Well, I got whacked again yesterday. For the last couple of weeks, I’d been hearing about a new show on F/X called “Thief ,” which was getting terrific reviews. Starring Andre Braugher, it tells of a group of…wait for it…thieves, as they head toward a Really Big Job. O.K., so I decide to Tivo and watch it. Coming attractions showed him kissing a woman.
Hmmm. His stepdaughter was shown as white. Hmmm. A reviewer commented that “as on 24, characters can die unexpectedly…”
I’m driving along with Tananarive on Sunday, when I turned to her and said: “They’re going to kill Andre Braugher’s wife. I give her three episodes.”
“God,” she said. “How can you be so cynical?”
Well, I watched the first episode, and his white wife had a fatal traffic accident. I immediately turned the show off. I’ll never be able to watch it again. Instead, I turned to The Unit, and watched Dennis Haysbert’s intelligent, courageous, ethical, lovely, obese wife rally the home troops, while the fit, slinky white wives bowed before her wisdom. Sexless spiritual guide anyone? Ah well, you take what you can get.
I’m convinced that the core of this black male sexuality thing is the fear that, if black men are sexual, they will eventually be sexual with white women. Well, that’s natural: white men certainly have always enjoyed black women. The reason I think this is the secret obsession beneath the exclusion is that, whenever I discuss this issue, even if I’m just talking about black male sexuality in film, , someone in the audience (and I mean WHENEVER I discuss it) will invariably mention some movie or television show where a black man was sexual with a white woman. “See,” he or she says (and the speaker can be white or black, by the way) “it happens…”
Then I point out to them that I never, ever said that I wanted to see interracial relationships (although that’s just fine.) What I was saying is that you can’t see black men in ANY kind of sexual relationships without hurting the box office. The American mind just naturally seems to leap to interracial.
Saw “Capote” over the last couple of days, and it’s terrific. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the tortured literary genius is wholly remarkable. At its core, “Capote” is a tale of what happens when you sell your soul for worldly goods.
It is the story of the killers in Capote’s landmark “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood.” Over the course of years, he befriends, seduces, cajoles, bribes and blackmails them into telling their story. But, as the guy says, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares also into you. He was never able to finish another novel, and died of alcoholism. The movie is simply sensational.
And yet…that cobra in the back of my head rears up and hisses. The second most important character in the film is the novelist Nell “Harper Lee,” the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I’d always heard this was a fantastic novel. I’ll never read it. Saw the movie when I was a kid, had been told it was a wonderful piece dealing with race relations in the South. Yeah, wonderful if you’re white. I remember watching it, and thinking for the first time, that for white people to feel ennobled, they have to watch a black man die and feel all weepy about it.
So the one black male character I could identify with dies. Gregory Peck is ennobled. Huzzah, huzzah.
Anyway, “Capote” is a sea of white faces. There is one black man with a line of dialogue. A Pullman Porter comes into the compartment Capote shares with Lee, and compliments him lavishly on his new book. Lee immediately knows that he has been paid to say this. I suppose the filmmakers MEANT that the praise was just too extremely lavish. That’s one perspective. The other is that a black man would read at all. The truth is probably somewhere between the two. I am perfectly aware that I am sometimes too sensitive on these issues, but an abused child will flinch at even a loving touch.
Better to be safe than sorry.
Anyway, “Capote” gets an “A,” especially if you’re a writer.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Posted by Steven Barnes at 7:37 AM
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Lost, or rather invested, an entire day yesterday getting some papers signed. No, it shouldn’t have taken the whole day, but we needed to be in Beverly Hills at 12:30, which meant driving through the rain for an hour and fifteen minutes to Blair Underwood’s lawyer’s office, and then having lunch with Blair (always a pleasure. It is hysterical watching waitresses fall all over themselves trying to catch his eye! And he is SO blasé about it…and genteel. What a terrific guy.)
At any rate, by the time we drove back to Covina, it was almost four o’clock. Jason gets home from child care at 6. You do the math.
Why was it necessary to do this? Because the contract was damned near a year overdue. Yes, my friends, you read that right A YEAR. It is the contract for a three-way collaboration between me, Tananarive, and Blair, a detective novel we’re hoping to spin into a film series. Due to the complexity of a three-way collab with three different agents and two sets of lawyers, a bi-coastal monstrosity linking te publishing and movie industries, this thing took so long to work out that we are breathing fumes financially. Wow! If it wasn’t for that Fox Searchlight project…
Oh, wait, THAT was only signed this week as well! After ten months of negotiation. Oh my dear God.
The stress over the last year has been absolutely fantastic. And you know something? I knew, in my heart, it would be like this. Hollywood money is fantastic…when you cash the checks. Waiting for them can be like having a slow-motion root canal, without Novocain.
A little while ago, I saw an old friend. She has gained quite a bit of weight, and during conversation, she implied that it was due to business. Her days are just so full. I prodded a bit, asking if it was really true that EVERYTHING she did, every day, was really more important than her health. Her face changed. She tried to dodge me a bit, and then began crying. “Please stop attacking me, Steve,” she said.
I wasn’t trying to attack her. I was, however, attacking her position. She is a fine artist. She teaches, and creates, and has real skills. She would like to take those skills to the next level. I want her to do so.
Her chances are not good.
Why? And what in the hell do this two stories have to do with each other? And with the newly minted theme of this blog: Self Directed Personal Evolution. And what does three weeks of discussing race have to do with it? And what about sex?
We have energies: physical, mental, spiritual. In order to rise to our highest levels, those energies must be both increased, purified, and channeled. There is limited time in the day, and limited resource in our lives to accomplish what we want.
Fear blocks the energy. Sex can be a tremendous distraction—or one of the healthiest, most motivating and reinforcing powers in the world. And our bodies trap our emotions, store our pain and fear. Our bodies represent death, and decay. If we numb ourselves to what is happening in our bodies (especially after the age of thirty-five) we can delude ourselves into thinking we have infinite time to accomplish the things that move us forward in life, that will allow us to make the contributions that lift up our children and our communities, help us see the face of God in the mirror, and in the visage of strangers.
We need these first three chakras. We need them aligned. We need them clean of guilt, blame, and shame. We need to face our fears—or at the very least not be surrounded and trapped by them.
For MONTHS now, I’ve dealt, daily with the fear that the book and film projects I’ve invested so much time in would not come through. That there was literally nothing I could do to move them forward. Helpless, there is no way to push these guys. And when you’re talking serious six figures, you want to nurture the situation, not make them mad. That stress—money tied to art tied to family tied to self-image, brings up every ghost and demon in your psyche. Race is a big one for me. Being one of a very very tiny tribe of non-whites working in this industry, it is hard to ignore the voice in the back of my head that says I cannot, will not, should never have tried. That says no one cares, I don’t have the skills, I am despised and pitied for my lack of whiteness. The voices rave at me. I’m too old, not educated enough, insufficiently talented, haven’t the allies. On. And on. Every day. Every day. Every god-damned day.
Every day of my life, I wake up, and have to remind myself who I am, who I am committed to being. And then, having brought the white light into my body, having stirred the pot and brought up the sediment of fear and emotional debris, I have to move.
I have to MOVE. All of that negative emotion collects in your body, which becomes a “black bag” of unprocessed psychic garbage if you aren’t careful. You have to stir it up to give your mind a chance to process it. And “fitness” alone don’t cut it. I have to start from the most basic component:
1) Emotional health. Represented by morning meditation. Raise the energy, and then direct it with
2) Goals. Visualize where I want to be at the end of the year, and then see the intervening steps. Can I see it? Feel it? Taste it?
3) Break up the protective cocoon woven by sleep. Your body is stiff in the morning. Working the joints gently. Tai Chi or yoga or Warrior Wellness or a carefully thought-out stretching program.
4) Raise the energy. Aerobic work. Raising the pulse, teaching the body to burn fat for fuel. Focus the mind as the fatigue toxins build.
5) Strengthen the body. As the energy rises, if the body is not strong you will “blow out” weakened systems. Progressive resistance exercise: weights, body-weight exercises (like Hindu Squats and Pushups), kettlebells or the fantastic Club-Bells.
