My Philosophic Journey By Grace Lee Boggs
My Philosophic Journey
By Grace Lee Boggs
The Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, is creating a videotaped collection of interviews with veterans of various struggles for freedom reflecting on the role of religion and/or spirituality in their formative years and on their movement activities. In preparation for my June 1998 visit, I made the following summary. What I said in the actual interviews, in response to questions from Vincent Harding, Sudarshon Kapur and Iliff students, was without reference to this summary.
Growing Up Chinese American and Female
I was born on top of my father’s restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. When I cried, the waiters used to say “Leave her on the hillside to die. She’s only a girl child.” When I was about three years old they used to tell me this as a joke, but for me, even then, it was no laughing matter. It gave me a sense early on of the things in this world that need changing. My Chinese name means Jade Peace. My American name, Grace, came from a missionary woman who gave English lessons to my father. I sometimes wonder if I would have turned out differently if, like many of today’s Chinese-American girl babies, I had been named Tiffany or Jennifer or Michelle.
The religious influences on my life as a child came from my father and mother. My father was a Confucian. He was always quoting Confucius to instill in us a sense of social responsibility for family and community and as a way of warning us against the American preoccupation with self. On the other hand, my mother who had been sold as a slave to the people in the big house when she was a child and had never learned to read or write – there were no schools for girls in her little Chinese village – became a Christian because she found in Christianity a respect and compassion for women which had been denied her in China. She saw her loveless marriage to my father as a continuation of her oppression in China.
As a child I went to Sunday School in neighborhood churches. Trinity Methodist Episcopal was just up the block from our house on Somerset St., a working class neighborhood not far from downtown Providence. There we were befriended by a wonderful British working class couple ; we called them Grandma and Grandpa Pickles. When I was eight, we moved to Jackson Heights, New York, a more middle-class neighborhood. There we walked about ten blocks to a non-denominational Community Church where, as I recall, we made very few friends. My mother used to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” first in Chinese and then in English. Belief in a transcendent God was very important to her. She loved John 15. It is the only passage from the Bible that I can say in the dialect of my parents: “Ni san mo yao sao. Ni yao san san, ni yao san ngor. Ngor fu de fuk jung yao ho di ji saw. Zmai n tai mn gong gor ni teng.”
As a Confucian my father put the family first, and within the family the subordination of women. He used to say that we should go to my mother for household things – but he was the one who knew about the outside world. But at the same time he expected me to go to college.
From early on I identified more with my father than with my mother because he viewed every obstacle as a challenge and was more socially-minded while my mother saw herself as a victim and was very self-centred. For example, I was proud that my father, like many other overseas Chinese of his period, was a supporter of Sun Yat Sen, the Christian leader of the l911 Chinese Revolution. Although he was not a Christian himself, he didn’t object to our going to church, and I didn’t see any conflict between his Confucian teachings and Christian ethics as embodied in such messages as “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” At the same time I was absorbing specific Christian messages. For example, from the Sermon on the Mount I was learning compassion and respect for the outcasts, the outsiders, lowly, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, all who labor and are heavy-laden – and disrespect for the wealthy and those who lust after wealth. I was convinced that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that you cannot serve both God and Mammon – and that the worst thing that can happen to you is to gain the whole world and lose your own soul. Mark 3:86 Matthew 9:30. Jesus’ defiance of the established church and his warning to those who were attracted to his teachings that they might have to abandon their families may have also contributed to my decision as a teenager not to become a conventional wife and mother.
I loved singing hymns and memorizing passages from the Bible. In Sunday School in Jackson Heights we were given little white diamond-shaped tabs – which were strung together on a ribbon – for memorizing Bible passages, especially from Psalms and Proverbs. My string kept growing until it stretched to the floor. The first two dollars I earned I put into the collection plate
Going to church with my mother and eating Sunday dinner with my father was a family ritual. When we returned home from church, my father would be cooking Sunday dinner which we ate together – all nine of us seated at a large round table in the dining room – until I went away to college.
My University Years
I started Barnard College as a very impressionable 16 years old in l931 in a period when the effects of the Great Depression were beginning to be felt all over the world. My life up to then had been pretty sheltered, spent mainly in our heavily Italian neighborhood and in my father’s restaurant on Broadway. I read a lot – bringing home novels from the library by the armload. I especially loved books by Pearl Buck, best known for Good Earth but who also wrote about the contradictions faced by the offspring of interracial marriages between Chinese and Caucasians. Not that I was thinking about getting married myself. When I was 15, I read Women and Economics by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and identified with her view that little girls are socialized for marriage by sitting on their father’s lap and tickling him under the chin in order to get themselves a new doll or a new dress and that wives are like prostitutes because they exchange sex for economic support.
