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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

10 APRIL, 2015

Change the Narrative, Change Your Destiny: How James Baldwin Read His Way Out of Harlem and into Literary Greatness

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“You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.”

NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience.

When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in the summer of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), the seven and a half hours of generous genius that flowed between them covered such wide-ranging issues as race and gender, power and privilege, capitalism and democracy, and a wealth of nuanced human concerns in between.

One of the most poignant portions of the conversation looks at why real change becomes possible only when we change the cultural narrative. Baldwin recounts how, as a child, he read his way out of his own culturally-imposed narrative of possibility, which allowed him to go beyond what Kafka believed books could do for us — serve as “the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — and go further, turning books into an axe for the frozen sea between us.

I used to tell my mother, when I was little, “When I grow up I’m going to do this or do that. I’m going to be a great writer and buy you this and buy you that.” And she would say, very calmly, very dryly, “It’s more than a notion.” That kind of dry understatement which characterizes so much of black speech in America is my key to something, only I didn’t know it then.

Then I started reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. There were two libraries in Harlem, and by the time I was thirteen I had read every book in both libraries and I had a card downtown for Forty-Second Street… What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me… Dickens meant a lot to me, for example, because there was a rage in Dickens which was also in me… And Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant a lot to me because there was a rage in her which was somehow in me. Something I recognized without knowing what I recognized.

Later in the conversation — which took place during the golden age of television — he quips:

I can’t bear television sets. But I can afford not to bear them because I read books.

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Baldwin — who was, at the time of the conversation, based in Paris and was perhaps the world’s most successful living poet — considers how, in stretching himself to create his identity, he reached not only beyond the geographic constraints of his neighborhood and the societal constraints of his culture, but beyond the English language itself:

I was very young, and the assumptions of the people by whom I was surrounded, who now were white people, were so fatally different that I was really in trouble. I was in danger of thinking myself out of existence, because … an unknown helpless black boy, wandering around the way I did and thinking the way I thought, was obviously a dangerous kind of freak. Obviously, you say what you think, and there is no way to hide what you think. People look at you with great wonder and great hostility, and I got scared because I could see that I wouldn’t be able to function in this world or even in this language, and I went away.

But I began to think in French. I began to understand the English language better than I ever had before; I began to understand the English language which I came out of, the language that produced Ray Charles or Bessie Smith or which produced all the poets who produced me. A kind of reconciliation began which could not have happened if I had not stepped out of the English language.

[…]

There is a sense in which I could say I never have left Harlem. But there is another sense in which I certainly never can go back there, if only because the Harlem in which I was born exists no longer. And though that rupture has something to do with race, it also has something to do with the nature or quality or the specialness — I don’t know what the word is — of human experience.

Further into the conversation, Baldwin revisits this particular paradox of the human experience — the great challenge of rewriting the system’s limiting narratives of possibility and the great duty, if we are to escape their traps, of setting out to rewrite them however challenging the task:

If you’re born into that situation, the nature of the trap is with your not even knowing it, acquiescing. You’ve been taught that you’re inferior so you act as though you’re inferior. And on the level that is very difficult to get at, you really believe it. And, of course, all the things you do to prove you’re not inferior only really prove you are. They boomerang… You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.

He later adds:

Once people know what they know, they make the unconscious assumption that they were born knowing what they know, and forget that they had to learn everything they know.

We are always, Baldwin seems to remind us, the product of what we learn — but we can choose whether to learn it by passive osmosis of the system’s values or by active self-invention. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” he resonates with Mead in another part of the conversation. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” To learn by such passive osmosis is to acquiesce to the world’s terms of how we are to be treated. To read is to be exposed to other possible versions of ourselves, beyond those bequeathed to us by our direct cultural ancestors and instead borrowed, at will, from what Mead called our “mythical ancestors”. In championing this notion, Baldwin is echoing Seneca — one of his own mythical ancestors, perhaps — who argued two thousand years earlier that reading allows us to be adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects” and raised by parents of our own choosing, becoming persons of our own creation.

Pair this particular passage from the altogether culturally requisite A Rap on Race with C.S. Lewis on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on what books do for the human soul, and Mary Ruefle on why “someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world.”

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10 APRIL, 2015

How Do You Know You Exist? A Mind-Bending Animated Homage to Descartes Exploring the Conundrum of Reality

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“When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t.”

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” But what is the thing we call reality, exactly, and how are we even sure it is in the first place? Long before Philip K. Dick proclaimed that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” and E.F. Schumacher considered how we know what we know, the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) tussled with these questions in his foundational 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) — a quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what is known with absolute certainty, and to advance a framework for what we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This pleasantly mind-bending animation from James Zucker and TED-Ed turns our most fundamental sense of certainty on its head by directing Descartes’s inquiry at the most seemingly solid bastion of reality — the self: How do you know you’re real?

