Embracing and Fearing the Void: The Root of Racism

Baldwin-Yellow1James Baldwin once called America a nation “dedicated to the death of the paradox,” a people particularly fond of the straight-forward answer: the Yes-No, the Black-White, the Just-The-Facts, Ma’am, reply.  Which could make reading Baldwin particularly difficult.  As Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro—the academy-award-nominated film about Baldwin—recently said: his sentences “hit you on one side, and once you think you understood the sentence, then he would hit you with the second part of the sentence.”  As in this passage, one of the most important in Baldwin’s entire work.

“We take our shape, it is true, within and against the cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.  Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden.  From this void—ourselves—it is the function of society to protect us; but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us—”from the evil that is in the world.”  With the same motion, at the same time, it is this toward which we endless struggle and from which, endlessly, we struggle to escape.”

Baldwin-NotesOfThis comes from an essay about Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” the lead essay—after a short, important autobiographical introduction—of Baldwin’s 1955 collection Notes of a Native Son. It twists and turns, beginning with the paradox of being shaped and betrayed by the same reality, and ending with us struggling towards “this void” and struggling to escape it “With the same motion, at the same time….”  It cannot be said enough: this is typical of Baldwin, partly because he was so dedicated to capturing—and honoring—the complexity of the human situation.  In this passage he also leads us straight to the paradox of racism with a phrase that might go by us quickly.  ”From this void—ourselves—,” “void” and “ourselves” standing next to each other, the dashes acting as an equals sign: void = ourselves.  A few words latter the equivalence snaps into sharper focus as “this void” becomes “our unknown selves.”  We fear this void—our unknown selves—because it is unknown, yet we sense that this unknown self is the fount of our own creativity, which causes us to create in order to name this void—make it known—yet, paradoxically, if it were known we sense our creativity would dry up.

This void has a color…black.  It is the void out of which God speaks, saying “Let there be light.”  Yet the light lasts only a day time, before night time returns. This void—blackness, darkness—is also associated with our sins, which we try to escape by wiping them clean or denying them so that we may be eternal children of light. As a nation we have denied, even tried to wipe out, black people to deny or wipe clean what many have called our country’s “original sin:” slavery and the racism that must attend slavery.

In “Many Thousands Gone,” the essay on Richard Wright that follows “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin says what he will say in many ways throughout his career: “Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.”  The
root of racism, and of any other way we dehumanize others, is our inability to accept that we are both black and white, yes and no.  We think purity is big, that it leads to Truth, but it actually diminishes and simplifies what we are and causes us to diminish and simplify any human being who reminds us of our complexity and impurity.

This article is part of a series on James Baldwin.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and the Teaching Diversity main page.

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The Paradox of “Leadership Lists”

Lists2So many books on leadership and management feature lists.  There’s Edwards Deming’s “14 Management Principles,” Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Robert Quinn’s “8 Seed Thoughts.” Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals contains 11 rules on “the ethics of means and ends” and 13 rules on tactics.  Even Robert Greenleaf’s essay The Servant as Leader, at the least the way I read it, contains eight qualities or actions of servant leadership.  Go to the Lead Post in my series on this important essay to see my list of what I think is his list!

What does this communicate about the process of becoming a leader?  Many leadership books read like stereotypical self-help books, and, more important, one is tempted to read them as if they were cook books.  Do this, this, and this, and out will pop the leader in you.  Yet so many of these books also talk about more mysterious processes, processes that may have yielded lists but actually start with deep intuitions and feelings for what is right. Robert Quinn’s book Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results throws irony on top of paradox by starting each chapter with Lists3quotes from Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  ”Ordinary People”?  But as he pushes his take on deep change—his Advanced Change Theory (ACT), with its “8 Seed Thoughts”—he says, in a section titled “The Inaccessibility of ACT”: “Understanding of the transformational process does not emanate from logical analysis…it does not come from external authority of the theological institution.  It emanates from principled living and higher levels of moral reason…”—this last stemming from another list, Kohlberg’s ubiquitous “Six Stages of Moral Reasoning.”

At one point even crusty, hard-nosed Saul Alinsky, defining the qualities of a great organizer, turns to Adam Smith’s The Money Game, where Smith describes a great fund manager:  ”It is personal intuition, sensing patterns of behavior.  There is always something unknown, undiscerned…You can’t just graduate an analyst into managing funds.  What is it the good managers have?  It’s a kind of locked-in concentration, an intuition, a feel, nothing that can be schooled.  The first thing you have to know is yourself.”  In “Art, Rhythm, Intuition, and Social Change” I wrote of how important “sensing patterns” was to a list of qualities and actions Robert Greenleaf’s servant leader had to have.  And as to how he came up with the idea of servant leadership itself (and started a whole field of leadership thinking), Robert Greenleaf says, ”I didn’t get the notion of the servant as leader from conscious logic. Rather it came to me as an intuitive insight. And I do not see what is relevant from my own searching and experience in terms of a logical progression from premise to conclusion.”

