Recently that great and noble sage, Senator Lindsey Graham, who may be my least favorite of the many shabby Trump acolytes, made the pronouncement that America is not a racist country. After laughing convulsively, I realized that he was speaking for far too many people who are still in desperate denial of the obvious facts.
When I came to America at 26, over 40 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the kind of denial I met in every class of the obvious dreadful racism that contaminates every aspect of American life. And one of the things I regret the most in my vocation as a spiritual teacher is how few African Americans I have had the privilege to reach.
In the first decade of my real teaching which began in my forties, I had the grace and good fortune to be invited several times to progressive black churches. I was amazed at the kind of reception my passionate style received. Instead of looking over a sea of frightened white faces, I heard “Say it, say it! Go for it!” And I would always leave humbled and astounded at the rich depths of black spirituality.
I came to understand that the true love of Jesus and Jesus’s path was most authentically found in the suffering, love and profound commitment to compassion of African Americans. I came to realize too that in jazz and gospel and in passionate affirmations of the Christ that rings so splendidly in black churches, much of the real original Christianity was burningly alive.
When I lived in San Francisco, the only place of worship I could bear to go to was Glide Memorial Church where one Sunday I heard an 85-year-old woman howl out the Lord’s Prayer in a way that pierced me through with glory and sorrow. I shall never forget the look of exhausted rapture on her face when she finished.
None of this means that I have completely exorcised my own racism and I believe that one of the most important things that all white spiritual seekers can now do is undergo the kind of shadow work that will reveal to you the secret places where you are still contaminated by the long and indescribable brutal history of race relations.
Nothing is more important for the future of democracy than white people of good will recognizing in sorrow and humility how much their ignorance of their own secret racism has allowed a truly abominable situation to continue and flourish darkly.
What I have discovered for myself is how much help I need in this. Because everything in our so-called spiritual world with its ludicrous fake optimism and love and light fantasy mitigates against exactly the kind of shadow work that could make us more authentic vehicles of divine love.
In the last year I have made it a profound priority to read and re-read James Baldwin and I cannot recommend this searing process highly enough. Baldwin is astoundingly honest, frighteningly open and profoundly aware not only of the wounds that racism has inflicted on African Americans but the way in which it has deformed and shriveled the white heart.
It is this astringent and unflinching compassion for those trapped on both sides that gives his writing such indispensable spiritual authority. So if you have not read, for example, The Fire Next Time, I beg you to do so and do so slowly, savoring each terrible sentence, and allowing his tragic grand wisdom to penetrate your cells.
There is no more important writer for our time and his testimony to the agony of race in America is something that no American can afford now not to take seriously.
I met him once at the end of his life in Paris and was profoundly shaken by his utterly naked and vulnerable presence. (To learn more about Baldwin, the best book you can read is Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again.) He was at once profoundly gentlemanly and kind but utterly skinless, as if peeled of every illusion about human nature. And I remember afterwards weeping at what I dimly understood as the immense personal price he had paid for his vision.
There are two books which I beg you to read (if you haven’t done so already) and take into your minds and hearts to help you realize the extent of the tragedy we are now called to acknowledge and heal.
The first is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, in which you will discover the finest and clearest analysis of the problem and facts of oppression that will scorch your brain and lacerate your heart in exactly the right ways.
The other book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is by Resmaa Menakem. I have never read anything like this book and I advise you to take it slowly, because he confronts the ways in which unacknowledged racism has penetrated our neurobiology and our least conscious responses to others of a different color.
Being a true healer, he does not rest in ferocious analysis but offers a whole set of extraordinary practices that I have found revelatory. He understands as Baldwin did that the oppressor is almost as scarred and damaged as those who have been systematically victimized, and while he doesn’t soften his ferocious analysis of white supremacy, he finds the vast compassion necessary to reach out to white people willing to do the frightening work of recognizing just how much the obscene brutality of American history has marred the deepest human responses.
I realize that the work I’m asking you to do may repel you by its challenge. However, all of you can see now that this wound of racism has been opened in a way that offers all of us transformative possibilities. We cannot go forward without addressing it and in addressing it, it is to the great black writers and healers that we need to turn. Astoundingly they are available to us, which shows the extraordinary strength of the black experience and its unshakable spiritual depths.
Great transformations of the heart lie ahead. And out of these transformations, the new America that Biden celebrated in his opening address to Congress can still be born. This birth is far from inevitable as you all know, and it will require all of us to go into labor.
What an amazing time to be alive! And what an amazing healing of all of our broken hearts could take place if only we are prepared to go through what we must go through to become more honest, more awake, more compassionate and more willing to stand up for authentic justice and social and economic structural change on every level.
I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic but I believe in the power of the spirit and I see that power rising. Be part of that rugged rising and see what can happen.
Consider how incredible it is—as noted above in this gorgeous and historic photo—that we have at long last not only a woman Vice President but a woman Vice President of color.
Please join V and me in our upcoming Revolution of the Mother. If you know V‘s work, you know what a tireless advocate she has been for the healing of racism, and together we are going to plunge into everything I’ve talked about here in a way that I hope will be both informative and galvanizing. There can be no revolution of the Mother without the healing of the wound of racism.
Don’t miss this opportunity to hear one of our greatest living radicals of love expose her wild and gorgeous heart. You will be as inspired as I have been.
With so much love,
Above: Vice President Kamala Harris walks across the Capitol Rotunda to President Biden’s first address to Congress, April 28, 2021. Photo by NBC’s Frank Thorpe V.
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