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.