Barry’s Blog # 280: Who is an American? Part Two of Three

1875: The Oriental Exclusion Act bars entry of Chinese, Japanese, prostitutes, felons, and contract laborers, to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” It effectively bars all Asian women, “…few of whom,” says President Grant, “are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.” The American Medical Association argues that Chinese immigrants “carried distinct germs to which they were immune, but from which whites would die if exposed.”

1876: Following the end of Reconstruction, thousands of municipalities (known as “Sundown Towns”) begin to establish restrictions that exclude non-whites, and in some cases, Jews, after sunset, on penalty of death.

1878-1930: Over 4,000 people, overwhelmingly African-American, will be lynched. During this same period, military and police forces (including the Texas Rangers) and vigilantes murder between several hundred and 5,000 Mexican-Americans along the borderlands.

1879: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School becomes a model for others to be established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). unspoken It utilizes forced assimilation to Christian culture and abandonment of Native American traditions.

1882: The Chinese Exclusion Law suspends immigration of laborers for ten years. Coolieusa It prohibits “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” from entering the country. Prior to this date, nearly anyone except for the Chinese and Japanese who crossed the borders had been considered legal. The term “illegal immigrant” is first used. It is possibly the first time in recorded history that a country denies entrance to people based exclusively on their skin color or country of origin. The 1880s will see seven major white-on-black race riots.

1885: The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibits the importation of foreigners to perform labor, including “professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers (and) persons employed as strictly personal or domestic servants.”

1887: The Dawes Act grants citizenship to Native Americans who are willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe. Utah is the second territory to allow women to vote, but the federal Edmunds–Tucker Act repeals woman’s suffrage there.

1888: The Supreme Court affirms (and will repeatedly re-affirm) that corporations have all the rights of people.

1889: Oklahoma’s first “land rush” occurs as the federal government opens nearly two million acres to settlement. Additional land rushes will occur in 1891 (twice), 1893 and 1895.

1890: The government assumes control of immigration and constructs the Ellis Island Inspection Station. Immigrant-children-ellis-island It will eventually process 12 million immigrants, who will become the ancestors of 100 million Americans. The Bureau of Immigration is created to enforce federal immigration laws, especially the ban on Asians. All reservations in Indian Territory are annexed into the new Oklahoma Territory. The 7th Cavalry attacks and kills 130-250 Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The 1890s will see nine major race riots.

1891: A New Orleans mob lynches a group of eleven Italian-Americans. The government issues a compulsory attendance law enabling federal officers to forcibly take Native American children from their homes and reservations. In Oklahoma territory a land lottery is held instead of another land rush.

1892: The Geary Act requires all Chinese to carry resident permits on penalty of deportation and prohibits them from testifying in court.

1896: The Plessy vs Ferguson decision (“Separate but equal”) legalizes segregation.

1898: The Supreme Court rules that a child born in the U.S. of parents of Chinese nationality is a citizen. The Curtis Act amends the Dawes Act. It results in the break-up of tribal governments and communal lands in Oklahoma. The Five Civilized Tribes who had suffered the Trail of Tears had previously been exempt because of the terms of their treaties. They lose control of over 90 million acres.

1899: The Oklahoma Territorial Legislature prohibits the practices and healing ceremonies of native medicine men, who are subject to fines or imprisonment.

1901: A series of Supreme Court decisions known as the “Insular Acts” determines that full citizenship rights do not extend to all places under American control, especially islands where people of color live (“savage” and “alien races”) who cannot understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” This permanently excludes Puerto Ricans, Samoans and many others from voting for President. The decade will see eleven large race riots.

1902: The government funds 25 non-reservation schools in 15 states and territories, enrolling over 6,000 students. Anti-Semitic riots occur in New York City.

1902-1904: Chinese exclusion is extended and then made indefinite.

1903: The Immigration Act of 1903 is also called the Anarchist Exclusion Act.

1905: The Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw nations it_ok1890_1907 - Alexandra Elise Stern create a constitution for a proposed state of Sequoyah, which would be distinct from Oklahoma. Congress ignores them.

1906: Theodore Roosevelt declares in his State of the Union Message, “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape – the most abominable in all the category of crimes, even worse than murder.” The Burke Act amends the Dawes Act, dissolving sovereign tribal governments and communal lands. It requires the government to assess whether individuals are “competent and capable” before granting them their allotted land. Citizenship is not to be granted to Native Americans until the end of a 25-year probationary period. White mobs kill between 25 and 100 blacks in Atlanta.

1907:  Oklahoma becomes a state. Congress again lowers the threshold for exclusions to include “All idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, and persons who have been insane within five years previous; persons who have had two or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; paupers; persons likely to become a public charge; professional beggars; persons afflicted with tuberculosis or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease…”The Expatriation Act decrees that any naturalized citizen residing for two years in one’s foreign state of origin or five years in any other foreign state or any American woman who marries an alien loses their citizenship.

1909: Nativists destroy a Greek immigrant community in South Omaha, Nebraska.

1910: The Angel Island Immigration Station begins operation in San Francisco Bay 2848986_origto monitor the flow of Chinese entering the country. It will eventually hold hundreds of thousands. By 1915, Japanese immigrants will outnumber Chinese. At Ellis, only 1-3% of all arriving immigrants will be rejected, while at Angel, due to anti-Asian discrimination, the number will be about 18%. While Ellis arrivals enter the country almost immediately, Asians are frequently imprisoned on Angel for many months. Nationwide riots follow the heavyweight championship victory of Jack Johnson. Whites kill dozens of blacks in Slocum, Texas.

1913: The 17th Amendment gives voters rather than state legislatures the right to elect senators.

1917: Congress requires that immigrants pass a literacy test. It bars immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone and creates new categories of inadmissible persons, including: “alcoholics,” “anarchists,” “contract laborers,” “criminals and convicts,” “epileptics,” “feebleminded persons,” “idiots,” “illiterates,” “imbeciles,” “insane persons,” “paupers,” “persons afflicted with contagious disease,” “persons being mentally or physically defective,” “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” “political radicals,” “polygamists,” “prostitutes” and “vagrants.”

1917: White rioters kill 100-200 black residents of East St. Louis.

1918: Servicemen of Asian ancestry who served in World War I receive the right of naturalization.

1919: American Indian soldiers and sailors receive citizenship. The Palmer raids during the Red Scare result in the deportation of 500 non-citizens. Twenty-five white-on-black urban race riots occur during the summer.

