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… – Billy Holiday
From the perspective of those who have been forced to bear the projection of American Dionysus, the subtext of almost all of our pressing domestic issues is America’s original sin, its fatal flaw – race. 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 upfront is either hopelessly ignorant or deliberately complicit with the aims of the empire.
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 mythologically, between Apollo and Dionysus).
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, 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.”
Othering is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is active, 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 say 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.”
As always, our mythic narratives (which include such stereotypes) are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The next step in scapegoating is manipulating the fear that those who can’t control their desires will tempt us to follow them, that we (middle-class whites) might not be able to resist temptation.
What does this fear of temptation say about white people? It implies that our carefully constructed veneers of innocence, progress, racial superiority, masculinity and self-control are eggshell-thin. At a deeper level, it implies envy of those whom the dominant culture 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 soul fears this more than anything. And this is precisely why, all across the world, the indigenous imagination has given us stories about figures such as Dionysus.
The black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of 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. Like that other outsider, the Pied Piper, he threatens to lead the children away…
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 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. For several generations, white youth have understood the term instinctively. And their parents have reacted accordingly, with fear and discipline.