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Wise Words of Du Bois

February 23, 2018


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Since Du Bois began each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a hymn or song, it may also be appropriate to preface this post with Mahalia Jackson's “How I Got Over”.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it is worth our time to investigate the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a writer and activist as well as one of the founders of the NAACP. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Du Bois always found success in the classroom. After graduating as his high school's valedictorian, he attended Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. His introduction to southern life, while he attended Fisk University in Tennessee, served to open his eyes to the differences in black life between the north and south. His keen observation skills and cautious approach allowed Du Bois to understand and describe a complexity of issues affecting this split. He eloquently explains some of the reasons for the differences in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. The quotations below, taken from that text, demonstrate his keen observations, talented writing skills and desire for equality. Texts like this helped to explain the black experience to those who grew up white, with privilege or in other countries. In other words, these chapters identified problems that weaken and destroy society. Though they relate to slavery and its effects, he applies his keen observation to a society in the midst of any deep divide. His ability to translate such complex narratives led to understanding, civil discourse and progress. Many thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois for the eloquence and vision of these words.

All citations that follow are taken from his 1903 text: The Souls of Black Folk.

“So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of 'swift' and 'slow' in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?”

“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

“The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness between the two has dropped still-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front and brought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.... It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent.”

“I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world's battles alone. I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding power in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon, and now emphasize it again, is that the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, - of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.”

“It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”

“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.... Patience, Humility, Manners and Taste, common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance, - all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must men and nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.”

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Pet Connections

December 16, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I have been trying to put my finger on just why we own pets. They're costly, time-consuming, usually messy and, in general, not visibly useful. I have been re-reading some of country veterinarian and writer James Herriot's stories in order to better understand the transition from working animals to friends and companions. Herriot noticed and wrote about the change in society's relationships with animals. Though often categorized as children's literature, his writing offers wonderful perspectives about life in general. He recognized and wrote about the fact that typical working animals are also great companions. There is something special and important about having a warm, loving, trustworthy friend which seems more useful than just about anything else we have commodified.

I do not know why anyone else owns a pet, but I'll offer a reason as to why I own one. Growing up, I had many pets which I cared for and loved. Yet, I did not understand the full attachment and responsibility that one has to a pet until I owned one as an adult. The most difficult decisions are made by adults. I have owned two cats now, as an adult. The first one, Pride, was a stray that we adopted and I grew to love. Typically an independent cat, he stuck close to the house when he got sick. He also purred nonstop. Cats, apparently, do not purr when alone and we still do not know precisely why they purr. Once sick, his purring actually increased. He either must have known that his end was close or he sensed my anxiety. It seems to me that purring is nearly always appropriate, whereas the human emotional releases are not nearly as soothing to others. When people cry, humans often hug or also cry. But purring actually does soothe humans. I will never forget that even while being euthanized, Pride purred. I am convinced that it was more for me than for him. To me, this is the very essence of connection.

I am in awe of being a part of such a strong connection, and so even though it was difficult, I did end up rescuing another stray cat. It is not surprising to say that I love this one too. In the end, I think that we own pets for their absolute willingness to trust. They do not judge, they know little of sin or evil. They talk in their own way, they interact according to their own personalities and comfort levels. Humans observe their patterns in order to connect because we want to feel connection just as much as they do. Communication across beings is surely something very unique, almost supra-natural.

The following quotes taken from an NPR article about people with serious mental illnesses who have bonded with a pet enlightens human need in general. I feel that connections are meant to be explored and not taken lightly. I also find that it is an appropriate time of year to dwell upon our relationships with both humans and animals. Enjoy and relish those around you!

~ “One study participant placed birds in his closest social circle. When he was hearing voices, he said that they 'help me in the sense, you know, I'm not thinking about the voices, I'm just thinking of when I hear the birds singing.'”
~ “Another said that walking the dog helped them get out of the house and with people. 'That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven't got much in my life, but he's quite good, yeah.'”
~ “As one person in the study said, 'When he comes up and sits beside you on a night, it's different, you know. It's just, like, he needs me as much as I need him.'”

