Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada

As I have noted more than once before, Ishmael Reed is likely my favorite living author and certainly my favorite living satiristFlight to Canada is a very good friend’s Reed book of choice.

This may very well be the Reed book with which to start.  Mumbo Jumbo certainly puts forward a broad critical-theoretical framework in a way that Flight to Canada doesn’t, but by Reed’s standards the fact that Flight to Canada feels, using a more conventional syntax that either Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down or Mumbo Jumbo, like a more conventional read, makes it a good way in.

Reed, as far as substance goes, sacrifices nothing.  Set during and immediately after the United States’ Civil war, the topic here is black resistance.  Correctly, Reed gives us no compliant Blacks in the narrative, but rather shows numerous different, active responses to slavery and racist violence.  There’s the titular escape, but also Uncle Robin’s staying close to Master Swille and ultimate reliance on ancestral gods/spirits to inherit his estate: certainly a victory.  Reed has a sure sense of what resistance is, but a broad notion of what it might be.  Famously, on p. 88 of my edition:

Each man to his own Canada.

Words to live by.

Briefly: Reed’s humor is entirely on display throughout the novel.  Frequently, I laughed out loud, and as far as raw, satirical humor goes, his only equal might be the Marx Brothers at their best.  Truly, he’s that funny.

I’m at a loss for further words and have already returned the book to the library.  Get the book an read it for yourself, and fill with gratitude.

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Ishmael Reed, Juice!


I’m pretty sure that Ishmael Reed is my favorite living novelist from the United States.  I won’t dwell on whatever controversy Reed has engendered, above all accusations of misogyny or a tendency to characterize groups without nuance.  I read novels because I get something meaningful out of the process.  Gogol was an anti-semite, but Dead Souls is required reading, for example.  As far as whatever controversy goes, Reed has been assailed and defended himself, and that’s between other people I won’t even bother looking up to find links to.

Prior to reading Juice!, I’d read only two of Reed’s novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.  Both had an absurd feeling that reminded me of the Marx Brothers, both demolished United States mythologies, and both posited a particular and at the same time open Blackness–not Reed’s specific word–as an alternative to white, racist capitalism.  I was particularly pleased at how Reed made ancestral religious practice current in both novels.

I’d read none of his later novels, until this most recent one.  Without doubt, times have changed and Reed’s approach has as well.  The novel centers (entirely–it’s from one perspective throughout) on an older Black cartoonist who becomes by his own admission obsessed with O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial, which he sees as a proxy trial for Black men generally, a sound perspective as far as I can tell.

I did not follow the trial when it happened.  I was in grad school and was more interested in playing jazz, drinking, drinking more (nothing glamorous about this, it screwed me up), and finding time in those last minutes to cram for class.  When he was acquitted, I figured there was a reason.  I didn’t know enough to say with certainty anything, but I know that things are stacked against a murder defendant, and if there’s an acquittal it indicates that there was some issue with evidence.

I mention this because much of the book reads more like an essay demonstrating evidentiary flaws in the prosecution’s case.  It’s interesting and I don’t feel that a novel need or even should be strict narrative.  Many people think O.J. murdered his wife, and might be upset with this discussion.  Don’t know what to tell you.

The real point of the novel, though, has nothing to do with whether or not O.J. murdered his wife.  Indeed, the narrator’s views on the subject change, though not as dramatically as some of his friends.  The point is the social use of the trial.  In this, I can’t but find Reed’s presentation of it flawless.  The Simpson trial made it safe for the white media–often called the “mainstream media”–to excrete all of its racist anxiety over Black men and call it “The News.”  This “Jim Crow media” hasn’t changed since the trial.  As almost an afterthought, as it falls chronologically at the end of the story, Reed points out that President Obama faces the same media.

The white media, Reed points out, does not by any means always present a white face to the public, even though the characters in the book who either own or manage the TV station at which Bear, the narrator, works are white.  The white media, like the British Raj, seeks collaborators from among the colonized to act as intermediaries with the public.  Three cases-in-point stand out: Princessa Bimbette, a Latina broadcaster who presumes O.J.’s guilt during the trial, and Jagid and Jagan, who host “Nigguz News,” which showcases Black people behaving badly and has some of the highest ratings on the station.  Reed in one passage puts it more broadly:

After two years, white women were over fifty percent of the employees at KCAK, but there was a growing number of Latinos.  The ‘right’ Latinos.  Those who were opposed to Latino Studies, bilingual education, and those who were not offended that the only consistent stories about Latinos KCAK broadcast involved girl gangs and Mexican immigrants.  (206)

The door is open if you fit the profile and can turn off some of the workings of your intellect.

