Excerpt from "What Must I Do?" Posted on 25 Feb 04:28 , 0 comments
“Why Don’t You Check Out Your Soul?” The Need for Psychic Conversion Among American Blacks
A double minded man is unstable in all his ways,
—James 1:8, KJV
During the turbulent sixties, Malcolm X challenged Black1 Americans to undergo what he described as a psychic conversion. According to Malcolm X, “ . . . [B]lack people must no longer view themselves through white lenses.”2 If Black people are to escape the “double-consciousness” decried by W. E. B. Du Bois then they must cast off their “veil” which can only be accomplished through a psychic conversion.3
The message of Malcolm X was taken up by a litany of soul singers of the day, led by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who asked, “How can you get respect when you haven’t cut your process yet?” Another singer asked, “Why don’t you check out
your mind, see what you all can find?” Still another advised Black Americans to aban- don their quest to define themselves through their pursuit of material goods and to be “ . . . thankful for what you have.”
Malcolm X did not define what he meant by a psychic conversion. Moreover, he left no methodology by which a psychic conversion might be effectuated. Consequently, in response to the message of Malcolm X, Blacks donned dashikis, grew Afros, and tried to speak Swahili as schools across America established Black studies programs, hired Black instructors, and allowed Black students to form Black student unions and related organizations—all in the name of giving Blacks a new identity grounded in the African heritage. Blacks went from being Negro to being “Afro-American.”4
This “conversion” as interpreted by Blacks of the day, continued into the political arena where amidst shouts of “black power,” impediments to Black voting such as literacy tests, poll taxes, all white political parties, and all white primaries, were struck down either by the federal courts or the justice department—both of which had been energized by the Voting Rights Act. On the economic front, affirmative action, minority hiring quotas, and minority set-aside programs promised an economic conversion to all Black Americans. In this atmosphere of conversion, Black Americans left the protest lines in record numbers and declared the arrival of “The Age of Aquarius.”
Yet, “[this age] did not last long. As the economy slumped, [B]lack rage escalated and white backlash set in.”5 What happened that in less than thirty years, Black Americans find themselves beset by a “loss of hope and absence of meaning . . . [that] results [in] a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world?”6
This chapter answers that “what happened” was the failure of Blacks, particularly Black leaders and intellectuals, to perceive and to understand the “psychological brutality, genocide and horror directed against the African slave” and the deeply rooted psychical damage done to Blacks as a consequence thereof and that persists today.7 Additionally, the “what happened” was the realization that Blacks needed to change more than their economic status, political party, hair style, and garments. As demonstrated with painful clarity by the plight of Clarence Thomas, Michael Jackson, and O. J. Simpson, three Blacks who possessed political power, wealth, and hero status, respectively, yet who felt the need to cloak themselves in the garments of white America until they had to play the race card to save themselves, Blacks are in need of something more fundamental than the superficial changes of the sixties. If these three prominent Black Americans, who have all that most desire and more, still suffer from double consciousness, then how can Blacks continue to look to economics and politics as the source of their salvation?8
That Blacks stand in need of something greater than economic and political power is borne out in part by the fact that Greenwich, Connecticut, with one of the highest per
capita incomes in the nation is beset by racial strife,9 and the Rodney King beating took place in a city with a significant Black population and with a Black mayor.
The purpose of this chapter is to argue as Al-Mansour states that:
the intense pain [and] anguish from the suspense of anticipated tortures associated with 300 years of slavery caused African . . . victims to repudiate, suppress and submerge the normal functioning of their collective personality which had been based upon a knowledge and respect for their history, culture, civilization and values. Further, contrary to known case studies such as Sybil and Bridie Murphy, they could not exhibit defense mechanisms [which could lead to] manifestation of distinct and varied personalities.10
In response to this intentional psychological and physical brutality, African slaves began to exhibit the symptoms of psycho/psychical injury that are so prevalent in Black communities today: “docile, dumb suffering, a massive inferiority complex, collective feelings of physical self-hatred and color consciousness, fatalism, . . . [and] disrespect for normal male-female-children relationships.”11
It is no wonder then, that Pecola, in Toni Morrison’s first novel, dreams of having blue eyes so that she can become “beautiful” and “different” and change the world around her.12 Nor does it come as any surprise that many Black men consider the crown of success to be the marrying of a white woman. Al-Mansour notes:
[D]uring slavery the total breakdown of the personality [of African slaves] was completed and thereafter an environment was maintained that caused the crippled personality to remain impaired. This condition in turn gave rise to intragroup crime, bleaching creams, illiteracy, con- spicuous consumption, lack of motivation, violence, alcoholism/drug and welfare gathering dependency, family and community disorganization, etc.13
The injuries and resulting dysfunctionings decried by Al-Mansour continue to impede the progress of Black people and can only be alleviated by some form of psychic conversion. Underlying this article is the belief that Black people represent the quintessential existentialist who is “deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”14 Black people are a people caught between two worlds without belonging to either—a people caught in a cement pool of multiple personalities that is wet enough to allow some movement but dry enough to prevent escape. The promised land of capitalism has remained like the north star—Blacks are ever moving toward it without any hope of reaching it. And yet, even if they could reach it, capitalism itself cannot and will not make whole the splintered soul of Black people.