1920: The 20th Amendment gives women the right to vote.

1921: The Emergency Quota Act establishes numerical limits and quotas “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” It prohibits the immigration of Arabs, East Asians and Indians, and it restricts the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the residents from that country living in the U.S. in 1910. So people from northern Europe have a higher quota than people from eastern or southern Europe or non-European countries. The number of new immigrants admitted falls from 800,000 in 1920 to 300,00 in 1921-22. burned In the worst incident of racial violence in American history, white mobs attack blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They destroy more than 35 square blocks and kill 100-300 blacks.

1922: Congress partially reverses former immigration laws regarding marriage and allows women to retain their US citizenship after marrying a (non-Asian) alien if she stays within the United States.

1923: White mobs destroy the black town of Rosewood, Florida, killing up to 150.

1924: Native Americans receive the right to vote. Congress establishes the Border patrol on the Mexico border. The National Origins Act further restricts immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and requires for the first time that immigrants have visas. It introduces the concept of “having papers” to immigration policy. Almost none of those who immigrated “legally” prior to this point would be admitted under these far more stringent standards. It establishes deportation courts for non-white immigrants and Eastern and Southern European immigrants who exceed their national quotas. Subsequent court rulings will determine that Asian Indians are not white and cannot immigrate. The act puts an end to a period where the United States essentially had open borders.

Since persons of mixed white and Native American ancestry are considered white, the law continues to allow Latin Americans to immigrate as “white persons” in unlimited numbers, despite being ineligible for citizenship. While it spares Mexico a quota, secondary laws, including one that makes it a crime to enter the country outside official ports of entry, give border and customs agents on-the-spot discretion to decide who can enter legally. This turns what had been a routine daily or seasonal event — crossing the border to go to work — into a ritual of abuse. Degrading hygienic inspections, literacy tests and entrance fees are introduced.

1925-1936: Nearly two million Mexicans are deported, most without due process. Sixty percent are U.S. citizens, most of whom have never been to Mexico. The Ku Klux Klan grows to 4-5 million members, including thousands of Protestant ministers.

1929: The Registry Act allows aliens to register as permanent residents if they can prove they have lived in the U.S. since 1921 and are of “good moral character.” Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 illegal Europeans will use this law to legalize their status.

1929-1933: During the Depression, more people emigrate from the United States than to it.

1931: Congress allows females to retain their citizenship even if they marry an Asian.

1930s: Until this decade, most legal immigrants have been male.

1936-1945: The U.S. refuses to admit most Jewish refugees of the Nazis.

1940: Angel Island closes.

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Barry’s Blog # 279: Who is an American? Part One of Three

July 4th 2019: A Salvadoran father and his young daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River. Families separated. Concentration camps. Children subjected to inhuman conditions amounting to torture while their parents are deported. Mothers told to drink from toilets. Border Patrol agents posting racist and misogynist cartoons on Facebook. Every day now we hear heartbreaking news from the borderlands. How, we wonder, can our government treat people with such gratuitous cruelty, has it ever been this bad?


While Trump and his stormtroopers churn up the National Mall and the streets of Washington with military hardware, I take a break from writing and go for a walk in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. A series of chance turns takes me to the grave of Fred Korematsu, the Japanese-American who was convicted for evading internment during World War Two. Concentration camps.

This is an appropriate moment for us all to pause and consider how the nation has determined exactly who is privileged to live within the pale of “us” – the good, the true, the exceptional, the innocent – and who is not.

As I write in “The Myth of Immigration”:

 …the immigrant plays a curiously ambiguous role in the narrative of American innocence. Immigrants are outsiders who in aspiring (or threatening) to be in transition to becoming insiders, force insiders to question something we quite ambiguously refer to as the American Dream. To the Paranoid Imagination, however, they threaten to pollute that dream.

A further ambiguity is that their condition is qualified by their skin color. The story of American immigration announces a welcome to all that is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,
 your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There may be no poetic line better known in the entire world. But this story – the Melting Pot, or the Ellis Island myth – is rife with such contradictions that its adherents have required an entire mythology to resolve them, a massive, ongoing, national, cognitive dissonance. When facts meet myth, it is the truth that must change to fit the myth.

One could also argue for the simple statement that American immigration has always been about those whites who were welcomed and those others, including the conditionally white, who were tolerated.

So here is a detailed timeline of how America has negotiated that fine line – the border – between “us” and “them.” It’s a long and exhausting list, but I suggest that it falls into the “Don’t look away!” category. Yes, it has been this bad before, and no, we cannot become who we were meant to be without fully acknowledging who we are.

1600-1800: Over half of all immigrants to the British colonies arrive as indentured servants or slaves.

1610: The English massacre between 16 and 65 Paspahegh Indians near Jamestown.

1623: English settlers poison the wine at a “peace conference” with Powhatan leaders, killing 250.

1636: Connecticut Puritans massacre 500 Pequot people at the Mystic River.

1675: Rhode Island militia attack a Narragansett fort, killing at least 350.

1689: The Spanish destroy the  Pueblo of Zia, New Mexico, killing 600.

1704: English colonists attack Apalachee villages in Florida, killing 1,000.

1705: Several states including New York pass laws designed to prevent runaways from fleeing to Canada.

1712: French troops kill 1,000 Fox Indians on the Detroit River.

1774: The Continental Congress leaves it to each state to decide who shall be a voting citizen.

1780: Thomas Jefferson writes, “…if we are to wage a campaign against these Indians, the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River.”

1782: The motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) appears on the Great Seal of the United States.

1776: The new government grants full citizenship and voting rights to white male property owners (about 6% of the population), with six states granting it to all white males whether they own property or not. Some states require membership in a specified religion.

1789: Congress places the Secretary of War in charge of Indian affairs.

1790-1800: Nearly 100,000 immigrants enter the country, perhaps 20,000 of them as Catholic refugees fleeing political repression in France, Santo Domingo (Haiti) and Ireland.

1790: All foreign “free white persons” are naturalized, and only two years residency required before one can become a citizen. Freed male slaves can vote in four states. Women carry the legal status of their husbands. Property-owning women can vote in New Jersey only.

1792–1856: Various states abolish property qualifications for white men but retain them for blacks. Tax-paying qualifications remain in five states until 1860 and survive in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century. Free black males lose the right to vote in several Northern states.

1793: The first Fugitive Slave Act authorizes local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and impose penalties on anyone who aids in their flight.

