I’ve been a big brother to a young Black man, Sean, for the last 15 years (I’m not Black or White). He’s 23 now. When he was 13 and having difficulties at home, my wife and I took him in for 6 months. He is my brother from another mother. All of which to say, I have my own limited insight into the Black community, diverse as it is – which align with my other writings regarding empathy within our culture.
Recently, Sean and I had dinner and saw the excellent film, Moonlight, which deals with familial and cultural trauma in Black America, with the added twist of delving into male sexuality. Because of our hyper-rational system, we feel the need to compartmentalize things: Black and white, right and wrong, Republican and Democrat, straight and gay, etc. The reality always lies somewhere in between. Each of us, regardless of gender, is a unique and infinitely complex combination of masculine and feminine energies. But if a man so much as considers physical closeness with another man, let alone acts on it, he is deemed to be gay, and that’s that. This subject is explored with nuance and sensitivity in the film.
Before I continue, let me say that I will be employing some generalizations that may not always satisfy but which I believe hold true in an overall sense.
There was a moment that struck me in the film, which has an all-Black cast. One character says to another, “Do you feel me?” The questioner is attempting to connect their own feelings to the feelings of another. This question, which is a normal part of North American Black culture, is generally not found in the ‘White’ culture. Instead, the more usual questions in the culture-at-large are: “Do you understand me?” or “What do you think of that?” or “What are you thinking?”
Black culture asks, “Do you feel me?” because the feminine energy has not been as squashed as in the dominant patriarchal culture. Due to this better access to feelings, despite centuries of subjugation, Black culture, especially Black women, holds an advantage in understanding the human experience and therefore has an opportunity to take a leadership role in the evolution of our species.
That those of African heritage have been presented as intellectually lesser-than is a given, but what strikes me as even more relevant is that the ultra-left brained, masculine colonial mind has also attempted to crush the ‘African’ way of being because it doesn’t understand it. Why can’t it understand? Because to understand something that is so connected with feeling requires connection to feelings, which the Western model, in general, does not have. How do we address this lack of access to our feminine selves? By denigrating it in those, including women, especially Black women, who do have that access. Indeed, in the movie, it is a Black woman who asks the question.
Meanwhile, ask many people of all classes, especially men, how they feel about something and invariably they will begin their response with ‘I think…’. You’ve asked how they “feel” about something but they are responding by telling you what they think – and all of this is unconscious. Then if you press them they might shrug awkwardly, maybe laugh, as they find it difficult to identify their feelings beyond ‘fine’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Or they’ll simply say they don’t know, which doesn’t really bother them because so many men are so divorced from their feelings (other than anger) that they don’t even know there’s something amiss, that they are comfortably numb.
Why this comfortable numbness? Since the Age of reason, over 300 years ago, the Rational Man Project (RMP) has become deeply embedded in the Western World, resulting in a long-term legacy of sacrificing our feelings at the altar of rationality. What is the RMP?
The Rational Man Project, a term coined by Psychologist, Nick Duffell, involves a brain that is:
“over-trained in rationality, has turned away from Empathy and has mastered and normalized dissociation in its most severe dimensions; it is consequently incapable of recognizing the fault in its own system… Rational Man was (and still is) permanently at war. He was at war with himself and with the world he created. The self he was at war with was his own indigenous self, the natural, emotional, innocent, spontaneous, sometimes lazy, sometimes erotic self.” (Nick Duffell, “Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and The Entitlement Illusion”, 2014)
To varying degrees, Western men and women have exiled this poor self, leaving it to fill the void with a fusion of addictions (food, shopping, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, sports teams, sex, news, cell phone, alcohol, cigarettes, dieting, working, pain, working out, coffee, surfing the internet and social media, pornography, sugar, television, video games).
“The fallout from the Rational Man Project is alive and well… It causes our society grave problems as: It maintains the inherited class structure with its… male elitism intact; It prevents emerging new paradigms” from coming to the fore – “due to fear of foreigners and fear of losing the status quo; and we do not notice the Rational Man Project’s grip on us because we are too close to it, like the fish who do not know the water; identified with it, we believe it to be our hallowed tradition.” (Duffell, 2014)
Regardless of gender, the emotional, intuitive, receptive, feminine, sensual, gentle and the big picture have been overwhelmed by a masculine, logical, specializing, practical, penetrating and efficient perspective that crosses class and religious boundaries. The result of this profound imbalance between the masculine and the feminine is a traumatized, confused and addicted culture that escapes and hides behind a wall, personal and collective, that we scarcely know exists. We don’t see the wall because we are the wall.
Among the many tragedies and ironies of those of African heritage having for centuries been deemed lesser-than, and punished accordingly, concerns their generally more effective access to their feelings. Look at Black churches and their intense connection to God. Look at Black dancing. Look at Black music. Look at Black creativity. Look at Black physicality, a strength acquired in part from the rigors of mistreatment and slavery. There is a rootedness that affords Black people, at least those who haven’t succumbed to the Rational Man Project, access to an emotional place that has been sidelined in the culture-at-large. For centuries, the colonial approach has deemed this connection to nature, to the soul, as being somehow uncivilized, with dispassionate reason put forth as a superior replacement.