 

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The World Upside Down

October 14, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“So come out of your cave walking on your hands/ And see the world hanging upside down/ You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land” - Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
“Without pride or delusion,/ the fault of attachment overcome,/ intent on the self within,/ their desires extinguished,/ freed from dualities,/ from joy and suffering,/ undeluded men/ reach that realm beyond change.” (The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man")

The Bhagavad Gita is written as a dialogue between the great warrior, Arjuna, and his spiritual leader, Krishna. Yet, the Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man", involves no true dialogue. Instead, Krishna explains man's spirit to Arjuna. Krishna begins the chapter with:

“Roots in the air, branches below,/ the tree of life is unchanging,/ they say, its leaves are hymns,/ and he who knows it knows sacred lore.
“Its branches/ stretch below and above,/ nourished by nature's qualities,/ budding with sense objects;/ aerial roots/ tangled in actions/ reach downward/ into the world of men.
“Its form is unknown here in the world/ unknown are its end,/ its beginning, its extent;/ cut down this tree/ that has such deep roots/ with the sharp ax/ of detachment.”

This idea of branches above and below, as if nurturing two different aspects of the world, is vital to this view of detachment. I am drawn to images that reflect this inner/outer phenomenon and the relevance of detaching. There is a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) realizes the literal difference between sunset and sundown. Once he realizes that sundown is a direction, then he gets the crew to flip the ship. The next image is a switch of ocean and sky. This creates a new world, or at least, a new perspective on the world. It also mimics the idea presented in Plato's "Allegory of a Cave". The Allegory is one of the most widely read and discussed pieces of philosophy. It has numerous elements of interest, but for today's purpose, I wonder about the idea of human nature as set in his initial premise. Is it possible for the chained being to realize that there is more than what he can physically see and/or experience? Could the chained man realize a simpler answer without the physical removal of the cave? Could he instead, rise out of himself without ever having left the cave? Plato notes that these men in the cave would see shadows only and not reality. He writes, “[W]ould they not suppose they were naming what was actually before them?” While it is certainly true that we only know of a thing by its dimensions and sensory details, or by our experience of them, it is also true that the importance of names is important to the self. Therefore, the self is intrinsically involved in the naming of a thing. In other words, would the man in the cave be able to find that inner self which enables him to create names?

Action is vital in The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps because it is written to a warrior who is saddened by the current battle. Action, however, does not reflect the self so much as Krishna himself who physically leads the body towards a true destiny. In the Thirteenth Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita: “Knowing the Field”, Krishna states, “He who really sees/ that all actions are performed/ by nature alone and that the self/ is not an actor./ When he perceives the unity/ existing in separate creatures/ and how they expand from unity,/ he attains the infinite spirit.” The field is our current circumstance, or current existence and environment, whatever that may be. Action may not necessarily be physical, but in thinking, we also prepare.

The image of an upside-down world is all about changing perspective. About looking into a new place for answers, in some cases, perhaps the simplest of places. I suggest the interior self as the simplest, but also, ironically, the most complex, place to reach. In the introductory quote (“You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land”), then, the “maker's land” is understood to be the self, not the landscape. In this sense, the landscape merely offers a reflection of ourselves. And it claims that we gain an understanding of dependence, which I assume means on our need to continually find and understand our interior being. What we become dependent upon might depend upon the person. In The Bhagavad Gita, one becomes dependent upon seeking Krishna, who also represents things like knowledge, spirit, self and unity.

Perhaps another way of looking at this is through the idea of a vessel. Plato writes, “And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels”. These vessels are only visual objects for the chained men. However, if they have noticed the jars at all, then they have a reason for identifying it as separate from other things. Either the vessel contains intrinsic meaning or the chained men have located a meaning within themselves. We perceive, separate, and seek to know our world as best we can. Plato's allegory is only one attempt at perception. Knowing that there are many others, I end with this quote from “The Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens:

“The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild./ The jar was round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air.”

 

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