1795: Congress extends the residency requirement to five years. The government encourages Indians to embrace mainstream white American customs so they can assimilate into American society. The Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes do so, becoming known as the “five civilized tribes.”

1798: “Nativists” pass the four Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress raises the residency requirement to 14 years. All immigrants must register with the government within 48 hours of arrival, and all aliens who are citizens or subjects of a nation with which the U.S. is at war are forbidden from becoming American citizens. Only ten years after freedom of speech becomes part of the Constitution, the Sedition Act restricts speech that is critical of the federal government and results in the prosecution of many newspaper owners.

1800-1801: The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act are allowed to expire. But the Alien Enemies Act remains in effect. It will be revised and codified in 1918 and remains in effect today.

1802-1803: Thomas Jefferson signs the Georgia Compact, an agreement to buy all Indian land in Georgia as soon as possible. The Louisiana Purchase provides western land for Indian resettlement. All federal administrations thereafter encourage Indians to emigrate west.

1807: New Jersey dis-enfranchises women.

1812-21: Six “western” states join the union with full white male suffrage. Maryland excludes Jewish Americans from state office until the law requiring candidates to affirm a belief in an afterlife is repealed in 1828.

1813: Tennessee troops attack an unsuspecting Creek town, killing 200.

1817: The Cherokee Nation makes its first land exchange, accepting a western tract in present-day Arkansas for one in present-day Georgia. But Most Cherokees refuse to emigrate.

1824: The Office (later, Bureau) of Indian Affairs is formed.

1829: Irish immigrants riot against free blacks in Cincinnati. Thousands of blacks leave for Canada.

1830-1839: The Indian Removal Act calls for relocation of all Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. Trail of Tears 3 The Cherokees contest it. The Supreme Court decides in their favor, but Andrew Jackson ignores it. The Army forces tens of thousands of the civilized tribes and other indigenous peoples into concentration camps (called “emigration depots”) and then onto what becomes known as The Trail of Tears. Several thousand die on the journeys.

1831: Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia.

1834: “Know-nothing” nativists burn a convent in Boston.

1844: Nativists riot in Philadelphia.

1846-1860: A million and a half Catholic Irish arrive, 50,000 of whom (including many U.S. citizens) are deported back to Ireland. Thousands are drafted into the army, but when the U.S. invades Mexico, several hundred Irish revolt, join the Mexican army and form the “Saint Patrick Battalion.”

1849-1869: White Californians deliberately murder 9,000-16,000 Native Americans.

1850: The Second Fugitive Slave Act adds more provisions regarding runaways and levies even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. In some cases, it enables enslavement of free Blacks.

1853-56: The U.S. acquires 174 million acres of Indian lands through 52 treaties, every one of which it will subsequently break. th-1 Forty-three Congressional representatives are members of the nativist American Party, known also as the Know-Nothing party. With its single platform that resists Catholic, especially Irish, immigration, it is the first example of many in U.S. history when large numbers of citizens are intolerant of other white people.

1856: North Carolina is the final state to abolish the property requirement for voting. Previously barred Catholics and non-Christians are enfranchised. Some states allow white immigrants not yet naturalized to vote.

1857: In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court decides that no black person can be a U.S. citizen. Oregon is admitted as a state with a law (not abolished until 1927) that excludes all Blacks from settling there.

1859: Settlers massacre 70 Achomawi Indians on Pit River in California.

1860: One in seven Caucasians is foreign-born.

1862: Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey calls for ethnic cleansing, offering a bounty of $200 for the scalp of each fleeing or resisting Indian. Around 1,700 Dakota are force-marched into a concentration camp. The Lincoln administration hangs 38 after an uprising. The first Homestead Act opens up millions of acres for settlement.

1863: New York City Draft riots, Irish against blacks. The Union Army presses newly-freed slaves throughout the South into “contraband camps.”

1864: The army, under Kit Carson, forces 10,000 Navajo people to march 300 miles in winter from their homeland in the Four Corners region to a concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. some 1,500 die while interned there. The Colorado militia attacks a peaceful village of Cheyenne, killing up to 163 at Sand Creek.

1865: The Enrollment Act penalizes draft evasion or desertion with denationalization (loss of citizenship).

1866-1868: Following the end of the Civil War, the first Civil Rights Act declares all persons born in the U.S. (except Indians) to be natural citizens. This legal protection is ratified under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. For the first time, some people other than whites are considered to be citizens. The second Homestead Act explicitly encourages black Americans to participate, but rampant discrimination, systemic barriers and bureaucratic inertia slow black gains. Further Homesteading laws will be passed into the 1930s.

1868: George Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacks a Cheyenne village, killing 200.

1869: The Territory of Wyoming is the first to grant women suffrage in state elections.

1870: The 15th Amendment enfranchises Blacks. The South responds with Black Codes, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, convict leasing and terrorism. Naturalization of black immigrants (but not Asians or Mexicans) is permitted. The 1870s will see 16 major race riots.

1871: Residents of the District of Columbia lose the right to vote for mayor and city council. Western Indians are forbidden to leave reservations without permission.

1874: Nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court rules that it is not unconstitutional to deny women the right to vote.


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Barry’s Blog # 278: What Will the New Myths Be? Part Three of Three

Anything dead coming back to life hurts.  –  Toni Morrison

Breakdown is breakthrough. – Marshal McLuhan

The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini

Remember, and failing that, invent. – Monique Wittig


 Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things. If those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination.

We cannot simply drop myths by virtue of realizing that they are myths; perhaps we must go further into them. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing – the predatory and paranoid imaginations back to their source in the creative imagination. It may mean telling the same stories but reframing them until we discover their essence. In Native American terms, we will need to search for our original medicine.

Americans have some advantages in our worship of change and our characteristic assumption that newer is better. Our fascination with the new masks our anxiety about the present, our grief at how diminished our lives have become and our fear of being erased in a demythologized future. But it also awakens the archetypal drive to slough off old skin and be reborn into a deeper (not higher) identity. We can cook down the cliché, “We want a better future for our children” to: “We want to be remembered as ancestors by those who come after us.” We can use this fascination with change to escape the myth of progress. As ceremonies of the status quo evolve into authentic ritual, change can become transformation.

New myths are attempting to manifest. The other world is offering help, but indigenous wisdom insists upon our full participation. As Caroline Casey says, ritual etiquette requires that we ask for help – “Cooperators are standing by!” We will develop that capacity as we build our willingness to imagine. This is why the renewal of the oral tradition is so important; poetry enables us to go beyond the literal and think metaphorically.