One particular line stood out in the novel, because it throws the entire episode of the Simpson trial and its aftermath into proper historical context, that of the past 500 years or so:

In a settler society, when one of the settlers is murdered, the nearest native has to be burned.  (203)

This is not about whether or not Simpson did anything.  It is about the requirements of a settler colony, of which the United States continues to be one.

Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins

Vine Deloria had two intended audiences: Indians and white people.  His project, throughout his whole career, was to undermine the intellectual assumptions that continue to undergird the United States’ occupation of North America.

So it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war.  Past events have shown that the Indian people have always been fooled about the intentions of the white man.  Always we have discussed irrelevant issues while he has taken the land.  Never have we taken the time to examine the premises upon which he operates so that we could manipulate him as he has us.  (257)

Demolish the intellectual underpinnings of white settler colonialism.  It’s in this sense that the book’s subtitle is warranted: “An Indian Manifesto.”  As Marx well understood that action without analysis would lead nowhere in the long run, so Deloria knows that either a loss or a victory based on the intellectual assumptions or white hegemony reaffirms that hegemony in substance.  Deloria is one of those intellectuals who is not just intellectual about the world.  He writes to communicate with as large a public that he can, so that real things can happen.

He opens to communication in his prose above all by using clear, simple prose, the hardest kind to produce.  That, and, more interesting to me, through humor.  As an analogue, I went through a phase where I read a bunch of Czech literature, Jaroslav Hasek‘s The Good Solder Svejk and a ton of Karel Capek.  Hasek is to Czech literature what Pushkin is to Russian, only he not only wrote a riotously funny book, he began a tradition that was simultaneously satirical and canonical, canonical for Czech literature, that is to say.  I always understood this elevation of satire as a very correct response by a people from whom control over their own land and lives had been taken from them to their situation.

Humor is at least potentially a weapon, because it can open people who had been closed.  Gogol, in Nabokov’s understanding, leaves one’s eyes “Gogolized.”  We see the world in its comic, absurd aspect not only during a read of “The Nose” but long afterward.  Phenomenologically–not ontologically–the world has this aspect to it, as it has others, as in the Greek drama the tragic aspect.  One can view tragic art and undergo a catharsis of some sort, but if one lives viewing the world tragically it’s hard to avoid despair, which leads to stasis.  Humor of any sort leads to motion, as it frees one mentally from the stasis of despair.  One can move again.

Deloria does not make this point at all, but I wonder if he might: in white America, humor is a diversion from the world, while in Indian Country humor is a path through it.  There’s a whole chapter on the subject, returning to the book:

A favorite cartoon in Indian Country a few years back showed a flying saucer landing while an Indian watched.  The caption was “Oh, no, not again.” (148)

Throughout the book, Deloria contrast a white settler society that chases abstract ideals, be they a religion based on a Palestinian god that nobody can see and a heaven to where one wants to go that is far away from this world, to the Federal oversight of Indian Country in which policy formulation takes place in isolation from the places and people the policy affects.  As I referenced in another piece, white negotiators needed to designate an abstracted political office of chief in order to carry on negotiations:

In treating for lands, rights of way, and minerals, commissioners negotiating for the government insisted on applying foreign political concepts to the tribes they were confronting.  Used to dealing with kings, queens, and royalty, the early white men insisted on meeting the supreme political head of each tribe.  When they found none, they created one and called the man they had chosen the Chief.  (204)

Leadership in Indian Country is more a practical matter.  What works?  A leader is someone who can deliver for the people.  Historically, this may have been in hunting, and today it takes other means.  In the United States, Bush was President because he bore that title, not because he delivered for the people.  So too, with gradations, have been all Presidents.  It’s not such a good way to have leaders, when one sees it this way.  So too with religion.  Does a medicine man’s medicine work?  If so, it’s legitimate.  If not, it’s not.  It is not a question of belief, but rather of experience, quite different than that of missionary Christianity, the most characteristic form of which is the catechism, but very much like Buddhism.  I was just listening to a Dharma talk in which one of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s monks said that Thay taught that one knows one is practicing correctly because one immediately feels a sense of relief.