6) Peak the energy. Push yourself, once you’ve learned what you are capable of.
7) Channel the energy. Us a “perfect template”—a skill you are working to acquire. Dance, martial arts, whatever. Some activity that calls for perfect form.
8) Unkink the body. Begin to calm it down. Slow down. Stretch and relax and unwind.
9) Calm the body. At least a minute of rest at the end. Feel what is happening inside you.
Without some such program, your body simply marches toward deterioration, taking your energy and promise with it. This need not take a huge amount of time—but you have to be SMART in the way you work the sequence.
There are numerous disciplines that have structured much of this into their process. Tai Chi is good. Yoga is better—arguably the most evolved discipline available to the general public. Martial arts. A dance class taught by a teacher over 40.
SOME fitness classes. But remember that fitness and health are two different things. They overlap, but are NOT identical. Health is far more important.
Coach Sonnon’s “FlowFit” exercise routine (formerly known as “Eclipse”) is absolute dynamite, and provides values beyond the current discussion.
I never would have survived the last year with my head high and a smile on my face, if I hadn’t had my meditations, and my physical discipline. Tananarive and I work out together, do yoga together…and other, even more intense things together that are none of your business. It’s made the difference.
In the last week I finished my new screenplay, submitted the outline for the new Dream Park book, signed two vital contracts, and am flying to New York to speak at Medgar Evers University. I’m preparing for the Path workshop with Scott in April, and adjusting my weight down to 175 pounds.
The stress is fantastic. I can see the effects in my body: my energy, my fluidity of motion, my weight, my need for sleep, my addiction to carbohydrates—long before those effects can be seen in the quality of my work or the integrity of my marriage. Your body is the canary in the coal mine. It will show the signs of stress before they metastasize elsewhere. Care for it like a toy, a tool, and a pet…and it will reward you beyond belief. Ignore it…and your demons have discovered a place where they can store the poison with which they kill your dreams.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:17 AM
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Sex and Consciousness
Back in the late 80’s, I was researching a book that came to be titled “Iron Shadows,” and dealt with a sex cult. To research it, I began to associate with a controversial gentleman named Harley Reagan, and his group, the Deertribe. There are differing opinions on Harley and the origin of his sexual teachings, but here’s what I can say: they are quite powerful indeed. They seem to be a combination of several different traditions, filtered through a rather brilliant and unusual mind. The question of authenticity I will leave to others.
Along the way, I had some extraordinarily intense experiences, some of which I will be commenting on over the next year. The reality is that there is a reason why sexuality is the second Chakra, why it is so important and vital a human motivating force, why it causes so many of us so many problems.
Those cultures that have spoken of sexuality without sniggering seem to have said something close to the following: the intensity of an orgasm is in direct proportion to the amount of your ego you release at the moment of completion. In other words, orgasm is an intensification of the exact same “Flow” state we seek in writing, sports, art, dance…wherever total immersion in the experience is desirable.
SEEK ENERGY. Just as resolving fear frees up the energy bound in irrational self-protection (just get in touch with your animal self—it will protect you just fine, thanks, freeing your higher mind for creative, intellectual, and spiritual pursuits), human sexuality has much to teach us. If it were not an incredibly powerful source of energy, why would there be so many rules and laws and guilts and prohibitions surrounding it? As we search for energy, cleaning out the storehouse of negative experiences and untangling the snarl of our emotions, sex gives us a perfect opportunity to check the basic operating system of our psychology, physiology, and socialization.
I suspect that there is no other single activity that says as much about us. Nothing that simultaneously engages every sense, and every human attribute. Intelligence? Absolutely! Creativity, sensitivity, anatomical knowledge, focus…all go into being a good lover.
Emotional health? Yes! Spontaneity, ability to accept pleasure, empathy for the partner (the ability to give your partner joy can be greatly increased by simply considering your partner to be an extension of your own body. Whatever you do for them, in essence, you are doing to and for yourself.) The ability to trust. The ability to judge appropriate partners.
And on, and on. Honesty. Passion…ah, there’s a good one. I think that the single most attractive thing about human beings is their level of passion. When focused, it creates excellence. When focused and in alignment with both personal and social values, it produces success. When focused on physicality, it produces the secondary sexual characteristics that we find attractive (it takes DISCIPLINE to maintain a sexy body past thirty! This is why a woman with a dynamite body at 40 is FAR sexier to me than a girl of 18 with the same body. At eighteen, that body is a gift from God, and says nothing about her. At 40, it tells me, from across the room, volumes about her discipline, values, energy, and self-respect)
And sex has been one of my greatest teachers—in both a positive and negative sense. We’ll go into that. But I wanted to start with the initial rule I set down for myself pretty early into my relationship history: I decided to treat women the way I would want someone to treat my sister, my mother, or my daughter. To never engage with them sexually unless I genuinely liked them. Could honestly say that, if she were a guy, I’d want to hang out with her. That if she were in an emergency and called me at three o’clock in the morning a year later, I’d take the call.
Unless I genuinely cared, what right did I have to engage with her on such an intimate level? There is a damned good reason men and women have different approaches to sex. Women get pregnant, men don’t. Wired into the hindbrain is the possibility of creating life, of investing gigantic emotional and financial resources in bringing a child into the world, caring and nurturing that child. And for that reason, I no longer believe in “casual” sex. Oh, yeah, we play that game—and I played it more than most.
But at the core, I think all human beings—women even more than men—are actually asking “are you the one?” every time they get into bed with someone. Yeah, it’s all giggles and free love on the surface, but underneath, it’s “will you give the final damn about me? Will you at least be my friend? Genuinely care? Actually SEE who I am?”
We walk through the world so terribly alone. Sex is one of the few times when we drop some of the mask. But we got so badly guilt tripped as kids, and many of us (I know I did) as a result went in the other direction, and said that sex could be treated like a party favor.
In Sufism, there is something (I believe is) called a “Muta” contract: basically an agreement between two people to get married for the evening. No casual sex here. It is a call to care, to embrace the divinity in the human being you hold. To cherish them, and actually care about them. Even if just for a night.
If you cannot do that, why are you there?
As we move through the human energy systems, looking for ways to raise that force, to free it to evolve our spirits, let’s look at this. What exactly is this force? It is beyond fear, or sex, or power, or love and hate, or knowledge. It is beyond labels, and yet labels can be useful, as long as we don’t cling to them.
For me, the power of sex lies in burning away the illusions that separate one human being from another. For me, this is a male-female thing. But what my gay friends have told me says that this experience is universal and pangender. One of my favorite ways to freak a guy out is to ask him: “So…if you were sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, what kind of guy would you shack up with?”
It’s fun watching them try to lie.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:42 AM
Monday, March 27, 2006
"When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world
and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as
if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and
others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some
strength of soul--and not just individual strength, but collective
understanding--to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are
thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard."
This is what happened to me as a child. My teachers in elementary school—some of whom were black--described a world that excluded me. I was placed in the slow reading group, based on my skin color alone. My mother and father were divorced, and without a man in the home, I had no mirror to see myself—and saw none in the culture as a whole.
Desperately searching for some role model of masculinity I sought out The Saint, James Bond, Conan, Mike Hammer…you know the spectrum. And everywhere I looked, I found images of wonderful white men, and servile, stupid, weak black men.
My mind spun. My sense of self withered. In black culture, I simply did not register. The girls were interested in larger, stronger, more athletic or aggressive guys. I was a “Poindexter”, a weakling, a nerd before the term gained currency.
And a creature alone is in terrible danger. I remember living so much of my early life just wishing for a place to belong, and feeling as if the world was telling me there was no place for me, anywhere. I went to church, and except for a few services at the Science of Mind, never felt the touch of God. Alone.
That was the beginning of my search. Fear, and loneliness were the motivator.
I remember a kid named Rudy who was a thug. Pulled a pair of brass knuckles on me in elementary school, to take my lunch money. In Junior High School he got it through his head that I had narked on him, and followed me home, accompanied by a cluster of brothers and friends, beating me up all the way.
