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Ox-Herding Tales and White Privilege: A Beginning

Men had glimpsed, as my stepmother claimed, the algebra and alphabet of Nature, but knew nothing of feeling: men had charted Being and knew its mutations like the Periodic Table, but men were as children when it came to the heart.   The emotions were not at issue here-each had its essence, but feeling was something else again:  a process, plainly metaphysical, with its own grammar.  

Oxherding Tale Charles Johnson 28 

The heart thinks constantly. This cannot be changed, but the movements of the heart-that is, a man's thoughts-should restrict themselves to the immediate situation. All thinking that goes beyond this only makes the heart sore.

I-Ching Wilhelm Translation from the commentary on the Image 52 Keeping Still Mountain over Mountain

The first passage above is an odd one from a Slave narrative and inherently philosophical.  Philosophy is not really a matter for the slave, unless they have studied the "true philosophers" and "masters."  The predicament is a strange riddle and koan about the nature of thought.  Who would doubt the slave has nothing to teach the master?  Perhaps we could say such rhetorically, but then, there is Harvard, Yale, and the hard facts of education, industry, bang and clash-oh-the great machine and the supremacy of the gun.

On the other hand, work is not philosophy and of the body, subject to the gaze of power; and work is the domain of the slave.  Within the realm of work the slave is an exhausted symbolic representation of the body that must submit to the mind of society.   One might even add slavery itself must at least be conceptual before being implemented.  If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, slavery may be close second. Slavery is philosophy implemented upon the body.

But what's a slave to do?

The written word and the arc of history are full of the exploration and discovery of the slave's philosophy hidden in their minds and trauma.  The questions of freedom are the empire's remix of the old tunes of Horatio Alger, the quest for freedom, tired, poor, and weak.  The slave reinvents themselves in the image of the master's transcendental line and crosses the racial boundary by becoming the greater thing the master denied.  Slavery is humanity denied.  The slave's way out, is undeniable humanity.

But slavery is also an undeniable crime.  It is a society's trauma, albeit, a privileged one, if the metaphorical code is based on a heaven/hell, good/evil, black/white line and you happen to be black.  Of all the undeniable crimes yours is the stain that is hard to eliminate from society's fabric.

Emotions are found in the body.  Indeed, the slave's journey to freedom is all about the body.  As if one were in a war zone, the boundary between freedom and slavery is one that can easily lead  to  death.  We feel with the body.  I would like to think this cannot be contested, but there may be some persons smarter than me who know different.  Trauma is the sight of the unrecognized feelings of fear, hurt, despair, and loss, mixed  with the thoughts of blame, and in a society so dedicated to the ideas of mind over matter, the repressed feelings can easily be masked by thought.  Niggas saying shit they don't mean cuz it's tractor beamed by what they feel.   The passage from the I-Ching suggest the regulation of the relationship between the human heart and feeling  must be managed within the  moment.  The "heart thinks constantly" defies the Cartesian supremacy of the mind and gives insight into a radically different perspective on the mind body split.


The Oxherding Tale constructs an arc of the path towards enlightenment through the use of the Zen Ten Oxherding Pictures as the metaphorical arc for a slave narrative.  Charles Johnson complicates the question of freedom by destabilizing the definition of freedom.  For freedom for slaves is a clear cut black and white matter that belongs to the realm of society. Freedom for the slave is physical not metaphysical.  On the other hand freedom for the slave as a human being within the arc of enlightenment as posed by the Oxherding Pictures is cosmic outside the boundaries of the slave.  Shit, we all may be slaves in some shape or fashion.  To make the question more contemporary, freedom is a question of the mind, awareness, and consciousness.  Though mind may be a bit to simplistic.  Truly, freedom is a question of the heart regulating the relationship between mind and body.


In Wuhan, I had the pleasure of enjoying some good meals and beers with a friend from the States.   We'll call him Jack.  Jack was a well-bred American from Chapel Hill. If I recall correctly, his father was an engineer or some other established professional who like his son had graduated from North Carolina University.  In the shadows of a our favorite foreigner bar, we would often drink to the shared nostalgia of Americans at home.  We talked Black Lives Matter, Trump, and the up and downs of the American psyche pasted onto digital screens and platforms.

One day, after I went into one of my famous short flared lectures on the difficulties I have faced as a black man, Jack said, "I don't think I can understand that.  I was raised privileged.  I have a good family.  I always ate."

Jack's statement seems to be the way white privilege has worked its way into the liberal left.  It is a conversation point and response to the difficult emotions that often get thrown across racial barriers.  It is a strange form of distance that attempts to suggest intimacy.  But here's the thing.  I've seen Jack drunker than me many times.  In fact, the bartenders and one of the owners at the spot, questioned me about Jack.  They did not imagine he was privileged.  They imagined he had problems.  There was a distance in his stare.  A way he seemed to never really click into engagement.  There was a ghost in his eyes.

I will probably never know Jack's particular trauma, but do know that it is hidden behind the persona narrative of his privilege, for now.  And maybe sitting in China with him, with good beer, six thousand miles away from home, I could not separate myself from my own privilege in a city where there were fewer African Americans among the twelve million people than a half empty bus floating up Georgia Avenue on the other side of the world.  Privilege didn't seem to cut it.

