Tuesday, April 20, 2010

IDENTITY VERSUS CULTURE

Everyone struggles with their identity at some point. Sometimes we struggle to find ourselves as distinct members of a family, community, society. Other times we must face the challenge of recognizing ourselves outside of those boundaries or in a new context, outside of a stereotype or an expectation and in a new place, time, age. We may live with a slight discomfort our whole lives, an uneasiness, a sense of isolation but we may never discover the root causes of these feelings until forced, or simply asked, to examine the situations from which they arose. When we do so, I think many of us will find the same thing, as many of the authors of these essays have. In essence, our insecurities within society seem to stem from insecurities within the family, regardless of our particular struggles. Insecurities about race stem from cultural expectations upheld by parents that may not apply to a new, expanded culture. Or they can come from a shared racial insecurity, as depicted in The Bluest Eye. Or they simply arise because in everyone’s life, especially in America, we are at one point severed from a family of shared experiences, cultures, genes, and cast into the melting pot. Our shared struggle – regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference – is maintaining our shape over the flame of a greater culture, a pressure larger and more intrusive than even our families. Despite their obvious differences, I see this struggle in each of the stories we’ve read.

We all struggle not to get lost in the melting pot of American culture.
source:http://iron.lcc.gatech.edu/~ntrivedi6/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/malting-pot.jpg

As a society, I feel that we are obsessed both with maintaining unique ancestral cultures and rejecting them. We at once want to be unique and fit in. So where does diversity, the ideological byproduct of our country’s foundation, sit in this innate contradiction? We obviously don’t know how to deal with it, despite its pervasiveness. I feel that the essays we read for this discussion focus less on racial tension and more on the culture war that we all face in America, especially those who must struggle to solidify their place in this country, this culture. I was struck by the observation in the first essay: “Race and culture are synonymous when people with a similar history or genetic make-up share common life experiences unique to their heritage (p.866).” Outside of those conditions, the two are not synonymous, and in America especially, may have very little to do with another. So in America, one isn’t necessarily born into a culture, typecast by appearance alone; and in many ways one has the freedom to escape any standards of culture pressed upon them by parents or communities. In the second essay, the author wasn’t embarrassed or outcast because of his race – there were many other Asians at his school – but rather because of his culture, something foreign, noticeable, unique – the smell of his food at lunch.

I can imagine that it would be easy to vilify one’s native culture during youth since it not only presents a challenge to “fitting in” but is also representative of parental dominance. It would be natural for any young person to rebel against the culture their parents forced onto them. I think that this ease of rebellion is unfortunate, because it sets up an identity crisis lying dormant, a cultural rift within a family, and a general loss of culture. I saw the trend in the essays that as the authors aged, they began to revisit the cultures they thought they had lost, or been cast out from, as adolescents. It’s a question of finding the right balance that people growing up in America, especially those raised by immigrant parents, must answer in order to function both within a family and within a larger society. In the third essay the author realizes that “Part of coming to terms with who I was involved reconciling the distant personal relationship I had with my father, but I also realized that I needed to reconcile myself with what it really meant to be Chinese, since that was the source of much of our conflict (p.887).” It is a discomfort with one’s culture, a struggle to reconcile it with the pervasive culture (or anti-culture) of America, which leads to problems within families. But it can also work the other way – a cultural identity associated with a dysfunctional family may not be held onto as a means of coping, or repressing, the pain of a fractured family life. I agree with the statement from the second essay that “we all exist with scars that seem too deep and too painful (p.879).” These scars may be experiences that sever us from our heritage, our history, our families. Or they could be those glimpses of an identity unexpected and unwelcomed by the safety net of sociocultural standards, those revelations that you don’t necessarily fit the niche you’ve been given.

"Who are you?" may be an unanswerable question.
source: http://www.alexross.com/whoareyoubenson.jpg


