Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso
Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably what they do not know about themselves. – James Baldwin
As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather
Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison, A Mercy
I’d like to imagine that the Australian stories of black swans who became men refer to times (as in Greek myth) when gods and mortals walked the Earth together in harmony, when soul and spirit, body and mind, male and female or nature and culture were not so terribly divided as they are in our post-modern language, religion, environment and politics.
For hundreds of years, these polarities have been most concretely symbolized by black and white, leading to definitions of “black” that include:
– Causing or marked by an atmosphere lacking in cheer
– Not conforming to a high moral standard;
– Being without light
Black: the Black Death, black shirts, black cats, black crows, Black Panthers, black leather, black holes, black magic, the black knight, the black inquisitor, the black-clothed Puritan, the chimney sweep, the witch, the magician, the Grim Reaper, the Heart of Darkness, and of course, Black people. Our mythologies and theologies create values that praise a “white” world. Hillman writes:
…the negative and privative definition of black promotes the moralization of the black-white pair. Black then is defined as non-white, and is deprived of all the virtues attributed to white. The contrast becomes opposition, even contradiction…(and) gives rise to our current Western mind-set, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Age of Light, where God is identified with whiteness and purity, and black…becoming ever more strongly the color of evil.
Indeed, well before the age of colonialism, it was obvious to Europeans that blackness lacked the virtues associated with whiteness. In 1488 it was nothing unusual for Pope Innocent (!) VIII to give African slaves as presents to his cardinals.
But depth psychology – and Black Swan – insist that the more we identify with white, the more seductive black becomes. Above all, however, black is terrifying because it threatens (or invites) the collapse of the whole house of cards. I quoted Hillman above:
Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.
We are all well aware in our bones, in our indigenous roots, that the white imagination, white thinking and even white privilege are profoundly unsatisfying. At that level we all know that our fear and hatred of both the internal, Black Other and the external, Red Other (originally the Red Indian, and for most of the 20th century, the Red Communist) merely cover over our envy and our desire to make peace with them and ourselves. However, we are also well aware that our demythologized world no longer provides secure ritual containers for the painful work of remembering who we really are. D. H. Lawrence knew this a hundred years ago:
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
So, while black (as descent into darkness and as African-American culture) invites America to heal the world and heal itself, most of us still take the easier way out, into hatred and scapegoating.
Black Swan, for all its references to a classical art form, is an American film. It takes place entirely in America’s cultural center. We view it, regardless of our superficial idealisms and ideologies, as Americans. And not just as Americans, but as Christians. Hillman writes:
You may be Jew or Muslim, pay tribute to your god in Santeria fashion, join with other Wiccas, but wherever you are in the Western world you are psychologically Christian, indelibly marked with the sign of the cross in your mind and in the corpuscles of your habits. Christianism is all about us, in the words we speak, the curses we utter, the repressions we fortify, the numbing we seek, and the residues of religious murders in our history…Once you feel your own personal soul to be distinct from the world out there, and that consciousness and conscience are lodged in that soul (and not in the world out there) and that even the impersonal selfish gene is individualized in your person, you are, psychologically, Christian.
Elsewhere, he places mental illness within this context:
As long as we are caught in cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology…Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life…It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression.
So we speak of Black Swan in American language, where the fundamental symbolism of white and black has never relaxed its hold on our imaginations. Also a hundred years ago, Carl Jung wrote,
When the American opens a…door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet…he will then be faced with an Indian or Negro shadow.
Linguistic research indicates that some languages have only one color distinction: black and white. In languages with a third color term, that term is invariably red. How ironic that over time, in a curious blend of history and archetype, the American soul projected itself in red, white and black images, as I describe in Chapter Seven of my book. White, of course, speaks to us of our national sense of innocence, while in our language and mythology, black and red came to represent the “Others” who threaten us from within and from without.
As early as the late seventeenth century, America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) had become relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes Theodore Allen (author of The Invention of the White Race), insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”
Consider that statement again. This our American heritage. In most parts of the country, for most of American history, despite the ideology of freedom and equality, absolutely everyone understood that white skin color conveyed infinite privileges over anyone with black skin, regardless of one’s economic status. And the brutal polarity of identity received religious confirmation. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to the northern Puritan) and black equaled poor (to the southern Opportunist), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.
The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes activist Tim Wise, “to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.” Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”
The myth of the Old South, writes Orlando Patterson, stated that the presence of the Other, not a slavery-based economy, had caused its shameful defeat in the Civil War (or, the “War of Northern Aggression”). The ex-slave symbolized both violence and sin to an obsessed society. He was “obviously” enslaved to the flesh, and his skin invited a fusion of racial and religious symbolism. His “black” malignancy was to the body politic what Satan was to the soul. “The central ritual of this version of the Southern civil religion…was the human sacrifice of the lynch mob.
In 1899, before torturing him, ten thousand Texans paraded their black victim on a carnival float,like the King of Fools, like Dionysus in the Anthesteria, or like Christ at Calvary. Patterson writes, “…the burning cross distilled it all: sacrificed Negro joined by the torch with sacrificed Christ, burnt together and discarded…”
But in 2020 we continue to make a terrible mistake when we locate racism exclusively in the South, or exclusively among reactionaries, blatant racists or the uneducated. Prior to the Civil War, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions.
Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile wrote in Democracy in America that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”
Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750. In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”
The terrible logic of “othering” – its logical conclusion – takes hatred beyond the requirements of capitalism, beyond the entertainment uses of race, all the way to genocide. Again, as recently as hundred years ago, twenty-seven states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers.
The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans.
The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic throwing millions out of work and onto the streets, the most extreme forms of gratuitous cruelty are re-emerging, with several prominent Republicans hinting that it would be better to let thousands of elderly – and Black and Brown – people die rather than keep the economy (and Trumpus’ re-election chances) in prolonged jeopardy. I’ll speak more about euthanasia below.
For some three hundred years, the distinction between black and white, with all of its moral implications, has remained absolutely central to white, Christian identity. And especially in times of economic uncertainty, any factual or emotional arguments to the contrary – or gestures of black equality – continue to provoke immense anxiety in the white mind and justify the most reactionary politics. In 2020, ten years after Black Swan was released, whites in Georgia lynched a black man for the crime of jogging through their neighborhood.