No doubt this raw emotion is uncivilized, when civilized has, until very recently, meant the wholesale mass murder, torture and subjugation of people of color at home and away. And it’s not really over is it? To add insult to injury, there is the endemic and on-going appropriation of some of the most powerful and creative aspects of Black culture – via gradual, and sometimes, rapid assimilation into the still quasi-colonial structure. Understandably, there is consternation among some, maybe many, Black people who see and feel the injustice of having been treated as tier 2 citizens, really still to this day (other than the Black 1 percenters maybe), while simultaneously being pick-pocketed of their glory.
But what if we focus less on the glaring injustice and more on the opportunity to observe what this appropriation might mean, and why it’s happening? What if it’s not all on purpose? In the case of the United States, it has largely been part and parcel of multi-generational unconsciousness as a result of the three great traumas, “the Native American Genocide, Slavery and The Civil War, the effects of each of which continue to wreak havoc, hundreds of years after the fact. Standing Rock, the police shootings of African-Americans and the recent election highlight the explosive synergy between these three historic traumas, which has now come to a head.
In all three traumas, responsibility and contrition have been largely avoided by Americans of all stripes who now suffer from a deep-seated and profound shame that nobody wants to really look at, for obvious reasons. Some will balk at what is being presented here, suggesting that those things happened long ago. The argument that those are issues of the past has never been as hollow as it is at this moment when the continued impact of these traumas is now plain as day.
In the long term, when traumas, personal or global, are left untended to, the perpetrator becomes the victim, a slave to the guilt that has not been reconciled. Carrying around this burden has become debilitating for the United States, but also for the world as much of humanity struggles under their own versions of terrible betrayal of their fellow humans.” (This is a quote from my recent article on the Trump Presidency).
So what does all this mean for Black cultural appropriation? It means a twisted form of admiration. Despite the dubious methods, borrowing and copying indicate value. Alas, while this admiration also unconsciously dips into latent guilt and trauma, it actually holds within it an opportunity. The appropriation is actually a connecting point, however muddy that may appear. Instead of proper self-reflection and reconciliation the dominant culture apologizes in a back-handed fashion by connecting with areas of Black culture that help it fill the massive void created by the prevailing ultra-rational system.
Society desperately needs the access to feelings that Black people generally have more of – because they are missing it and they don’t know how to go within to find it. So, while society unconsciously takes it, the opportunity for the Black community is to see it as a compliment; to recognize its evolved position, take confidence from that, and act accordingly, from a place of compassion and non-judgment.
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note what has not been appropriated – yet. This is where the most underestimated aspect of Black American culture comes into play, namely evolved intellect, represented by Martin Luther King Jr. and his championing of non-violent resistance.
A good case can be made that Martin Luther King Jr., a Black man, has been the most extraordinary person America has produced. Inspired in good part by Gandhi’s peaceful yet provocative path of non-violence, MLK, standing on the shoulders of countless Black women and men who came before him, and standing side-by-side with him, achieved the seemingly improbable.
MLK’s words ring as true today as in the 60s but what made them – still to this day – life-changing, was the feeling behind them. His words stir the mind. The feeling behind his words stirs the soul.
Of course, a case can also be made that Gandhi’s and MLK’s respective approaches had enjoyed only short-term success with limited endurance, thereby reducing their standing as giants of human history. Were the 60s a last gasp to steer America and humanity in a more connected direction? Some say yes, but then the evolution of human consciousness is a process, after all. There’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back. We try things on. We make some headway. Then we hit some fear and uncertainty so we take a step back. It doesn’t quite fit yet. It’s too much. Martin Luther King was too much, too soon, so his light was extinguished. This need not be seen as a defeat. Both personally, and as a species, we have our own timing and means of integrating the lessons we learn, especially the toughest ones.
That so much progress has been made on all fronts by Black people, especially considering the abysmal hole they have been forced to climb out of, is a testament to the monumental work and sacrifices that were made by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as this inherent rootedness that promotes incredible strength and resilience. The centuries of mistreatment and subjugation of Black people the world over makes their massive influence that much more astounding and meaningful.
The situation is fluid. In my opinion, no American has painted a more intelligent and beautiful picture of the United States, and humanity in general, than Martin Luther King Jr. But, we’re still just getting our feet wet with the progressive ways of Gandhi and MLK. The prevailing way of being is deeply entrenched. It will not easily be dislodged but no other method is better positioned to make inroads into our destructive patterns than an intentional, non-violent approach.
What has not been extinguished, and what an increasing number of people are locking into, is the ongoing legacy of what Martin Luther King Jr. espoused and had massive success with – the transformational power of a more balanced posture; masculine and feminine intertwined, aligned.