This chapter does not discount the need for economic and political change in America— for certainly such things are of critical importance in a capitalist and democratic society. Nevertheless, it asserts that a psychic conversion is the best precipitator for those changes
and it is only after they have undergone a psychic conversion that Black Americans will be able to move toward the “liberative renewal and transformation” sought by the organizers of “The Million Man March.”15 Additionally, it shall be the task of this chapter to go beyond Malcolm X and Cornel West and to propose a methodology by which Black Americans, and, in fact, all Americans, may undergo a psychic conversion. We hold it to be self- evident that the souls of Black people are sick and must be healed if the persistent problem of racism in America is to be resolved. …
It becomes clear then, that at best, Black Americans in the sixties underwent a trans- formation. They looked at themselves, then their African culture, and reinterpreted themselves in term of what they perceived as their blackness and their potential in America. The problem thus becomes clearer—Black Americans did not remove their veil or exorcize their demon of double consciousness and as a result continued to view themselves “through white . . . lenses that devalue some of [their] African character- istics.”74
Bleaching creams, processed hair, Euro-centric values and ideals of beauty, and the “good life” continue to occupy center stage in the psyche of most Blacks.
Consequently, because white Americans are themselves “ . . . enslaved in racism and need to be set free,”75 Blacks could not see or find the land of freedom by looking through the eyes of their fellow prisoners. To use the ditch metaphor that was so prominent during the Civil Rights era, whenever Blacks tried to move the foot of racism that held them in the ditch, they merely moved the foot from one shoulder to the other! Even Cornel West, a distinguished African-American professor at Harvard University, dressed in a three-piece suit, could not get a taxicab in New York City!76 It becomes clear, then,
that [the] Western axial heritage can neither be preserved nor made effective in individuals, cul- tural communities, and polities unless it surrenders its previous implicit foundational privilege and allows itself to be both criticized and reoriented on the grounds of a further degree of differ-entiation.77
Thus, what both of these ditch dwellers need is a psychic conversion.
Psychic conversion consists in the development of the capacity for internal communication in the subject among spirit (intellectual, rational, deliberative, and religious consciousness), psyche (sensitive consciousness), and organism (the unconscious), by means of the attentive, intelligent, rational, and existentially responsible and decisive negotiation of one’s imaginal, affective and intersubjective spontaneity.78
Psychic conversion “sharpens one’s dedication to values, overcomes the biases that infect one’s pursuit of intelligibility, truth, and the good, and reaches down even into unconscious neurophysiology to stimulate and release the symbols that empower the creative upward movement of empirical, intelligent, rational, existential, and religious intentionality.”79
Psychic conversion will enable Blacks to substitute God and community for profit as the foundation of their cities.80 Renewed, Blacks will reject the individualism of the Western world “as a means of defining their relationship with God and each other and affirming the national creed of private initiative,”81 and come to realize that “the false teaching of individualism serves only to solidify and continue racism’s power,” on both the oppressor and the oppressed.82 Psychic conversion will strengthen Blacks in relation to each other and in relation to whites to declare emphatically and prophetically that we are “all one in Christ Jesus.”83
For Blacks in particular, though, psychic conversion achieves the XODUS Journeying advocated by Baker-Fletcher in that it results in “the shedding of Euro-domination in [Blacks]’ desires, values, and attitudes.”84 In the place of this former self emerges a new “African self [which] will no longer be denied, ignored, and suppressed.”85 Where Euro- centric ideas of “individualism, materialism, and consumerism” once dwelled, a strong sense of African community will now live.86
How might such a psychic conversion be brought about? What tools are there that can empower and enable Blacks to “undertake a psychic-spiritual and cultural Journey” as might be done by a psychic conversion?87 It is to those questions that we now turn.
