In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
A Buddhist and one of America’s preeminent African-American writers applies the suffering of the First Noble Truth to the suffering of blacks in white America, and traces the history of Dharma among black artists.
This article appears in 20 Years, 20 Teachings: The Tricycle 20th Anniversary E-Book. It's free to all Supporting and Sustaining Members. Get the e-book.
The black experience in America, like the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, begins with suffering.
It begins in the violence of seventeenth-century slave forts sprinkled along the west coast of Africa, where debtors, thieves, war prisoners, and those who would not convert to Islam were separated from their families, branded, and sold to Europeans who packed them into pestilential ships that cargoed 20 million human beings (a conservative estimate) to the New World. Only 20 percent of those slaves survived the harrowing voyage at sea (and only 20 percent of the sailors, too), and if they were among the lucky few to set foot on American soil new horrors and heartbreak awaited them.
As has been documented time and again, the life of a slave—our not-so-distant ancestors—was one of thinghood. It is, one might say, a frighteningly fertile ground for the growth of a deep appreciation for the First and Second Noble Truths as well as a living illustration of the meaning of impermanence. Former languages, religions, and cultures were erased, replaced by a Peculiar Institution in which the person of African descent was property systematically—legally, physically, and culturally—denied all sense of self-worth. A slave owns nothing, least of all himself. He desires and dreams at the risk of his life, which is best described as relative to (white) others, a reaction to their deeds, judgments, and definitions of the world. And these definitions, applied to blacks, were not kind. In the nation’s pulpits, Christian clergy in the South justified slavery by picturing blacks as the descendents of Ham or Cain; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson dismissed slaves as childlike, stupid, and incapable of self-governance. For 244 years (from 1619 to 1863) America was a slave state with a guilty conscience: two and a half centuries tragically scarred by slave revolts, heroic black (and Abolitionist) resistance to oppression, and, more than anything else, physical, spiritual, and psychological suffering so staggeringly thorough it silences the mind when we study the classic slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass, or see the brutal legacies of chattel bondage in a PBS series like Africans in America. All that was over, of course, by the end of the Civil War, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring liberation.
Legal freedom brought segregation instead, America’s version of apartheid, for another hundred years. But “separate” was clearly not “equal.” The experienced law of black life was disenfranchisement, anger, racial dualism, second-class citizenship, and, as the great scholar W.E.B. DuBois put it in his classic The Souls of Black Folks (1903), “double-consciousness.” Can anyone doubt that if there is an essence—an eidos—to black American life, it has for three centuries been craving, and a quest for identity and liberty which, pushed to its social extremes, propelled this pursuit beyond the relative, conceptual realities of race and culture to a deeper investigation of the meaning of freedom?
If the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are about anything, they are about a profound understanding of identity and the broadest possible meaning of liberty—teachings that sooner or later had to appeal to a people for whom suffering and loss were their daily bread. In the century after the Emancipation Proclamation each generation of black Americans saw their lives disrupted by race riots, lynchings, and the destruction of entire towns and communities such as the Greenwood district of black homes, businesses, and churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. These Jim Crow years witnessed the birth of the blues and a white backlash that fed poisonous caricatures of black people into popular culture and the national consciousness—films like Birth of a Nation, the writings of the Plantation School, and endless stereotypes that distorted black identity in newspapers and magazines—images that made the central question of the black self, “Who am I? American? African? Or something other? Can reality be found in any of these words?”
During these centuries of institutionalized denial, black Americans found in Christianity a spiritual rock and refuge. Although first imposed on some slaves by their owners as a way of making them obedient, Christianity in black hands became a means for revolt against bondage. Then, in the twentieth century, the black church provided consolation in a country divided by the color-line. It became a common spiritual, social, economic, and political experience and was the place where black people could reinterpret Christianity and transform it into an instrument for worldly change. It became a racially tempered institution, one that raised funds to help the poor and to send black children off to college.
Historically, no other institution’s influence compares with that of the black church, and I believe it will continue to be the dominant spiritual orientation of black Americans. It provides a compelling and time-tested moral vision, a metaphysically dualistic one that partitions the world into good and evil, heaven and hell, posits an immortal soul that no worldly suffering can harm, and through the agapic love of a merciful Father promises in the afterlife rewards denied in this one. Christianity, in part, made black Americans a genuinely Western people, on the whole identical in their strivings and sense of how the world works with Northern Europeans in the Judeo-Christian tradition.