Deloria, in the aforementioned chapter on humor, notes, significantly:

During the 1964 elections Indians were talking in Arizona about the relative positions of the two candidates, Johnson and Goldwater.  A white man told them to forget about domestic policy and concentrate on the foreign policies of the two men.  One Indian looked at him coldly and said that from the Indian point of view it was all foreign policy. (155)

I point this out because from a United States left perspective much of what Deloria writes seems very off.  Deloria is not exactly what we in the US left, particularly the white US left, would imagine him to be.  To take an example, he finds in the form of the corporation the closest thing in United States society to a tribal form, and in it the best opportunity for Indian people to build a better life.  I was nearly in shock when I read it, of course.  This is a good example of how the white left–that is to say, me–needs to keep its mouth shut and mind open, and listen for a change.  Indeed, Deloria’s second book was called We Talk, You Listen.  My instinctive reaction was aversion, but the more I thought about the more I realized how valid Deloria’s point was, particularly after he referred back to in a number of times and contextually deepened it.  I read “corporation” and I think “surplus value.”  A corporation, strictly put, is, however, a group of people that form a legal existence as a group, rather than as individuals.  We know how problematic this can be, but just because something can be and is does not mean that it must be.  In this light, the problem in corporate capitalism is not the corporation, but the capitalism.  If I listen, I learn things.

I would note that while Deloria makes a lot of valid points in the “The Red and the Black” chapter, he was at least at this point in his career clearly unfamiliar with the history of Black people in the Americas.  He conflates the movement for integration for a movement for assimilation, and then sees in Stokely Carmichael‘s Black Power something new.  Black Power wasn’t a new idea, it was a new expression of an idea that had been a part of the Black presence in the Americas in one way or another since the beginning.  Carmichael would certainly not have claimed to be making a new argument, and it surprises me that Deloria didn’t deal with Malcolm X at all.  This I think is where it bears remember Deloria’s point that all things United States are foreign affairs to the Indian.  He wrote much more knowledgeably about white American society, with which he clearly had more direct experience.  One cannot come to any real knowledge about Black American experience through the United States white media.  Direct experience is necessary.  Deloria makes a worthwhile point, though, in the chapter, that keeps things clear:

But the understanding of the racial question does not ultimately involve understanding by either blacks or Indians.  It involves the white man himself.  He must examine his past.  He must face the problems he has created within himself and within others.  The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races, and countries.  Before the white man can relate to others he must forego the pleasure of defining them [emphasis mine]…

Surely many if not most white people would read that as an attack against them, which confirms Deloria’s point.  In fact, Deloria is deeply compassionate.  This is one of those cases where the friend is the one who directs the alcoholic to AA, rather than the one who buys her or him another drink.  For white people’s own sake, this nonsense needs to stop.

Victor Pelevin, Buddha’s Little Finger

I picked up the Pelevin‘s Чапаев и Пустота, in English, “Chapaev and Void,” published with the English title, Buddha’s Little Finger, at the library and was immediately enthralled.  The introduction–part of the novel, in fact–claims the text to be the true telling of the story of Chapaev, narrated by Petka–you might say, “Petey,” in English–potentially titled, ‘The Garden of the Divergent Petkas’, the introduction written, apparently by the

Chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation (FFL (b)) (IX)

Needless to say, I dug it.

Pelevin, my acquaintance had told me, actually practices Buddhism, and from what I read in an interview, he seems to me to be very serious about it, and not at all smug or off-putting in that way that some…well…judging mind, judging mind…He speaks:

I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind.

That sounds about right, to me.  I found myself, not a third of the way through the book, realizing that it is best approached as a case-study, or koan to use the Japanese most familiar in the United States, like in the Blue Cliff Record.  Chapaev is the master, and Petka–as well as others–the students.  Petka, early in the novel, references the house-on-fire metaphor from the Lotus Sutra:

I should say that I was not in the least bit afraid of death.  In my situation to die was every bit as natural and reasonable as to leave a theater that has caught fire in the middle of a lackluster performance. (29)

That I know the feeling precisely only increased the humor of it, for me.

It is worth bearing in mind Linji, of whom I have written before:

The Master [Linji] saw a monk coming and held his fly whisk straight up. The monk made a low bow, whereupon the Master struck him a blow. The Master saw another monk coming and again held his fly whisk straight up. The monk paid no attention, whereupon the Master struck him a blow as well.