It’s hard to know who you are. I can only imagine the added struggle of growing up with multiple parties constantly telling you who you should be, with the threat of disownment at the betrayal of their expectations. I can only be in shock to read about the reaction of the parents in the second essay, their complete denial and disgrace at their son’s homosexuality. Though it isn’t their reaction that is most striking, in fact I might say its typical, shallow even. Rather, it is the predicament of the son who wants to love his parents and belong to his family but can’t live within their expectations that haunts me. To have to pit one’s own identity – a tentative and elusive definition – against the establishment of family, of ancestry, of an entire culture would be a debilitating struggle. But I suppose it’s a necessary one. We can’t forget where we come from, even if its vestiges appear only as guilt or resentment. The author of the third essay seemed to reconcile the dichotomy of familial culture and personal identity thusly: “While I see my roots as an important connection to my past, I do not see them as defining my future (p.887).” In the end, it takes confidence to move away from one’s roots. I don’t see this as a rejection or dismissal of culture, but rather as a necessary attempt to separate one’s identity from a cultural identity that may be susceptible to generalization and subsequent discrimination or persecution. I think it is just as dangerous for a person to devote themselves wholly to a cultural identity – to say “I am Korean” or “I am a Latino” or “I am a homosexual” – as it is to reject one’s cultural, or sexual, identity completely. In both cases, we become hollow shells of people, type-cast, narrowly defined. It is easy to get into the habit of “constructing layers of social identities that do not communicate a consistent core self across space and time (p.888),” because those layers, those social identities, are easy for others to process and judge and react to accordingly. If we only represent ourselves as this race or that culture, we not only alienate others, but we isolate ourselves, we become detached from our true identities as complex, multidimensional personalities. Racism, sexism, and homophobia will never go away if we keep representing ourselves in singular, static ways, because the generalities, the assumptions, are created in our own narrow definitions, in our own inability to reconcile diverse cultures/identities/roles within ourselves - much less among others.

Monday, April 12, 2010

WRTING AS THERAPY

Writing is therapy. Whether you are conquering a self-doubt or merely conquering your to-do list, writing about what is troubling you is immensely rewarding and stress relieving. I have always been a writer in this regard – even before I took up visual art, writing was my primary form of expression. When I was a child this expression was fairly simple – poetry and fiction describing the world around me or creating worlds I wanted to see. As I got older however, writing became a way for me to deal with the troubles that come with adolescence, not unlike what some of the characters in The Bluest Eye face. I never sought counsel from my peers, siblings, or parents when I was upset – instead, I wrote. I have a written account of my most troubling thoughts and feelings, my most inspired ideas and goals, and my most humiliating failures. The refuge I found in writing developed my sense of independence an

d self-confidence as well as my personal voice. If something can be so powerful as to help sculpt a person like writing sculpted me, what can it accomplish for society?


I spent a lot of time writing as a child.

source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_sh_ujz809_o/SYIsntKA5CI/AAAAAAAAAXY/mubTA1XKt2g/S692/girl_writing2.jpg


Toni Morrison understands this. She understands the power of communicating our inner dialogue, our inner conflicts, in a way that not only removes stress from the writer, but effectively illustrates a mindset, a voice, a time place and character for the reader. Morrison goes beyond this even, writing for a culture, a race, a gender, through the voice of “the most delicate member of a society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female (p. 210).” There is something about that voice, the observing yet unknowing voice of a child, which tends to illuminate greater truths so powerfully. In the case of The Bluest Eye, the child narrators can only comprehend trauma within their limited frame of reference. They understand the severity of a conflict, but not the stigma or social response to it. In this way their voices could be considered pure, their responses truly reactionary at the most fundamental level. The simply drawn conclusions of a child make the adult reader wonder, “Why do we invent so many layers to express and identify a conflict?” In the case of Pecola, adults rely on social stigmas and pre-judgments attached to the Breedlove family to detach themselves from her pain, to avoid empathy. But a child, without an understanding of those constructs, cannot avoid the emotional response, cannot help but try to help. Adults are equipped with a huge tool set for dealing with conflicts that children lack, and thus are able to remain detached, unmoved by situations that call for a strong voice, a helping hand, or at the very least a bit of empathy. Morrison recognizes this and tries to strip the adult reader of their tools, their guard, and make them see the true issue at hand. She describes the role of the child narrators, “If they have any success, it will be in transferring the problem of fathoming to the presumably adult reader (p. 214).”


Morrison depicts self-loathing.

source: http://michaelalonzo.com/images/photography/people/selfloathing.jpg


What is Morrison trying to express by stripping the reader of their emotional blockade? To some extent, this is the expression itself – the frailty of the constructs we employ to defend ourselves against caring, a frailty built on our own self-doubt, and in the case of the characters in The Bluest Eye, their own “racial self-loathing (p. 210).” This is the attitude that Morrison tries to tear down by exposing its weakness as well as its potential to cause irreversible harm. Morrison is attempting to reveal feelings that she believes to be “lodged in all young girls (p. 210),” and I think she succeeds. Beyond that, she has used writing as a tool, an outlet, for sharing a secret with the society that’s been working to keep it as such. Morrison says that, “the writing was the disclosure of secrets, secrets “we” shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside our community (p. 212).” Thus, her book was a form of therapy, not only for herself but for her community, for her readers, and for the girl who only wanted blue eyes.