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t — so you can’t prove you aren’t dreaming. Maybe the body you perceive yourself to have isn’t really there. Maybe all of reality, even its abstract concepts like time, shape, color, and number are false.

Complement with Alan Watts on what we really mean by “reality”, Mark Strand’s poetic ode to dreams, and a wonderful animated take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains humanity’s greatest parable about the nature of reality, then find a necessary counterpoint in astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s beautiful case for living with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude.

Previous TED-Ed primers have explored how melancholy enhances our creativity, why we love repetition in music, how to detect lies, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

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10 APRIL, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Harvey Milk, Humanitarian Martyr for Love

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How a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and answered it with a clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his indispensable 1963 letter from Birmingham City Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” One rainy January Sunday fifteen years later, long before Edie Windsor catalyzed the triumph of marriage equality, Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) was sworn into office on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall and became the first openly gay elected city official in America. His assassination eleven months later devastated millions and rendered him modernity’s great secular martyr for love. His tenure, however tragically brief, forever changed the landscape of civil rights.

In The Harvey Milk Story (public library) — a wonderful addition to the best LGBT children’s books — writer Kari Krakow and artist David Gardner tell the heartening and heartbreaking story of how a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and how he answered it with a groundbreaking clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

Harvey was Born the second child of a middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. He was a boy at once brimming with joy, frequently entertaining the family by conducting an invisible orchestra in the living room, and full of deep sensitivity to the suffering of others.

He was deeply moved when his mother, Minnie, told him the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who courageously defended themselves even as the Nazis outnumbered them — a story that imprinted him with a profound empathy for the oppressed even before he had a clear sense that he would grow up to be one of them.

Although Harvey was athletic and popular in school, he anguished under the burden of a deep wistfulness — by the time he was fourteen, he knew he was gay, but like many queer people of his time, he kept this centerpiece of identity a closely guarded secret for a great many years to come.

He came of age, after all, in an era when queer couples celebrated their love only in private and when geniuses as vital to humanity as computing pioneer Alan Turing were driven to suicide after being criminally prosecuted by the government for being gay.

After graduating from college, Harvey joined the Navy, becoming an expert deep-sea diver and ascending through the ranks until he came to head a submarine rescue vessel.

When he went to his bother Robert’s wedding, he looked so handsome in his navy uniform that his family and friends all wondered when he would settle down and get married to the “right girl.”

But instead, like the hero of the heartwarming King & King fairy tale, Harvey fell in love and settled down with the right boy, a young man named Joe.

They moved together to a little town in New York, where Harvey became a high school math and science teacher. But after six years, Harvey and Joe separated — as Krakow points out, the pressure to hide their relationship in fear of losing their jobs put an undue strain on their love. Weary of hiding his identity, Harvey moved to San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro neighborhood — where queer couples walked down the street holding hands like any other couple would in any other city — and he fell in love again.

Together with Scott, his new partner, Harvey opened a small store called Castro Camera, which soon turned into a community center as Harvey became a one-man Craigslist, counseling neighbors on everything from finding apartments to applying for jobs.

The more Harvey listened to the people, the more he sensed that they needed a leader — not only an informal one, but one who fought on their behalf in the eyes of the law, standing up to the police who harassed them constantly and fighting against the daily indignities of discrimination, from which the political system failed to protect them. Harvey saw only one course of action — to apply for office. His customers and the community embraced his campaign and volunteered their time.

Eleven-year-old Medora Payne came every day after school to lick envelopes and hand out brochures for Harvey. She organized a fundraiser at her school, earning $39.28 for his campaign.

Bigots believed that it wasn’t right or even possible for an openly gay candidate to be elected. Indeed, Harvey lost three consecutive election cycles between 1973 and 1976, but didn’t lose faith. He remained emboldened by the unflinching conviction that the rights of minorities — not only the LGBT community, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, senior citizens, and the disabled — weren’t adequately represented in and protected by the government. His people loved him for the dedication.

At last, in 1977, he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors and sworn into office the following January as Supervisor Milk. He immediately set out to champion greater quality of life for the people of the city — a kind of Robert Moses without the evil genius, bolstering the city’s parks, schools, and police protection. Eventually, he introduced a pioneering gay bill of rights. After ten of the city’s eleven supervisors voted for it, Mayor George Moscone signed it into law, proclaiming with gusto as Milk stood by his side:

I don’t do this enough, taking swift and unambiguous action on a substantial move for civil rights.

It was a historic moment, marked by a moving speech Milk made in front of City Hall, calling for a gay rights march in Washington.

