White Americans Don’t Believe in Death (a collection of testaments for Dr. King, belatedly)

Last semester, after my students were done working on a small-group activity involving theologian James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, one of my students announced that Cone was guilty of reverse racism. From the section on “The Blues and Sex,” here was the passage which offended him:

People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love.

Now, this book is and will continue to be a hard book to treat in an introductory class, not least because of Cone’s fondness for the steadfast binary (here, at least) between “white oppressors” and “black people.” But that body/spirit split so central to Western Christian thinking is worth meditating on.

I first came upon it in feminist criticisms of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which criticized this binary as not only an underappreciation of the fullness of the human condition, but–in the way that the spirit was continually valorized over the body–a construction that led to an overemphasis on sins and salvations of the spirit. Judith Plaskow wrote in her Sex, Sin and Salvation:

First of all, Niebuhr’s concern with the negative side of creatureliness may be part of what leads him to underestimate the sin of sensuality. The fact that Niebuhr ignores the positive features of human naturalness may prevent him from fully apprehending sensuality’s temptations. Not seeing human beings as continually, positively involved in the world’s vitalities, he is less likely to view loss of self in some aspect of these vitalities as a clear and ever present danger. (1980, 69)

How great of a word is creatureliness???

But this distance from the realities of the human body have repercussions outside the realm of the theologians, in spaces spiritual and political. In his book The Fire Next Time (1962), James Baldwin explained the conundrum simply and powerfully (as he explains all things in that little book).

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality–the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life….But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. (Cone’s emphases)

Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes related comments in his essay “Dia de los Muertos,” from his 1961 collection Laberinto de la Soledad, in which he contextualizes death’s disappearance as a paradox of modernity.

Modern death (Paz writes) does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. It is rarely anything more than the inevitable conclusion of a natural process. In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact, contrary to all our concepts and to the very meaning of our lives, the philosophy of progress (“Progress toward what, and from what?” Scheler asked) pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account, it is suppressed everywhere: in political pronouncements, commercial advertising, public morality and popular customs; in the promise of cut-rate heath and happiness offered to all of us by hospitals, drugstores and playing fields. But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. The century of health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.

In his recent article for the Washington Post, “Why do we ignore civilians killed in American wars?” John Tierman detailed the many ways that official tallies undercount the damage done by the Iraq War–but his argument is more about the attitudes that underlie such a callous inattention. Suggesting that America’s wars of the last 50 years have produced around six million casualties (no Holo), he refers to a theory called the “just world” theory, “which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational” and explains that the “The public dismissed the civilians [of Vietnam, Korea and Iraq] because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world”  (Tierman).

Sounds to me like Mr. Tiernan found–but didn’t name– another reason Americans ignore death: chauvinism.

Advertisements

Holla back!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s