I felt myself dying inside. All of the abuse, all of the daily reminders that I was undesired, alone, strange, weak…something collapsed within me. I knew that if I didn’t do something, and right then, that I would lose some essential part of my being. Something I could not afford to lose. Something I would rather die than lose.
But I could not beat him. And even if I did, his friends would finish the job. But I couldn’t let the humiliation continue.
So something snapped in my head. I put my books down, and walked out into the middle of Washington Boulevard, standing on the double yellow line with trucks and cars whizzing past me on both sides. I looked at him, and in the coldest voice I had ever heard, said: “come out here and do that.”
I was going to push him in front of a truck. I was going to kill him, or die in the attempt. He looked in my eyes and all the bullshit went away. He KNEW that he was looking at serious injury, or death. Playtime was over. He blinked first. Turned to his friends, and said, “aw man, this nigger’s crazy.” And they walked away. And never bothered me again.
I began my search that day. I believed that there was an answer. That there was a way for me to find peace. Joy. Tribe. That I was not the ugly, twisted thing that I had been told I was. I had spun into the abyss, and realized that there was nothing there but death, and was happy to find it. Death was better than losing my soul.
I feel so sad for that boy. What was he, twelve? To learn a lesson that grim, at such an early age. So alone. To feel no protection, no welcome, from anything, anywhere. To be driven within himself, searching for decades to find some truth, some rock on which to stand.
And yet, ultimately, fear pointed the way. Death pointed the way. There are limited options in a Newtonian universe. There is fear, and there is love. There is death, and there is life. There are lies, and there is truth.
I feel sorry for that boy. But that boy does not feel sorry for me. He is proud of what I’ve made of myself. He knows that I’ve failed at so very many things, but is proud that I’ve picked myself up and kept going. And he knows I love him, more than life itself.
He is my integrity. My soul. He was there before I was born, and will be there when my flesh has turned to dust. I decided that day I would die to protect him.
And the only moments of failure, of cowardice, of dishonesty I have experience in my life are when I have forgotten his face. When I have left him, standing in the street, trucks passing to either side with tears streaming down his face.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:42 AM
Friday, March 24, 2006
This new Spike Lee Joint is a corker. The tale of a tense bank robbery stand off, a war of wits between Clive Owen (robber) and Denzel Washington (cop) simply smokes from first frame to last. The script, (by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) never really takes a misstep. The only real complaint I can see is that, with this much star-power (the supporting cast includes Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe, all terrific) one might expect more…hmmm, shall we say “meaning”?
But it’s there, because Spike can’t help it, although he is less polemical here than in almost anything else he’s ever done. His direction is clean, smart, efficient, sexy—whatever it needs to be, whenever he needs it.
And the script is clever. Too damned clever for a first timer (darn that Gewirtz!). What you have here is a programmer, a studio entertainment that engages on every level, where every line works, and all performances are, at the very worst, just fine, thank you. Is it a classic? Probably not, unless you take a look at its commentary on ethnicity in America in the 21st Century…in which case there is really quite a bit going on beneath the surface. The heck with it: don’t expect too much, and just have a terrific time at the movies.
Saying anything else would spoil the fun. This one gets an “A.”
Posted by Steven Barnes at 4:27 PM
Q: What do they call “Star Trek” in Japan?
A: “Sulu, Master Navigator”
Remember this: everyone wants to believe that they are the center of the universe, that they are right and the rest of the universe revolves around them. I remember a brilliant cartoon by political satirist Jules Feiffer. In it, a black man and a white man sit on opposite sides of the table. The black man says: “You have your history. White history. Written by white men, to promote white power. We want our history. Black history. Written by black men to promote black power. Our demand is separate but equal lies.”
Remember this, and look in the mirror, before you point the finger
The question is, how do you understand all those weird mental mechanisms that keep you from seeing the flaws in your own ideas, and bypass them?”
And here, we come back to my original point. We are, in some views, on that evolutionary trip from Ape to Angel. If we engage our basic instincts without being limited by them, we can transform ourselves. Body, Career, Relationship. Take responsibility for each, and be strong, and honest, and work to find center. It is hard work. Pray, and meditate, and journal, and dream diary. Go deeper. Always, relate it to your success in simultaneously balancing the Trinity of Body, Career/education, Relationship. If you don’t have all three, there is no cause for guilt, blame, or shame—but consider that you MAY have lost your way. The outside world encourages us to hold others responsible for our lives, to seek instant gratification, to value sexual heat above love. We must cleave to our own values. In order, you must: care for your body, and physical survival. Find the source of your physical passions, and find ethical ways of satisfying and channeling them. Connect with your need for power, and be certain you first claim power over self. Love yourself, and love others. Discipline yourself healthfully, and do not give others permission to hurt themselves…or you.
Consciousness does NOT make you a victim. Personally, I only turn the other cheek when I’m setting up a back-kick.
“Do you see any value in `becoming the eye that does not seek to see itself, the sword that does not seek to cut itself, the un-self-contemplating mind’?
Yes. To me, however, one does not become the I AM, one awakens to the reality that this is always what you have been. Seeking and not-seeking are both separations from this reality. But you know what? This is what we have, as long as we’re working in the Newtonian psychological framework. It is using mind to reach beyond mind.
One can be trapped in the philosophical hall of mirrors here, if you take it all too seriously. Remember “Not That, Not That.” And then laugh. “That” is what we got, folks. Until we have “Not-that.” Until we have “not “that” and “not-not that”…
And so it goes. There is a limitation to the usefulness of language. Do the work, and you’ll get the joke.
Not black. Not white. Not straight. Not gay. Not male. Not female. Not American. Not Iraqi. Not Liberal. Not Conservative.
When you peel it all away, there is nothing left. And nothing is everything.
Afraid? Make no mistake: this sets you free, and there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a genuinely free human being.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:17 AM
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Many of you wrote me, noticing that the link for the Lifewriting Year-Long program was broken: our former shipping agent unfortunately went out of business. It's taken a while to switch over to a new company, but it's DONE, and I'm happy to say that the program is ready to ship again. Thanks for your patience!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:46 AM
Was a bearcat. It just sort of surprised me, rising up out of my meditations without any conscious urging. It came, I think, from the same place that my best fiction comes from, and speaks to the pain that I’ve carried my whole life, walking between racial worlds, hearing the fear on both sides, and never quite belonging.
But race is just a visual identifier—there are so many other worlds. To belong neither to the left or the right. To fall into neither the male chauvenist or female supremist categories. To love America without worshipping her. To commit to my writing while feeling a basic futility with the limitations of language. To love the martial arts and be plagued by fear responses that kept me from entering into them as fully as I hoped…
And you know what? I suspect that, under it all, we’re all pretty much like that. And that we embrace an ideology because we fear to be alone.
I am flat SURE that Democratic feminists would have criticized Bill Clinton more publicly if he hadn’t been the Democratic candidate. I am also SURE that, if Bush were Clinton, the Right-wing pundits would absolutely skin him publicly for the performance of his administration. People lie, they hide in categories, because they are afraid.
Ultimately, I think fear is the base of much of this. Why, women wonder, have women contributed so little to literature, art, and science? Truth be told, anyone who has ever been responsible for raising a child knows the gigantic expenditure of energy and time that entails—that plus the “Old boy’s Network” and gender prejudice explains a huge amount. But every time they watch male scientists theorizing that it is primarily due to differences in brain construction, they have to go just a little bit crazy…
And men told that they are responsible for all the wars, as if they WANT to march off and get their bollocks blown away, as if women don’t reward aggressive males with sex, as if wars don’t relate to the perception of life as a zero-sum game, with breeding room and resources high on the list of motivations…
The black-white thing has been talked about at great length on this blog. I won’t touch it today.
How do we move beyond? What are our obligations to each other? How do you deal with the fact that, if you use the definitions of any group, other groups will seem inferior in comparison? (“Why won’t men commit?” women say, as if commitment, per se, is a good thing. “Why are women so damned clingy and emotional?” men say, as if independence and internalized emotion is, per se, a good thing either.)