But as the city celebrated, one man sat consumed with hateful bigotry and personal jealousy — Dan White, the only Supervisor who hadn’t voted for Milk’s bill and who had resigned from office in a petty act of protest, only to ask for his job back ten days later. Sensing his ill will, Mayor Moscone had refused to hire him back.

On a gloomy November morning, White crept into City Hall through a basement window, with a loaded gun. He barged into Moscone’s office and shot the mayor, promptly reloading his gun and heading down the hall to Harvey Milk’s office. Five shots echoed through the marble building.

Harvey Milk was dead.

People everywhere were stunned by the news of the double assassination. They left their homes, jobs and schools to mourn the loss of these two great leaders. Crowds began forming in front of City Hall. By nightfall thousands filled the mile-long street and ran from the Castro to City Hall. They stood in silence, carrying candles. That night the people of San Francisco wept.

Harvey Milk was gone, but his legacy only gained momentum in the fight for civil rights. The following October, a hundred thousand people brought his dream to life and took to the streets of Washington in the capital’s first-ever Gay Pride March, many carrying portraits of the slain San Francisco hero.

Thirty-four years later, one brave woman picked up where he left off and made possible a dream even Milk didn’t dare to dream — one which the president himself proclaimed “a victory for American democracy,” the triumphant road to which Milk had paved.

Complement The Harvey Milk Story with marriage equality patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, these moving vintage photographs of queer couples, and history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters.

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09 APRIL, 2015

How to Find Your Bliss: Joseph Campbell on What It Takes to Have a Fulfilling Life

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“You have to learn to recognize your own depth.”

In 1985, mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) sat down with legendary interviewer and idea-monger Bill Moyers for a lengthy conversation at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in California, which continued the following year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The resulting 24 hours of raw footage were edited down to six one-hour episodes and broadcast on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, in what became one of the most popular series in the history of public television.

But Moyers and the team at PBS felt that the unedited conversation, three quarters of which didn’t make it into the television production, was so rich in substance that it merited preservation and public attention. Shortly after the broadcast, the full transcript was published as The Power of Myth (public library) — a dimensional discussion of Campbell’s views on spirituality, psychological archetypes, cultural myths, and the mythology of self. The book is nothing short of secular scripture — a trove of wisdom on the human experience in the canon of such rare masterworks as Thoreau’s journals, Simone Weil’s notebooks, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

As Moyers notes in the introduction, Campbell saw as the greatest human transgression “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” This, perhaps, is why the most rewarding part of the conversation deals with the dictum that has come to encapsulate Campbell’s philosophy on life: “Follow your bliss.” Decades before the screaming tyranny of work/life balance reached its modern crescendo, Campbell put a sympathetic ear to the soul’s cry and identified with enormous elegance and precision the root of our existential dissatisfaction. He tells Moyers:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Discerning one’s bliss, Campbell argues, requires what he calls “sacred space” — a space for uninterrupted reflection and unrushed creative work. Far from a mystical idea, this is something that many artists and writers have put into practice by way of their peculiar workspace rituals, as well as something cognitive science has illuminated in exploring the psychology of the perfect daily routine. But Campbell sees past the practical rituals of creativity and into the deeper psychic and spiritual drivers — that profound need for a “bliss station” into which to root ourselves:

[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

[…]

Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it.

Two centuries after Kierkegaard admonished against the cowardice of the crowd, Campbell argues that we often lose our way on the path to our bliss station as society’s limiting notions of success peer-pressure us into unimaginative, fail-safe pursuits:

It’s characteristic of democracy that majority rule is understood as being effective not only in politics but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is always wrong.

[…]

The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Opening up to those more meaningful dimensions of bliss, Campbell insists, is simply a matter of letting your life speak:

We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mark Strand’s beautiful meditation on the poet’s task of bearing witness to the universe, Campbell points to poets as the most attentive of listeners to the language of bliss:

Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under those circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.

But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.

Looking back on how he arrived at this notion of finding one’s bliss, Campbell touches on the crucial difference between religious faith and secular spirituality:

I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.

[…]

The religious people tell us we really won’t experience bliss until we die and go to heaven. But I believe in having as much as you can of this experience while you are still alive.

[…]

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

Illustration from 'The Well of Being' by Jean Pierre Weill. Click image for more.

The most uncomfortable but essential part of finding your bliss, Campbell argues, is the element of uncertainty — the willingness to, in the timeless words of Rilke, “live the questions” rather than reaching for the ready-made answers:

The adventure is its own reward — but it’s necessarily dangerous, having both negative and positive possibilities, all of them beyond control. We are following our own way, not our daddy’s or our mother’s way… Life can dry up because you’re not off on your own adventure.

[…]

There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.

Complement The Power of Myth, the intellectual and spiritual enormity of which cannot be overstated, with David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work in the modern world, and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, then revisit the heartening and rather assuring story of how Van Gogh found his purpose after years of floundering.

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