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Hundreds of thousands of men stood shoulder to shoul der in peaceable assembly. Every time the TV camera left the rostrum in front of the Capitol and swept its eye westward over the tide of men that reached to the monolith of the Washington Monument, there was an energy in the image that no speaker could match, regardless of the dynamism of the presentation or the meaning of the speech. Whenever I had the opportunity, I was drawn to the television as men, women, and young people took turns at the podium, some enlightening, some motivating, and, inevitably, some pedagogically boring. What drew me was never the speaker, but the hope that the camera would again make that sweep while I was watching. Gradually, I became aware that I was looking at an incarnate piece of my shadow displayed globally on satellite TV.
These were men of color from all parts of the country in the capital to demonstrate a solidarity of message to themselves and to the rest of us, to me, a white, middle-class man in Seattle. I bodily felt a message as I experienced the televised reporting of the event. It was a message that I can't state in a simple phrase or two. The whole of it is best described by reflecting on its pieces and parts. A piece of the message I received was the avowed purpose of the event: to share a day of atonement and reconciliation, responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities. Other pieces I felt were the peacefulness of the assembly of men and, especially, the purposefulness on the vast number of faces of the brothers. I was amazed by the evident complexity and quantity of organizational and logistical work of so many individuals and groups, efforts which were also a part of the message. The totality of the whole was stunning to me.
How many men were standing together in the capital on October 16, 1995? In a sense, the number doesn't matter. As an editorial in The Seattle Times said the next day, "But the true number becomes irrelevant to the massing of so many to embrace a message of responsibility." In another sense, the number is part of what was driven home to me, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the number and the counts of that number helped to drive the message home. Was it minimized by the U.S. Park Service, as claimed by the event's organizers? The Park Service estimate of 400,000 was doubted by on-scene reporters over TV and radio, and is called into question by a Boston University Center for Remote Sensing digital-analysis technique that resulted in an estimate of over 837,000, with a 20% margin of error, i.e., 669,600 to 1,004,400, as reported by the Associated Press. There just might have been as many men there as was promised by the title of the occasion. Would the Park Service estimate of a political rally of either major party have appeared to be so erroneous? Even the Park Service estimate was reported to be the largest gathering of African-Americans ever. The number was impressive and historically significant, no matter how you slice it, and that is part of the message. Minimization is evidence of shadow suppression at work.
As I watched and listened, I was fascinated by this image in real time of a major shadow piece of our nation's collective unconscious. How does it seem to me that we deal (or avoid dealing) with this shadow? We build prisons and populate them principally with black men. It seems to me that a classically typical way of denying our shadow is to refuse to honor its existence. Ignore it and suppress it. In this case, lock it up. And we are hell-bent on building stadiums with public funds to further deny the shadow stuff of our racism by cheering insanely for African-Americans and other men of color who happen to possess remarkable physical skills. After all, the body is the realm of utility of the oppressed, as well as an outlet of expression for the shadow that is denied entrance to intellectual or conscious recognition. It's much like a family: Let Billy carry the stupidity or misbehavior of the family and I won't have to even recognize my own. Except that on that day in October, a major portion of the racial Billys of the system of this country showed up in front of the Capitol and refused their assigned task. In full view of the whole-world audience, they assembled for intelligent reasons and behaved as models for us all. (Maybe that's the reason that much of the media and many others focused on Farrakhan with negative rhetoric; it avoided having to give recognition to the assembled men which might release them from their role as our shadow.) The irony of such a chunk of shadow of our collective unconscious standing in the shadows of the central buildings of government was not lost on me as I watched.
All of that was strong enough to hold my attention. But in addition, the actions of those men forced me to address my own piece of that shadow.
Underlying, non-verbalized messages that didn't emanate from the TV were gradually gripping me. "Atonement." How long had it been since I had spent any time or energy in atonement, let alone gone to another city in order to unabashedly stand with other men in public atonement? And if called upon to do so, would I have the guts to answer? After all, I'm certainly no more virtuous than the next man; I have my full share for which to make amends and reparation. But I wasn't called upon. It was my darker-skinned brothers that were massed in D.C. What was this atonement that they sought?
Pronouncing "atonement" as "at-one-ment" has seemed to me a corny language game played by preachers wanting to appear clever. But according to my dictionary, the etymology of atonement is just that, derived from medieval Latin. It appeared to me as I watched that it was this sort of atonement or reconciliation that was wanted by the men in D.C. What a shift that would be, to feel at one with my neighbors, even European-Americans, let alone those with greater differences from me in appearance, culture, or language. It is one thing to walk my neighborhood and see the yards and houses and quite another to experience all that, and my neighbors as well, as part of me; and another yet for me to feel that way while walking a Central District neighborhood.
