, it’s relevant and speaks to the fact of the poor health care available to Blacks.  Folks really do have to suffer the toothaches for lack of professional care.  At the same time, the toothache is an apt metaphor for the mercy shown toward Black suffering.  Depressing stuff.

In this section, Harris references James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed. Cone was a primarily academic theologian who inspired with his words more than with activist deeds, but was a tremendous influence on, and mentor for, Harris during his lead up to his Calling among the congregation. Harris poses Cone’s Question that has long been at the heart of all long sufferers throughout the millennia and for which some still hold out for an Answer:

The reality of suffering challenges the affirmation that God is liberating the oppressed from human captivity. If God is unlimited both in power and goodness, as the Christian faith claims, why does He not destroy the powers of evil . . . If God is the One who liberated Israel from Egyptian slavery, who appeared in Jesus as the healer of the sick and the helper of the poor, and who is present today as the Holy Spirit of liberation, then why are Black people still living in wretched conditions without the economic and political power to determine their historical destiny?

Harris wonders with his people.  They share the suffering together.  That might be part of the Answer — but it;s not the whole thing, it often seems insufficient, and it is tough trying to accept the notion of “the mystery of faith,” which is to say that there are things we will never know about the Divinity and perhaps shouldn’t push.. The God-killing philosopher himself, and son of a minister, Nietzsche, suggested as much himself — There are some things we should not wish to know, he writes somewhere, “wisdom sets limits even to knowledge.”  The Cone question is one to build a religion around — Why? One incorporation of this Question comes with Christ’s torment on the Cross and His query to God: Why have you forsaken me.  Harris compares the Black sufferer to Christ on the Cross.

Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope has tremendous scope and a whole heck of a lot of lyricism and passion. The sense of place as a living experience in itself is strong in Harris’s work. I believe it may be something that is especially poignant in the Black experience.  I’m thinking of the Lynching Museum that contains the Mason jars filled with dirt from the many sites of lynchings of Black people and is housed at the place in Montgomery, Alabama, where slave auctions were once held.  In his next book, N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic, place is also crucial to any understanding of Harris’s reflection and critique.  In N., he recounts going to a classroom filled with white people, at a school set on an ex-plantation, to take a grad course in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  and being challenged by the environs and its haunts, and then listening to whites read aloud the hundreds of occasions of Twain’s use of the Forbidden Word. He confronts his classmates and instructor. And forces it to take on a CRT mission.

I highly recommend Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope.  It can be found at his publisher, Fortress Press.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.