We tried to define “Liberal” and “Conservative” a few days ago, and got very few responses—including, curiously, no response from our most outspoken Conservative reader…I’m not sure why that was, and maybe it means nothing.
But I think that we must be on-guard against the automatic urge to think that, because we think it, it must be right. To believe that what we see is all there is.
And yet, we must be able to act, and not paralyzed by endless consideration.
I think we can do this by trusting our instincts, but also being aware that on the most basic level, they speak to the animal within us…and in the right context, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Marching up the Chakras, that primal energy relates to personal survival, species survival (sex) and tribe. These three together make up the “Belly Brain”, the beast, the tribal awareness from which arises great pleasure, power, and pain. It is by connecting with the heartspace that we begin to rise above this. When we learn to express our truth, we create a fabric of conversation through the society, and as long as that communication is honest and polite, we cannot help but evolve as a society, just as honest engagement with our own demons helps us to evolve as human beings.
And spirit? You know something? You don’t have to aim at spirit deliberately. If you are grounded, the energy itself will spontaneously rise to spirit. Now, this is different from “religion” and especially from religious institutions. Institutions are no more spiritual than rocks. The people WITHIN them can be, however. I’ve met genuinely spiritual people of all faiths…and also fakers. One must be careful: the Ku Klux Klan worship the cross. Symbols are plastic flowers, with beauty but no perfume.
What shall we be? Flawed human beings, groping toward the light. We must start with honesty, willingness to examine our own flaws—and commitment to move beyond them. Every day I work with my writing. Yesterday I sent off a script of my book “Blood Brothers.” Today I’ll work on other things, and get ready for the Path Workshop in Portland next month. So much to do, and so little time.
No. That’s a lie. In life, you have exactly enough time to do everything that is actually important. And no time at all to waste.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:02 AM
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
OOPS! There was an error in the time for the Lifewriting workshop at Mystic Sisters this Saturday. The proper information is as follows:
I'm giving a workshop on writing as a spiritual path, this Saturday at the Mystic Sisters bookstore in Monrovia, California. The time will be from 1pm to 5pm. Bring a notebook, and a current piece of writing to workshop (if you have one!) The cost is 50.00. Hope to see you there!
417 So. Myrtle Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Tel: (626) 256-1212
Fax: (626) 287-2297
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:51 AM
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against.
The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.
--Hsin Hsin Ming, The Book Of Nothing
I often hear people say: “I don’t see race” as if this is a positive thing. To me, this is like saying “I don’t see ice on the road.”
What they MEAN, of course, is that they don’t judge people by their skin color. But then, we know that the average person does indeed have a flinch response for the “Other,” and that it operates whether you are aware of it or not.
It is for this reason that we should be mindful, understanding that human consciousness tends toward the hierarchical, and that we believe that whatever group we identify with is “better.” That’s just the way we are.
Am I racist? To the degree that that means: Do I notice race? Then, sure. Do I dislike white people? Not consciously, although I have flinch responses to certain things in media and personal interaction. Let me say it this way:
White folks out there: I know more white people than you know black people. My first wife was white. Over the course of my life, most of my friends, students, teachers, and business associates have been white. I’ve written hundreds of white characters, and read thousands of books with white characters. And I know I still have to be very, very conscious.
Why? Look at that first quote: “no preference”? Damn, we’re wired to have preferences! Do you have any idea how hard it is to escape that? I can Waltz through the world saying “I don’t see race, or gender, or sexual orientation…” but AT BEST that means that I am blind to the prejudice of others. If I don’t notice these things, how can I notice when others are abused because of them?
Why is this all important? Why should white people, who hold more of the cards, voluntarily “wake up” to the stacked deck? Why should black people, who have genuine historical grievances, hold only love in their hearts, and concentrate on the positive future, rather than the past? I ask these questions because, if there is no gain from giving up the “power positions” of self-righteousness (“hell, I never owned a slave! I’m not a bigot! Why are you talking to me?”) or reverse racism (“whites are hypocritical, bigoted, hyper-aggressive cultural liars with delusions of Godhood”) then people won’t give them up. Why should they?
If you’re black, if you try to be “color blind” you will get certain sets of positive results—you will interact with the world as if you have a right to be here, and some of the “flinch response” from whites diminishes. You are exactly the kind of black person they generally want to deal with. But you know? I’ve never met anyone who could genuinely hold that position indefinitely. How many Rodney King videotapes, Paul Winfield sacrifices, Halle Berry interracial sex-fests, UPN coon comedies, Katrina disasters, Colin Powell humiliations, Morgan Freeman’s neutered spiritual guides, Martin Lawrence cross-dressers, Martin Luther King assassinations, “George Jefferson married to an obese black woman while his white neighbor gets the slender gorgeous one” events can you watch before you get the lingering sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong?
And once you have that feeling, let me tell you what the average human being does: they blame the “Other” (white people are evil!) or they blame themselves (“my own people are sub-standard.”) And it is so incredibly easy to fall one way or the other. So hard to take the middle path.
The underlying mythos of the Matrix is simply this: “you are asleep, dreaming that you are awake. The demons of hell feast on your soul as you do, commit evil in your name, rob you of your strength and potential. Wake Up! It is hard, terribly hard and frightening to awaken, but if you do, you will have power beyond your dreams.”
This philosophical position can be found in gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Native American and African Shamanism…everywhere. Because, in my view, this is the simple truth.
If you aren’t aware that your body will fight to remain at your current weight, you will be surprised, and ashamed, when you break “diet” discipline and backslide. If you aren’t aware that your family and social dynamic will fight to keep you who and what they think you are, you will be taken by surprise when you get negative reactions to your change. If you aren’t aware of your natural tendency to prefer “your own group” you’ll be taken aback when someone points out the ways “the other group” is demonized or excluded to your benefit.
Take the blue pill, they whisper. Eat the steak. Forget about the oppression done in your name. Or conversely, blame “the other” for all that is wrong in the world, and fail to understand universal human frailty and fear. And as you point the finger, or slumber in sweet obliviousness, the demons continue to feed.
All that is necessary for the demons to win, is for you to slumber on. So what do you get?
The key to Art is to return to the core creative energy within you, the white light. This requires the ability to move back and forth between exquisite differentiation, and total non-differentiation, at will. Most things are defined in terms of other things: either synonyms or antonyms. “Not that, not that, not that” one must say, every time our conscious mind attempts to use labels, to separate, to block the way to pure experience by offering abstractions and comparisons.
This doesn’t mean not noticing that there are differences between people, or gradations to appropriateness in behavior. It means being aware of the voices in your head, the demons in your heart, as a way of approaching God. To stop viewing the world through a prism, as a way to return to pure light.
There is nothing harder than this awakening. Over the last years and months I have been re-claiming the aspects of myself I was too frightened to access directly.
1) I accepted on faith that blacks were not inferior, although logic told me there was much evidence that they were. Frankly, it wasn’t until I read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that I had a logical view of the world that made total sense of the difference between African and European civilizations.
2) I took it on faith that whites were not evil, although logic told me there was much evidence that they were. It wasn’t until I began to study slavery, and began to understand the psychology necessary to control other human beings…and to understand the outcome of the various “prisoner” experiments where students were divided into “guards” and “inmates” that I began to understand, logically, how human hierarchicalism creates hideous effects.
3) I took it on faith that men were not the cause of evil in the world. Although, raised by women, I had been given much subtle and indirect encouragement to believe they were. It wasn’t until I studied anthropology and sociobiology that I began to see that men and women were two sides of the same creature, and that survival trumped all of the gentler, more spiritual motivations if we were not careful indeed.
So much more, so much more. Not this. Not that. Working my way through all of the muck, searching for the light. And if I hit a new level, more muck. Every time I found the light, I could stay there and slowly go to sleep, or keep digging, and hit the muck again.
What I know is that in my greatest moments of calm, and centeredness, and spiritual clarity, I see God. And when I genuinely feel that presence within me, I can see it in others as well. Even if they hate me. Even if they would harm me. But in that state, there is no “me,” only God, and there is nothing they can do to move me from the light. They can kill my body, but not corrupt my spirit. And frankly, from years of martial arts training, I can tell you in no uncertain words that, in that state, it is a LOT harder for someone to hurt your body, as well.
