Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Creation of the Self - That Which We Already Know

With this post I return to the writing of That Which We Already Know. Gosh, it’s been over a month since I first began this chapter. Thank you for your patience, but I do hope you appreciated the previous two posts related to race relations. Oh, and Happy New Year!

Chapter 6 (continued) – The Creation of the Self

Please imagine once again that child that you once were. Do you remember running through the woods or through the neighborhood without concern for how fast or how far, without concern for the smoothness or clumsiness of your gate? The universe said run, and so you did. The entirety of your being said run and so it did. There is simply no arguing with the universe or the entirety of your being – not when you’re a child, anyway. Do you remember drawing or finger-painting or coloring without the question ever entering your mind as to whether you were “any good at it” or not, without the question ever entering your mind as to whether it was a worthwhile pursuit or whether you should consider doing something else instead? You were alive and fully engaged with the world, without an inkling of ambivalence or self-judgment. Sure, we still enjoy such moments in our adulthood, albeit far more infrequently and under circumstances that are far more contrived – like when we’re engaged in our favorite hobby or pastime that allows us to “lose ourselves” from time to time. But what makes childhood such a wondrous time is precisely the fact that we don’t yet possess such a strong sense of self to be lost.

A prominent theme throughout these posts is that of the inevitable “fall from grace” that results from our developing self-awareness. This burgeoning self-awareness, however, can be thought of more precisely in terms of the development of two distinct but intertwining psychological realities – one a construct, the other a capacity. Namely, we are in the process of constructing our sense of self at the same time that we are developing the capacity for reflective awareness of that self. Each requires the other. So, what exactly is going on as day by day we grow older and proceed with the construction of this thing that many of us end up thinking is even more real than the universe that gives rise to it?

Recall the oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that I spoke of back in a previous post – that state in which the infant does not yet perceive any separation between self and other. From there the infant begins to explore his or her environment and map out the physical boundaries between what is “inside”, those internal bodily sensations and tactile sensations of pleasure and pain, and what is “outside”, that which can be touched but which does not feel that touch as the toes do when the hand reaches up and grabs them. A rudimentary conception of self and other begins to form.

With the development of language skills this mapping of self and other becomes more refined. The world ceases to exist in undifferentiated oneness and becomes recognized instead as a collection of things, each with its own name and set of attributes. The sky is blue. The grass is green. Fish swim and birds fly. The child, too, has a name, and she has attributes as well. Do you remember how young Amy described herself back in We Have A Place? “My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like to draw and read books.”

Of course, children don’t just spontaneously take to cataloguing their attributes. Without a doubt, Amy’s description would have taken some coaxing for her to create, and further coaxing for her to relate. In that regard we all play a role in the construction of the child’s sense of self. We are both their mentors and their mirrors. Ah, but you might wonder what harm there is in that. Nobody’s putting any words in Amy’s mouth and telling her what she should be or how she should be. Her description simply arises from the reality of her young life. Fair enough. Sooner or later, though, Amy will be introduced to the concept of being “good” at something, and being “bad” at something else. She’ll begin to evaluate how well she reads and how well she draws and how well she does a whole host of other things (or she will begin to internalize the evaluations of others), and no doubt these evaluations will begin to be included in her sense of self.

Please don’t misunderstand me. My work as a counselor has given me a deep appreciation of the value of our being able to determine what we’re “good” at and what we enjoy, and being able to then nurture that self-understanding into a career that is meaningful and rewarding for both us and our community. My work as a human being, however, has given me a deep appreciation for just how difficult this process can be. One rather obvious difficulty arises when what we’re good at and what we enjoy end up being two very different things. Or when what we’re both good at and enjoy simply does not have any appreciable economic value. How then shall we choose our life’s work? What criteria shall we use? Less obvious, though no less difficult, is when we confuse our being skilled at something with our enjoyment of it. Perhaps we’ve come to mistake our enjoyment of the extrinsic reward that we earn for being good at something with our intrinsic enjoyment of it.