Monday, April 5, 2010

INESCAPABLE IDEALS

I wonder if it’s safe to say that every culture struggles with its own establishment of physical ideals. In The Bluest Eye, the ideal is associated with white culture, thus keeping all minorities outside of what is considered desirable. But I feel that at some point we all feel that alienation, regardless of our race. I think this point comes along most frequently during adolescence and that this, possibly even above racism, is a central conflict of Morrison’s novel. The specific example illustrated so strikingly by Morrison is just an extreme case of the implications of culturally manufactured physical ideals. These implications go deeper than a simple feeling of inadequacy or envy- they reach all the way into self-hatred and even the projection of that hatred onto others. These feelings generally stem from the experiences of adolescence, as that is a vulnerable time for anyone, when extreme pressure is applied both from within a family structure and within a society.

We can all relate at some level to the “fear of being rejected because of our appearance, abandoned by the group, left homeless (Bump, p.334).” These feelings arise in our younger years because our relationships, our ties to the larger world, are tentative and only beginning to emerge. Without the security of an encouraging family or teacher, it is easy to be consumed by self-doubt. Especially when the role models around you are also plagued by insecurities – financial, marital, societal – it is difficult to be hopeful about your future development. Rather, these perceived shortcomings come to define people, as is the case of the Breedloves. Each member of the family has their own story of self-doubt and displacement, culminating in a group identity of inadequacy. Pauline is especially affected by the societal ideal of beauty, engrossing herself in films to escape her own physical reality and feelings of constant longing. She equates her unsatisfied romantic dreams with her unsatisfying appearance thusly: “Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap (Morrison, p.122).” The pervasive culture that affects all of us is almost guaranteed – designed – to create feelings of envy and longing. Perhaps this is a phenomenon unique to our society and others similar to it, as the aim of a capitalist system is to encourage consumers to buy into the culture. Without the commodification of beauty, of social status, perhaps these feelings of inadequacy would not be so universal.

Ads like this create a standard of beauty that consumers want to buy into.
source: http://www.shoppingblog.com/pics/dolce_makeup_ad1.gif

Morrison really captures the full spectrum of emotions and behaviors associated with these insecurities. In the extreme case of the deep-seated racism in the novel, there is nowhere to hide from society’s disapproval. The negative connotation associated with dark skin was so engrained in society that even African Americans, and sometimes them worst of all, associated their skin color and physical appearance with an inescapable inadequacy. Some, like Maureen and Geraldine, try to mask it through dress and obsessive cleanliness. Others, such as the taunting boys who “seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn (Morrison, p.65),” lash out against those with similar traits. For Claudia and Pecola, however, it is just a constant question – why them? Why not me? It is frustration – perhaps the first signs of a break in the cycle. Claudia does not accept or understand the sovereignty of Shirley Temple. Pecola believes her problems would be solved if she only had blue eyes. Two very different attitudes, but both speaking for the shallow and arbitrary nature of the cultural ideal.

Shirley Temple, the source of Claudia's insecurity
source: http://www.breakingthetape.com/keeping-pace/Shirley%20Temple.bmp

As obviously shallow and distorted as these constructs are – in the case of The Bluest Eye being dictated by decades of racism and discrimination against blacks – we are still so affected by them. We have all felt the drop in the pits of our stomachs when faced with the “seeming helplessness in the grip of fears generated by judging ourselves and others by appearance (Bump, p.333).” It is a vicious cycle of unattainable standards and arbitrary preferences. Pecola cannot make herself have blue eyes. Pauline cannot put her foot back to normal. I cannot make myself grow five inches. In a sense this powerlessness to ascribe to a standard that has been imposed upon you is the most destructive feeling of all. A task that seems so effortless in the movies, that seems so natural among the affluent, the task of being desirable, of being attractive, is incredibly hard to attain based on society’s standards. And with this powerlessness comes fear – the fear of rejection, the fear, reaching back to the beginning of the novel, of being “put outside”. And when those people who should form a community of likeness and support – families, cultural groups, neighbors – reject their own, then that fear becomes very real and very damaging.