In that state, I write my best, most successful work. Sex is better. Life is brighter. My energy explodes. But it takes endless vigilance. God, sometimes I want to sleep. To stop and rest. Every single day I wake up and remind myself who I am, to what I am committed. Every damned day.
Not that. Not that. Not that. I want to stop, but cannot. If I do, the demons eat my soul.
And then, they will come for my children.
That will never happen while I have breath. It ain’t that kind of party.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:11 AM
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
I'm giving a workshop on writing as a spiritual path, this Saturday at the Mystic Sisters bookstore in Monrovia, California. The time will be from (approximately) 10 to (approximately) 5. Bring a notebook, and a current piece of writing to workshop (if you have one!) The cost is 50.00. Hope to see you there!
417 So. Myrtle Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Tel: (626) 256-1212
Fax: (626) 287-2297
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:19 AM
As I’ve said, I don’t really get any joy from looking at the racial stuff, but the response on the blog suggests to me that some of the things I’m saying aren’t being said elsewhere. I’ve got to either address this stuff, or ask myself if I am frightened to do so. It suggests a whole different raft of reasons why I spent thirty-five years practicing martial arts, and where a lot of that fear came from…
I’m going to try to address as much of the rest of the muck as I can dredge up out of my mind. This isn’t fun at all, folks…
And before I start, let me reassert: NO, I don't think that white people hate black people. NO, I don't think they are especially evil, venal, ignorant, or whatever. I don't think white people are special in any way. Nor do I think black people are special. I think that people are just people, and some unfortunate historical and psychological quirks created a big problem. And that we don't like looking at problems we caused, or cannot see an answer to. This stuff is painful, and I respect those of you with the courage to look at it. You, and ONLY YOU, are the ones who can rightfully say you are healing this wound. Those who cannot engage on this level are comfortable taking the blue pill. Let them sleep in their pods.
I said that one sign of racist attitudes would be if you thought that, if blacks had been turned white after the civil war, and you came back in 2006 and traced their genetics, you thought they would have Let’s go through the Covenant steps one at a time, and I’ll say what I think the differences would have been, both external (in terms of the way blacks have been historically treated) and internal (the dysfunctions within the community itself)
1) The right to Healthcare and Well-Being. EXTERNAL: Considering the long period of segregation, it is pretty clear that many qualified black candidates for medical school were denied access to education. While the Tuskeegee experiment is certainly somewhat anomalous, it does speak to the problems that occur when group X has power to control the health benefits for group Y. Women report being better served by female doctors…it is only reasonable that blacks would be better served by a higher proportion of black doctors. Stress-related illnesses kill blacks at a higher rate than whites. Much of the environmental stress would have shifted. INTERNAL: some of the stress is purely internalized by now. Blacks really do have more opportunities than many of us think. But a raped woman will flinch in the presence of a man who resembles her rapist, and an abused child can suffer her whole life due to events that took place in her childhood. The ability to emotionally “distance” themselves from the images of slavery would have been healing, and within three generations, many would have intermarried into the population and conveniently “forgotten” they were ever descended from slaves at all. Their eating and exercise and lifestyle patterns would have simply resembled the mainstream, and most of the negative statistics would disappear.
2) Education. Segregation, again. Plus, all of the role models of education and possibility would have been more accessible. Remember the 5-10% disconnect I hypothesize? Very simple example: note the excitement of white fight fans when it looked like the Klitchko brothers were going to be the next big thing? Of COURSE if a black boxer is fighting, black audiences, on the average, will root for him. Jeeze—that isn’t exactly rocket science. But that empathy, that identification, extends further. During my entire 12 years of public education, I received not one full day of discussion of the contribution of black Americans. Not one. White presidents, scientists, politicians, war heroes—all of the role models we hold up for emulation were of the “other group.” It makes it harder to dream. Harder to believe that the things we learn can really take us to the top—and believe me, little male animals would rather “rule in hell than serve in heaven”, folks. Milton sure got THAT right. And when you tell kids to “study hard, and you can grow up to be president!” and that little voice in the back of a black kid’s head says: “yeah, unless you’re a nigger” man, oh, man, can that screw up his ability to believe that diligent study and law-abiding behavior can take him to the top. All of that would have changed, if the skin color had changed. We simply would have disappeared into the mainstream. You want to know how bad it gets for black kids? My mother, who grew up in the South, told me flat out: “If you let white people know how smart you are, they will kill you.” No, I don’t believe that to be true. But can you even IMAGINE the damage that caused me? Can you imagine the fear and pain she would have to have internalized to say something like that to her child?
3) Unequal justice. Need I remind you of the studies that have proven, over and over, that if you are male, poor, or black you serve more time, for the same crimes, than if you are female, rich, or white? This is pretty incontrovertible stuff, and rather obviously the bias of the justice system would have had much less to chew on. There is another aspect of this: we internalize the way we are treated. After hundreds of years of being treated like second-class citizens, that’s what black people often consider themselves to be. Why obey laws that were designed to keep you down? When you see rich white people stealing millions, and serving a few months in jail for it, what the hell do you think that does to respect for the system? And what IDIOT keeps playing poker when the deck is marked, and everyone else at the table knows the code? Again, imagine a forty-year old woman who was raped and abused for her first thirty years. You’d hardly be surprised if she exhibited some self-destructive behaviors, would you?
4) Community –centered policing. Wouldn’t have been nearly as necessary, would it?
5) Good neighborhoods. Segregation again—both legal, and economic. Without those barriers, blacks would have spread through the country, found jobs equal to their capacities, absorbed the same lessons as their white neighbors at the same rates. Unless, of course, you think there are intrinsic things about black genetics that would have prevented this. And I promise you: SOME of the people who will read this blog think PRECISELY that. To those who believe that, given the same history whites would have responded better, I say this: white historians suggest that it took between fifty and eighty years (until WWII!) for the South to fully recover from the Civil War. What? That was an event that took five years, and the damage lasted between ten and fifteen times as long? How long does it take to break a bone? And how long to heal? How long to burn down a forest? And how long to regrow? To rape a child? And how long to heal the psychological trauma? How DARE you even DREAM of thinking that a cultural event that lasted 300-400 years (including Jim Crow and segregation) should have somehow miraculously healed in a few decades. If there is any part of you at all that whispers this to you, dig it out and have the honesty to look at it clearly, in the light of day.
6) Voter’s Rights. Again, the barriers to black people voting would have been meaningless. Poll taxes might still have been imposed, but with lesser economic barriers, and employers, lenders, etc. unable to discriminate on the basis of race, the damage would have been far less. Neither political party would have benefited by catering to “the black vote” however, so to whatever degree you think that would still be a positive thing in my science-fictional world here, that would have been lost. Small price.
7) Rural roots. With a far more permeable social membrane, fewer black genetics would have remained in the South. “Racial memory” would have faded (for better or for worse) and we would have spread through the entire society both geographically, economically, and genetically.
8) Jobs and wealth. To the degree that prejudice slowed the hiring of blacks, this would not have been. To the degree that blacks have internalized some VERY destructive trailer-trash attitudes toward money, this would have lessened as well. One arena that would have still displayed problems: inherited wealth. Remember that slavery is basically an institution that allows the “employer” to have total control of the level of compensation to the “employee.” To, in other words, extract labor from that “employee” at below market value, and then to invest the excess wealth in his own children. The REAL economic gap between black and white is inherited wealth. To steal that labor for 300 years and then invest it in your own community is a fantastic advantage. Turn those slaves loose without compensation, and they are WAY behind the game. Even given white skin, they would have remained behind in 2006—just not so far behind.
9) Environmental justice. Again, greater distribution through society would have solved much of this.
10)Digital divide. The same.
Please don’t point to immigrants, and say “they could catch up, why can’t you?” You display your ignorance when you do that. The set of European or Asian immigrants can only be compared to the set of African immigrants. The set of those descended from slaves can only be compared to…oh, wait, they can’t be compared to anyone, really, can they?