A few years ago a very famous and talented tennis champion wrote in his memoir that he actually hated the game, that his father had forced him to play, and that it was a very lonely pursuit. Now, consider for a moment your reaction to such a revelation. Can you allow yourself to grieve at least in some small measure for that child who was denied the opportunity to simply be himself and to discover his own path? Or are you inclined to sidestep such psychic turmoil with a ‘yeah, but now he’s young and rich and happily married to a beautiful tennis champion’ sort of shrug? Yes, life is complicated like that – with joy and sorrow all tangled up together in the package that is us. I can imagine that every one of us has a bittersweet tale to tell of how we came to be what we are in this present day.

I was in middle school by the time U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began winding down. An older student conveyed the news to me as we waited to board the school bus that would take us home. And as the bus bounced and swayed and deposited us in groups of two and three throughout our respective neighborhoods, the reality of that news gradually settled into me: The nightmare that I’d lived with for so many years – that of being plucked from home against my will and dropped into the middle of a jungle firefight – would not come to pass after all. I was free to dream of a future once again. But the capacity for dreaming is not something that can be turned off and on again at will. It atrophies as muscles do if not used for far too long. And so my high school years came and went without any dream of a future being able to take root within me, without much sense of meaning becoming apparent amongst the myriad pieces of a world that seemed shattered from the farthest reaches outside of me to the deepest places inside of me.

Thankfully, I had my poetry. Where no other meaning existed there remained that which is inherent in being aware and giving voice to that awareness. Unfortunately, with the exception of possibly saving my life, poetry was not a very practical skill to take out into a world mired in an economic recession that would not be “surpassed” until the Great Recession of 2008. By the time I finally entered college after a couple of years of hoping that some signpost might appear out there in the fog, there was little for me to do but begin taking coursework in the only subject matter from high school that I recalled being “good” at – mathematics. No, it was not what I truly loved, but in a fashion vaguely resembling the aforementioned reluctant tennis champion, I parlayed it into a level of financial stability for which I am grateful, and which allows me now to pursue that which is more meaningful to me.

Perhaps there is some strange irony in my now providing counsel to those who are in a place not all that different from the one in which I found myself so many years ago. Is it really such a stretch to see the similarity of where I was and where my young urban clients are – growing up in neighborhoods too dangerous or too impoverished for any dreams to take root, finding meaning in little other than the “rhymes” that they compose? And what about you? Do you dare trace the twists and turns that your own life has taken? Or will the illusion of the inevitability of the “you” that you’ve become come crashing down around you? For the longer that the universe allows us to bask in the apparent stability of our created selfhood, the more attached we become to all of the ideas and concepts and material trappings that we’ve used to construct it. Do you dare contemplate the “you” beneath the outer fa├žade of you? Do you dare consider the possibility that the mortar holding together all of the bricks and stones of “you” is the very fear of nonexistence?

Image References

Woodcut version of Munch’s The Scream via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Would Anyone March For That Guy?

I suppose I grew up rather clueless as to the depths of racial division in this country. That might seem strange given the fact that I grew up in an all-white neighborhood and didn’t even go to school with any non-white kids until late in my high school career. After all, the very existence of such lilywhite bastions would seem to speak pretty strongly of the existence of racial division, right? But perhaps it also points to our ability to both see the results of systemic racism without really seeing it all at the same time. Interestingly, the first step toward racial diversity at our high school didn’t even involve the enrollment of any African-Americans. It was a couple of Vietnamese refugees, so-called “Boat People”, who were the first non-whites to walk through our doors.

Despite growing up in an all-white neighborhood, I don’t recall a single instance of my parents inculcating us kids with any racist ideas. To the contrary, I remember well my mother, a British immigrant, telling us about traveling through the Jim Crow South and being totally flabbergasted when some white people stopped her from using a restroom that was intended for use by “colored people” only. Likewise my father, born and raised in the U.S. and a public school physical education teacher by trade, never spoke ill of anyone on the basis of race. Even after school desegregation (“busing”) began in St. Louis and the occasional interracial conflict arose at his erstwhile all-white school, he never attributed it to any shortcoming on the part of the new arrivals. I only recall him speaking once, in what I would call almost mystified terms, of some black kids not wanting to cooperate in his class. After all, they were going to play a game. It was going to be fun, right?