Chapaev uses a Mauser, rather than a fly whisk, but the principle is the same.

A sudden thunderous crash burst upon my ears, startling me so badly that I staggered backwards.  The lamp standing beside Kotovsky had exploded, splattering a cascade of glycerine across the table and a revolver appeared in his hand like magic.

Chapaev was standing in the doorway with his nickel-plated Mauser in his hand[…]

‘That was smart talking there, Grisha, about the drop of wax,’ he said in a thin, hoarse tenor, ‘but what’re you going to say now?  Where’s your great ocean of beans now?'[…]

‘The form, the wax–who created it all?’ Chapaev asked menacingly.  ‘Answer me!’

‘Mind,’ replied Kotovsky.

‘Where is it?  Show me.’

‘Mind is the lamp,’ said Kotovsky.  ‘I mean, it was.’

‘If mind is the lamp, then where do you go to now it’s broken?’

‘Then what is mind?’ Kotovsky asked in confusion.

Chapaev fired another shot, and the bullet transformed the ink-well standing on the table into a cloud of blue spray.

I felt a strange momentary dizziness.

Two bright red blotches had appeared on Kotovsky’s pallid cheeks.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘now I understand.  You’ve taught me a lesson, Vasily Ivanovich.  A serious lesson.’

‘Ah, Grisha,’ Chapaev said sadly, ‘what’s wrong with you?  You know yourself you can’t afford to make any mistakes now–you just can’t.  Because where you’re going there won’t be anyone to point out your mistakes, and whatever you say, that’s how it will be.’

Without looking up, Kotovsky turned on his heels and ran out of the barn. (200)

Yes, this is absolutely funny, creative, surreal, etc., but it is also very much the work of someone who is seriously engaging with Buddhism as a practice.  Satire, it seems to me, is the proper vehicle for Buddhist teaching, certainly Ch’an (Zen, in Japanese).  Ch’an masters are, as a group, vastly funnier on average than the population as a whole.

A last bit, which very much reminded me of a teaching I received from my Dharma teacher:

‘Let us start at the beginning.  There you stand combing a horse.  But where is this horse?’

Chapaev looked at me in amazement.  “Petka, have you gone completely off your chump?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘It’s right here in front of your face.’ (150)

The seriousness with which Pelevin has obviously approached Buddhism is evident here.  You know you are dealing with a clod if he or she talks about emptiness and denies the reality of things in particular.  That’s a cop-out.

Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization

Apologies in advance: I finished this book a couple weeks ago and have long since returned it to the library.  Hence, no quotes, which in this case I think will do the book a disservice.

Cheikh Anta Diop is most well-known in the United States as the man who demonstrated–his critics would say “argued”–that the ancient Egyptians were Black.  This is true, he did make that argument, and I gather that this book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, is the work in English that made his reputation.  What is more important, though, about Diop’s work, is that he doesn’t simply demonstrate that the Egyptians were Black, he posits them as the cultural source of African civilization generally, as well as the source for many if not most of what are considered, in a standard Western Civ. course, ancient Greek innovations.

Depending on what company you’re in, you can just say the word, “Afrocentrism,” and get all kinds of reactions from white people that expose their unexamined racism.  When in that situation, it’s good to have a book or two of Diop’s under your belt, because he provides the science behind the argument that the Egyptians were Black.  It’s critical to remember that people still make a distinction between “white Africa” and “Black Africa,” even if they do it in the disguised form of “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Note the Wikipedia links that show up for those terms, automatically suggested to me as I write this by a Firefox plugin I use.  Anyone who dismisses how colonialist mainstream notions of Africa continue to be is kidding themselves.

Diop posits Africa as a whole, Black entity, which is one of his important points.  Again, apologies for not having direct quotes in this piece, because it would be important here.  I was pleased, reading the book, to see Diop use precisely the same language that I had on numerous occasions in the past.  Many times, when discussing this stuff with people, I have been confronted with the argument that the Egyptians did not have the same notions of race as those in the modern United States, and so calling them “Black” is ahistorical and therefore misleading.  I had often said to people that, yes, the Egyptians did not call themselves Negroes, but if you put them down in New York City, they’d live in Harlem.  Dammit, but Diop uses the same argument, verbatim, in The African Origin of Civilization.  I certainly felt a sense of gratification.