- The Methodology
Chapter 16 of Exodus records the wilderness experience of the Hebrews as they left Egypt and headed for the Promised Land that was to become Israel. In reading this remark- able story of God’s actions in history, we discover in Chapter 17 that soon after leaving Egypt some of the Hebrews began to complain about conditions in the wilderness and
to say that they were better off in Egypt. Bernhard W. Anderson states it well when he says that, “To be sure, Israel experienced grace in the wilderness, but it was also a time of grumbling, revolutionary discontent, internal strife, rebellion against Moses, and above all, a lack of faith.”88 As a result, the Hebrews spent the next forty years wandering about the wilderness between slavery and the Promised Land. During these wanderings, we are told later that “none of the adults who left Egypt were permitted to enter into Canaan; all of them died during the sojourn in the wilderness” (Num. 14:26–35; 26:63–65).89
It may be, as many ministers have preached, that the wilderness period was used by God to rid the Hebrews of their slave mentality and to prepare them for the Promised Land. Or as one commentator has said, the wilderness period represents a “process of spiritual as well as physical empowerment.”90 However one views this period in the history of the Hebrews, one thing is certain—it paved the way for the Hebrews to become a people and the nation of Israel.
Unfortunately, and critically for Blacks in America, there was no wilderness period for the African slaves between emancipation and the Civil Rights era of the sixties. There has not been a place or a time during which the slave mentality has been exorcized from the Black psyche and so the pains of slavery have continued to sear the souls of Black people in America. Blacks in America were denied a Black Moses to lead them to freedom. Some historians have tried to elevate President Lincoln to that status. However, Lincoln freed the slaves to save Egypt—he was more concerned with the soul of America than the souls of Black people.
Perhaps the Republic of New Africa was right—America should have set aside several states in the south for the habitation of the freed slaves in which they could establish their own nation. Unfortunately, time and circumstance have conspired against Black people who can no longer seek salvation in the land. Black people are neither totally free nor whole. If they are to become whole, then their exodus must be spiritual and not spatial. Their journey must be internal and not external.
It may be also that integration was more of a curse than a blessing to Black people for in it they sought to become like their former masters. Blacks did not reject the ideals that had enslaved them—they desired only to change their status. Blacks aspired to be like the Egyptians and not to overthrow them. In doing so, they frustrated the will of God that they be the catalyst to the conversion of whites who had forsaken their God of freedom and justice and erected in God’s place an idol of oppression and greed. Now, the blood of Blacks and whites is too mixed to allow for any meaningful separation and we must build forward rather than attempt to dismantle the foundation we have inherited from our fore-parents. Another impediment to any type of looking back is the realization that ultimately the ideals of America are sound—they flow from God! They are not cover stories. Slavery emerged from an aberration of those ideals. Racism is the penalty of
those sins of the fore-parents. Both the offspring of the perpetrators and the victims remain in a ditch of darkness—estranged from the light of salvation.
Nothing short of a soul healing is ever going to result in the spiritual, economic, political, and community salvation of Black people. This healing can only be brought about by a psychic conversion! Who is able to bring about such a healing?
This chapter argues that ministers, pastors, theologians, and others in the religious community are best equipped to administer the process of psychic conversion because:
As the traditional upholders and interpreters of spiritual values and images of cosmic connection [we] must join hands to face the challenges of facilitating the rediscovery and revitalization of healing images for our age . . . Our task . . . is to be “spiritual midwives” who facilitate the “delivery” of such images to our contemporary world . . . Even a minimal faith in this spirit of creative transformation impregnates our world with possibilities for new birth even at the edges of life.91
We turn now to the question of how do religious leaders effectuate this needed psychic conversion. The methodology presented by Mark Taylor offers an acceptable answer. Taylor concedes that “ . . . dynamics of racist/sexist hegemony are buried [deep] in the psyches of” Black and white Americans.92 To bring about a psychic conversion in these individuals (though Taylor uses the term “emancipatory praxis”), Taylor advocates “absorbing, contesting and revisioning elements of the hegemony.”93
By absorbing, Taylor means that the Church must “identify” the presence of racism/sexism within our society and lead both Black and white Americans to a “depth acknowledgment” of their complicity in perpetuating these evils.94 In contesting, an environment is created in which the “stories and testimonies of the victims of sexism and white supremacism” are presented so that the victims come to the realization that they are victims and the oppressors come to the realization that they are oppressors.95 Revisioning is where the Church seeks “to set in motion a new ‘representational politics,’ attempting to put in place, and ritually strengthen, powerful images and language that have political effect which counter the reigning sexist and racist hegemony.”96
In terms of race relations, denominational authorities should take a more active and intentional role in the assignment of ministers, especially those on an interim basis. Every effort should be made to assign white ministers to Black congregations and Black ministers to white congregations. Dual ordination procedures would have to be abandoned and all ministers held to the same professional and moral standards. Periodically, congregations could exchange ministers, musicians, choirs, Sunday school teachers, and other leaders so that predominant one-race congregations could have the benefit of the preaching, teaching, and music of the other race.