Lists1It’s a constant, nagging question.  How much can anything, let alone leadership, be taught. For years I’ve told my writing students that their ability to write will come 40% from just writing themselves, 40% from reading, and only 20% from what I teach them—and that last could be a generous estimate.  From just writing and reading will come a feeling for the resonances of words, the rhythms of sentences, the pace of an entire composition. And these percentages don’t take into account what may be the most important thing of all: what, as Quinn might say, “emanates from principled living.”  Here “principled living” could be taken more broadly as meaning the intensity with which writers live and feel the human condition—this last, and also mysterious phrase, perhaps finally boiling down to how much empathy writers have for themselves and others.

How do you develop that?  There’s certainly lots of books, each containing lists pointing to more lists in a nearly infinite regression, all purporting to guide us there.  But maybe only 20% there.  And that’s IF we understand that those lists are finally just approximations, more or less honest, that could help lead us to—not through—more difficult, mysterious, powerful places in our selves.

This article is part of a series on John Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

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Art, Rhythm, Intuition, and Social Change

In his pamphlet The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf writes: “The prudent man is he who constantly thinks of  ‘now’ as the moving concept in which past, present moment, and future are one organic unity.  And this requires living by a sort of rhythm that encourages a high level of intuitive insight about the whole gamut of events from the indefinite past, through the present moment, to the indefinite future.  One is at once, in every moment of time, historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet–not three separate roles.  This is what the practicing leader is, every day of his life.”

Greenleaf-Rhythm1As it is in passage after passage in this seminal essay—the essay which started the field of Servant Leadership studies—there’s much to unpack  and ponder.  Here I want to concentrate on the phrase, “And this requires living by a sort of rhythm that encourages a high level of intuitive insight….”  Though it may be different for each person, each person must ask, “What kind of rhythm would that be, and do I live my life by it?”

Recently, I spoke at a small conference at my college.  The topic was “Grief and Social Change,” and this question of what rhythm we live our life to was one of the three main questions I asked.  It was about 2:15 p.m., and I said, “Let me describe my day to you so far.  I woke at 3:30 a.m. to go from my home in Aurora to prepare and serve a meal from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. at the Daybreak Shelter in Joliet.  I got home around 8:00 a.m. to pick up my wife and drive her to work in Oak Park.  Getting home around 10:00 a.m., I took about a two nap, waking at noon, cleaning up, driving to a sale to pick up things for our new house, before rushing here—often going 80 plus miles an hour down Highway 88—to speak to you for about an hour, after which I’ll return to my office to send back a thesis draft to a graduate student before heading to my God daughter’s 12th birthday around 4:30, then leaving there about 6:00 to attend a function at my wife’s work back in Oak Park.  Now, what kind of rhythm would you say that is?  Is it one that in any way encourages a high level of intuitive insight?”

Greenleaf-Rhythm2It was a ridiculous question, of course.  And my point wasn’t that I was busier than anyone else.  It was a packed schedule, to be sure, but not all that far off from the pace many of us live our lives by much of the time.  It’s a rhythm that encourages a high degree of being frantic, not being intuitive.  In short, we’re just too busy running around to be good leaders.

So what, besides slowing down, way down, must we do?  For a long while now, the general prescription for our times has been to create quiet times, to meditate, to pray—if you’re religious—focusing, perhaps, on some portion of scripture.  What else?  Throughout The Servant as Leader Greenleaf emphasizes artists and the role of art.  “Besides being quieter and meditating,” I asked, “how much time do we spend with art?  Listening to music, for example, not just having it in the background, but attending to it, being with it?”  Or being with a painting, a sculpture, a tapestry, photograph?  Or with nature, which many believe is the greatest art of all?

Greenleaf-Rhythm3What might we gain from being with art?  Many things, of course.  Here, I’ll focus on just one: we gain an intuitive sense for patterns, rhythmic patterns.  These begin long before a particular piece of art begins and continue long after it ends, but a particular piece’s present moment unifies all these rhythms into an organic whole.  This rhythmic wholeness is common to all art.  Paintings display it as much as music does, and architecture has been described as “frozen music.”  In this way artistic rhythm parallels—it develops and nourishes—the organic sense of past, present, and future Greenleaf speaks about.  It nourishes and develops a special feeling for patterns of wholeness, which produce foresight—what Greenleaf calls the servant leader’s “central ethic.”  This helps the servant leader “know the unknowable,” foresee what’s coming, set a direction for us, and say what we must be doing.  It allows the servant leader to conceptualize these things—that is, what will happen if we go in this direction, act in this way—and conceptualization, says Greenleaf, is the leader’s central talent.  A leader’s central ethic and talent—these come out of a life lived to a rhythm embodied in all great art.  Spending time with art is one of the prime ways to encourage the highest quality intuitions.

This article is part of a series on Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

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