Vonderrit Myers and his mother

Perhaps that mystified reaction is an outgrowth of our ability to both see and not see all at the same time. With hindsight I can reflect more deeply on the difficulties likely faced by those students who were bused in from very different neighborhoods far away and who must have already begun to feel the weight of a racist world that even well-meaning and open-minded individuals like my parents couldn’t fathom. And I can see that in my own way I’ve followed in my parents footsteps, having grown up to be well-meaning and open-minded – both seeing racism and not really seeing it all at the same time.

It’s not like I’ve remained in a white cocoon my entire life. I followed in my father’s footsteps for a time, teaching in a high school that was part of the “deseg program”. It was actually one of the poorer County schools, however, and I thought the races mixed pretty well given the fact that they shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds. My work since then has taken me to various community service and employment agencies, high schools, halfway houses, and homeless shelters throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. I’ve seen first-hand the disparate impact of poverty on African-Americans. Looking back, though, I suppose I’ve thought of this disparity in more distant and abstract terms – as the legacy of long-ago misdeeds still playing out in the present day despite our best intentions to overcome them, rather than as the result of systemic racism churning out new misdeeds in the here and now. These recollections notwithstanding, it’s still difficult for me to say exactly how I thought about race at the beginning of this summer. So much has happened in these past few months that has compelled me to totally rethink my own attitudes about race as well as the nature of racism throughout this country.

This past July 13 was the first anniversary of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of legal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Please take note of the emphasis I’ve placed on the word ‘legal’. It was a case that I’d followed with great interest, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to having doubts about it constituting murder. Rather than seeing the killing as an act of premeditated physical aggression, I thought of it more as a “perfect storm” of fear-based and overzealous community vigilance meeting justifiable resentment on the part of one profiled individual, with just enough bad law related to firearms and personal defense thrown in to make it deadly. It was a tragedy, yes, and I do not consider Zimmerman in fond terms, but the verdict did not compel me to rethink everything I thought I knew about race and racism. It said more to me about our self-defense and gun obsession than anything else. Then, just four days after the first anniversary of this touchstone verdict came the killing of Eric Garner, and so the summer of 2014 would begin.

Eric Garner, an unarmed black man accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street, was choked to death this past July 17 by a white police officer attempting to arrest him. It was grotesque in both its end result and its utter senselessness, but it didn’t immediately strike me as being an outgrowth of institutionalized racism. Certainly, it was an aberration, right? Besides, I must have thought at the time, there will certainly be legal ramifications for the officer who used the illegal chokehold that resulted in Garner’s death. There simply must be. I was both seeing and not seeing all at the same time.

Not even one month later, on August 4, white police gunned down a young black man, John Crawford, in the toy department of a Dayton, Ohio Walmart after he apparently failed to hear their “commands” to drop the toy air rifle that he was considering purchasing. To be truthful, I am not completely certain that I heard of Crawford’s death right after it occurred. I think it was only after I started really wondering about these killings that I did the research and found the store video showing Crawford completely unaware of the presence of any law enforcement officers until such time as their bullets were entering his body. I was aware and yet unaware all at the very same time.

And then came August 9, and the killing of another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, this time at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri during a highly disputed altercation. There was something about this killing that pierced the veil clouding my awareness; or perhaps there were many things actually. There was the reality of such a large number of bullets having been fired at an unarmed person. There was Michael Brown’s body being left out in the street for hours. There were the statements that Brown was in the process of surrendering prior to being killed. There was the sense that the number of bullets fired was much more a matter of choice than necessity. There was the anonymity of the police officer, now known to be Darren Wilson, and the fact that communication coming from the Ferguson Police Department was lacking straightforwardness and impartiality. I was beginning to really see what African-Americans have been experiencing for a long, long time.