But what of Indentured Servants? Surely, many whites are descended from indentured servants. Surely (I have heard many times) if whites could get over that, why can’t blacks..?
Brrr. All right, for the sake of completion, let’s look at this. Let us take the (fictional) position, for the sake of argument, that the circumstances and psychological repercussions of Indentured Servitude and Chattel Slavery were exactly the same, per unit of time. (I really don’t feel like going into why this is an absurd notion right now. This argument is too easy to deconstruct without such comparisons)
Anyone out there know what the average period of Indentured Servitude was? Anyone? Five to seven years. Anyone know what the average period of chattel slavery was? Anyone? Urrr…lifetime? And was that it? No…your children’s lifetime. And their children’s…and so on.
So looking at the genetic lines, you have 5-7 years of damage compared to, what? Two to three HUNDRED years of damage? And what percentage of white Americans can trace their roots back to Indentured Servants? Anyone? I have no knowledge of any statistics. But for the sake of argument, let’s take the extraordinarily generous figure of 1/10 the white population. (We’ll leave out what might have happened had Indentured Servants, and their descendants, been branded on their foreheads, labeling them forever. And the fact that they could disappear into the general population. And the fact that in most cases they voluntarily agreed to become such servants, in exchange for passage to the New World. And so on.)
And what percentage of black Americans are descended from slaves? About 98% you say?
Multiplying out the damage, assuming that equal damage happens per unit of time, you have a low average of 5 years of Indentured servitude affecting 10% the white population, and 200 years of slavery affecting (let’s say) 90% of the black population. Or, in other words, 360 times the damage. 36000% of the damage. Please look at that, and remember it, before you even START to think such things again. To function at the level of white Americans, considering what we’ve been through, black Americans would have to be Superpeople.
But you know what’s fun? According to almost every metric, we’re catching up anyway.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:12 AM
Monday, March 20, 2006
Meditating this morning, I found a lot more emotional cloud stuff, evidence that I’m digging deeper into calcified, decades-old pain and crud inside me. Not fun. But predictable.
Over the last two weeks talking about The Covenant, I was force to go once again into places inside myself that, given my druthers, I wouldn’t have gone. Anyone who knows me knows that the level of reality I like to play on has to do with pure human existence, and pure creativity. Only in the last ten years of my life have I started looking at race very much. Only after I looked around and realized that, contrary to my hopes, few other black people, and no other black males, were coming into the SF field (Walter Mosley is doing some interesting work there now) and that if I followed my predilection, I was actually yielding to some of our culture’s worst demons.
So I wrote Blood Brothers, and Lion’s Blood, and now Great Sky Woman, trying to find some way to fill in a gap that yawns so wide that most people can’t even really see it’s a gap. Would I have seen the dangerous cultural game the Wachowskis are playing? And could I have done it without going a bit nuts, as they are fabled to be? I’m not sure, I’m really not.
I said last week that “V For Vendetta” in one interesting sense, takes place in the world of the Matrix. Not one reviewer—and at this point I’ve read about thirty reviews—comments on what I’m about to say. The reviews talk about the repression of freedoms. About the criminalization of homosexuality and Islam. But not a single (white) reviewer I’ve read has commented that, among the hundreds of characters and extras seen in the first 2/3 of the movie, every single one was white. Every one, in a film taking place in a country that is 8% minority. I sat in the theater wondering “what is THAT about?” These are the guys who created Zion. This can’t be their personal wet-dream, so what is it?
And then, they gave us a scene set in a concentration camp, where germ warfare is being tested. NOW, for the first time, you see blacks. Used as guinea pigs. And at the very, very end of the movie, after freedom is restored, again you see a few dark faces. Aside from that, the slaughter of the non-whites was complete in this Brave New World.
And not a single white reviewer even noticed.
In “The Matrix” I noticed rapidly that in the computerized world, everyone was white, whereas, even in the first film, the “Real” world was very mixed (Laurence Fishburne, as Morpheus, even survived the movie! What a shock THAT was!). It wasn’t until the second and third films, seeing Zion itself, that it became clear that this was no accident. Zion reflected the real world, in genetic composition. The Matrix was somebody’s fantasy. I wonder whose? Nobody noticed the discrepancy…but they DID notice that Zion was dark, accusing the filmmakers of making it all black. Nonsense. Genetically, there were no more black people than white people. What there WERE, was a lot of mixed people. Who, of course, have been labeled black by American culture, a label that black Americans themselves have accepted: “One drop makes you whole.” Not exactly a complement. It’s the “a little tiny turd spoils a great big punch-bowl” theory of race, people. And blacks, desperate to build a political voting block, faced with the reality that, no matter how light their skin, if there is anyone in their family at all with black blood, they themselves are considered black (you could be sold outright, all the way down to Octaroon) simply went to sleep and accepted the label.
There are no dark-skinned white people. Only light-skinned black people. Tell the truth: have you never wondered about that?
I remember “The Handmaid’s Tale” the chilling Margaret Atwood SF tale, seen as a fable of the repression of women. And women are, definitely, brutally repressed. But people, I would a thousand times rather have been a white woman in that future than a non-white. Blacks (we saw no Asians) were simply carted out and thrown into the radioactive wastelands. Men, women, children. So it wasn’t a tale about the repression of women. It was a tale about the repression of white women. Black women were simply slaughtered. And again, there was virtually no mention of this in any reviews. It wasn’t noticed. It didn’t matter. No one cared.
It has often been commented that the second and third Matrix movies fell apart. There is some truth to this. People have also said, many times, “Steve, you complain that if a black or Asian man has sex in a film, the film bombs. Maybe it isn’t the audience. Maybe these movies are just bad.”
Wow. And what, I’ve wondered, could account for that? What in the world would explain why that single variable: non-white male sexuality, would be found only in flawed films? It doesn’t happen with non-white females. It doesn’t happen if the non-white males remain sexless and non-competitive. But what if, just for the sake of argument, I took the position that these people were right? That there WAS something wrong with those movies? That they were all seriously flawed?
What if I lumped them together with the Matrix sequels, where the Wachowskis were clearly (and if the casting of Cornell West didn’t make it clear, nothing could) making a statement about the gap between cultural fantasy and cultural reality, and went slightly nuts in the process?
What if I tied that all together with the fact that audiences, and critics, barely even noticed the almost complete absence of dark faces from television during all the years of my childhood? That even now, it is horribly difficult to get people to see the gaps in representation, the audience love of minority males dressed as women, dying to protect white people, marginalized, presented only a buffoons or sexless spiritual guides (Morgan Freeman, anyone?)
What makes sense of all of this? Why did the Wachowskis go crazy? Because the Matrix has us, that’s why. Because if, from childhood, you are raised to see only white, the effort of breaking free, of waking up, of realizing that there is another, deeper reality, requires an almost superhuman effort. To wake up and see the truth without hating, without despairing, requires even more.
Film is a collaborative medium. Hundreds of people have input—and that can be a good thing. Filmmakers have other film-makers as friends, who criticize their scripts, help them design effects, recommend actors. As I’ve said, artists are in general drawn from the most “liberal” segments of society, so in NO WAY do I think that Hollywood (either the artists or the management “suits” who sign the checks) represent anything other than America as a whole. They are simply us. And I think that when a filmmaker sees the truth, when they “wake up” to certain realities, they are slightly enlightened—and the wall between enlightenment and insanity can be quite, quite thin. Shamanistic trances can produce madness quite nicely, thank you, and those who play on the edges of perception often dance alone.
So what do I think happens? I think that when people try to change the status quo, they find themselves alone. That craftsmen, and actors, and writers, and directors who have NOT awakened smile and nod and don’t contribute that 110% necessary to make a really good film (notice the difference between “Jurassic Park” and its sequels. Better effects in the sequels, but the “magic” is just flat missing. And oh, by the way? Sam Jackson dies protecting white people. And yes, that’s a nasty joke on my part) But it happened.)