Changes should also be made in the literature and liturgy to ensure that they are not sources of distortion and division.97 The impact of Blacks in the Judeo-Christian heritage should not be limited to the single act of carrying the cross for our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. We must lift up the influence of Africans such as St. Augustine who is said to have been “the greatest teacher on the future Christian Church,”98 and “the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic.”99
Both Black and white congregations would benefit from adding Black spirituals to their worship services. Black congregations will benefit from classical music and chorales just as white congregations will benefit from “soul” gospel music. And both will benefit from an occasional meditative and reflective worship service as well as a “spiritual” one.
Finally, portraits of a white Jesus or a black Jesus would have to be taken down and preferably not replaced. If one must be displayed then it should more accurately reflect what a Nazarene carpenter who spent most of his time outdoors would have looked like. Images of God, angels, and other icons should undergo a similar face-lift where such can be done without exorbitant expense or damage to historical structures.
There will also have to be room made in Black churches for “reviving traditional African religions or the ancient faiths of Egypt.”100 African slaves’ first encounter with God did not occur upon American soil. The crevice in the psyche of Blacks between Africa and America is a critical part of the double consciousness of Blacks and no healing can take place until this crevice is bridged if not eradicated by being filled with the spiritual waters of Africa.
Baker-Fletcher has noted the importance of Africa for Blacks and for their healing. We have noted earlier the absurd existence of Blacks that results in the widespread alienation decried by West. Baker-Fletcher argues that what he calls “XODUS Journeying” represents “psychospiritual liberation” and results “in a kind of remythifying of pan- African cultures, aiding all Black peoples . . .”101 What Baker-Fletcher calls XODUS Journeying is a movement that can be precipitated by the psychic conversion of Blacks that will then enable them to live authentic lives. From this point of new beginnings, Blacks can construct a truly pluralistic society and community of God. This psychic conversion of which we speak is not the type of absurd change undergone by Pecola that leaves her in the ditch of insanity.102 Nor is it the type of transformation that Blacks underwent in the sixties and that has now gone the way of bell-bottomed pants and medallions.
We speak of a conversion akin to that experienced by Saul who in the Light of the Son, goes from persecutor to proclaimer, from Saul to Paul.103 It is significant to note that the conversion of Paul comes through his eyes. As one commentator has observed:
When his eyes were opened he saw no man. It was not so much this glaring light, but it was a sight of Christ, that had this effect upon him. Thus a believing sight of the glory of God in the face of a Christ dazzles the eyes to all things here below . . . He was in the dark concerning his own spiritual state, and was so wounded in spirit for sin that he could relish neither meat nor drink,104 And the restoring of Paul’s sight, signified the recovering of him, . . . From the darkness of his unconverted state. Christ often told the Pharisees that they were blind, and could not make them sensible of it. Saul is saved from his Pharisaical blindness, by being made sensible of it. Converting grace opens the eyes of the soul . . . From the darkness of his present terrors. Now the scales fell from his eyes, the cloud was scattered, and the Sun of righteousness rose upon his soul, with healing under his wings.105
The conversion of Paul represents a “rupture between past and present, with the past portrayed in strongly negative terms.”106 With his eyes renewed in the light of the glory of Christ Jesus, Paul began to see “his former wealth changed into refuse, and he is filled with loathing for it.”107 He also sees “his former zeal to be accepted by God, his righteousness—simply an attempt at self-assertion.”108
Like the scales that fell from Paul’s eyes, the veils before the eyes of Black Americans will be removed during their psychic conversion and Blacks will then be able to see with the “moral visions” necessary to rise above the darkness of the ditch in which they presently find themselves.109 With renewed eyesight connected to a soul made whole, Blacks will be able to see, in the words of a classic from the South, “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” It is then, and only then, that Blacks will be able to be renewed with “one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel”110 and the building of community. This is an internal and lasting change and not the kind of superficial change of eye color sought by Pecola.
It is only after the psychic conversion outlined here that Blacks will truly be empowered to journey away from the “psycho-cultural, economic, political, and social space of domination known as ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’”111 to that place of wholeness and power where they can “be both [an Afrikan] and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by [their] fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in [their] face[s].”112 It is only then that Blacks will become a whole people and find themselves out of the wilderness of racism and oppression and in the promised land of freedom and unlimited opportunity.