28 March 2004

the souls of white folks

Tonight I figured out (at least to the point where things are acceptable to my present understanding) why I decided to study anthropology. Additionally, I figured out, again to my present satisfaction, why there are so many white folks looking for salvation.

This idea came to me as I explained to Nathan why we were going to go to the Black Men's gathering in July. The Black Men's gathering is a yearly week-long conference that was initiated by Dr. William Roberts, a Baha'i psychologist. Fifteen years ago, he looked around and saw that young black men were in dire straits - and that there was no real support or creative outlet for these men. He established the Black Men's gathering, held at Green Acre Baha'i school in Eliot, Maine, which focused on the spiritual potential and empowerment of Black men. This is not to say that only one portion of society need spiritual empowerment, but Dr. Roberts saw this as a need in the community and addressed it. Nathan went once before (the year before we were married) but missed last year (it wasn't in the budget for us). But this year we're going. I say so.

As I was telling this to Nathan, we were listening to gospel music. Gospel music always gets me to weepin'. In a book we have called Spirit of Harlem, there's an interview with a Japanese woman named Yuko Ichioka. She says, and I fully understand, "I hear feelings when black people sing. When I hear gospel in Harlem, I feel more open to God."

Anyway - I'm taking my time with this story. I know you're thinking, "get on with it," but I'm going to lace it up this way and that until I am satisfied with it. Just bear with me.

In many so-called "minority" cultures, there is a strong sense of community. There is a collective identity. There is a spiritual cohesion. Think about it:

Native American cultures have endured hundreds of years of persecution, and yet many have managed to preserve a sense of their heritage.

Free black men and women were imprisoned and brought to these lands and stripped of their culture, and yet they remained defiant and spiritual, preserving the rich fabric of their heritage by incorporating it into the paradigms that were enforced by their captors.

All over the world, non-western cultures have faced imperialism and subordination and yet they still hold the core of their beliefs, albeit oftentimes altered.

And what of my heritage? This is something I've been thinking of tonight. My mom and dad are in the process of identifying family ties far removed. In fact, I see a lot of advertisements for online geneaology services, which indicates this is a growing trend. But still - what about my spiritual heritage? When I think of western culture - my culture, I suppose - I think of materialism.

Ruhiyyih Khanum, the wife of Shoghi Effendi (the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith) and a world traveler, often remarked upon the disease of materialism which infects Western society. And just because I know that my essence is spiritual doesn't make me immune of this disease.

And materialism isn't just wanting possessions - it is attachment to the things of this world. It is a groos overreliance on counting and measuring - on oversciencing things. I feel ashamed to talk about spiritual things because our society is afraid of what it can't see - spirituality is fine and good in religious settings, but it doesn't have a place in the academic, scientific world. Citing holy texts as references in a paper will get you an F for not using proper sources.

So here I am, listening to the melodious spiritual emotions of the voices of this gospel choir, and thinking my heritage is materialistic and teaches me to want and to not trust instincts but to look for what I can prove with hard facts, and I am looking for balance and suddenly


It hits me. I don't have any spiritual cohesion in this society. There is no real outlet - no real place I can go to feel safe enough to discuss spiritual things. At every twist, there is someone wanting to argue the spiritual nature of things with me - to prove to me that what I believe is wrong. And I am on the defensive always, afraid to talk about what I believe because then I'll have to prove it. How can you explain in words what is in your heart? How can you convince someone that what moves you is justified?

I think that I'm tired of having to prove things to people: to prove my stand in a debate, to prove myself, to prove that what I believe is okay. And so I look to places where the soul is valued - the unknowable is part of the everyday. And I find these things in a gospel song, in the ritual of a Dinee in Arizona, in the Dreamtime stories of the original Australians.

I am looking for my soul.

Nathan once said to me that the reason that so many people like one of my favourite musical artists was because that group offered soul. And so many people are looking for it - so many people are wounded by materialism in all its varied forms - and so many are looking for healing.

So the souls of white folks - hidden like diamonds in the coal of materialism - they're not gone, just hiding. But its going to take a lot of help from the souls of black folks, and of all the other folks in the world, to help us reclaim them.


Jessica said...

If I wasn't in a public library I'd be crying openly right now. I've really been thinking a lot about my cultural identity lately as well (we always seem to be on the same page woman). Basically everyone around me (on the reservation) has a firm grasp (compared to the majority of U.S. Americans) on their cultural identity and their past. What do I have? What POSITIVE traits are a part of my culture? We all know a lot about the negative aspects of Euro-American culture, but what about the good? I'm confronted with the fact that I'm seen as and put in the category of WHITE everyday now. I'm now always aware of the fact that I'm white. So now I have to face this whiteness of mine. What does it consist of that's positive?? I try not to feel bad about being "white" (I'd just like to a human for a while, thanks) but I can't help it. I'm ashamed. I guess this is the first step in a process of acceptance, but right now there ain't no accepting goin on. I'll work with this, I'm excited now to see where it goes. Thanks LIZ!

Mara said...

We're white. And isn't everybody else soooooo much more interesting? And aren't Americans bad, especially white ones? And couldn't I go on for all the reasons that we should feel guilty?

I attended a talk by Mr. Douglas Martin (a member of the Universal House of Justice - if you want to know more, ask Lizzy) about world peace and America. And you know what he said? Nobody should feel ashamed of where they come from. Nobody. That means you, the white girl, you have reason to take pride in where you come from. And, of course, you don't just come from America. Lay down on your fine new IKEA bed (oh, I miss those days...) and think about what you can take pride in about your history. This isn't a popular idea, I know. Saying something like that could get one accused of being a member of the KKK. But then, I think you're pretty far from feeling superior to anybody. But we can all feel good about who we are - like this prayer from 'Abdu'l-Baha says:

O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord. - 'Abdu'l-Bahá

MommaD said...

I'm at work, so I can't really comment very long...but someday maybe we can have a looooooooooong talk.It seems to me I may have told you this once, but after returning from the Lac du Flambeau Reservation I shared with George that in a talking circle I broke down I voiced something I had felt but never openly stated: I hated having skin that was the symbol of oppression. George is the one that reminded me that white people were also the ones that ended slavery and why did I only focus on the negative history. Anyway...more thoughts but can't voice them now...gotta get back to work.
Love, Momma D.

lizington said...

Thanks, everyone, for your support! I got teary myself reading the responses! I think I'm going to go take a quick vacation on my new IKEA bed and think wonderful thoughts for a while! I love you!

P.S. Every sentence here ends with an exclamation point!

Mark said...

Not that I want to encourage materialism, but could you please buy one of those comfy IKEA goose down comforters and share the experience?

I myself am planning on opening up a a bao shop somewhere in the inner city, and promote my faux Chinese roots by sharing the beauty of warm hot buns with tasty things in the middle to the whole world. I've become a baoaholic, and am sure you norteamericanos are already sick of your designer coffee and fresh baked breads. Don't get me started on panini. Hell, that whole yogurt thing was sort of a flash in the pan now wasn't it?

I know I'm about one entry too late but I highly recommend reading "Choosing Simplicity" by Linda Breen Pierce. It's a case study on people who have actually chosen to simplify their lives. I plan on using some of the ideas for my new life in the evil, bad, decadent West near so many of the ones I love.