College introduced me to a completely different intellectual world, the world of Scientific Rationalism. The professor who had the greatest impact on me in my freshman year was Frederick Crampton – a specialist on snails – who had come of age intellectually in the late l9th century when Darwin’s concept of evolution was revolutionary. I shall never forget our laboratory experiments where we dissected earthworms and dogfish to internalize evolutionary progress and I can still feel the excitement of writing an exam paper on the meaning of the concept “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny.” I had gone to college thinking that I might become involved in international affairs. My first freshman paper in a class in Political Science was on the invasion of Manchuria which took place in l931. But I found Darwin’s concept of evolution and natural selection so exciting intellectually that I abandoned the idea of becoming a diplomat and decided to become a scientist. However, Darwinism, with its emphasis on determinism by external forces, created a personal crisis for me because it could not satisfy my need for a philosophy to give meaning and purpose to my life. So at the end of my sophomore year I dropped all my science classes and decided to major in philosophy.
Most of my friends thought I was crazy to major in a subject which offered so little prospects for gainful employment. The two philosophy professors at Barnard, a man in his sixties and a woman who was a little younger, were not much help. Born in the l9th century, they had come of age long before World War I in a society which believed that history had come to an end with the Enlightenment. They were also more interested in the problems of philosophers than in those of ordinary human beings, pursuing the True, the Good and the Beautiful in the tradition of Greek philosophers who had little use for material reality because they lived in a society where slaves and women did all the work. Fortunately and fortuitously, after graduating from Barnard in l935, I was able to get a Chinese Graduate Scholarship to Bryn Mawr College where I became a student of Paul Weiss, a Jewish NY intellectual then in his mid-30s who had studied at Harvard with Alfred North Whitehead, the author of Science and the Modern World.
Weiss introduced me to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason published in l791 on the eve of the French Revolution and to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind written in l807 when the contradictions in the French Revolution had become apparent. Kant’s Critique, which he described as a Copernican Revolution, replaced the traditional concept of knowledge as the correspondence between ideas and objective reality with a concept of knowledge as the product of a dynamic interaction between real human beings and objective reality in the course of which our minds impose forms or categories on reality. For his period, the late l8th century, Kant’s theory of knowledge was the equivalent of Einstein’s theory of relativity – establishing that we do not know things in themselves but rather through an inter-communion. I found Kant’s philosophy tremendously empowering. His insistence that our minds shape our reality liberated me from the determinism by forces outside human control implied in the concept of natural selection and replaced it with a faith in the power of ideas and the importance of individual choice. His categorical imperative – act as if the maxim of your action could become a universal law – was also liberating. Instead of locating the good in some mythical realm, Kant was essentially telling us to be self-determining, that how we think and how we act matters. We should view ourselves as active citizens in a kingdom of persons. While creating a mechanical concept of reality, philosophers like Descartes had continued to count on God for their blessings and their maxims. Kant made us responsible for our thoughts and our actions, thereby freeing us in one sense but at the same time imposing on us the obligation to act as if our actions could be universalized. His categorical imperative reminds me of the Native American maxim to think ahead seven generations when we act.
From Kant I moved to Hegel who gave me a sense of history as a continuing struggle to made the Ideal real and the Real ideal or to make the universal more concrete. From the study of Hegel I got the sense of how over many thousands of years human beings have evolved, stage by stage, as they struggled for Freedom, constantly challenged by the contradictions which have arisen in the course of their struggles to expand their concept of what it means to be free. Starting with this concept of humanity as a species striving to make the universal of freedom richer and more concrete, Hegel also emphasized that the goal would not be achieved immediately or in a linear way, like a shot out of a pistol, but only through what he called the labor, patience and suffering of the negative, constantly transcending or breaking free from ideas that were once liberating but have become shackles on our minds. Hegel gave me a glimpse of the strivings and struggles and setbacks that are inseparable from being human. Struggling with his writings, I could see my own struggle for meaning as part of a universal and continuing struggle to resolve the contradictions which are in everything. Life became for me a struggle not only for physical survival but to become part of the species struggle to become ever more human.