Re-imagining America’s Purpose

So myths, even deceitful political myths, stick with us for good reason. They grab us because their potency rests on a core of truth. America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, none of our myths arise from this ground, nor do they offer us a path to the archetypal soul. Still, they have no less a hold on us because they are only ten or fifteen generations old. Understanding their contradictions will not make them go away. But if we assume the existence of telos – purpose – we must imagine that even the myths of American innocence and violent redemption can lead us to the universal archetypes. If we can hold the tension of these opposites (the myths and the realities) perhaps we can begin to re-articulate meaning in a world that is descending alternately into chaos and fascism. If we cannot disengage from our myths, then we need to look deeper into them.

To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists, from evangelists and penny novelists to Radio Free Europe, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (read as: military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce racial oppression). The purpose of this mythic language, however, is to tug at our emotions, and it remains surprisingly effective. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we go to the other extreme, give in to cynicism and disengage from public involvement. Indeed, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; as fewer vote, the rest are more easily manipulated.

But – stay with me for a moment – what if America really was born so that freedom could spread everywhere? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? As James Hillman would have asked, what does the symptom want from us? What if the lies of four centuries have been waiting for us to transform them into truths?

Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and, eventually the founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” If we take a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their new world functioned to concentrate and perpetuate wealth through any means, including genocide. American history becomes a series of conquests, painful expansions of freedom and counter-measures to protect privilege, culminating in today’s bleak realities. The rich vs. the poor, or the predatory and paranoid imaginations vs. the return of the repressed.

Alternatively, we can take a philosophical approach. Jacob Needleman insists that the founding fathers were spiritual men, adherents of a timeless wisdom, who created a system to “allow men and women to seek their own higher principles within themselves.” The nation was formed of unique ideals and potentials, not from ethnicity; and this explains its universal appeal, even if those ideals have been perverted into their opposites by men far less mature than those founding fathers. The American Dream vs. the nightmare of dreams deferred.

Or we can muse poetically about what is approaching, if we could only recognize its song. Time/Kronos vs. Memory/Mnemosyne. From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic. Or, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book: We must understand their genocidal projections on another level entirely, as a blundering and childish search for healing through re-connection to the Other. This process has occurred specifically through the influence of African-American music. Stephen Diggs has called it “America’s Alchemical history.” Also see Michael Ventura’s great essay, Hear That Long Snake Moan.

If America remembered its song as This Land Is Your Land rather than through “bombs bursting in air,” perhaps we would understand freedom as willing submission to the soul’s purpose. Woody Guthrie vs Francis Scott Key. woodyGuthrie Perhaps we would understand liberty as the social conditions that allow that inner, spiritual listening to happen. Acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism might reflect back to us the vast spaces of the polytheistic soul, and conflict would be about holding the tension of the opposites to create a third thing, something entirely new. We might remember that the purpose of “self-improvement” is service to the communal good, and that individualism points us toward our unique individuality. May it be so.

Remembering its true song, America would remember its body – Mother Earth – and this would mean the end of both Puritanism and its predatory shadow, those twin beasts that have ravaged the bodies of actual women. Connecting in this sacred manner to the land would naturally lead to rituals of atonement for the way we have treated her, and to a revival of the festivals that celebrate the decline of the old and birth of the new. New Year’s Day could become a national day of atonement – a Yom Kippur – to acknowledge our transgressions and our willingness to start anew. On Independence Day (now Interdependence Day), we would reaffirm that such a start requires the support of the larger community of spirits and ancestors.

Remembering America’s song would allow us to overcome our shameful and brutal contempt for our own children and to see them for who they are, rather than as projection screens for adult fantasies of innocence or retribution. Our national narratives with their deadly subtexts of child sacrifice would become stories of initiation, renewal and reunion with the Other. Then, unlike Pentheus (“Man of suffering”) in The Bacchae, America would have no need to taunt the immense force of repressed otherness by bellowing, as did George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”

And now the Other, in all its colors and genders, will have emerged from the darkness and responded, asking us to join the rest of humanity as a “nation of suffering.” If we saw ourselves in this light – not the direct sunshine of innocence, but the dim glow of an old campfire – we would understand our addiction to violence as a projection of that initiatory death (that we secretly desire) onto the world, and onto our children. We would withdraw those projections, putting them back where they belong, into the ritual containers of the community and the self. There we would meet the Stranger who has been inviting white America to dance; and we would know him as our self. This would open our imagination further; we would define ourselves in terms of what we are and not by what we aren’t.

It would be obvious that democracy is meaningless when restricted to a small elite who force scapegoats to suffer. Shared suffering is the great gift otherness offers us. We would realize that if we suffered together in a ritual container, democracy would invite a higher (in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit) or deeper (in pagan terms, the spirit of the land) intelligence that could resolve conflict. We would realize that an appropriate metaphor has already arisen out of this land: the spirit of Jazz improvisation. Here is what Wynton Marsalis told Ken Burns in the TV series Jazz:

… to play Jazz, you’ve got to listen (to each other). The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, and for you to interact with them with empathy …it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself.

Comfortable with nuance, complexity and the vast gradations between black and white, we would realize that we had already dropped our fascination with evil. As in the Aramaic language, we would view destructive behavior as unripe, as a cry for help, and we would know compassion.

Finally, as an initiated nation, we could cook “innocence” down to its essence. Our own light would no longer blind us. We would drop our grandiosity and arrogance. We would no longer wonder, “Why do they hate us so?” Innocence would signify the most basic of all mythic ideas: the new start. Then America could offer the song that the world has always seen in us: not that of a consumer paradise, a destructive adolescent or a wrathful father, but of the ancient story about what makes us human, the rare and lucky opportunity to accomplish what we came here to do. The new start.

The new has been starting for some time already. In 2004, even as America was laying waste to Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Museum of the American Indian


National Museum of the American Indian

opened on Washington’s National Mall. Richard West, its first Director, proclaimed at its dedication ceremony, “Welcome to Native America!…The Great Mystery…walks beside your work and touches all the good you attempt.”

Ultimately, we heal ourselves and the culture by re-membering what we came here to do. This is how we dream new myths, one person at a time. The old knowledge has never completely left us. The spirits could meet us halfway, but they need to know that we’re willing to work with them. Indeed, the point may not be the content of the new stories, but how we arrive at them. There is a great hunger, and a great opportunity. Long ago, the Persian poet Hafiz wrote:

The great religions are ships; poets are the lifeboats.

Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.

