Barry’s Blog # 225: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part One of Four

Part One: The Mythological and Psychological Background 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…  — Abel Meeropol

Myths are the stories people tell about themselves about themselves that help them to make sense of the great contradictions in life. Often, even stories that seem to be about other people turn out to be really about those people (or nations) who are privileged to tell the stories. The story of America is, to a great extent, one of idealistic people, innocent of all sin, who sought out new land to live in freedom and opportunity, and of how they gradually extended those blessings to the world. It’s a story about white people, and it has a large shadow. 

The great majority of African Americans, those who have been forced to bear the projection of the white unconscious, understand that the subtext of almost all of our domestic issues – and much of our foreign policies – is America’s original sin, its fatal flaw, race. For sixty years, polls have consistently shown that most white people do not share this view. 

As a writer on social issues, let me state my opinion as clearly as I can: from the perspective of the myth of American innocence, any social, economic or political commentary that does not begin by acknowledging this fact is either hopelessly ignorant or deliberately complicit with the aims of the empire and with assumptions of white supremacy.

When we speak of American exceptionalism, we have to understand that America remains at heart a puritan nation, and that the worst of all sins to the Puritan is lack of self-control. Even though studies consistently show that similar percentages of whites and blacks engage in sex, drugs and violence, large numbers of whites still believe the old stereotypes that blacks are more susceptible to such “vices.” This allows whites, wrote Ralph Ellison, “…to be at home in the vast unknown world of America.”

America has had countless scapegoats, but why are we periodically compelled to lynch only one of them?  After 350 years of mythic instruction, popular thinking among white people remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication. These pairs of opposites are all forms of a more fundamental opposition between composure and impulsivity (or in mythic imagery, between the ancient Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus). Whiteness, as the civilized, the abstinent, the sober and the composed, is the baseline definition of the innocent community, and blackness, as all those opposites, is the Other. 

Othering is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is activated, so is its opposite. Even as they perceive blacks as unable to control their desires, large majorities of whites still accuse them of the Puritan’s second worst sin, laziness. Two thirds of white people still tell pollsters that the problems suffered by blacks are due to their preference for welfare over work. This is an odd claim, writes Tim Wise, “…seeing as how five out of six blacks don’t receive any.” 

When mythic narratives collapse, when large numbers of people stop believing, they can replace archetypes with stereotypes in their search for something new to believe in. The next step in scapegoating is to manipulate the fear that those who can’t control their desires – or are too lazy to be productive – will entice everyone else to emulate them, that middle-class whites might not be able to resist temptation.

What does this fear of temptation say about white people? It implies that their carefully constructed veneers of innocence, progress, racial superiority, masculinity and self-control are eggshell-thin. At a deeper level, however, it implies envy of those whom the dominant culture, for its own purposes, has designated as more childlike and more in touch with the needs of their bodies.

And envy points toward something even deeper, the unconscious desire for healing. But healing, as something beyond simplistic notions of regeneration, as initiation into self-knowledge, implies the death of what no longer works. The soul desires this more than anything, and the ego fears this more than anything. As James Baldwin wrote,

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.

And this is precisely why, all across the world, the indigenous imagination has given us stories about mythic figures such as Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, the god who called all those values of respectability, sobriety and decorum into question. And the more a culture holds to those values, the more it is likely to call up a Dionysian figure from its own national unconscious as compensation.

The Black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of Euripides’ 4th-century B.C. play The Bacchae, he comes from beyond the gates to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains to dance among themselves, free of patriarchal control. And in the fever dreams of the white supremacist, he threatens to lead the children away like another outsider, the Pied Piper.

Whites project the stereotyped characteristics of American Dionysus upon blacks because the heritage of Puritanism does not allow them to fully embody those characteristics themselves. But – we must say this repeatedly – just below the negative judgments and hatred of the Other lies envy of those who appear to be comfortable in their bodies and unrestrained in their desires. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, African Americans proudly use the word soul to define their music and culture in contrast to the dominant religious and cultural values.

Read Part Two here.

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6 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 225: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part One of Four

  1. Dale says:

    Barry, I have read and re-read your book and everything that you’ve written, and I can honestly say that I deeply appreciate EVERY word that you have ever written — until now. You share truth when you write that the Soul desires true healing initiation into self-knowledge, but you dis Soul big time to say that Soul fears true healing initiation. I know that Soul has no fear — it is the mind that fears.

    The mind creates duality: right or wrong, good or bad, sane or crazy, smart or stupid, etc. or not that. As comedian Dana Carvey would say, speaking as Poppy Bush, describing what he would not do, he would not because “… it wouldn’t be prudent.” Bush Sr.’s soul shadow side came out in the twisted sex-related initiatory rituals of Skull and Bones, and later on for son W there as well. However, W also spent years often “out of his mind” drunk and/or high. He can be described by some as a “lost soul” all those years because the way he was living made no rational sense, common sense or otherwise.

    Would-be dominant white America’s purported spirituality is Protestant, quoting selectively from their supposed “good” book, for mind-mind communication. No dancing, no burning incense, no statues (especially of a Female), no real fun. What passes for Protestant singing, if any, is reading (albeit sing-song) from a book. Minds decide who are the “good” (white, Protestant) and who are the opposite — the “bad” “other.” Even those Americans who haven’t been to church in years, even those who might not describe themselves as “Christians” seem to have this mindset as their default (“de fault”).

    America at its worst is a WASP nest: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and potentially very dangerous, especially when acting together, like a lynch mob. Hanging is not the worst part of lynchings in America. Dismemberment of the victim was common, not only cutting off fingers and such for souvenirs or gifts, but castration. Dionysian rituals, classic or of American rock stars like Elvis,were about adoring females ripping “Dion” apart. The WASP males did the dismembering (although the WASP females often watched and cheered them on). Lynchings often happened on Sunday afternoons and evenings — after Sunday morning Protestant “holy words” time.

    Note who the traditional KKK saw as hated “other”: “Blacks”; foreigners; Jews; Catholics

    If I had to chose just one place where even “innocent” whites might give in to Dionysus in a far more benign way, that place is New Orleans. “NOLA” is historically a predominantly Catholic, not Protestant city. Louisiana is probably the only U.S. state to legally divide itself into “parishes” (a Catholic term). A New Orleans poet (I think named Chuck Perkins) said something to the effect that New Orleans is the only city in the United States where African Americans mask as Native Americans on an Italian American holiday. What is the point of commonality? No WASP connection.

    Soul outside, like Dionysus at the gate to the city, calls in to Soul inside, inviting, as Taj Mahal sang,
    “It’s time to leave your yesterdays, your yesterdays behind, and TAKE A GIANT STEP OUTSIDE YOUR MIND.” The crazier this country gets, the more sense becomes Soul’s longing for healing initiation. To put it another way, “Never mind.”

    — Dale

  2. Barry Spector says:

    Thanks, Dale. It’s very well said, and I agree completely. Perhaps it would be more accurate to have written, “…the mind (or ego) fears this more than anything.” But for me, such spiritual truths don’t get at the deeply emotional sense of threat to our sense of individualism that real self-knowledge implies. Let’s try to come up with a better term! B

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 275: Well, Don’t You Know? Part Two | madnessatthegates

  4. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 324: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Five of Seven | madnessatthegates

  5. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 348: A Mythologist Looks at the 2020 Election, Part Nine | madnessatthegates

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