Black Rhythms in White Rituals
by Lennox V. Farrell
We humans can no more survive without myths and rituals than we can without oxygen and water. Of course, the air we breathe could be fouled, and water systems we use be dependent on the charity of others.
Moreover, while death might occur sooner for lack of clean air and water than it would for a similar lack of healthy myths and relevant rituals, yet its occurrence is in both instances equally dramatic.
Today, in Canadian society, as elsewhere, there are communities whose members, in spite of creative and heroic efforts continue, especially in the lives of the youth, to grapple with a loss of momentum for their future-for it is in the vulnerability of their young that is most painfully revealed, the extent to which a people's lives and livelihoods are either under their own control, or exist under the control of others.
One of several indices which measure such losses or gains in a community's momentum is the degree of presence; of representation held by their youth within the institutions that socialize us all: institutions on one hand of detention; on the other, institutions of education, etc. For example, a visit on any Ontario day to the courts and prisons, and to the colleges and universities will quickly show whose youth are over-represented in the former system, and under-represented in the latter.
Among the communities here whose youth are over-represented in detention centers and under-represented in graduation ceremonies is the African-Canadian community. This situation is so prevalent that it no longer offends, and is anticipated as normal-except for some residual, foolishly courageous elements among us.
For many of these youth, the consequences of these differing representations in these varying institutions is the creation of a generation who leave schooling functionally illiterate, to find living functionally dependent.
Therefore, while like other Canadians, they too, have expectations for their lives, yet are these declining in possibilities, and shadowed by hopelessness: hopeless expectations, declining possibilities. For too many still in school, the uncertain lottery of the time they expend rehearsing on basketball courts is considered a surer payoff than the certainty of efforts spent, with more predictable results, in math classes and science laboratories.
The results are obvious, predictable and ill news overall. They are, even to doughty souls, disheartening.
These ironic circumstances so urgently in need of analysis run counter to the fact that no other community has been as active, for example, on the particularly difficult issues of education as have we. While others could take long weekends enjoying cottage country, we were enforced by our historic experiences into conferences and workshops, into meetings planning strategy, reviewing documents, optimistically building hope.
Then we were-and possibly still are-convinced that the rightness of our cause; the undeniable annals of crimes committed against our humanity; and the epochal revelations of abuses unfolding year after year would vindicate our case before the democratic tribunal of an enlightened public, surely.
For surely, we have not been slack concerning the defense of our unequivocal humanity, and moreover, in the defense of others, too! Thus, it can never be truthfully said that ours has been a community without creative, heroic volunteer efforts; attempting to raise ourselves by our own meager bootstraps, ensuring that never again could others hoist us by noose and whip.
Like others, we have suffered the injuries of discrimination and injustice. We have been the butt of heart-breaking research and surmisings by academics, and treated as jokes in powerful places. In the past, we have revolted, fought, demonstrated, compromised, accommodated, and surrendered. We have made music and movements; danced and sung; and hung our griefs on the willows of history at the headwaters of Babylonish systems.
What, especially in this post-Apartheid, post-Colonial, post-Jim Crow era have we not done right? Nor done yet?
I think that what is most needed is the creation or re-creation our own sets of myths; the designing or re-designing of our own rituals. Myths are somewhat more than reality and something less than truth; but their storyings collectively carry the positive and/or negative self-perceptions by which a group of people either define themselves or are defined by others.
In our communities today, based on our cataclysmic history, our self-perceptions are generally of the worst sort, possible. This might once have been understandable, for then, when mobs lynched, masters flogged and systems legally debased; maintaining negative self-perceptions was a survival tactic. So, we were lazy and unproductive, though it was by our blood that empires were watered; described as happy creatures, we danced to pleasure those abusing us; sang to comfort those destroying our families, and generally acted the fool to ensure that any sense of self we harboured did not threaten those who, in spite of their barbarities, we considered superior beings.
Among the institutions allowed first us, and one that initially played a positive role in our survival as a people were our churches. They were never really ours, but were the only places where we could gain some organizing skills, exercise limited controls and create our rituals. Therefore, it was the church that nurtured the Negro Spirituals. It was preachers like Paul Bogle, Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth, who by their indomitable humanity, terrified the hell out of Europe. Nobody knew the trouble we saw, but Glory Hallelujah!
By comparison, in this same era, European leadership was pronouncing the death of God! God should not have been surprised at this other exaggeration. Europeans had arbitrarily pronounced the first created humans to be non-human; thus re-creating original humanity into their own creation: children of a lesser God. Subsequently, having displaced the original creation with their own, they then mightily proceded to displace the original Creator with themselves. The logical choices facing God was that He either died, or be reborn a European. Otherwise even He, by not worshipping at the feet of Europeans, could be accused of idolatry!
Our generation have, therefore, like our foreparents before us fought valiantly against massive odds; for to oppose such demi-gods, principalities and powers requires that one be either courageous beyond all courage, or foolish beyond all foolishness.
We though, for whatever reasons, have been colossal failures. We have integrated lunch-counters and baffled the world with our ability to forgive and overlook, yet have not claimed for ourselves, myths to sustain us, nor created rituals that empower our children.
Therefore, our youth have done both. They have created both the storyings of myth and the trappings of ritual. It is thus supremely ironic that a people who have fought so hard on emancipating education for ourselves and others, now have offspring who contend that to be successful academically is to be a white wannabe. Where in hell could such myths have been breast-fed? It is tragedy without redemption!
For African-Canadian youth in Ontario today, their first rite of passage from childhood to manhood, and usually acquired by their sixteenth birthday, is a ticket for trespassing in malls where we, their parents shop. Other markings of rituals created by them include the clothing styles and public persona they exhibit which-as also for others-show the effectiveness of rituals for either good and ill.