This is good for business, isn’t it, Hafiz?

Dionysus invites us to drop our outdated identities, emerge from the initiatory fires, announce our purpose and dance our way home, welcomed by people who have never forgotten our song. It’s a hell of a story. As Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

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Barry’s Blog # 277: What Will the New Myths Be? Part Two of Three

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. – John Keats

The Virgin returns and the Golden Age begins anew. – Virgil

Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry

Now we are called to remember immensely ancient things that we have never personally known – to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies, and those forgotten imaginal beings on the other side of the veil. As Martin Shaw writes,

Maybe this is how we seem to the gods now: that one day one of them gently reached over and turned down the volume…Maybe it’s not that we can’t hear the gods but that they can’t hear us.

We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world.

Re-membering requires the re-emergence of cultural forms to counter our amnesia (“against Mnemosyne”), our forgetting that we have forgotten so much. Once these forms have arisen to create the containers – the sense that it is finally safe enough to feel and grieve what has been lost – then all the marginalized and split-off aspects of psyche and society may well return. Welcomed back rather than merely tolerated, the old gods may be more helpful than vengeful, appearing as guides rather than (as Jung wrote) as diseases.

As chronological time recedes back into cyclic time, remembering offers visions of the future as well as the past. It offers the possibility of resolution (“finding solutions again”). We may perceive that our crises as well as our solutions have a periodic, cyclic nature. We may find that we have faced disaster (“against the stars”) before and survived.

We may discover that the meanings of many of our religious symbols (such as the cross, the snake and the tree of life) have shifted radically over the centuries, from symbols of life and rebirth to symbols of death, and that we can change them back again. The new stories, seemingly fresh and original, will actually be a return to origins. We may then pay more attention to the words of our remaining indigenous elders and look backwards in order to see forward. Perhaps we will see the return of the Goddess, along with her son/consort.

Many origin myths begin in images of perfection and typically fall into a few basic scenarios. One is the decline from a pure, golden race to an era of strife and ignorance (the Greek version). A second is paradise lost, the fall from innocence into knowledge and sin (the Hebrew myth). Christianity extends the second to apocalyptic finality. Modernity has contributed myths of progress, from lower to higher (the technological utopia), from sin to salvation (the religious solution) or to the Marxist paradise of equality.

Other traditions, however, such as Astrology, Tantric Buddhism and Hindu cosmology, speak of vast cosmic cycles. mandala-kalachakra They offer, among other things, the possibility of a (re-) emerging story, the myth of matricentric (not matriarchal) origin. This is a narrative of times when all genders lived in partnership, and it allows us to imagine our own myth of return, and the return of myth.

Skeptics might suggest that it simply re-tells Biblical myth, with the onset of patriarchy – women’s fall from grace – substituting for the departure from Eden. But the Goddess is not a mirror image of the omnipotent, omniscient, angry Heavenly Father. She is the inherent spiritual capacity in every individual, our most ancient image of the soul. She exists in all beings that paradoxically emerge from and return to her.A1wheelrealm-56a0c4133df78cafdaa4d32c In a non-linear story, remembering leads to the possibility of re-experiencing the past, both as pleasure and as suffering, and this can lead to releasing the binds that prevent people – and peoples – from moving on to the next turning of the wheel.

With both the remaining indigenous wisdom as well as the new tools of archetypal psychology available to us, we can – we have to – reconstruct the original power dynamic between male and female. If we en-storied a full psychic life in which good and bad, dark and light exist within everyone, the Other would become us, and our fear of him would diminish. Then other distinctions – race, class and nation – might wither away as well.

Myths change exceedingly slowly. After all, it took perhaps 5,000 years for the myths of patriarchy and monotheism to become fully constellated across the planet. And yet, these stories have begun to crack in our lifetimes. The growth of feminism (and spiritual feminism, as well as the mythopoetic men’s movement that arose in response to it) speaks of the return of the Goddess. This narrative is already approaching mythic proportions not simply because millions entertain its images of female (and black, brown, red, yellow and gay) empowerment, but because it pulls us away from linear history, towards the cyclic processes of nature. This story of equality between genders (not, I must repeat, as women ruling over men) invites us to ask: If it happened once, why can’t it happen again?

We all understand the bumper sticker: “She’s back, and she’s pissed!” Has She returned raging and inconsolable, or can She accept our tears of remorse? Can we welcome Her by remembering things deep in our bones, what the land itself knows, and how our ancestors remembered? It is still within the power of the human community to influence the nature of Her return, and the method is ritual.

We can invoke her in two ways. First, by restoring the creative imagination. To Federico Garcia Lorca, imagination “…fixes and gives clear life to fragments of the invisible reality…”  We can replicate the original processes of myth making – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, until, perhaps, some of them coalesce into world stories.

Secondly, we must engage in the rituals – and do the arts – that allow us to bypass what I call the predatory and paranoid imaginations. We must become comfortable with poetry and metaphor. We must deliberately use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: what if, perhaps, suppose, may it be so, make believe, let’s pretend – and play. Then, says Lorca, we move from dreaming to desiring. Now, all creative acts have political implications. Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.”

Can we imagine a society like Bali – where people practice all the arts so universally, on such a daily basis, bali-dance-400x300 that they have no word for “art,” where communal creativity balances the worlds of the living and the unseen?

Many would argue that for 25 years the best – certainly the most popular – new American poetry has been disseminated orally, along with computers and video. Print – for the first time in 500 years – has lost its primacy in communication.  It is as if the smothering blandness of TV that birthed “couch potatoes” who no longer read also brought forth a compensating expression in the spoken word. Poets and storytellers counteract the flood of images being pounded into the brain by our electronic initiators. In a noisy time, the mouth begins to speak. It is no coincidence that the most vibrant language is coming not from the academy at the center of the culture, but from the periphery, from the streets, in Hip-Hop, in poetry “slams,” and from the young and disenfranchised who refused to be silenced. Lalo Delgado spoke from that place:

stupid america,

see that chicano

with a big knife

in his steady hand

he doesn’t want to knife you

he wants to sit on a bench

and carve christ figures

but you won’t let him.

stupid america, hear that chicano

shouting curses on the street

he is a poet

without paper and pencil

and since he cannot write

he will explode.

stupid america, remember that chicanito

flunking math and english

he is the picasso

of your western states

but he will die

with one thousand masterpieces

hanging only from his mind.