The blue eyes that Pecola can never have.
source: http://www.chrisdellavedova.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/blueeyes.jpg

Thursday, April 1, 2010

FAMILY

Family is something everyone can relate to. Whether your family was a large part of your life or if they were essentially nonexistent, from the very act of your creation they define who you are and in many ways, who you have the ability to become. I think struggles related to the family transcend race, class, and location. Abuse can exist in the most affluent homes, and harmony can exist in squalor. Family dynamics constantly shift as children grow, new relationships form and disintegrate, loved ones pass away, and members are forced to question – who are these people that define me?


Anyone can be the victim of abuse.

source:http://www.afroromance.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/rihanna.jpg


We cannot control the family we are born into, and thus we must sacrifice much of our autonomy right from the start. Some people, depending on their family situation, carry this sacrifice with them their whole lives, never able to transcend the barriers put on them by the simple fact of their birth. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves represent this predicament. The narrator describes their relationship thusly, “from the tiny impressions gleaned from one another, they created a sense of belonging and tried to make do with the way they found each other (p.34).” Their whole existence has been defined by the chance interaction of two people on two nights, of four people in one place, and two sets of genes pitted against one another like a dueling couple. There can be no joy in this life of bitter resignation. They belonged to a group they resented, they made do with abuse and hatred.


But they, like anyone seemingly trapped in a negative family situation, had options. As we see in the novel, “a family of choice can be and often is healthier than a family of blood (Bump, 350).” When the Breedlove’s shallow excuse for a family implodes, Pecola has the opportunity to join a new family and thus separate herself from the negative self-image her biological family forced upon her.


Claudia’s family, while not perfect, is far from the tempest of Pecola’s. Still, Claudia struggles with her own identity much as Pecola does, confused as to where she fits not only within a family of individuals, but in a world full of diversity. This confusion often leads to self-doubt and deprecation. Whereas Pecola internalizes her struggles and seeks to disappear, Claudia lashes out against the world and tries to assert her identity. As Professor Bump states, “Claudia is able to keep her sanity partly because… she has a tendency to get angry at the other and defend herself rather than to turn inward and sink into depression (Bump, 354).” But even this anger challenges Claudia, as she realizes it is misdirected and shallow. In the case of her treatment of dolls, and by extension white girls, Claudia analyzes her behavior with a sense of regret: “when I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was… my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love (p.23).” This fraudulent love can be just as damaging to someone as external violence, especially in a family environment. Our families are the easiest group in our lives to resent, as we had no responsibility in assigning them. When we put on a mask of false love to cover up a bitter sense of anonymity, we create a shallow framework for a family that will never grow, only shudder under the weight of building resentment. Claudia’s realization about her relationship with the doll foreshadows her feelings about the role she plays in her family: “the change was adjustment without improvement (p.23).”


Being in a family can cause an identity crisis.

source: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_UZCczEayolg/Sw1v15PGT3I/AAAAAAAADhQ/AreTyfhTj5k/s400/IdentityCrisis.jpg


From as much of this book as I’ve read so far, it seems that a major theme is the inability to ever truly escape from the family you’re born into. I am curious to see how Pecola gets sucked back into the severe dysfunction of the Breedloves, and also how Claudia reconciles herself to her place in a large and assertive family. It is interesting to once again think of family from the perspective of a child who is still so trapped in that world, now being so separate from my own family. Being the youngest of four very independent siblings, I can relate to the identity crisis caused by being part of any family, no matter the level of functionality.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

BLACK ELK SPEAKS DISCUSSION OUTLINE

Native American culture is something we cannot forget about our history. We cannot separate the economic and political systems of today from those that caused the slaughter and destruction of an opposing system. Our ideas of human rights may be more advanced, but the materialism and greed that defines us as a capitalist society is the root cause of acts of injustice against Native Americans. Our best chance at reconciling our current culture with the one it nearly destroyed is to attempt to understand and immerse ourselves in the rituals, experiences, and way of life of the American Indians. Perhaps by doing this, we will identify aspects of their culture that better serve a society committed to "liberty and justice for all," as well as behavior that promotes a sustainable world.

Native American drumming and chanting rituals serve to unite the community in the act of worship. But even greater than that, the music created mirrors the harmony and rhythm of the culture itself, drawing from primal beats and a trance inducing tapestry of sound. I think maybe during this class, instead of trying to imitate recordings of Native American drummers, we should try to create our own sense of unity through a sound that represents us as a group.

drum circle commence!
source: http://www.drstandley.com/images/nativeamerican/Drums.bmp

Now let's analyze the different reactions to this kind of experiential immersion into the culture versus reading a translated account of the culture by one of its members.

What did you gain from Black Elk's story?

One of my problems with Black Elk Speaks is my inability to discern reality from the narrator’s “visions.”