Where we have not done so for them, they thus create their own myths and rituals. For example, the headgear they display; clothing they fashion are among the most distinctive metaphors of self-recognition or of anonymity; among the most ubiquitous symbols of power, or of powerlessness; and are uniforms, either of healthy self-identity or of destructive self-loathing.
Has momentum become reversal? For generations we battled to make officially odious, disreputable, terms like "nigger"; we fought as a fundamental part of our humanity in the redemption of our women from historic depictions as bitches and whores.
Today, these compose the anthems used by Black male youth to honour themselves, and to dishonour Black women. Where we fought for an inalienable dignity and self-respect to our persons; our youth now strive to adorn themselves as garish billboards, neon signs of crass designer clothing, worn alongside massive gold jewelry, clinking like plantation chains.
In addition, the sagging styles by which they buckle their pants under their buttocks, force them, like crabs, to move sideways; thereby giving new meaning to the word, sidewalk! But when have we not ever walked at right angles to the directions taken by white society, eh? Or, irony of ironies, are our youth now moving at right angles to our history?
Today, based on legitimacy and available resources, the institution in our midst with the leading role to play in the counter-creation of healthy rituals, must surely be those where we congregate most often, in most numbers.
In the US, it was the African-American clergy who took leading roles in bringing about such historic changes birthed by the Civil Rights Movement. In fact one of their members, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was an ordained Baptist Minister. His pulpit became a clarion call for justice, and an oracle opposing the Civil Wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans. Of course, Dr. King in the 20th century "abused his defined role as clergy", and like other Black preachers in the 19th and 18th centuries, he too was murdered for asserting that we too were included among those created equal.
Today Black clergy like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan and Bishop T.D. Jakes continue that historic, traditional role, now taking on the new mantle of economic self-reliance for our disadvantaged communities.
These Black leaders are regularly sought out by the most powerful representatives in the US and abroad. For example, when T.D. Jakes officially opened his Potters' Field Church, there was standing room only even for the likes of George Bush, Al Gore, Senators, bank presidents, and United Nations representatives. He was unequivocal in pointing out that the role of the Black church is to address issues both of life after death and of life before birth. These clergy go about doing good: opposing racism, opening credit-unions, and funding universities in defense of their people.
Of them all, the African-American church is best positioned, in my opinion, to play this leadership role in creating rituals, and re-creating myths that ensure our survival as a people, and advance our offspring.
What is such a myth? In this sense, it is neither truth nor untruth. It is more substantive in its reality as perception than in its reality as fact. It is, nonetheless powerful, and a chronic belief which, unfounded or otherwise, primarily determines the self-perception that a people share. This self-perception can either sustain, or undermine them; and if it does not change over time, what once sustained could later undermine.
Every group has these myths. Some they create, some others create about them. For example, East Indians in the Caribbean have myths which, coined in regards to how they depict Black people, serve to unify and sustain Indo-Caribbean interests. It does not matter whether or not these myths are factual or counterfactual; are legal or illegal tender. What matters is that by their existence, these myths serve, either to unify and defend, or undermine and hobble a people.
Jews, a people who like Africans suffered historic injustices also have their own particular, defining myths. However, while it is one thing to consider yourself a people chosen and oppressed, therefrom; it is quite another to consider yourself picked on and despised, thereby. Also, while Jews and other oppressed peoples like the First Nations, Irish Catholics, Palestinians . Armenians and others speak unflinchingly and unequivocally about their experiences, Black people are to speak apologetically, making use of ambiguities and conditionals when describing our experiences as a people: the worst inhumanity inflicted on others by others.
Meanwhile, as we, African-Canadians await the emancipating leadership role of African-American churches and clergy, what can we do? For those who might react negatively to this suggestion, they should recall the roles played by African-Americans in creating Black History Month, Kwanzaa, etc. It is possible, from their particular historic experiences under slavery as compared with those of us from places like the Caribbean, that they have absolutely no illusions about the destructive character and murderous possibilities of white supremacist beliefs.
Nothing so focuses one's attention as does a noose.
Again, we in less racist Canada could, for example, declare one day or evening in each month as a time taken out by Black families for Black families. Don't shop. Stay home. Deny entrance to all the outside influences and appliances: the telephone, T.V., etc. Use the time to reflect with our children on ourselves as a people: on the circumstances that confront us and on our indomitable, unequivocal humanity.
Most of all, this time should be used to honour one's spouse, and to bless our children; reminding them that we, if necessary and without hesitation or regret, will lay down our very lives for them. They must be allowed to speak, too; and we to listen, respectfully. It is cause for alarm, the number of our youth unable to speak with their parents, especially with their fathers. We chide them when they do wrong, but praise them not when they do right.
Can a people without their own myths and rituals communicate coherently with their ancestry, their presence and their young?
The young must be taught, not only of the rights they must assert, but also about the responsibilities they must equally embrace. We must encourage nothing short of excellence from them; but we must, ourselves, lead by consistent example.
Myths we already have aplenty: the first of which is our creation of humanity, itself. The historic objectives should be clear: to remember is to resist; to recall is to nurture. Among the procedures of such an evening is the reading of books. Library shelves of books must replace those of video-tapes.
Families who live in a communities nearby could pre-arrange meetings at different homes, to discuss how to take economic control of their lives and areas. Such monthly meetings; twelve in a year, and possibly the last Thursday or Friday to commemorate emancipation, is to begin fulfilling the historic hopes had by our foreparents for us, their offspring, and for our children; their offspring, too.