And movies: In the final scene of the brilliant 2018 film Blindspotting, a very angry African-American man has a chance to shoot a corrupt and murderous policeman, knowing that he won’t be caught. th But he chooses poetry over violence, the symbolic over the literal. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the writers and two main actors of this film, actually did spend their teenage years reciting poetry in the superb Youth Speaks program.

These voices from the margins offer white America the tremendous opportunity to welcome the Other, and in doing so, to discover that the path home is no straight and narrow superhighway. There are mixed messages everywhere. It is comforting to me to realize that some ancient languages were comfortable with ambiguity. The Greek word xenos (“stranger”) is the root of our modern – and all too common – word xenophobia (“fear of the stranger”). But, depending on its context in a sentence, xenos can also mean “guest.”

For four hundred years, white Americans have chosen to see black, red and brown people – and, for a very long time, women and gays – as unacceptably lesser than “we the people,” to carry the labels of unclean, unreliable, over-sexed, lazy and/or violent. But the new stories will remind us that we can choose to welcome the demonized Other and invite everything that America has forced outside the gates of the city back inside.

When we tell stories – myths – about how the Stranger becomes the Guest, when we agree that the darkness we’ve required him or her to hold is also part of us, that darkness becomes our blessing. The Muses, those daughters of Memory, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world, and the madmen who rule us, rip apart.

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Barry’s Blog # 276: What Will the New Myths Be? Part One of Three

Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. –  Albert Einstein

What is now proved was once imagined.  – William Blake

The situation is so dire that we can’t afford the luxury of realism. – Caroline Casey

My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence first appeared in 2010. Since then I’ve taught several college-level courses, and I’ve done dozens of book talks and radio interviews. The two most common questions that people ask me – and usually quite early in the discussion – are, what will the new myths be? and when and how will we create them?

These terribly important questions imply the common understanding that the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves no longer feed us, no longer provide us with a sense of identity or meaning in this rapidly changing world. The more privileged among us may understand this on an abstract level. But younger, feminist, non-white and non-gender conforming people speak of how we all need to be “woke” to the urgency of our condition and how all our significant issues are related to each other. Often, if I discuss my book or simply mention “American innocence,” they respond with a knowing interest. They get it.

But those same questions – when, how – also carry with them a characteristic American impatience with “being” in favor of “doing.” We have always preferred to think of ourselves as practical, “can-do” people who value the heights and achievements of spirit over the depths and laments of soul. We’d rather act than think things out fully, or as poet Greg Kimura wrote, to “…sit with the pain in your heart.”

The impulse to leap quickly toward solutions, to “fix” things, to “heal” our wounds, or even to address the nation’s historic crimes may also reveal something else: an unwillingness to take enough time to truly acknowledge the suffering in our midst, the diminishment of our imagination, the darkness that surrounds us, the massive grief that lies just below the surface of our “have a nice day” greetings and New Age affirmations.

So I suggest: Stop. Slow down. Consider (“to be with the stars”) just how rough our predicament really is; sit quietly, listen to the soul’s lament. Be, in Theodore Roethke’s words, “…a lord of nature weeping to a tree.”  Otherwise, how different are we from Trump supporters who, correctly perceiving that their world of white, male supremacy is collapsing all around them, can only respond by trying to fix their condition and make America great again?

When we can actually feel the grief of what we have lost, it becomes clear that long-term sustainability requires changes in consciousness as fundamental as those that occurred in the long transition from the indigenous world to the modern. This is both bad news and good. Such changes took millennia in the First World to be completed, but only a few generations in the colonized Third World. Perhaps these more recent transitions can be altered in a relatively short time. The challenge is for Americans to take the initiative and create a sustainable world in this generation, before two billion Chinese and Indians become as hopelessly addicted to materialism as we are. We cannot ask the Third World to control its growth if we will not reverse ours.

Perhaps the proper response to a great ending – of a myth, of hopes for the future, of a national dream, of the deaths of species, of the collapse of the environment – is to enter into rituals of mourning,  even as we continue to agitate for renewal. Then, new language may arise, and new visions may come not from us but through us. The paradox grows deeper when we consider Wendell Berry’s words: “Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts.” The King – or the Wicked Witch – is dead. Long live the new story, if we can figure out what it is.

But myths – the pre-modern, pre-patriarchal narratives that provided meaning to our ancient ancestors – grew out of the indigenous Earth and the indigenous Soul. These stories were all inconceivably old, and no one person created them. They existed as the collective dreams of entire societies long before people like Homer first wrote them down.

Still, we have to confront the questions that began this essay, and here is our paradox. We desperately need new stories, yet, as Joseph Campbell said, we can’t predict what the new myths will be any more than we can know what we’ll dream tonight.

We can imagine, however, what the new myths won’t be. They won’t express what Jeremy Lent has termed our modern metaphors that have helped to form our collective reality: nature as a machine, dominion over nature, or God as the stern, divine lawgiver.  They won’t be local or tribal.

If we survive, our stories will not fit into any of the three major patterns that crushed the older stories and have dominated our thinking for centuries since. First, they will not be stories of original sin, patriarchy, dualism, monotheism, sacrifice of the children, disconnection from the Earth, or any other simplistic, all-purpose fundamentalism. Secondly, they will not consist of the movement of dead matter from the Big Bang through billions of arbitrary combinations of elements into a life that lacks any sense of purpose. And they will not express the third alternative, the cynical view that “it’s always been like this, it’s human nature.” So it follows that they will reject capitalism’s origin myths of individualism, ruthless competition and social Darwinism.

Campbell did predict that the only myths worth talking about would have to express change, the metamorphoses of the Earth and all living beings. They would construct a mesocosm that connects all individuals to each other and to the universal macrocosm of spirit, which will be living, interdependent Nature. We can take this idea as a jumping-off point and imagine that they would characterize human beings more through our relations with others and less as separate entities. They would speak of fluid boundaries rather than the rigid walls of the ego, the corporation or the nation-state. They would emphasize diversity rather than uniformity. Power would necessarily exist in these stories, but it would bring people together and actualize their essential gifts, rather than create hierarchies of domination. The macrocosm would exist in dynamic tension with a decentralized sense of place.

Like the Hindu deities, the actors in the new myths will be aware of existing within a story. They will ask not for belief, but to be entertained. Knowing their own darkness, they will be motivated not by self-restraint, but by what they love. Aesthetics – knowing something because we love it – will become important once again. “Aesthetic passion restrains war,” writes James Hillman in A Terrible Love of War. 