I also must say, that I am living in some strange Twentieth Century underground.  My work is not done, but it was actually a great sign of intimacy to actually have the true conversation with Jack about my petty fears and struggles from childhood.  I had spoken frankly when I should not have.  I usually protect myself better.  While white privilege may do well in managing larger conversations about society, they fail on the personal level.

The history of Jack's family could be well like the history of X slave.  The public narrative for Americans is the noble journey across the sea and less the bloody conqueror's bootprint.  Who knows, maybe people in Jack's family killed black folks, or stole their land?  Maybe they are descended from Nazis?   Maybe his father beats his wife?  Maybe there is a pedophile in the midst or some sexual trauma?  I don't know, but I know that when I encounter distance with people, these are usually the reasons.

Not a question of freedom, but a question of trauma.

Maybe white supremacy is the ability to mask trauma as superiority.  The ability to make good sense scatter when you catch the rage, or fear, or despair, or hostility.  The power to blame elevated to system.

Granted Jack is more articulate than most folks I know, but then again, what about his heart?  What about his emotions?  I know neither.   Distance is about the hidden emotion; and the history of white supremacy is the history of distance fenced and barriered by law.  Almost every terrible story allows distance where intimacy would be more appropriate.

Some may call it mystery, but there is much more to be said.

I always find the whispered conversations about white privilege funny.  Back in high school a friend who felt connected to black folks would enter into conversations  about black history with a confidence that always threw me off.  He seemed to know everything of significance and was always headed towards an agreement that seem predestined and almost religious.  Though the history of white supremacy shows there are many things whites do not know; he seemed certain that he knew what was important.  I could give him a book or title, but the true condition of  the human heart-alas, the elusive universal he needed no help with.  He already knew that.  He knew I was a slave-and was certain of my additions to the large arc of humanity.

Johnson's work attempts to transcend the racial conflict-the slave's predicament in a society that does not recognize their humanity, with a glimpse of what lies beyond race.  One thing about slavery is how suspect it has made me of white's capacity to teach me about humanity.  The suspicion is as human as any decent Jewish response to Nazism.

Of course, philosophy or even my statement above is one that can be debated for eternity outside the confines of the West.  I would go a step further and suggest the question of the mystery of the human heart  and its fluctuating emotions are at the center of humanity's quest towards a universal and transcendent truth.   To speak of slavery or even a slave narrative is to regulate the question of transcendental truth with all its metaphorical connotations to the realm of society.  Without Johnson's sub-text or contrasting approach to the Oxherding Tales themselves, the slave is completely under the domain of society.  The gaze used to approach the body seems to be the only gaze that matters.  African American discourse put forth within these limits seems to suggest that if society grants freedom under the law, questions of the human heart, as mysterious as they may be, will be closer to resolved.  African American authors operate within the limits of such discourse and the study of the slave narrative verifies my conclusions.  After slavery, seems to be a different matter, though everything, all of black history seems to occur afterwards.  After slavery, the writers, through a rhetoric of survival, are required to testify and bear witness to the freedom of the black body.  It is a love/hate, forward/backward discourse, that often slips in and out of a confusion that  never seems to be resolved.  If we step into present time and contrast the Obama moment with the Black Lives Matter moment followed by the Trump ascendancy, what does it tell us about discourse.  Activism is put forth as different and  more than discourse, but given our relationship with slavery it is simply a series of propositions, debates, and even positions that affect individuals and their communities.

White supremacy is no different.  In classic binary fashion the question of white supremacy, like the relationship with the slave is regulated to the domain of society.  Obviously it makes sense that folks can't really regulate the human heart via laws.  One would have to join a monastery or a cult to do such.  But in truth the heart of white supremacy is the attachment of an immorality to a society or culture that seems to exist independently of the human heart.  Somewhere in the mind  Johnson's tale locates itself in this intersection, not by indictment or attempts to penetrate the human heart of the white supremacist, but by allowing us to envision the path towards freedom within society parallel to the path towards enlightenment.  Though I will draw few conclusions here, in such a situation, one can at least know that freedom within society is as much concept and metaphor as practical and regulated by law.

At the least, if we jump over the metaphorical binary and find ourselves on the white side of society, we should ask the question, what of the human heart"  At the center of slavery the idea of the heart of someone who owns slaves seems to be enabled by the distinctions of slavery.  Society's conviction provides a pass for cosmic morality.  Or as in the case of those who say everybody had slaves, there is no cosmic reality-niggas is just fucked.  Granted this is not the focus on Johnson's work, but the question should at least be asked- How did master's of slaves sleep at night?  It may very well be that the confusion surrounding slavery is like the confusion surrounding war, and that the greatest myth, even beyond those of well treated inferior beings, is the capacity of law to effectively regulate matters of the heart.  Conrad's Heart of Darkness seems to get at this with "The horror.  The horror."  So be it, not to make matters too light, it is always a difficult road ahead.

This post first appeared on Free Black Space, please read the originial post: here

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Ox-Herding Tales and White Privilege: A Beginning


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