The Wachowskis saw something wrong with society, and structured a mythological film that, in part, dealt with that issue. To stretch oneself to see this truth they saw is to bend consciousness to an almost unbearable degree. They were also going against the culture: no one threw them a life preserver, and the films fell apart.
THAT would explain why so many films that go contrary to the common cultural model seem…slightly “off.” The spirit of spontaneous collaboration isn’t there.
THAT would explain why audiences and critics don’t notice if black people aren’t there, or die protecting them. Unconsciously, that’s the world they want to see. The mythology of every culture says that they are the center of the universe, and that God made everyone else later, and lesser. Whites have simply been able to create a “Matrix” of multimedia imagery, convincing themselves on such a deep level that they are the kings of the world because of innate superiority and goodness and God-nature (well, gee, God gave His only begotten Son to them, didn’t He? They must be pretty swell!)
It would have to be almost insanely difficult to awaken from such a dream. To climb out of the Matrix.
Would I have noticed these things, had I not been partially of African heritage? I don’t know. I hope so. But how can I be sure? We go to sleep so easily. I am sure that I miss many, many things about sexism, about cultural eliteism, about homophobia, about other things. So damned easy. And when you awaken, it is so easy to feel fear, and to mask that fear with anger, and then to blame the other side and not see the basic aspects of the human experience that make such behaviors and perceptions damned near inevitable.
I don’t know. But every morning, I meditate and ask God to help me awaken, and keep me awake. To help me look through race, and gender, and age, and culture, to the reality of my existence. And it is hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.
But I must do it. I will not sink back into the Matrix. Death would be preferable. Madness, in comparison, would be a blessing.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:12 AM
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Well, here’s a movie that will get a lot of conversations started. “Vendetta,” written and produced by the Wachowski, brothers, is packed with more ideas per frame than any commercial film I’ve seen in years. It tells the tale of a masked terrorist (“V”) who promises to bring down England’s totalitarian government. Filled with allusions to the current political scene, it is most certainly not “about” the Bush administration: it’s been in development for ten years, and the original comic (written by Alan Moore, who disowned the film) was a swipe at Margaret Thatcher, not GW. However, what the film IS about is the nature of fear, and the way people sacrifice their freedoms for it…and the freedom that comes from understanding that there are worse things than death.
The Wachowskis are clearly madmen, and I love them. The film ain’t perfect, and there are more subtexts than you can shake a stick at. There is also plenty of quasi-mystical dialogue (“God is in the rain”) that will stick in many craws. It doesn’t collapse into itself as did the Matrix Trilogy, but I doubt many will find it wholly satisfying. What they WILL find is a genuinely thoughtful piece of social science fiction, aimed at the eternal problem of balance of power between citizens and state. I walked out of that theater feeling that it was, in essence a very small and intimate film that contains a couple of large set-pieces. Ultimately, it could almost have been mounted as a stageplay, and certainly could have been a flashy musical. But the most devastating moments are between Natalie Portman as a woman brought slowly to her ultimate strength, and Hugo Weaving as the titular masked “V.”
There are moments exciting, heart-breaking, amusing, repulsive, and rousing. A damned fine two hours of entertainment. I love the Wachowskis---and in a very odd sense, if someone said that this entire film took place in the Matrix, I could find evidence to back that contention. I wonder if any readers will pick up on the same interesting “evidence” I did? Not saying that’s what it was, just having a little fun.
At any rate, an “A-“ for having the courage to have an idea in its head. Comic books have done growed up.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:20 AM
And here we come to the last of these terrific ideas. And this one is pretty simple: to encourage and provide computers, high-speed internet, computer training, and so forth at every level of black American society, such that the average black child and adult has the same digital resources as the average white child and adult. About 51% of black Americans have computer access, as opposed to about 75 percent of whites. Teeenagers with access to a home computer are 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate high school than teenagers who do not, and the advantages propagate through higher education choices, heath research, estate planning, shopping for cars and homes, and much much more.
Individuals are encouraged to obtain computer training, invest in a home computer (especially if you have children!), make certain that computer is attached to the internet, and encourage the local schools to promote computer literacy. Of course, leaders and elected officials are to be held accountable.
Re-cycling your old computers and sharing your own skills is also a good idea.
A LAST THOUGHT ON THE COVENANT
There is much, much to be done, and I love the list of possible actions that almost anyone can embrace. If your taste is political action, GREAT. If it is individual action, GREAT. The important thing is to do what you can, and encourage an active dialogue. Thanks so much for being a part of this one.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:01 AM
Due to comments on my mailing list, I was moved to ask readers how THEY, as individuals or members of groups, defined the above terms. After all, if one listens to radicals on either side, they define these terms in ways that no member of the target group would accept. But does that mean those definitions are wrong? Not sure. At any rate, I wanted to invite readers here to present their own definitions. It would be very, very useful for those on either side of the political divide to understand exactly what they are accused of being and believing, wouldn't it?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:01 AM
Friday, March 17, 2006
Here’s one I’d never thought about specifically, but it makes sense. Some statistics: Black children are five times more likely than white children to have lead poisoning—and a young person’s lead burden is linked to lower IQ, lower high school graduation rates, and increased delinquency Three out of five Black Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. There are between 130,000 and 450,000 abandoned waste sites scattered across the country, most of them located near low-income, working-class, and minority communities. Almost half of the two million low-income housing units sit within a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then of course, there is Katrina, which many people feel represents a perfect example of the nation’s contempt for poor people of color. Frankly, it FASCINATES me that many of the same people who show little compassion for Katrina victims claim to support the Iraq war for humanitarian motivations. This reminds me of the Vietnam era, when the people supporting the Civil Rights movement in America were against the war, but the people claiming to be in favor of the war “to free the Vietnamese” almost unanimously condemned the efforts of Martin Luther King at home. I really don’t get it, folks—unless somebody is lying.
At any rate, the legacy of slavery created a brain-washed community turned loose in a Capitalistic society at the very bottom of the social ladder, with obstructions placed at every door to advancement. Poverty sucks—you get the worse of everything: education, food, health care, whatever. These things impact your ability to raise yourself from poverty, so you tend to get stuck here.
Here’s another exercise to see if you’re a bigot: imagine that, at emancipation, all black people were given white skin. Then, in 2006, turn the skin black again. If you think that black people would still be distributed through the country in approximately the same way, with the same crime rates, incomes, and so forth, then in my mind, you have a very serious problem. But that’s just me.
One of the ways poverty impacts environment, and health, touches me personally. When cities purchase land for freeways, of course they want the cheapest land they can get, so such construction runs right through poor neighborhoods. Like my old neighborhood, where the Santa Monica Freeway cut through a block from the house where I grew up, and where my mother continued to live after I moved away. Ever look at the cancer statistics within a block or two of a major freeway artery? It’s not pretty. Despite never smoking a day in her life, Mom died of lung cancer. Because of the Freeway? Who can say? It is, however, enough to make me…thoughtful.
What every individual can do now:
1) Do not forget the Katrina victims. Write to your representatives and demand follow-up action and support.
2) Educate yourself, and your family, on issues of environmental justice.
3) Find out about air quality, water quality, and toxic waste sites in your community.
4) Make sure your home is free from the hazards of lead poisoning.
MOST OF ALL: Hold all leaders and elected officials responsible and demand that they change current policy.
WHAT ELECTED OFFICIALS AND LEADERS CAN DO:
1) Enforce existing environmental and health standards in ensuring environmental justice for all.
2) Create and maintain healthy clean schools for children.
3) Involve impacted communities in environmental decision-making.
There is more, of course. To get more ideas go to www.covenantwithblackamerica.com
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:07 AM
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Well, who can disagree with that? My own standards for healing the damage in the black community would be:
1) equivalent lifespans
2) equivalent incarceration rates
3) equivalent inherited wealth.
I chose these because they imply a vast amount of change on every level, from the personal to the social to the level of international commerce. Money is an incredibly valuable indication of a person’s developed and perceived worth. It speaks to the value one places on self, the degree of developed skills, the level of energy and focus, the ability to recruit teams of partners and mentors, the ability to negotiate and leverage, the ability to invest and preserve wealth once it is attained, the ability to pass it on safely to future generations.