On the Sunday following Brown’s killing, I attended for the very first time a protest seeking justice on his behalf. I witnessed firsthand the outrage within the African-American community, and in the ensuing weeks and months I began to learn more and more about what I’d been seeing without really seeing. I learned a little bit more about the history of all of those little North St. Louis County municipalities that I drove through on the way to and from work each day – the existence of which had mystified me for some time. I learned of the role that “white flight” from the city of St. Louis had played in their creation, and I learned of how they are funded in large part with money that results from the policing of their less affluent African-American residents. I was finally beginning to really see what systemic racism is all about. Please read my related blog post for more on these realities: Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson.

Then, after joining in several marches and rallies on behalf of justice for Michael Brown, came the evening of October 8. Vonderrit Myers was hanging out with friends when something about them, as yet unclear, caught the attention of a white St. Louis City police officer who was moonlighting as a neighborhood security guard. The youths reportedly fled. Myers, with the officer in pursuit, allegedly fired three shots at the officer before his gun jammed. The officer fired 17 times in return, hitting Myers a number of times in his legs and killing him with a shot to his face. The neighborhood erupted in protests, much like those that followed in the wake of the killing of Brown.

Questions about my role in this burgeoning movement began flooding my mind. For instance, I was fairly confident that Darren Wilson should be charged with some crime, but the first degree murder charge that some sought seemed untenable, as did the contention by some that all cops are racist killers. I felt totally congruent chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace”, but my whiteness just wouldn’t allow me to utter the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant that is now the rallying cry of the movement. I had become familiar with the fact that this movement is comprised of people from all walks of life, races and ethnicities, and with all sorts of philosophies and world views. I realized that my presence in this movement was necessary even as it required me to march with those whose views I didn’t completely agree with. But why would anyone march for Vonderrit Myers? That was the question that popped into my head.

Well, I have now marched on behalf of justice for Vonderrit Myers. No, I don’t think that the police account of him shooting at the pursuing officer is a total fabrication (although I do have some questions as to how things really played out), but the fact that many people have completely lost confidence in anything the police say speaks volumes about the nature of the social problem that we have – a problem that seems to me to need addressing from at least three angles: 1) The circumstances related to the killing of Myers and all others who are killed by police need to be publicly documented and available for study and discussion. This is not a blanket accusation of wrongdoing. Rather, it is a statement related to the seriousness with which we should treat the taking of life by those in our employ. At present, recordkeeping related to those killed by police is sorely lacking, as a recent Wall Street Journal article attests. 2) Protocols related to the use of deadly force need to be reviewed and revised. At present, a police officer has virtually unchecked discretion to do whatever he wants as long as he can say that he felt threatened. The apparent willingness to use deadly force in these recent cases, and the apparent willingness to engage in it with brutality should give us all pause, especially in light of allegations that the police officer who killed Myers, Jason Flanery, might have been predisposed to the use of excessive deadly force against an African-American individual given the nature of his social media postings. Which brings me to the third aspect of the problem. 3) Racism in this country is not simply comprised of isolated instances in which one individual might negatively impact the life of another. Racism in this country is an aggregation of numerous such actions stemming from and perpetuating the systemic and sometimes deadly oppression of African-Americans that is evident in nearly all measures of well-being. This is something that I’m seeing with much greater clarity than ever before, and I hope we all begin to discuss ways to remedy it wherever it exists in all of our social institutions - healthcare, education, employment, criminal justice, economic, financial, et al.   

On September 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of John Crawford. On November 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Michael Brown. On December 3 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Eric Garner. It’s a foregone conclusion, I’m sure, that there will be no indictment for the killing of Vonderrit Myers, and yet perhaps we all have some measure of culpability for his death.

Through our direct action, non-action, or complicit silence we either create or condone the social structures that give black youth like Vonderrit a much less hopeful future than if they were white. We hear of him being gunned down and we wash our hands of him. We say “good riddance” and applaud the cop who did our dirty work for us – earning his keep by removing so much human garbage from our streets. We disrespect ourselves when we treat any life so cavalierly. But it won’t end there. We can’t simply discard the Vonderrit’s of our world and expect to go about our merry white ways. There is no truer chant than that which I’ve heard and uttered out there in the streets on behalf of Martin and Garner and Crawford and Brown and Myers and so many others: No justice, no peace.

Image Credits

Photograph of Vonderrit Myers and his mother via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank