1. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

    December 28, 2017 by Chris Motley

    Frederick Douglass was a child of rape. Shortly after his birth, he was separated from his mother and the rest of his family, as was customary. He watched his grandmother be sent into exile to die alone, after a life of toil and generations of child-rearing on both sides of the plantation. Douglass could only muster a modicum of feeling upon hearing of the death of his own mother, so much had he been torn from any notion of family. Though Douglass spent most of his time in bondage as a house slave, he bore witness to the horrors of the plantation. When his time came to live in the field, he was beaten regularly and forced to live outside with only a cotton shirt. He describes in vivid detail the conditions of that life, famously telling us that the cracks in his feet were so large that they could hold the very pen with which he now writes. He tells of torture and murder as a constant lurking threat, the terror of which at times overcame the physical punishment itself, that terror serving as the twisted motivation to keep working. For all intents and purposes, the plantation was a death camp akin to those we have witnessed in the twentieth century. Douglass’ narratives persist as heroic testimonies to our shame.

    The spark of Douglass’ salvation arrived when one of his mistresses, Mrs. Auld, taught him to read. This too was a traumatic moment for Douglass, as his growing awareness of his condition and the broader conditions of American slavery caused such inner turmoil that he would wish at times that he had never opened a book. But his new vision was so vivid that he realized his destiny, which is the destiny of all people – to be free. In A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we encounter the dramatic climax, in which Douglass, only sixteen years old, fights back, subduing his overseer Mr. Covey in a two-hour hand-to-hand battle. From there, Douglass carefully finalizes his plan (which, for the safety of his friends, he never fully reveals to the reader), and gains his freedom in the North. Without his initial education, it may not have happened. Do not underestimate the power of a book. 

    Freedom in the North was still precarious. If you have seen 12 Years a Slave, then you know that at any moment a bounty hunter could arrive and once again deliver you to hell. This reality makes Douglass’ choices all the more heroic. He could have lived anonymously and supported himself and his wife. He would have been safe in his freedom. Instead, Douglass almost immediately set himself to the task of broader freedom, knowing that freedom from physical bondage is only the beginning of the struggle. His subsequent life as an activist for abolition embodies Toni Morrison’s advice to her students: “Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Not content to live free for himself, Douglass devoted his life – and risked everything, including a fate worse than death – to his “real job” of freeing others: the black slave, the white master, and the complacent white Northerner. 

    How many like Frederick Douglass have we lost to the void because of our systematic brutality? How much genius and love have we sacrificed in the name of “progress”? When a person’s life matters less, when a person becomes invisible to us, we lose an opportunity to grow closer to our own freedom. Consider what Douglass had to do simply to be counted among the ranks of the human. Americans love the rags-to-riches underdog story. But only if it fits neatly into our broader story of who we think we are. Frederick Douglass, and countless of his kin, were not counted as part of the American story. We look around today, and we realize how many of our fellow citizens desire that our black brothers and sisters not be counted as part of the story. And so the struggle continues. In your freedom, how will you free others? In your power, how will you empower others? 

  2. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    December 21, 2017 by Chris Motley

    Today, there are few ideas more dangerous than the idea that we are or can be “self-reliant.” Henry David Thoreau we regard as a hero of the myth of American individualism, which finds its roots in the very “founding” of the nation. He is the self-righteous existential crusader, posing as the only one, out of the whole sleeping mob, who really gets it. Though my engagement with Thoreau himself has always been somewhat limited, I nonetheless encountered his reincarnation in Jack Kerouac and other white men who had the luxury – indeed, the luxury – to walk away from communal life and responsibility to go it “alone.” But maturity reveals the fallacy. It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to deny our inextricable embeddedness in creation, despite our efforts. As Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We belong to each other, in addition to “nature,” a concept so romanticized by Thoreau and others like him. You can not embrace the one and reject the other. All is connected; disconnection is impossible and to attempt it is irresponsible. 

    With one exception. Thoreau’s most significant contribution to American thought is and will be “Resistance to Civil Government,” popularly known by its tamer title, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” His essay on nonviolent resistance to dominant culture influenced a range of activists and thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy, to Martin Buber, to Mahatma Gandhi, to Martin Luther King. Indeed, Thoreau’s thesis breathes rarefied air. How so? He touches a deep nerve of human consciousness. The nerve of truth – that we are born to be peaceful, but that to live peacefully, in total peace, requires a life-change, a renunciation of so much that the broader culture values.  To live in peace means to look askance at power, to see clearly who benefits and who suffers. Today, we look at the global market and the governments that serve it, and we see unprecedented complexity. On the one hand, global standards of living are at an all-time high. On the other hand, the market requires modern forms of slavery and war to sustain its enterprise. To try to live outside the marketplace is to invite rejection, persecution, subtle and overt forms of punishment. Still, this kind of disconnection is essential to our evolution as a species. To disconnect from the globalized market, to see things clearly, is to partake of the long tradition of peace, which connects us to each other, though it requires heroic personal risk. 

    But we have our heroes, whom the market does its best to turn into neutralized, neutered pop icons. Still, as Jesus says, the words of peace will not pass away. I will leave you with a few, from one of my heroes, Martin Luther King. In his essay “The Power of Nonviolence,” he writes: 

    Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word “maladjusted.” Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generation, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

    In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King writes:

    I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

    The irony of our lives is this: that to become “maladjusted,” however “extreme” it seems, is liberating, despite the dangers. I suggest that we put Thoreau’s idea of disobedience in its proper place in the constellation of peace literature. But I also suggest that we see Thoreau’s “self-reliant” reclusion as an illusion of privilege. No one is “self-reliant”; no one is “independent.” We are others-reliant, interdependent. When we awaken to this deep truth, we see the sad folly in our ways, but we encounter at last the path to lasting joyful peace. 

  3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

    December 14, 2017 by Chris Motley

    I cannot say much about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that James Baldwin did not say in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” He writes:  

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin—like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants—is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.

    Baldwin faults Stowe for creating a comfortable narrative for “her people.” The real work to which Baldwin calls me and “my people” is not sentimental or momentary. Rather, he asks us to investigate the deep causes of hatred that are communal and only accessible through honest thought and a willingness to admit fault. Even today, after all that has happened, Baldwin’s question about Stowe rings true for us in our outrage: “How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?” We continue to play the same game of shock protest and self-righteousness. When shall we begin the artful work of changing our lives? 

    But there is one thing to say that Baldwin can only hint at. We now occupy a moment in which books no longer matter. Baldwin occupied a time in which literature mattered enough that the finer points were a matter of public debate. The aesthetic difference between a novel and a social pamphlet was important. And so Baldwin is compelled to comment about the issue with regards to Stowe’s legacy: “[T]he avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of a frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improbable. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before niceties of style or characterization.” Today, a bookish distaste for bad form seems elitist, disconnected from the real demands of social change. For Baldwin it was the very need for beauty that humanizes, the hallmark of freedom. For us – “us” defined as any kind of collective consciousness however diverse – books convey neither beauty nor social urgency. Anyone trying to be “woke” will find herself trapped in the vortex of instant reactivity and correctly articulated outrage. There is not time enough for reading, thought, and feeling. 

    To enumerate slights is the comfortable choice because doing so relinquishes responsibility. For Baldwin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin scratched a moral itch in its shocking depictions of the brutalities of slavery. But his critique is of apiece with the type of critique necessary now. We need to go deeper, to see the causes of violence, more than the violence itself. This is scary, because when we really look for the causes of violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to point a finger at someone else. If we want change, we must change. We must do more than punish the punisher, scapegoat the scapegoater. We must change, from top to bottom. The real trick is this change does not bring discomfort but liberation. I perceive this in my own life. When I take small steps toward change, I feel freed from my anger and fear. I know that I can become the change I wish to see in the world. More than righteous satisfaction, these changes bring what we all want, whether we know it or not: peace. 

  4. On Struggle

    December 7, 2017 by Chris Motley

    My favorite book right now is a six-volume fictionalized autobiography by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. He tries to tell his entire life story in roughly 4,000 pages. It is a global bestseller, a prize winner multiple times over, and an inspiration to many. These books are changing the landscape for writers of all stripes (this one included). Knausgaard has given the series the intentionally provocative title “My Struggle.” 

    I was aware of Knausgaard’s project years before I began reading Volume 1 this December. The photographs – the long hair, the beard, the ruddy face, the cigarette – embodied struggle. I knew the novels addressed the difficulties of growing up full of shame and grief, whether you have an abusive family (like Knausgaard’s) or not. I knew the novels also addressed the difficulties of pursuing your dreams in the throes of parenthood. Knausgaard is doing all this, as he reviews his memories like nestled Russian dolls. The project is nothing short of a spiritual exercise, if not an exorcism, and to read it is to undertake one for oneself.

    The notion of struggle evoked by this series of Mouse Books is different. We imagined the series containing accounts of a more public kind of struggle – for rights, justice, dignity, etc. In this way we wanted it to be open, globally-minded, cross-cultural. It was going to contain the best of protest literature from across time and around the world. But for me, things become real when we look behind the eloquence and wisdom and truth, and we see the personal struggle of the kind that Knausgaard writes about. These two types of struggle are connected. Knausgaard is not a “freedom fighter” the way that many of the writers in this series were. But his endeavor to tell his entire life story, and to frame it as a “struggle,” creates a sense of solidarity. Indeed, life is a struggle, regardless of your background, circumstances, inclinations, decisions. To recognize that we all struggle is to see each other differently. It becomes more difficult to judge and condemn. When we see life as a struggle for everyone, we accomplish what so many of the writers in this series set out to accomplish anyway – we move toward peace.