It was not until I turned fifty did I begin to embrace my being African American in a white world.I have often wondered about the ability to survive tragic suffering such as slavery.Where can the mind go under such circumstances and not want to die right then and there? What gives a person the will to endure?
Dr. Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, author, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the United States civil rights era stated, “life has its own restraints.” What I take this to mean, from a yogic perspective, is that under great adversity, as when people are oppressed and denied freedom of will, the mind must search out purusha from prakriti. Purusha, as the existence of pure being, becomes distinguished from the physical worldly existence of prakriti, which is encumbered by “its own restraints”. Anything in the physical world is impermanent and subject to change. To value anything on the impermanent physical realm is false idolatry. False idolatry on something subject to change is ignorance. Ignorance causes suffering. Greed is false idolatry. Greed is the idolatry of any accumulation physical possession i.e., property or money, beyond one’s need. Greed led to the enslavement of masses of people. Even today we still suffer from such ignorance. Ignorance leads to the value of property over human beings. We often are ignorant about being human thinking that we are only the flesh and not the spirit.It is the spirit that ended slavery. It is the spirit that is now marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter. The spirit will never die. The physical world has limitations through man’s ignorance of true reality. Turning to spirituality is seeking beyond such limitations and impermanence.
Through the “Negro Spirituals,” or whatever other means, to touch the intangible arose the grace to make life bearable to go on. To exist in life’s restraints but know not to be entrapped by it. The grace is the glimpses of inner being that exists beyond the torture inflicted on the flesh. This inner being that can be victorious even in the face of death. This inner being that still reaches out to me from my ancestors. I have seen in my patients from economically deprived circumstances demonstrate this inner being’s ability to survive in the midst of social structures that impede upon their lives by squeezing out the options to live a desired sustainable living. This ability to survive such adversities is derived from the love. A courageous love that knows one deserves to exist in spite of life’s restraints in society, and a soft love that blesses when it is time to let go because of life’s restaints in the body.
So the part that I embrace about being African American is feeling my ancestral spirit in the face of white supremacy. This ancestry has given me a leg up in recognizing “life’s restraints” apart from the grace of God. Understand that I only speak for myself as one African American. For those enmeshed in the suffering of life’s restraints they may not fair so well and turn to suicide, murder, or to alcohol and substances of abuse, or whatever way to self destruct when the mind can take no more.
Those benefiting most from white supremacy have a harder time identifying the permanent, purusha, from the impermanent, prakriti, because the privileges of the impermanent are so alluring. False idolatry is inherent in the privileged.
In honor of the spirit within me and my ancestors I am proud to be the product of a people who survived the abusive passage on slave ships, who courageously bore their own children (and the children of whites) under enslavement, and a people who the still stood up after being beaten down by whippings, and all possible forms of degradation, and a people who could and still can march and raise voices above the forces that want to make us less than. I am not at all saying that I am grateful for slavery. Slavery is abhorrent and a crime against humanity. What I am saying is the force of God’s love is greater than the force of any evil. God’s love does and will survive. The fact that I am here is testimony to that. Current protests in the streets is testimony to an undying spirit of love and unity. This spirit lives in each one of us. It is up to each individual to connect to the infinite, impermanent, loving source of our being. None of life’s restraints can bind the spirit.
***NOTE: The first image is a piece by artist Christopher Martin, and has been created as part of a collaboration to support Black Lives Matter.