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.
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But as early as 1923, Du Bois reflected deeply on the nature of black desires and a Western weltanschaaung in a speech entitled, “Criteria of Negro Art.” It was published in The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People, which Du Bois himself edited, and in this document he raises fundamental spiritual questions—what Buddhists might call Dharma doors—for a people whose dreams were long deferred.
What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what American really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?
If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans, if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful;—what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor-cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners and buy the longest press notices?
Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your heart that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that—but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.
Others echoed Dr. Du Bois’s question, “What do we want?” As early as the 1920s, some black Americans were quietly investigating Far Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism after experiencing Du Bois’s “flashes of clairvoyance.” Preeminent among these spiritual seekers was Jean Toomer, who regarded himself as “a psychological adventurer: one who, having had the stock experiences of mankind, sets out at right angles to all previous experience to discover new states of being.” His classic work, Cane (1923), kicked off the Harlem Renaissance, the first outpouring of black American creativity after World War I. It is fitting, in a way, that Cane inaugurated the Renaissance, which scholar Alain Locke described as the dawn of “The New Negro,” for Toomer’s book is a hypnotic, language-rich montage of poetry and fiction that delivers a portrait of Southern black life as so mythic and shot through with elemental mysteries that it clearly belongs in the tradition of American Transcendentalism stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau. Furthermore, the year after its publication, Toomer began the first of many summers in Europe studying, then teaching the philosophy of George I. Gurdjieff, which remains an original restatement of esoteric wisdom influenced by Tibetan and Sufi teachings. For Toomer, the task was to transcend false concepts of dualism, ontologically restore to our sense of life its original wholeness, and emphasize the enduring mystery of being.
During his years as a teacher for the Gurdjieff Institute, Toomer declared, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race”—a new man, whom he describes in his sweeping, Whitmanesque poem “Blue Meridian” (1937), a song of this country’s possibilities, which also offers us a bridge between the black experience and the profound reflections on selfhood long a part of Vedic literature. In that remarkable poem, Toomer prophecies that the new man of tomorrow’s America will be a “blue man.” He selects this color, I believe, to invoke the image of Krishna in Hindu pictorial art, where that deity’s skin, blue and borderless as the sky itself, suggests the infinity and non-duality of being.
Toomer’s “new (blue) man” is, therefore, emblematic of a being who has shed likes and dislikes, “prejudices and preferences.” A cross-cultural being. A breaker of racial and gender polarities (“Free the sexes, I am neither male nor female or in-between; I am of sex, with male differentiations”). So that, when he writes, “It is a new America/To be spiritualized by each new American,” he urges us to avoid all forms of bondage and enslavement that arise from a racially fractured society, vulgar materialism, and naive naturalism.
Let it go that we may live.
A pin, a watch-fob, a card of identification,
A name, pain and emptiness,
A will to perpetuate what has been, blind
To distinctions between the useful and the
And, of course, an ego
That which you have held has got hold of you
And would sink you as it goes down.
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