I know that this account of a Native American ritual is supposed to give me a greater appreciation for a culture different from my own, but how can I appreciate something that to me sounds like empty words?

-molly

Because of the history of Native American subjugation, Black Elk's testimony is therefore that more fascinating and important. It is not often that we hear about the Native's viewpoint about incidents like Wounded Knee

-jose

What did you think the story was about?

when I read this story, I didn't feel like it was about failure.
What I felt, instead, was this deep, aching sense of loss.

I felt that Black Elk, with the death of his peoples dream, was losing his place in the world, and he was going to have to relocate, to find a new place, and the only way he was going to be able to do this was if he confronted what he felt was his failure and transformed it into something that would bring good things to the world, whether they were the good things he was originally aiming for or not

- lauren

This was a powerful message to me that there are important lessons to learn in suffering and that regardless of our circumstances we always have the potential to laugh or cry.

-katherine

How was Black Elk as a leader?

He is chosen to be the leader, to accomplish the destiny for his people. Spirits call to him with a“sacred voice,” emphasizing his important role in this greater plan for his people (xxi).

-jade

To be honest I felt a little betrayed by Black Elk. He had set himself up as a redeeming, heroic figure.

I felt that his final sentences, his lifelong reaction to the events that he had witnessed, were complete and total contradictions to all that he had said before.

-katherine

how far can spiritual confidence and affirmation through hallucinations really get you? I feel like Black Elk overhyped his initial gift of power and used it too frivolously.

- alice

When it seems as though the power of the cosmos is driving you forward, then nothing is impossible, no bar is too high, and greatness transforms into a trivial trait.

- sharad

How does this relate to your leadership vision?

Unlike Black Elk, I do not perceive my vision as fulfilling a destiny, but rather accomplishing my passions

-jade

As we prepare ourselves to be leaders, I think that we should keep in mind the trials leadership brings and develop an indomitable mindset, ready to tackle any task

-katherine

While Black Elk’s story relates to my leadership vision, his experiences also remind me of my totem animal quest.

- helen

What is your general reaction to the story?

I cannot for a second believe that the white men responsible for these killings viewed Native Americans as equal, or maybe not even as true people.

-jose

The Native Americans did not have the technological innovation to stand up to the United State’s armies which ultimately led to their defeat, but the Sioux people understood an important concept that we so often talk about in class: unity.

They understood that land can’t truly be owned by any one person. They understood that all living and natural forces are in some manner sacred.

- chris

I realize they faced extreme hardship, but this is generally when a culture reaffirms their faith in the power of their spirituality and rituals

- alice

Power, in these situations, just means the failure to understand each other and the constant desire to hold the upper card.

They have a beautiful connection with nature and live in harmony, but they lose this sense of innocence because of what is brought to them.

- emily

Obviously, stories aren't the only things that make life circular. But I feel like they're a big part of the circle. And I also feel like they help point out to us the other parts of life that are circular.

-lauren

How does the story, and Native American culture, relate to our topic of diversity?

when we attempted to recreate Native American music by listening and mimicking its sounds, I feel that we just glossed over another important aspect of the culture. We never learned what the music we made meant, or what purpose it served in the culture, only to imitate it in sound and hope that it made us more cultured.

I think context, drawing comparisons, and finding common ground are important aspects of learning about other cultures. If the true goal of diversity is not only acceptance, but understanding, simply reading about rituals and mimicking practices isn’t enough.

- molly

What aspects of Native American culture do you think we should incorporate into our current culture?

Monday, March 29, 2010

CIRCULAR POWER

Black Elk introduces us to the Native American idea of power, an internal force that comes with specific instructions and limitations for its use. I thought this was an interesting aspect of their culture that is not often discussed. Because tribes operate as communal systems, although there is a hierarchical order, power is not connected with material wealth, but rather a force of spirit. Power, in this sense, is a quality of being, an aura so to speak. The ritualistic way Black Elk taps into this power reaffirms the importance of community and heritage to the native Americans, as it is his six grandfathers that guide him to his new spiritual knowledge.


A Native American circle of power.
source: http://www.firstpeople.us/native-american-art-for-sale/kirby-
sattler/pt/circle-of-power.jpg

Another interesting source of power, and the recognition of power, is the imagery of the vision itself. Black Elk says, “a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see (p. 28).” This means that the inner journey is not enough to command the kind of spirit strength it provides. Rather power is only begotten by public display and approval. This is somewhat similar to the American political race, which I find ironic, in that politicians must prove themselves as charismatic leaders with a patriotic and dramatic background, not unlike the vision quests Black Elk must relate to his people.