What is clear reading Diop is that all of this discussion is much more important for African people today, and by extension for the Black diaspora today, than it is for the Ancient Egyptians, who of course are long dead as physical beings.  He has an endearing quality to his writing, insofar as I get the sense of him as an obviously exceptional, accomplished individual, cheering on other Africans and Black people of less obvious accomplishments, saying, “see those pyramids?  That’s what you can do.”  At some level, that’s his point.  It shouldn’t need to be said, but with all the talk of “post-racial America” clearly needs to be, that that kind of discussion is still very, very important.  The cultural assault (not to mention economic and legal) that Black people endure on a daily basis in this country is profound.  Diop offers a way out.

Addendum, 1/18/11: great interview w/Diop on Youtube.  Dig it:

Amiri Baraka, Black Music

Ornette Coleman

The Alpha and the Omega.  Still playing, too.

I had just read Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane, and become very, very upset.  Needing a helping hand, I next read LeRoi Jones‘–Amiri Baraka’s–Black Music.

Baraka is less concerned with market demographics than with actually saying something valuable that helps people understand the music in question.  That music, in Black Music, is New York jazz of the late 1950’s and, primarily, the 1960’s.  The latest piece in the book is dated 1967.  In any event, more than anything Baraka focuses on the New Thing, so-called, or “free jazz” once Ornette Coleman put out the album of the same name.

Baraka to be sure is not afraid to take a clear, adversarial stance in what was at the time a very brutal conflict within jazz and jazz criticism over the new music, and while I tend to be much more open to the best of the hard-boppers (and less than the best, too, I’ll say), and while I’ll look at that below, he defends music and musicians worth defending.

Jazz is, Baraka argues not quite explicitly (as my memory serves) but very clearly, a way of being, being free, now.  As circumstances change, so changes jazz.  In hindsight I wonder–surely he has written about it and if anyone knows the citation I’d appreciate it–what he thinks about jazz after Coltrane, not only fusion but the whole Marsalis conundrum as well.  I can surmise the broad strokes but it’s the details I’m after.

He clarifies his project in the first piece, “Jazz and the White Critic“:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help and all.  Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgement and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (20)

That about sums up my own feelings about how one ought to approach art, or anything else for that matter.  Understanding begins from local conditions and builds out, not from arbitrarily grafting foreign conceptual frameworks onto whatever happens to be the object of one’s inquiry.  Or of one’s conquest: look at the clusterf*** that has been and continues to be the Americas when European social and economic formations were grafted onto these continents after the soon-to-be syphilitic Columbus showed up.

Baraka consistently, whether dealing with true giants like Coltrane, Monk, Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or lesser-known figures as in an absolutely wonderful piece on the drummer, Denis Charles, one of, to me, the highlights of the book, contextualizes the artists as they exist in their actual contexts, geographically, socially, economically, and culturally.  This is a beautiful, beautiful because it contains truth, stretch of prose:

He [Denis Charles] seems not to be certain, or maybe it’s just the stackup of dreary tenements and beatout folks makes any “success story” seem very very shaky.  And even when Dennis [sic] is working, he knows it’s a very brief shot, and that soon he will be sitting back up on 118th Street without even anything to play on.

But when you see and hear him play, there is no doubt in your mind.  This young man can really smoke…(90)

The liberal white critic would have only written that first paragraph.  The conservative white critic would have written about the Philharmonic and bemoaned the lack of support for “the arts,” despite having heard a publicly-funded, corporate-sponsored performance the night before.  Baraka, however, correctly contextualizes Charles, and by proxy both the New Thing and jazz generally.  Yes, it’s a tough row to hoe, above all because of the hateful context of North America, but doing so is the practice of free existence.

I said I’d touch on this earlier: Baraka has little patience for musicians he feels are stuck in the past, i.e., in formula.  Jazz is, for him, freedom in the present.  I concede the point, and it’s certainly true that we get more from Coltrane than from Cannonball Adderly, toward whom he’s fairly uncharitable.  I am not the biggest fan, either, but I will say that a) a man needs to work and Cannonball worked, and b) there’s a whole lot of hard-bop or more R&B-influenced jazz from the ’60’s that, while not precisely pointing the way forward, or more importantly being truly of the moment, is fantastic and a genuine representation of who the people were who made the music.  Witness “The Sidewinder.”  It’s the genuineness that gets me, that, and Billy Higgins.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I had never read Pema Chodron before, but I had been somewhat wary of her work, due to my own prejudices.  People I knew casually and liked, but who struck me as very bourgeois Buddhists (I know, I know…judging mind…) raved about her.  That worried me.  Also, I came to Buddhism via a meditation group led by a Mexican-American man, fully-credentialed (received the transmission from Sheng Yen), but who practices using his birth name.  I understand that it may be part of the deal in some traditions or organizations for people to adopt a new name when taking monastic vows, and this may be the case with Pema Chodron.  She may not have had any choice in her name.  That said–my own prejudices–I have met too many white people who ostentatiously go all wisdom-of-the-East, and I steered away from Pema Chodron I think out of a semi-conscious association of her, because of her name, with those people for whom I had a great distaste.