Heroes will, once again, emerge from community, find a blessing in the darkness and return with it, rather than restoring innocence to Eden and disappearing into the sunset. Our concepts of gender will change when storytellers teach that the male and female principles exist in everyone in varying degrees. Stories will still contain conflict, but listeners will know that it reflects the inner dynamics of the psyche. Tellers will learn that the most important stories will be best told in certain places, at certain times, to certain people.

It’s already happening. For fifty years, images of the Whole Earth have begun to focus this story for us. AS17-148-22727_lrg Scientific ideas such as the Gaia Hypothesis suggest that the planet’s natural systems reveal long-term self-regulation, like “the behavior of a single organism, even a living creature,” as biologist James Lovelock writes.

Another metaphor and set of images, the Web of Life, describes the interconnectedness of any living ecosystem or social grouping. When one strand is broken, the web starts to unravel. Screen-Shot-2016-03-18-at-12.23.34-PM-1024x975 What affects one part of an ecosystem affects the whole in some way. Such thinking brings us back to old notions such as the Ubuntu philosophy of Southern Africa – “I am because we are” – or the anima mundi – the soul of the world – which speaks to us through the unconscious images of dreams and art.

Sometimes healing comes through memory, in the creative re-framing of one’s story. The ancient Greeks told of how memory herself, Mnemosyne, mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses, those nine goddesses who reverse the work of Father Time, Kronos, the god who eats his children.

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Barry’s Blog # 275: Well, Don’t You Know? Part Two

In times like this I think of Sam Cooke’s great 1960 recording of “Chain Gang.”  I am always overwhelmed with deep feelings. sam-cooke-2 Then I notice a whole train of associations. First, the singer himself: possibly the sweetest, most soulful voice of the twentieth century, a great talent who was snuffed out at age 34.

I hear somethin’ sayin’

(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)

(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they’re singin’
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(hooh! aah!) (hooh! aah!)
(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they work so hard
till the sun is goin’ down
working on the highways and byways
and wearing, wearing a frown
you hear them moanin’ their lives away
then you hear somebody say
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
Can’t ya hear them singin’
mm, I’m goin’ home one of these days, I’m goin’ home,

see my woman whom I love so dear
but meanwhile I got to work right here
(well, don’t you know)
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
that’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
All day long they’re singin’, mm
my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my work is so hard
give me water, I’m thirsty
my work is so hard

Then I think of the terrible image of the chain gang itself, that astonishingly brutal system used throughout the South to punish rebellious Black men from the 1870s to the 1950s as part of the “Jim Crow” system of racial oppression. chain-gang-1 It perpetuated African-American servitude once the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery outside of the context of punishment for a crime.

A chain gang was a group – sometimes a very long chain – of prisoners chained together at the ankles to perform “hard labor” such as repairing buildings, building roads, clearing land or even intrinsically pointless tasks (think “cruel and unusual punishment”) such as breaking up rocks to form gravel.

Falls could imperil several individuals at once. The effort required to avoid tripping while in leg irons was known as the convict shuffle. Convicts? Local police arrested very large numbers of these men for minor offenses, including “vagrancy,” and then contracted out their labor to private interests. Parchman_prison_convict_labor_1911 Some of the chains used in the Georgia system weighed 20 pounds. Prisoners suffered from ulcers and gangrene where the metal ground against their skin. Protests resulted in the end of system by the mid-1950s.

But then I remember – don’t you know? – that during the1990s a few states reintroduced it.  Alabama chain gang inmate Robert Ray (L ) takes a turn crushing limestone rocks with a ten pound sle.. Although lawsuits soon forced most of them to backtrack, the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio retained it in Arizona. Indeed, as recently as 2013, Arizona still had female chain gangs. maxresdefault The women were chained together at the ankles and carried out tasks such as weeding at the sides of highways and burying unclaimed bodies at a cemetery.

All this was happening before Donald Trump shamelessly instituted the cruel practices of separating Latino children from their parents and crowding them into cages. As I write in Chapter Ten of my book, this is how America continues to cling to its innocence: by scapegoating the Other, as minorities, as children, and most savagely, as the children of minorities.

You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

Our society continues to brutalize people of color through a police system that lacks all accountability. In the six months after Trayvon Martin was killed, police murdered over eighty African Americans. Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement writes:

As we dug deeper, and more grieving family members came forward, we found that every 36 hours…another Black child, man or woman dies at the hands of the police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.

Eighty percent of the victims are unarmed. In 2012, police in the U.S. killed over a thousand people. They were responsible for 10% of firearm-related homicides, and they injured (to the point of hospitalization) nearly 55,000 others.  Very few were punished. As I write here (Do Black Lives Really Matter?): 

So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they, the haters, can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. Representatives of the National Security State, from local courtrooms to the White House, will protect them.

But the prison-industrial complex has determined that black lives are more valuable live than dead. As always, we follow the money. Cui Bono? 

Sam Cooke wanted us to pay attention, and having done that, to drop some of our innocence. Listen again to the song. Just before he sings the refrain, “That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang…”, the bass man of his backup group sings, “Well don’t you know…” Musically, this is a statement that links the refrain to the stanzas, but it is much more than that. It is in fact a challenge to the listener: Are you asleep? Don’t you know what has been going on? Your soul, your moral well-being, your nation, your children all depend on this, on rising out of your ignorance, on becoming “woke.” You can no longer, says the bass man, pretend to be unaware of what the agents of authority claim to be doing in your name in order to maintain your own sense of innocence.

These innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. – James Baldwin

I realize this essay is beginning to sound preachy (perhaps to honor Sam’s and James’ origins in the church), but I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a reckoning. Is there such a thing as national karma? Will our descendants suffer for our sins?

Then it occurs to me: aren’t we already living in the reckoning time? Aren’t almost all of us experiencing a diminished, de-mythologized, de-potentiated life, swinging between the unsatisfying harbors of addictions, fundamentalism, media-driven consumerism, violent patriotism and – most of all – fear of the Other (as Muslim terrorists, immigrants or black men)?

I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears to be able to achieve any visible, organic connection between his public stance and his private life…This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they never would have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem’. This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks. – James Baldwin

Then again, I don’t know if Sam could allow himself to fall into despair. His very last recording was A Change Is Gonna Come. It was released at a very significant moment, in December 1963, four months after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, just after the Kennedy assassination, and two months before the arrival of the Beatles. A year later he was dead.