But what is the substance of this power? Black Elk regarded it as a calling, a tool to be used to help his people. But how far can spiritual confidence and affirmation through hallucinations really get you? I feel like Black Elk overhyped his initial gift of power and used it too frivolously. He was able to rally his people around him for a time, but when the memory of his vision faded, when the new generations looked for substance and action, he could not deliver. I think perhaps this made his defeat even more bitter. A power he built upon his spiritual belief was not sufficient to save his people. I know he says, “It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it (21),” but I think what he realizes is that the vision was never sufficient, despite how he used it. The reality was that a leadership based on messages from an alternate, spiritual reality could not guide the native American people through their hardship. But as a true spiritual messenger, Black Elk blames himself for his failure, instead of questioning the belief system that was unable to empower its people to the point of survival.

What I don’t understand is why exactly this power was so easily diluted. Black Elk makes a strong statement when he says, “everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished (26).” I feel like this is a very empowering attitude, and if the Native Americans were truly attuned to it, I don’t understand why he would be so quick to proclaim the “sacred hoop” broken. I realize they faced extreme hardship, but this is generally when a culture reaffirms their faith in the power of their spirituality and rituals.

Native Americans experienced unsurmountable suffering.

source: http://www.nativevillage.org/Archives/2009%20Archives/APRIL%20News/April%202009%20News%20V4/Cherokee.jpg


The end of this selection brought home the tragedy that occurred among the native American people. When Black Elk says, “And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, - you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer (p. 35),” you can feel his defeat, his shame, and his sorrow. The native American people will never be able to forget this injustice, and that sense of sorrow will continue to define their tradition no matter its positive roots. Their power has shifted to become more morose. The visual tradition remains and the importance of oral story telling and the relating of spiritual quests. But it is scarred by a lost sovereignty, a lost power that can never be regained. I think Black Elk’s words, “You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see (p. 25),” are very poignant considering the fate of his people. It is a stoic power they still posses, that Black Elk’s words posses, that maintains the beauty and majesty of native American culture.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

BLACK ELK SPEAKS

I would like to know more about the context of Black Elk Speaks. Is there a continuous narrative going on, organized in a coherent manner? I know it is supposed to be the narration of Black Elk’s life, but so much is missing from the selection that I find it easy to miss the point. Perhaps at the time it was just meant as a cultural expose to introduce people to a then unknown way of life. But now, Native American culture has been so popularized by movies such as Pocahontas and Avatar that reading something like this is not especially striking to me. I know both movies are complete facsimiles of the true culture and struggles of Native Americans, but from what I’ve read here, they give me the same main ideas.

Pocahontas may not accurately illustrate Native American culture.
source: http://redsonika.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/pocahontas.jpg

Native Americans have a profound respect for place, akin to that of many eastern religions. I wonder what it is that makes these ancient religions so focused on unity, on worldly power and divine knowledge. I do not get the same feeling from western religion, that divinity exists all around us, that it is a natural power source to be tapped into. What do Native American and eastern cultures have in common? When Black Elk describes himself “standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being (x),” I am reminded of Siddhartha’s enlightened state, and the oft mentioned state of higher awareness of spatial realities in eastern culture.

Another similarity I see with eastern spirituality is the emphasis on compassion for all creatures, and on the maintenance of a balance between man and animal, almost a karmic responsibility to give as much as one takes. When Black Elk says, “I felt sorry that we had killed these animals and thought that we ought to do something in return (xi),” he is showing his appreciation of all life and of the subtleties of human/animal interaction. He believes in atonement. And that is exactly what his father offers him when he says, “To all the wild things that eat flesh, this I have offered that my people may live and the children grow up with plenty (xi).” They understand that existing in the natural world requires a reciprocal relationship with the environment. If you take, you must give back. If you want to survive, you must not over-consume.

Native American tribes created no waste in building teepees.
source: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/__TkYG1RhmoU/SuPMjZLuj_I/AAAAAAAACQg/gUkK6zc9at4/s400/teepee400.jpg

I believe this to be the greatest lesson we could glean from Native American culture. They are extremely wise in the art of sustainability. Their craft is based on recycling and the creative use of materials, their community structure based on sharing and conservation. This attitude stems from a greater understanding of the unity of all life on earth, an understanding shared by Siddhartha. When we become aware of this interconnectedness, we can see the implications of our actions far into the future and thus structure them to better mitigate destruction.