Child psychologist Anita Barrows has stated that knowing our experience of the world as the "outside," the "not-me," is a phenomenon of Western dualistic thought, that "... as Thomas Berry, Theodore Roszak, Joanna Macy, and others have pointed out, it is only by a construct of the Western mind that we believe ourselves living in an 'inside' bounded by our own skin, with everyone and everything else on the outside."1 Barrows wrote that essay while she was lying by a pond in a natural setting of the high-desert mountains of southern California, which seems a far piece from the inner city mix of skin colors and cultures. But is the inner-city so far a piece from such a setting and if so, why? My answer is yes. Recognition of why that is so for me was gained from the message I take from me from the Million Man March. It is buried in a piece of my shadow, the piece that allows me to connect at times with the natural environment more than with my fellow people, to gain a glow from a wilderness setting (even inside the city) that I don't among stores, homes and other human structures, even with plenty of people around, particularly if I'm in an area that is populated by predominantly low-income minorities. What is in that piece of my shadow?
I heard the phrase "white supremacy" many times from several speakers that day. They were not referring to militant racial cults, but to a mindset of our culture. Gradually, painfully, it sank in. It forced me back to an issue of Sun magazine where Carl Anthony, director of the Urban Habitat Program, among other activities, posed the question, "Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?"2 His answer is they have a lack of knowledge of stories of people of color, and the reason for that lack is an abstraction in the white culture that he calls "white purity." Suddenly, a sharp revelatory chord not produced for me by "white supremacy" was heard and felt in my gut, although both phrases were being used to indicate much the same deep problem, I think. It was the march that opened my eyes, but it was the word "purity" that sank its barb in me. The worst of it is that, once I recognized the existence of the purity standard in me, I also despaired of ever eradicating it. It's a paradigm that is too deeply embedded in my makeup, formed when much of my childhood was spent in Detroit, where the white community contained prejudice so strong that to be exposed to such contagion risked contracting a terminal case of redneck.
It goes like this: White is, for want of a better word, pure and pure is white. It sets the standard to strive for and by which everything is judged. It is a sort of benchmark in the measurement cells of my brain. So if I value nature, and I do, wilderness and nature must be pure, that is, uncontaminated by human works or presence. That tells me that, being white and pure, I can select what I choose to value, and ignore or waste the rest since all of it is "other." Variations of that measurement also apply to people. It allows the homeless, even if white of skin, to be ignored or driven out of sight since their purity has been sullied by dirt, by a lack of the accoutrements of "white," by being out of the norm of the culture of "white," etc. In other words, by being "other." The "contaminated" inner-city mix of skin colors and cultures is indeed a far piece from the "pure" high-desert mountains.
And what of those "others" whose skin is darker than mine? In Brazilian society, there is a complex system of many named "tipos" (roughly, "types") based on physical characteristics, including color of skin and hair, such that a family may contain children that have the same parents but are a variety of tipos, much as a family here may have a thin kid, a short kid, a redhead and a blond.3 But here, if a person has only three Euro-American grandparents, that person usually is not considered white but black or Asian or something else, regardless of the color of her or his skin. This isn't a matter of "race," whatever that is, but of purity of bloodlines, like tracing the lineage of royalty in a system where any taint of "commoner" blood eliminates all royal heritage. As I write this, my eyes cloud with tears of sadness and shame. I can feel the little "bump" in my mind that consideration of an African-American hits for a nanosecond before the process continues. The bump is composed of those measurement cells that size up the person against a "white" yardstick, against "purity." When not even all white people pass the purity muster, how can people of color do so unless I discipline my mind to ignore the bump construct during the consideration? I know I don't always have the energy or awareness to do that and, when I don't, I probably just blunder onward like a driverless truck.
If nothing else, I learned from the men in the march that they are well aware of my measurement methods, of the purity bump in my mental construct. My face is burning at the thought, the more so when I think of my ignorance in the face of their awareness. Hopefully, I heard some of the other news of that day with similar clarity. Hopefully, I can help change the situation just a little, if only by exercising more honesty in my interactions with friends and acquaintances of color. Hopefully, by bringing it into the open, I can reduce the power of this piece of my shadow, let go of purity and open the world a little for myself. For that awareness, I thank the men of the Million Man March. r
1.Barrows, A., "The Ecopsychology of Child Development," in Echopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, ed by T. Roszak, M. Gomes, A. Kanner (1995)
2. Later I learned that the Carl Anthony piece in Sun magazine is a reprint from the book cited in note 1.
3. Fish, Jefferson M., "Mixed Blood," in Psychology Today, November/December, 1995.
Tom McKey is a psychotherapist and a maritime arbitrator/mediator who has worked as an engineer, Coast Guard officer, and maritime lawyer. His poetry has appeared in M.E.N. Magazine under the pen name "Nevar."
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