Earlier, in January of that year, Sam had recorded a live album – “One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963” – on which he sang “Chain Gang” with an upbeat, danceable, celebratory rhythm to a wildly appreciatory, sing along crowd that was almost certainly exclusively black. What was going on in that room? How could they seem to be enjoying such a sad song?

This event was a ritual, and the high priest was leading the assembly in the multi-generational confession of extreme pain and grief that, once expressed – and received, in community – turns into its opposite, where the “Ooh! Aah!” has a very different meaning. This is the secret of the Blues, something all indigenous people know, that – in community – one can reach profound, even ecstatic levels of unity once all aspects of the truth, especially the dark aspects, have been brought into the light.

This was Sam’s gift to us, and his challenge. Imagine such a world. Indeed, we really have no choice but to imagine such a world. And now we really do know…

Here are some other essays of mine on the subject of race in America;

Hands up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus


The Race Card 

The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth

Did the South Win the Civil War? 


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Barry’s Blog # 274: Well, Don’t You Know? Part One

June 2019. Netflix releases When They See Us, Ava DuVerney’s superb miniseries on the Central Park Five case.

In the first two weeks of the month, the seventh African-American transgender woman is murdered this year. Another, Layleen Polanco, is found dead at Rikers Island Prison. A study reveals that twenty percent of cops post racist comments on Facebook. A Vallejo, California investigation concludes that cops who shot a black man 55 times in 3.5 seconds “acted reasonably.” A new book describes long-term torture policies of the Chicago police. At several high school graduations across the country, principals and superintendents shut off the microphones of black valedictorians who try to speak about racial issues.

A sixth immigrant child dies in U.S. custody, and the Trump Administration decides to hold such victims in a former World War II concentration camp for Japanese-Americans. Yes, let’s stop using the phrase “detention camp” to describe the current insanity and, like the Los Angeles Times, use the more appropriate term “concentration camp.” It’s more accurate in terms of the cruel and unusual conditions, and it reminds us of how the prison-industrial complex has contributed to the concentration of wealth in America.

The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of all inmates, over 2 ½ million, of which 56% are black or brown. It has the largest incarceration rate in the world: 762 per 100,000 residents (as opposed to 152 in the U.K. and 102 in Canada). Fifty percent are incarcerated for mostly non-violent drug convictions. State prisons hold African Americans at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the white rate in five states. Large numbers of them, like Layleen Polanco, are dying there.

Conditions in private, for-profit prisons are worse. Most states have signed agreements with them guaranteeing to fill a certain number of beds in jail at any given point. The most common rate is 90%, though some prisons have extracted 100% promises. Because of these contracts, states are often obligated to keep prisons almost full at all times or pay for the beds anyway, so the incentive is to incarcerate more people and for longer in order to fill the quotas. The profits of the largest such company, Corrections Corporation of America, have increased by more than 500% in the past 20 years. The three largest such corporations have spent more than $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists.

Yes, there has been some good news. Bill De Blasio became mayor of New York City partially by promising to end its notorious “Stop-and-Frisk” program. The NYPD now reports about 10,000 stops per year, down from 700,000 (2,000 per day) in 2011, and crime in New York City has dropped significantly. 2018 recorded the lowest number of homicides in nearly 70 years. Still, young black and Latino males (five percent of the city’s population) make up 38% of reported stops, even though 93% result in no weapon being found. But let’s not quibble about good news.

The reforms, however, came too late for the millions (literally) of black and brown youth caught up over twenty years in the city’s brutal, wasteful, unconstitutional and quite useless program. It certainly came too late for the Central Park Five (who now call themselves the Exonerated Five).

…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin

Thirty years ago, the NYPD forced (some say tortured) these boys aged 14 to16 into confessing to the rape of a white, female jogger. None had legal representation. The city had a weak case against them, but the political climate dictated their fate as scapegoats for a blood-thirsty public egged on by Donald Trump, who had taken out full-page ads in several newspapers calling for their execution even before they were convicted.

They served between 7 and 13 years in prison under hideous conditions before the actual rapist confessed. They entered prison as children and left it as traumatized adults. Rochaun Meadows Fernandez writes:

There is immense power in DuVernay’s ability to tell a story that takes place during the period of boyhood…An obvious reason to tell the story that way is that they were young boys who were robbed of many of youth’s experiences by an anti-black and inherently corrupt criminal justice system. The other reason is to challenge the criminal justice dialogue. Black men are former black boys, and all too often they have that period of innocence stolen.

For me, that’s where much of the power of DuVernay’s depiction comes from. Each episode forces us to stop thinking of the abuses of the system as a black man’s problem, since doing so both desensitizes us and enables us to make excuses and place responsibility on the actions of an adult victim…Instead, we see a story told through the tear-filled eyes of five young black boys who were abused, coerced, and manipulated in a way that is unacceptable. They were children.

What exactly has changed in New York City? Lauren Cook writes:

While police are not allowed to use physical force during an interrogation, it is legal to deceive a person about the investigation. And if the tactic leads to a confession, it could be used as evidence in court…The use of deception during interrogations was a key factor in the Central Park Five… Since 1989, 365 people in the country have been exonerated through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Of those cases, 70 % involved eyewitness misidentification and 42 percent of those cases included errors of cross-racial misidentification. Twenty-eight percent of the cases included false confessions, 33 percent of which were made by a person 18 years old or younger.

These children were used to propel certain powerful white people into positions of greater power, writes Margaret Kimberley:

 Trump was part of a very large and influential lynch mob. The tabloid media invented the phrase “wilding” and attached it to every black teenager in the country…the City of New York did not compensate the men until 2014, twelve years after they were exonerated…for the simple reason that mayor Michael Bloomberg…directed the city to delay and appeal and it was left to his successor to bring some measure of justice with a $41 million settlement. Bloomberg is as much a villain as Trump…Another unsung perpetrator is Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau (who was) lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s boss (and who) could have stopped the process at any time.

If Beale Street Could Talk, last year’s excellent film version of the James Baldwin novel, tells a similar story.

In Chapters Six and Ten of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, I place our historical contempt for our own children into a broader, mythological context. Going all the way back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, the myth of the Sacrifice of the Children is the basic narrative underlying all of Western – and especially American – history and culture.

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. – James Baldwin

I suggest that, at some level, we are all aware of this historical trauma, because none of us have escaped its consequences. I submit further that almost all of our addictive, neurotic, distracting, self-serving, self-sabotaging and profoundly unsatisfying lifestyles, behavior patterns, religious views and political choices are nothing more than increasingly desperate attempts to remain innocent of what we all know. Don’t you know?

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