The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Sharp Stick In the "I"

Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought 'I am'. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally, without any interference on your part.-- Nisargadatta Maharaj
I wanted to thank everyone who wrote kind thoughts and comments on my (sometimes painful) musings about myself, my career, etc.  It is a difficult subject, because, after all, I have achieved a lot of success…so it is reasonable to ask what in the world I’m complaining about.

It is also, I think, natural and reasonable for some of you to have pointed out the need to develop the black audience, especially black males (not much of one right now).  That is the route that my current publisher (Random House) is trying to follow, and they’re having some trouble figuring it out…but I sure wish them luck.

My basic points, before I try to move on, are these:
1)     Race alone cuts sales.  I think this is due to the same phenomenon that makes black male sexuality so dicey in movies.  I remember asking comic book editors why there were so few black characters in comics.  They said, in no uncertain terms, that when they put black people on the covers, IN GENERAL, the comic’s sales tanked. Same artists, editors, writers, distribution channels.  Hold steady for everything else, put a black face on the cover, and there was a predictable dip in sales.  This is the phenomenon I’m talking about—purely and simply, the SF community isn’t half as “progressive” as it thinks it is.
2)     If Heinlein had been black, he wouldn’t have been as popular.  Let’s say he was writing the exact same quality work, only with black characters.  First, mega-editor John W. Campbell was known (and I’ve had this verified by two living writers) to have very strong, negative racial attitudes, and simply wouldn’t have published it as often.  Second, the readership wouldn’t have been as thrilled.
What if he’d written white characters?  HE WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN AS GOOD.  Multiple reasons for this.  First, if he was black, he couldn’t possibly have known white culture as well as a white man of his intelligence and experience.  How do you know how families are, behind closed doors?  Experiences in churches, military academies and scientific communities if those institutions are even partially segregated?  The cultural patterns of a community are absorbed from childhood.  Researching them is quite useful, but nothing like living them all your life.   
The second reason he wouldn’t have been as good has to do with the nature of art.  Let’s say Campbell said: “we’ll publish these stories if you change the race.  Our readers don’t want to read about Negroes.”  That’s a believable comment.  What happens psychologically to poor young Heinlein? 

He started out wanting to share his dreams, his vision, and of course to make some money.  He has been treated like a second-class citizen all his life (and the stories he heard from his father would be horrifying to him!) but figured that his intellectual gifts and creativity would force the world to be color-blind.  That little boy inside him is tap-dancing, saying “they’ll love you!”  And then this. No, they won’t love you.  No, they are offended by the sight of you.  But if you’ll shut your heart away, we’ll be happy to let you entertain us, enlighten us, educate our children even as your own get nada.  No, we won’t publish pictures that look like you on the books or magazines, or allow you to create black characters with humanity.  But you may create white heroes all you wish.  Deep inside, our readers would turn away from you with contempt…but you, young Heinlein, are the Exceptional Negro…far better than your brothers, and we’ll be happy to make you an honorary white man…as long as you stay in your place.

That is a soul-killing road.  Quite hard to keep your emotional balance.  It gets worse.  Once he has been forced to admit that the very people he wants to write for don’t really want to know who he is, he will look differently at the very books he reads.  Unless he is VERY careful, books featuring white heroes will start to irritate him…unless he literally disassociates himself from his own race.  He would find himself floating in a community that only wants him if he shuts up about some of the issues closest to his heart.  If he stays ABOVE the issue of race, he can succeed.  But clearly, the majority of his readers, fellow writers, and editors cannot do this.  To ask him to have this ability in addition to his writing and researching skills is asking quite a bit.

Am I talking about myself?  Not quite.  I certainly don’t think I could have written Mr. Heinlein’s books.  Could he have written mine?  Don’t know, and that’s irrelevant.  I’ve known black writers who were forced into writing white characters to survive, and it’s not a happy sight.  The simple creative joy the creative children within them once felt just gets burned out. 
So…what is my strategy?  “I” don’t have one.  My reactive, intellectual mind can’t find a way out of this box.  I’ve struggled for years.  There are ways in which I’ve solved it as well as any human being I know of…and it still ain’t solved.

