An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey
Janice Dean Willis
Riverhead Books: New York, 2001
352 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)
Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace
Angel Kyodo Williams
Viking Press: New York, 2000
In countless stories that record an American’s odyssey to Buddhism we repeatedly find the broad outline of a spiritual paradigm: first there is the experience of duhkha, or suffering, in one (or more) of its myriad samsaric manifestions, followed by exposure to the teachings of the Tathagata, and finally the embracing of a practice that leads to enlightenment and liberation. However, for African Americans suffering takes a uniquely pernicious and psychologically damaging racial form—namely, the seismic blows to self-esteem in a society where blacks have since the seventeenth century been defined as this country’s untouchables. Yet seldom, if ever, do we acknowledge in our apolitical and nonracial discussions of Buddhism the fact that for many African Americans the “three jewels” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha provide, like Christianity, not only solace in the face of life’s general sufferings (sickness, old age, and death) but also a clarifying refuge from white racism, Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, and even certain crippling aspects of black American culture itself during the tender, beginning stages of one’s practice.
It is timely, then, that as a new millennium begins and Buddhism enters its twenty-sixth century, two African-American women have published books that attempt to provide insights into how the dharma can undo the damage inflicted on the embattled psyches of people of color.
The first of these works is Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey by Jan Willis, who describes herself as a “Baptist-Buddhist.” Even if Willis, a Sanskritist and Indo-Tibetan scholar at Wesleyan University, had never heard of Buddhism, her inspiring (and slightly self-aggrandizing) memoir would nevetherless be the narrative of a fascinating American life. Raised near Birmingham, Alabama, in Docena, a former mining camp frequently terrorized by Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings, Willis went to segregated schools and saw up close the brutality unleashed upon Civil Rights activists in 1963. For example, she and her family marched during the Birmingham campaign and were only a few feet away when Sheriff “Bull” Conner’s dogs tore at the trousers of a black man, an image captured in what is now one of the movement’s classic and most frightening photographs. The world of Willis’s youth was one in which “many black children had been blinded by acid or hot lye thrown through open car windows.” It was a fear-drenched world where, she writes, all the signs and signals around her “told us that we were less than human, a people cursed by God to live degraded lives; told us that we were lazy, stupid, and unfit for society.”
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