After Kant and Hegel, I was ready for the American pragmatists, Dewey and Mead, who viewed truth as a species of the good and had little respect for intellectuals and philosophers who pride themselves on the purity of their abstract ideas uncontaminated by contact with work or action or feelings. As Dewey put it, “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method for dealing with the problems of men.” Thinking for Dewey and Mead was a practical activity, the work not of some mythical “pure reason” but of intelligence creating social change in the world. I identified so completely with these ideas that within months I had written my thesis on George Herbert Mead: The Philosopher of the Social Individual and was ready to leave the university and take my chances in the real world.
Becoming a Marxist
I received my Ph.D. in philosophy in June l940, the month that France fell to the Nazis. I had no prospects for a job – in those days “Orientals” couldn’t even get jobs as saleswomen in department stores. So I went to Chicago where Mead had taught and got a job in the Philosophy Library of the University for $10 a week. Looking for a room to rent, I happened to knock on the door of a little Jewish woman who took pity on me and allowed me to stay in her basement rent-free. The basement was damp, there was barely enough room for a red couch and a couple of orange crates, and I had to stare down a barricade of rats to get in the back door. But I was young and healthy, and living on next to nothing gave me a lot more freedom to determine my own future than today’s college graduates who must get high-paying job right away to repay college loans and buy a car so that they can get to their jobs. Before they know it they are trapped into a system that many of them don’t even believe in.
Walking through one of the university buildings one day, I happened on a meeting called by the South Side Tenants Organization organized by the Trotskyist Workers Party to fight against rat-infested housing in the black community. This was my first introduction to the black community. As a result, I came into contact with the March on Washington movement which A.Philip Randolph was organizing in the early months of l941 to demand jobs for blacks in the booming defense plants. President Roosevelt could not dissuade Randolph from going ahead with the march and could not afford the embarrassment of tens of thousands of blacks marching on Washington at a time when he was getting ready for the war against racism in Europe. So in July l941 he issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense industry. The March on Washington Movement changed my life. From it I discovered the power that blacks have to change society when they organize a movement. As a result I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was become a movement activist in the black community. So I joined the Workers Party, mainly because it was through the Workers Party that I had come into contact with the black community.
In the Workers Party I met C.L.R James whose Marxism was based on celebrating and encouraging the self-activity and self-organization of the masses. It was a very humanist approach, sharply different from the economic determinism of most Marxists, and I identified with it immediately, joining the small group inside the party known as the Johnson-Forest tendency and led by CLR and Raya Dunayevskaya. Discovering Marxism was as empowering and liberating as my discovery of Kant and Hegel had been. Together we “Johnsonites” spent hours studying and discussing each of the great revolutions of the past, focusing not so much on the oppression suffered by people at the bottom of the society but on how they organized themselves and in the process advanced the whole society. The important thing, for us, was to view the oppressed not mainly as victims or objects but as creative subjects. To reinforce this view we went back to the early Marx, the young man who in l843 at the age of 24 and a student of Hegel had written the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts emphasizing the human essence of the workers and their alienation in capitalist society.
Through our immersion in the writings of the early Marx, we developed a very different view of Capitalism and Socialism from that accepted by traditional Marxists. Being a Marxist for us meant focusing not on property relationships but on the spiritual as well as the physical misery of capitalism. Capitalism reduces the worker to a fragment of a man, robbing him of his natural and acquired powers. It alienates him from his species-life and his communal essence. Socialism, on the other hand, is the reappropriation by the oppressed of their human/social essence. For us Marx’s materialism was not the materialism of consumerism. It was the materialism of rooting your ideas in real life and practice, going beyond talk and ideas alone. For example, Marx’s criticized Hegel for grappling only with theoretical labor and neglecting practical life-sustaining labor; and Feuerbach for rooting ideas too much in Nature, not enough in practice and in politics. For Marx as for Jesus real wealth is not material wealth and real poverty is not just the lack of food, shelter and clothing. Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth, owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers and to relate to other human beings. In the l940s there was very little appreciation or understanding of this side of Marx.