(Sidebar: before anyone comes forward with stories of the imperfections of MLK, we should note that there are scarcely any giants of human history who have been perfect. They were like the rest of us works in progress, complicated, beautiful, ugly people – except they also had the weight of the world on their shoulders)
The courage and boldness of MLK and his followers to embrace non-violence, in the face of naked and life-threatening aggression, speaks to evolved thinking and being. This is cutting-edge humanity. We have seen it. We have tasted it. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s been laying low but building in strength, working its way to the foreground once again; to the chagrin of status quo forces whose deep fear of self-reflection causes them to resist at all cost; because if they reveal a chink in their armor, a Pandora’s box of unresolved and messy feelings will bubble to the surface. What is in that box is so painful that they work overtime to keep things controlled and contained; avoidance and denial always at the fore. Hence, the difficulty some Americans have in understanding the Black Lives Matter movement – the logical mind having to contend with such a compromised heart center that it reacts by suggesting that White lives matter as well – which, of course, is obvious and not the point.
We have two choices in dealing with people whose life experience has shown them that we are selfish, greedy and all-around terrible beings: (1) Match their energy and aggression head on, which entails engaging with unconscious forces on their terms. With this approach, victory, whatever that means, may be achieved, but at what cost?; OR (2) Do the difficult work of dissolving the generational tit-for-tat where one side responds to being rejected by firing back with resentment.
What is the way forward, for Black culture and all of humanity? Re-embrace and re-invigorate the non-violence practised by MLK, recognizing that the greatest strides for Civil Rights were achieved not with force but with a brave commitment to non-violence and common humanity. Even Malcolm X, at the end of his life, realized that mining our common humanity was far more effective than fighting against those who have grenade launchers when you only have a knife.
In the face of intense and understandable resistance, compassion and non-judgment are the keys. I have been angry and judgmental for my whole life – until recently. Like many of us, it’s been a lifetime of healing my own traumas (which will continue until the day I die). Through my writing, including a piece I have written on the Trump Presidency, and the social media engagement that has followed, I have experienced for myself the transformational potential of treating people with courtesy and compassion, especially those who are most angry, rude, belligerent and lost.
I’ve learned that when we dig a little deeper with any human being and look beyond the desperate and angry mask that has likely been in place for what feels like forever, we find ourselves. The mask is not bad. It is like a collective trauma umbrella held over our heads. It seems to be protecting us from rain but we keep the umbrella open even when it’s not raining; because we’re looking down, afraid to look up. Besides, isn’t it always raining?
The mask has served a crucial purpose, to protect the most vulnerable parts of us from the onslaught of childhood, ancestral and societal trauma. The deeper the trauma, the more unforgiving the mask, the greater the compassion needed to see past it; to feel the depth of the pain, alienation and confusion; to feel how each of us, regardless of race or class, wants the same things; acknowledgment, affection, peace, a fair chance to be who we are and to do what we love.
There is a fantastic documentary entitled, The Mask You Live, which could be required viewing. The film “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes interconnect with race, class, and circumstance, creating a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men.”
I was also recently moved by another extraordinary American Black man by the name of Daryl Davis. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Mr. Davis has for years engaged with and befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan – convincing 200 of them to “renounced their membership in the KKK. Some have even given Davis their ceremonial robes and hoods as a gesture to signify their departure from the group”.
Here is the trailer for a new documentary about Daryl Davis:
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Daryl Davis represents cutting edge humanity at its finest. He embodies the idea that non-violence sparks connection, which sparks trust, which sparks feeling. It is only when we have the courage to engage with our own mask, and address what lies behind it, that we can believe in and invite in a different experience; that we can dance with our delicate feelings that have been banished to a netherworld but are eager to make a re-appearance, to be cared for.
Of course, there have also been Black women who have been giants of evolved being and action, including Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, Mary McLeod Bethune, Annie-Lee Cooper and Maya Angelou, among others.
Of course, it must be pointed out that while a case is being made for Black culture, in general, having more access to the feminine energy, it goes without saying that many Black men, as with men in general in the culture, are still severely disconnected. It’s all understandable considering Black men are still dealing with massive generational and culture trauma that is still very fresh, and which will take time to reconcile. This brings us back to Moonlight.
The directing (Barry Jenkins) and casting are spot on. Mahershala Ali will be nominated for an Academy Award, and rightly so. His character encompasses many of the best qualities mentioned in the piece, the masculine and feminine working hard to be in balance. But the biggest revelation for me is the performance of Trevante Rhodes as the adult version of the main character. He is a man aching to connect with his own feelings; with who he is. It’s a remarkable and heartbreaking performance that taps into the furthest reaches of Western, and in this case Black, male alienation. Beyond anger, we must make it acceptable and safe for more men to explore their feelings.
As I have gained more access to my own feelings, I am helping my little brother Sean to do the same. It’s challenging but rewarding work for both us. We have learned so much from each other as we have both tried to figure out who we are and what this life is all about.
The defining question of Moonlight is “Who is you, man?” This is the question asked of the main character throughout his life. It’s the question we are all charged with answering for ourselves. It’s a question we have little hope of answering until we bring our masculine and feminine energies into better balance, personally and as a species. Connecting to our feelings is where human salvation lies. And in general, the Black community has better access to feelings than the rest of the culture. This is an advantage that holds great opportunity to set an example; to show leadership; to help humanity evolve to the next level.