Then, my life fell apart, I started to get back to my practice, and in conversation with a Zen priest for whom I have a great deal of respect I was recommended Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.  Time, I figured, to drop my prejudices, which at some basic level I can no longer afford, and give her a go.  I nabbed the library’s copy and went.

So, I’ll start by saying that I found much of value in the book.  She makes a very basic point which is worth making: falling apart is impermanence by another name, and is thus the basic characteristic, along with emptiness, of samsara.  When things fall apart, the self wants to avoid it–and you can be sure that my own self has done precisely this.  However, she recommends embracing the condition of falling apart, of sitting with it, literally in the case of sitting meditation practice, and metaphorically as well.

For whatever reason, I’ve developed what I will admit is an aesthetic when it comes to particular practices called “Buddhist.”  It’s taken directly from Sheng Yen’s method(s), which in essence sought to maintain, though clarify, systematize, and such as it were distill the various techniques bequeathed him by his various teachers.  This he did, exceptionally well.  He was seen during his lifetime, and now, too, I suppose, as an innovator, and this he was in two ways, in his systematization of technique just previously mentioned, and also in his insistence that all of these techniques were available to lay practitioners as well as monastics. What he explicitly did not do, however, was develop new techniques.  He taught that one should have an absolute faith in the method at hand.  Mixing methods or making them up out of thin air was not his game.  Even someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who uses his skill as a poet to develop new gathas, always grounds himself in a rigorous attention to tradition.  What might seem a whole-cloth innovation in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is as often as not based very directly on material he gleaned from above all the various Pali scriptures which he, broadening his textual base from typically Zen scripture, re-introduces to his own Zen technique.  So, he innovates by digging into scripture that is, at least in their oldest extant written form, older than the oldest Mahayana text.

I write the above to preface my preference in When Things Fall Apart.  Pema Chodron, as far as I can see, is at her best when relating the most basic and most traditional teaching.  What struck me in the book as most beneficial personally was a moderately lengthy discussion of the practice of Tonglen.  What people–or at least what I need, is very practical instruction, particularly when in a difficult time.  I don’t have time for theory.  I need to know what to do when I sit my ass down on the cushion, because just watching my breath just doesn’t cut it when I’m in a total crisis.  I’m not that accomplished a practicioner.  Tonglen practice, a Tibetan practice with which I had no familiarity as I have basically no familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism, was of great help.

Now, to my prejudices, and how they were confirmed.  I would say were I trying to look better than I do that “I don’t mean to criticize someone who clearly is more accomplished a practitioner than I am, but…”  However, I am trying to do that.  There are real problems with Chodron’s approach.  Maybe it’s a function–she mentions working with a homeless person in the book, which, while homeless people are not the only ones who need help, are definitely people for whom things have truly fallen apart–of the need to make money in order to do other kinds of work that don’t generate a lot of income, like, for example, working with homeless people.  Homeless people don’t give lots of “dana,” for example, and don’t buy new copies of Buddhist books.  Upper-middle class people do, and in Buddhism in the United States, particularly for a white writer, that means you aim at upper-middle class white people.  These are people who do not respond well to having their social self-delusion exposed.  So, if you want them to buy your next book, you push gently, or, in Chodron’s case, you don’t push at all.

Above all, you communicate the misapprehension that somehow racism in the United States is a matter of differing but somehow equal opinion or perception, that is to say, rooted in self-centered conceptual (samsaric) thinking.  Witness this, from the chapter called “Widening the Circle of Compassion”:

But suppose someone does not agree with us? Then what happens? Do we find ourselves getting angry and aggressive? If we look into the very moment of anger or aggression, we might see that this is what wars are made of. This is what race riots are made of: feeling that we have to be right, being thrown off and righteously indignant when someone disagrees with us.