When I began collaborating with Larry Niven twenty-five years ago, I had my first real look at tone of the wealthiest families in Southern California. Oh, I’d known upper-middle class black families. My mother made sure of that. They were doctors, dentists, and lawyers who worked very hard and took excellent care of their families.
But WEALTHY families are different. They look at money in entirely different ways. The subtle differences in definition, the attitudes toward accumulating it and passing it from generation to generation. In casual conversations, Larry would talk about things his father taught him, experiences his father arranged for him, the way his family protected wealth, the things they bought, the way they passed it on to their descendants.
Man, it was different. TOTALLY different from what I grew up around, or what I heard poor people, black or white, speaking of. The upper-middle class blacks, especially those who had been born poor, felt as if they were on the right track, but had trouble passing their attitudes on to their children, who seemed more interested in spending than saving.
As I began researching wealth-building techniques, books like THE RICHEST MAN IN BABYLON and THINK AND GROW RICH, I saw connections to what I learned around Larry, and began to see hints of the behavior patterns in every wealthy person, white or black, I knew, or could observe, or could read about.
Simply put, rich people think about money very differently. Rich people who used to be poor behaved differently concerning work, investment, education, etc. FROM EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS. They endured jeering and criticism from their peers, and then, after decades of grueling work and discipline, if they managed to make it to wealth, their former peers accuse them of “being lucky.” Oh, my God, it is so frustrating.
The secrets are there. Poor people do not know them, and don’t believe it’s possible. Yes, obviously it is DRASTICALLY more difficult to pull yourself up from poverty. The average person born into a given social tissue remains right there. Inertia is a monster. But it is POSSIBLE. It takes incredible focus, dedication, willingness to sacrifice, and above all, the right knowledge of what money is, and how to attain and preserve it. This is simply not information that exists widely in the black community, and when wealthy black folks go back to try to teach it, I have heard them express horrific frustration: few want to hear what they say, even fewer are willing to sacrifice their present pleasure in exchange for future security.
If this is to change, it will take the efforts of countless thousands of successful people—preferably black people who HAVE been poor and worked their way out. Well to do white people have much to contribute here, but please understand how easy it is for a black person to look at you and say to themselves (or out loud!): “Yeah, that worked for you because you’re white…” or worse, the well-meaning white person makes assumptions about the way the world works based on their own experience, not realizing that there really IS a difference between the way a white loan officer sees a black applicant and a white applicant.
A black mentor can help you get over that hurdle more reliably. His experience is closer to your own.
The unemployment rate and wage disparities for blacks and whites is well understood. But income doesn’t tell the whole tale. Net worth is a better indicator. Net worth is basically the value of all your assets once you have subtracted liabilities. And it is here that the gap widens drastically. Black Americans have a median net worth of about $6,000, compared to $88,000 for whites. While 13 percent of the nation, they are only 1.2 percent of the total net worth.
A number of factors influence this rather sobering statistic. Historical factors include the reality of inherited wealth: the surplus worth of the labor stolen from our ancestors at below market value was, quite simply, invested in the whites who owned them. Who passed that to their children in the form of money, education, and property. Wealth, and the knowledge of how to preserve it, was passed from generation to generation, just as poverty is.
Ever watched a family with a serious obesity problem? In the Northwest, there were LOTS of them, Often they were logging families, used to heavy labor for generations. As the economy shifted toward office work, the same eating and exercise patterns (granddad didn’t need exercise! His work gave him all the exercise a human being could need!) translated into excess girth. The family eats and eats, and widens, and everything feels “normal” to them. Behavior patterns are passed from parent to child to grandchild, with devastating impact.
The exact same thing happens in poor families. Behavior patterns, belief patterns, negative emotional anchors…
WHAT INDIVIDUALS CAN DO
1) Open and maintain a savings account, no matter what your family income.
2) Encourage yoru children to save.
3) Create neighborhood job club to share information.
4) Shop at black-owned businesses.
5) Make sure that schools teach children about checking and savings accounts.
WHAT LEADERS AND ELECTED OFFICIALS CAN DO
1) Invest in the black community.
2) Monitor and prevent predatory lending.
3) Establish tax-free homeownership savings accounts.
There is more, of course. Again, I encourage you to seek out the book COVENANT WITH BLACK AMERICA and to go to www.covenantwithblackamerica.com to learn more.
There are doubtless things that different people will disagree with. For instance, the meaning and worth of a minimum wage is a point of contention for Left and Right. I won’t get into that discussion. And clearly, there are issues of politics and national policy. My focus is, and has always has been, individual action—that’s just my own nature, not a statement of what others should do.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:15 AM
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
My mother was born in Augusta, Georgia. I’ve never been there. The “Covenant With Black America” makes an excellent point: the majority of black Americans are descended from rural people, slaves and sharecroppers. Most of us have relatives who still live in the South, with strong cultural traditions lost to those of us who were raised in the cities.
Those of you who have been reading this know that I feel black Americans have been damaged by the experiences of the last 400 years. In my mind, we would have to be superpeople not to. You also know that we have a sub-culture, not a culture. There is no separate black language, religion etc. as Africans, Asians, or Europeans possess. To create these things, you must be separate, isolated for hundreds or thousands of years. We never had the chance.
Similarly, there have been comments about segregation. It is true that the black community was more cohesive during segregation: we had to be. And that following integration, talented, middle and upper-class black families moved to the neighborhoods with better resale values, opportunities, schools, etc., leaving the inner cities to wither. I also think that it is too late to do much about that in a geographical sense. Those of common interests—for instance, racial matters, can, on the other hand, reach out across the internet and create vast and vital communities. But I think that in time poor blacks and poor whites and poor ANYTHING will be scattered in pockets, outback regions and trailer parks across the country…and that the rest of the country will simply, slowly grow browner as those who live and work and school together are rendered, by familiarity and exogamy, into a genetic blend.
I’ve seen it happening in my own lifetime: there are simply far more people of obviously mixed heritage walking the streets. But it will take time as the world comes back together, and the process will never be complete.
But as to the “evils” of integration. Well, there are advantages to prison life, as well. You are given structure, and meals, and told what to do and where to go. Many founder when released into the outside world. The human spirit, in my mind, wants to express its potential to the very highest degree. I would rather fail with my face to the sun than succeed staring at the ground.
My grandfather was a leader of his community in Kansas. A black community. But his world was severely limited: as long as he kept to his place, he was fine. My father walked a broader world. He could perform in Las Vegas, but not stay in the hotels.
I have the chance to compete against, to rise or fall, to succeed or fail, the best in the world. The whites I compete against have vast advantages, and even more, the advantage of not comprehending the depth and height of their advantage. I watch the inner cities crumble, but I also see black Americans spreading through every tissue of society, influencing policy, growing wealthy, taking charge. It takes generations to undo the damage of generations.
And despite the chaos, and the understandable fear of those who feel they have been left behind, the healing had to start somewhere, and sometime.
My son will inherit a better world than the one I was born into.
But those are side issues: I’m rambling again. The Covenant asks us to consider that what culture black Americans DO have can largely be traced to the South, to the place where we DID have the longest period of RELATIVE isolation.
There are facts of unequal health care, college experience, land ownership, and more. To address these is to strengthen the root of the vine, so to speak.
Individuals are urged to support and contribute to existing black institutions devoted to assisting black landowners. To work with neighbors and local grocers to connect with black farmers in the area. To find out if your families own land in the South and develop a strategy to hold onto that land.
And, of course, to hold all leaders and elected officials responsible and demand that they change current policy. Examples are given of current agricultural and food projects, land cooperatives and so forth—showing what communities can accomplish when focused and committed.
Leaders and elected officials are encouraged to help improve the overall quality of rural life, including education and health care. To ensure that small-scale farmers can sell to local markets directly. To provide credit to sustain farms. To offer adequate and affordable legal assistance to all farmers.
There are other suggestions, of course. I encourage readers to purchase the book, and to visit www.covenantwithblackamerica.com for more information.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:18 AM