Saturday, February 4, 2017

Frederick Douglass: "I have since heard of his death."

 "I have since heard of his death."

No, that's not President Faux discovering that Douglass is in fact, dead. [From the New Yorker: "Trump Says He Heard Frederick Douglass Was Alive from Betsy DeVos"]

It's Frederick Douglass writing about the deaths of a man and his son who had held him in slavery, writing with what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls an odd, human gratitude (!) and lack of vengeance.

It's part of a long quote, so I'll just link to Coates's article in the Atlantic (from 2011--nothing to do with present idiocy): 

"I Have Since Heard of His Death'".

Douglass was so Buddhist-y there! He was able to drop his attachment to justified resentment--even to his right to hate, which seems to me one of the hardest things to do.

Desmond Tutu says that's what it means to forgive:
it means to walk away from your perfectly justified right to revenge. It means to freely choose to walk away, to say, I choose not to demand an eye for an eye. 

It's complicated of course.
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”
-- Desmond Tutu,
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Of course, it made all the difference that Frederick Douglass had gotten himself free.
He was not a slave in his mind, nor in body.

He had gotten himself free.


Facing nothing like the intentional cruelty Douglass endured, I have a really hard time. But this article gave me courage to go visit my father in a couple weeks. I'd already volunteered to go, and then I felt all quavery. I needed the reminder that I go as a free woman. Remembering that, I am not afraid. 
I am not twisting on the hook of resentment.

Related and helpful, this article, "How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked" by American Buddhist Pema Chodron:
"The Tibetan word for this [hooked feeling] is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.”
It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there.
At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality.

That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us."
II. Violence Works

Along these lines, I've been disturbed lately by calls to "punch Nazis in the face." (Posters with this instruction are up on street poles a couple blocks from my place.)
I get it!
But I can't get behind it.

I'm not opposed to violence because I consider myself above it.
Ha! No. Just the opposite. It looks really tempting.

I recognize the impulse in myself (even the desire--maybe that's what really worries me) to lash out and to demonize people I fear––and fear for good reason.

But has the time for this really come? Have we tried everything else yet?

Sometimes violence becomes necessary--I'm with Dietrich Bonhoeffer there. And with Douglass, who writes that his acts of defiance rendered his most brutal master suddenly powerless. 
Mr. Covey, the callous “nigger-breaker,” “tremble[s] like a leaf,” when Douglass unexpectedly fights back. Douglass finds “assurance” in this display of fear and continues to do battle with Mr. Covey though he has no hope of ultimately winning.
Frederick Douglass defines a particularly moment of violence as “the turning point in [his] career as a slave.”
--from "Breaking the Cycle: Violence, Control & Resistance in American Slave Narratives"
If I had to punch someone to save someone else or myself, I would. I'd probably love it, in a way.
I recently read Townie by Andre Dubus III--a memoir in large part about how he started lifting weights as a teenager to make himself strong enough to physically fight back against his childhood tormentors.
"Kids roamed the neighbourhood like dogs. The first week I was sitting in the sun on our steps, I made the mistake of watching them go by as they walked up the middle of the street, three or four boys with no shirts... the tallest one, his short hair so blond it looked white, said, 'What're you lookin' at, fuck face?'
There he was on the bottom step. He pushed me hard in the chest and kicked my shin.
'You want your face rearranged, faggot?'"
Getting violent worked.
Dubus catches how scarily, greatly fantastic it is to literally punch bullies in the face. It made me want to join a gym. (And then I remembered I belong to a gym.)

From a v. good review from the Guardian:
 "With a single blow, Dubus floored someone who had previously terrified him, knocking out two of his teeth.
"'You fuckin' nailed him,' a friend said admiringly."
I nodded and smiled, then I was laughing and I couldn't remember feeling this good about anything in my life ever before.
At some point, it became a lose-lose proposition. Dubus is lucky: he is able to become a writer instead.
But if violence is your only way?
(Moonlight is very much about this too, choosing violence when there is no love and it's your only way out.)

To choose violence before we have to, this is to choose to give up a freedom.

Don't we who want to resist the new administration have a whole lot of non-physically violent kinds of resistance we haven't even tried yet? Kinds of spiritual "violence" even? I mean, willed, chosen acts of exerting one's own power and freedom, even when other, stronger people deny it?

Have we really personally and collectively explored "the various forms of resistance that might render violent oppression ineffective" *?

I haven't.


I have so much editing to do. But I'm so glad I wrote this out--this whole thing about violence and reconciliation has really been nagging me, personally (because of my father's cancer) and politically. 

* "Representations of violence also allowed slave narratives to evaluate how violence destroyed both master and slave and to explore the various forms of resistance that might render violent oppression ineffective." --Breaking the Cycle 


ArtSparker said...

Non-violent - and patient- protest has worked well in the past.

Fresca said...

SPARKER: When I look at history, I think they are the only things that have worked not only to stop evil but to create the possibility of good.
I mean, violence may be necessary if we're facing Evil, but it does not in itself create Good.