I would want to look more specifically at wars to judge whether or not they are questions of differences of opinion.  That’s surely part of it.  Race riots, on the other hand, are by no means functions of difference of opinion.  Race riots, first off don’t happen very often.  The L.A. Uprising of my lifetime, was not a race riot.  Race riots in the United States have been as often–I might wager most often–started by white people against black or brown.  Witness, among others, the Zoot Suit Riots.  In something like the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, riots in Watts or Detroit, we do not have presented a counter-argument in response to a (white) argument.  We have people who have been pushed beyond their limits by intolerable circumstances with no legitimate or even non-violent means to create positive outcomes.  It’s not a question of two equal sides, both mired in their own subjectivity.  It’s a question of unequal power relations, and anyone whose sympathy lies with the powerful has some sickness to deal with.  That said, it’s a comfortable thought to white people to see racism as a mere difference of opinion–well, I don’t see it that way but you are entitled to your opinion–rather than a question of unearned privilege.  Chodron seems to not see this clearly.

Also, Chodron privileges, like so many white people, Chinese and Japanese culture over other Asian societies.  Unmistakably:

Referencing Bodhidharma:

a painting of Zen master Bodhidharma. (73)

Referencing Katagiri Roshi:

As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said…(56)

Referencing Thich Nhat Hanh:

As the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says…(75)

I don’t hear Buddhists refer to Thich Nhat Hanh as anything other than a Zen Master.  He’s not just a teacher: the man is a Master.  But, he’s from a little country, it seems.  Not good, and very off-putting.

The book, to be sure, was not without merit, as I indicated.  I got another Pema Chodron book as a present, so I will give her another shot.  If your life does fall apart, as mine has, I suppose the best bet is actual practice and talking with an actual teacher.  I’ve been lucky enough to have the San Francisco Zen Center as a resource and recently Deer Park Monastery, in Escondido.  Actual practice is the thing.

Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

This is the second Ishmael Reed novel I’ve read, and the second I’ve loved.  I was given Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by a friend who swore she couldn’t understand this or others of Reed’s books.  It’s true that Reed’s prose doesn’t follow conventional syntax at all times, but for whatever reason that makes it all the more appealing to me.  The narrative, it turns out, is as linear as one could want.

More of interest is the subject matter–at least, more of interest to me at the time of this writing.  This was Reed’s second novel, to be followed by Mumbo Jumbo, his most famous, on which I have written earlierAnother blogger, reviewing YBRBD, suggested that it was an easier read than Mumbo Jumbo, which may well be true.  The references may be less dense, or possibly more familiar to readers in the United States, as YBRBD is a send-up of sorts of Westerns, a cultural reference-point widely shared in the US, where the centrality of Vodun in Mumbo Jumbo is surely less familiar territory to the average US reader, even, and possibly particularly, to the literate public, so-called.

Really, I do a disservice to Reed in calling the book a send-up, even though coming from me this is the highest of compliments, as I tend to to find more value in the satirizing of something than in the thing satirized itself.  That said, Reed presents us with a Black central character, the Loop Garoo Kid (loup garou=werewolf), Vodun practitioner in the American West, terrorizing the forces of encroaching white capitalism, all the while in-and-out of league with the Pope.  Reed–and I don’t want to suggest that he is anything other than meticulous in his method–gives the feeling of throwing reference after reference onto the page to see which ones stick.  It’s exhilarating.

So, why it’s not a satire (while at the same time, it is): the West Reed describes is closer to the real thing than what one gets in Westerns.  It was (is) not just white cowboys and Indians, but a whole host of people, including, particularly, Black people.  Moreover, Reed very clearly, though briefly, clarifies the driving force behind the westward expansion of the United States as capitalism, not a spirit of adventure or some civilizing mission.  On this, he is demonstrably correct.

Reed recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times wisely pointing out that much white “progressive” critique of Obama mistakenly assumes that Obama has the same options as President as a white person would have, Harry Truman, for example.  Reed caught some predictable flak. Reed is right-on about Obama and white progressives, however, and I think part of the problem stems from the fact that white progressives very often–most often, I’d think–think that something has gone wrong with the United States, as opposed to the more correct idea that something has been wrong with the United States since it started, and before it as well.  Reed falls into the second camp.  And why?  Because the United States was founded as capitalism unfettered, with human capital, chattel slavery, as its most fundamental basis.  The entire cultural, intellectual, political, legal, and economic system of the country was founded with that in mind, and still reflects it.