So I have to use my intelligence against itself (in a manner of speaking) and admit that I CAN’T DO IT.

What then?  Well, the answer is deceptively simple.  Fiendishly simple.  “I” can’t do it because the “I” isn’t real.  It is an ego and social construct, and can never survive contact with actual existence.  And the racial problem in America, growing out of history and a very, very real problem of human perception, as well as heirarchicalism, ego, guilt and fear, CANNOT BE SOLVED ON THE LEVEL OF “THIS” AND “THAT.”

How can it be solved?  By love.  By time.  By the cycle of birth and death.  I’m just a man who was once a boy who looked out at the world and saw no place for him in it.  I struggled to define myself, and found no role models for most of what he wanted to be.  Made some REAL mistakes by accepting the wrong definitions for love, manhood, some other issues.  I put the death of my first marriage squarely on those mistakes, and I regret them with my whole heart.

But along the way I put my foot on an authentic path of self discovery.  I can’t always hold onto my insights.  I can’t always keep my balance.  It’s hard to keep your balance when you can’t see the walls or ceiling or the floor beneath you.  But something within me, something deep and sacred chose this path for me.  It said: “This is what you will do with your life” and I said “yes.”

And there it is.  I also realized that the Hero’s Journey says that one cannot rise from one level to the next without passing through the Dark Night of the Soul.  Steve Perry nailed that one, folks—(for a redneck, he’s pretty damned smart). Midlife crisis?  Maybe.  Existential crisis?  To be sure.

My ego is dying, guys.  An entire way I defined myself is screaming, shaking, begging, struggling.  The path I set my feet on a lifetime ago is demanding that I continue Becoming, revealing, moving onward.  It hurts terribly at times, and is unspeakably lonely…

But what is the way through the Dark Night?  Faith.  Faith in myself.  Faith in my companions.  Faith in the divine power that created and sustains me.

I know not what the path ahead might be.  I only know that between birth and death we have a chance to sing our song.  If that song is sung in the forest, and there is no one to hear, did it make a sound?  You bet your ass it did.  And I’ve been blessed to reach millions of people…actually a billion, if you count my “Baywatch” episodes.

What do I do?  The answer is found in my daily practice.  You, all of you, are part of it.  I wake up in the morning, and vomit this up, warts and all, declaring to the world that I want, I accept, what is next.  That I love the life I have been given, even if at times I recoil from the demands.  Notice how much I’m using the “I”?  Wow, what a conundrum. The answer lies in extinguishing it, and it clings to life like a…well, like a demon.

“Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought 'I am'. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally, without any interference on your part.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how legitimate my arguments are.  How accurate my perceptions about race and culture, how much in denial I think America, human beings, or the SF community is.  What matters is that, once you’ve seen the light, you cannot turn away without damning yourself.  All of my painful thoughts might be valid, but none of them are the light.  None of them can get me out of this box.

Is it heads?  Is it tails?  The answer is found in stepping back and seeing that it is a damned quarter. 

The problems I see are real. And the solution is not found on the level of ordinary thought.  It takes a willingness to connect with both the animal survival urges, the sensual passion, the physical vitality, the emotional honesty, the intellectual clarity and, most importantly of all…the spiritual commitment.

Am I willing to die for this?  Am I?  Because if I’m not, why the hell did I, do I, spend my life doing this.  Either it is important enough to give my all…and that includes my ego as well as my life itself…or I have squandered my gifts and time.

Lord, I try so hard to stay centered, and balanced.  And every day is a test. But that’s true for all of us.  All the time.  All our lives.  I have my cross to bear—and so do every one of you.  I’ve never wanted you, or anyone else to bear mine.

I’m strong enough to bear my own cross. 

But wow, that Dark Night of the soul is a real mind-twister, isn’t it?

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