The black experience in America, like the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, begins with suffering.
It begins in the violence of seventeenth-century slave forts sprinkled along the west coast of Africa, where debtors, thieves, war prisoners, and those who would not convert to Islam were separated from their families, branded, and sold to Europeans who packed them into pestilential ships that cargoed 20 million human beings (a conservative estimate) to the New World. Only 20 percent of those slaves survived the harrowing voyage at sea (and only 20 percent of the sailors, too), and if they were among the lucky few to set foot on American soil new horrors and heartbreak awaited them.
As has been documented time and again, the life of a slave—our not-so-distant ancestors—was one of thinghood. It is, one might say, a frighteningly fertile ground for the growth of a deep appreciation for the First and Second Noble Truths as well as a living illustration of the meaning of impermanence. Former languages, religions, and cultures were erased, replaced by a Peculiar Institution in which the person of African descent was property systematically—legally, physically, and culturally—denied all sense of self-worth. A slave owns nothing, least of all himself. He desires and dreams at the risk of his life, which is best described as relative to (white) others, a reaction to their deeds, judgments, and definitions of the world. And these definitions, applied to blacks, were not kind. In the nation’s pulpits, Christian clergy in the South justified slavery by picturing blacks as the descendents of Ham or Cain; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson dismissed slaves as childlike, stupid, and incapable of self-governance. For 244 years (from 1619 to 1863) America was a slave state with a guilty conscience: two and a half centuries tragically scarred by slave revolts, heroic black (and Abolitionist) resistance to oppression, and, more than anything else, physical, spiritual, and psychological suffering so staggeringly thorough it silences the mind when we study the classic slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass, or see the brutal legacies of chattel bondage in a PBS series like Africans in America. All that was over, of course, by the end of the Civil War, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring liberation.
Legal freedom brought segregation instead, America’s version of apartheid, for another hundred years. But “separate” was clearly not “equal.” The experienced law of black life was disenfranchisement, anger, racial dualism, second-class citizenship, and, as the great scholar W.E.B. DuBois put it in his classic The Souls of Black Folks (1903), “double-
consciousness.” Can anyone doubt that if there is an essence—an eidos—to black American life, it has for three centuries been craving, and a quest for identity and liberty which, pushed to its social extremes, propelled this pursuit beyond the relative, conceptual realities of race and culture to a deeper investigation of the meaning of freedom?
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