Reed, and this is possibly even more visible in Mumbo Jumbo, critiques the whole of “Western Civilization.”  That’s what pisses white people off.  The Loop Garoo Kid brings African religious practice to North America.  This reflects historical fact.  Reed critiques Western Civ., but, far from a nihilistic perspective, with clear alternatives in mind.  One can live, in North America today, and not be “Western.”  It takes discipline (a discipline which, in my case, is still a work in progress) but it can be done.

Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter

I read The Angry Indian’s blog and listen to his amazing podcast.  In one podcast he mentioned Haunani-Kay Trask, and he listed her as part of his required reading on his site.  I found a good used copy of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii, and have read it in pieces, as it consists of articles, over the past year or so.  I finished it this morning.

Interestingly, I stumbled across her on some link from some blog I now can’t find just found.  A critique of the list itself, “10 More Terrible Bigots in Modern History” probably is as good a way to get to Trask’s book as any.  What this JustinJ who made the list fails to understand is that there is a concrete difference between white impulses for separatism and non-white impulses for separatism.  White separatism is the vehicle for historical and historically-conditioned violence, while non-white separatism is a response to that violence.  The Klan murders people, the Nation of Islam (let’s take the Nation in its most separatist exemplars) doesn’t.  This is fact, and any understanding of Trask depends on it.  In any event, it’s to be sure only white people who need this explained to them in any event.

Trask herself makes the point.  One article relates a conflagration following a response to a letter to the University of Hawaii‘s student newspaper by one Joey Carter, white student, decrying the term, “haole” and insisting on his own oppression as a white person in Hawaii.  Trask notes:

I informed Carter that he is a direct beneficiary, as are all white people, of a system of power in which one racially-identified group dominates and exploits another racially identified group for the benefit of the exploiting group.  In the United States, people of color do not have the power to practice racism against white people.  The same is true in Hawai’i, particularly in regard to Native Hawaiians

I don’t see how this is debatable if one wants to deal in fact.  I’ll leave it at that and get to the book.

I knew very little about Hawaii before reading Trask, though I will say I understood the colonial nature of the situation if only abstractly because I understand the colonial nature of the United States.  The subjects of the book range widely from history to commentary on coalitions in organizing.  Trask is among other things totally sensible, especially if one begins from her beginning, namely, that Hawaii is a colony forcefully taken by the United States against the wishes of Hawaiian people.  That’s the important point, I suppose.

Her work illustrates the importance of first principles in intellectual work.  One has to begin somewhere in an argument.  If one begins with the idea that Native Hawaiians lived savagely before being integrated into American democracy, then Trask is an awful racist.  If one begins from Trask’s point, she’s no racist at all but rather is responding to a historical crime.  Despite the approach of mainstream media in the United States, it’s not all just a matter of opinion to be noted without critique.  One may be right or both may be wrong.  The basic question is whether or not Trask’s starting point is correct, and it is, without a doubt.  If you have any interest in Hawaii, it behooves you to begin from that point and weigh everything else against it.  The conclusion you will come to, if you keep to logic, will support Trask.

Of particular interest to me were her comments on coalitions, because they rang very true to my own limited experiences protesting the various wars the United States is still, as of this writing, prosecuting around the world.  Her discussion of the way white people as a group behave in political groups was spot on and totally reflective of, in particular, one group I was involved in (and left) in Riverside, CA.  Generally, she favors, quoting Malcolm X, organizational separatism.  Hawaiians should form Hawaiian groups.  White people have a lot of work to do, but their work’s place is fundamentally among white people.  What do white people need to do?  Speak out against racism in their own communities when it pops up.  If every decent white person did that all the time, things would be a lot different.

She notes the exceptional white people who, over years, demonstrate themselves as real collaborators.  The key, Trask notes, is action as opposed to words.  Get to work, don’t demand to have the last word or control things, and you, white person, can be a part of the solution.  It certainly was clear to me in my brief activist tenure that there are plenty of white people who think that their part in the struggle is to say something in a meeting.  More importantly, if one, as a white person, understands that the single greatest thing one can do to dismantle racism is to shut up and work–obviously, in the right context–then damn it if one shouldn’t do it.  It’s liberating.

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Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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