At Bryn Mawr the philosophies of Kant and Hegel had given meaning to my personal life. But it wasn’t until I became a Johnsonite, studying the revolutions of the past and trying to make an American revolution in the present, that I began to understand the critical importance of dialectical thinking to Movement activists and freedom fighters. Hegel’s method of thinking dialectically did not just come out of his head. He began to think dialectically because he was trying to make sense of the contradictory developments in his reality. As a young man he had hailed the French revolution by dancing around the tree of liberty. Twenty years later Napoleon was in power. On the one hand, the revolution was obviously a great leap forward for Humankind because it overthrew the feudal aristocracy and brought the great masses of the French people into the public arena as active citizens making the social decisions which had previously been the prerogative of the upper classes. But the revolution had led to the Napoleonic dictatorship and it had also opened the road for the rapid development of capitalism which robbed workers of their skills and reduced them to appendages of machines. As a result, a lot of people in intellectual circles began wondering whether the French Revolution had been worth making and some of them even began advocating a return to the good old feudal days. Hegel could have given up on humanity or on the struggle for Freedom. Instead, he created a method of thinking, a philosophy, that encourages the freedom fighter to view the contradictions that emerge in the course of every struggle as a challenge to take humanity to a higher plateau by creating a new ideal, a new more concrete universal or vision of freedom. Thus, when the civil rights movement led to the black rebellions, Martin Luther King, thinking dialectically (how consciously I don’t know because I haven’t studied the philosophic influences on his development) was challenged to go beyond civil rights and project a more radical revolution in both values and structures as well as self-transforming and structure-transforming direct action programs for our young people in our dying cities.
That is why the study of Hegel was so important to Lenin in l915 when the German Social Democrats supported their own government in World War I, abandoning the position of international solidarity of the working class on which the Second International had been founded. Their betrayal forced Lenin to recognize that capitalism had reached a new stage, the stage of monopoly capitalism, which had created an objective basis for the Germany Social Democracy in the labor aristocracy, and therefore the need to create a new revolutionary movement. Basing himself on the Soviets which had emerged in the Russian Revolution of l905 and which were a much higher stage of self-activity and self-organization than the unions, Lenin was able to create a new vision of Socialism as a society in which “every cook can govern.”
Becoming a Movement Activist in Detroit
I can’t remember any discussions of religion during the years I worked with C.L.R.James in New York. In New York intellectual circles people didn’t talk about God and religion. The first time you mentioned religion at a dinner party, according to William Buckley, there was dead silence. After the second time, you were never invited back again. As members of the Workers Party, our contacts were mainly with the radical community and not with workers or blacks. So we accepted more or less Marx’s characterization of religion as the opiate of the people.
However, from the time I married Jimmy and began living in the Detroit black community in 1953 I had to think a lot more seriously about religion because the church played such a central role in the black community and was also the focal point of so much controversy: inside families, especially between sons and mothers. The first thing that struck me was the profound difference between the white church I had known as a child which played a very perfunctory role in the life of the community and the black church which was such an integral part of African American history and the lives of Jimmy’s relatives. As I studied African American history I learned about the critical role that the black church had played in the struggle for freedom under slavery. I discovered how going to church had been a revolutionary act on the part of blacks and recognized as such by their slavemasters. It seemed to me that the gulf between the spiritual and the material that prevailed in white church was bridged in the black church. In the black church the ideas that the last shall be first, that God is on the side of the oppressed and that there should be a government on earth as in heaven had revolutionary political significance. Contacting black preachers to solicit support for the struggle in Kenya I was impressed with the political and communal quality of the black church. As I listened to sermons by black pastors like Rev. C.L.Franklin, I was strengthened in my view of white America as a moral swamp – where greed had encouraged white people to commit the world’s most grievous sin – to sell a man as merchandise and on his body set a price.
At the same time, in my discussions with Jimmy and his radical friends, I was confronted by a devastating critique of the black church. Black militants like Jimmy and his friends were merciless in their view of the black church as a racket and black preachers as chicken-eating shysters. They knew the facts about the liberating role of the black church under slavery as well as I did. But living in the twentieth century and having been exposed to Marxism and the Communist Party (because of its leadership in the Scottboro case and in the unemployed and labor movement) they saw the black church as authoritarian and sexist and a refuge for those evading the need to struggle against both capitalism and racism, and therefore an obstacle in the freedom struggle. In the l960s, also, Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm’s critique of Christianity were becoming increasingly persuasive. As a result, Jimmy and I used to have ferocious arguments about the black church. I kept emphasizing the progressive role that it had played historically in the black struggle for freedom and Jimmy kept attacking it for its current role in exploiting the backwardness of the black masses, and especially of black women, to fatten the purses and egos of black pastors. At the time our arguments were very troubling to me. It is only since writing the chapter on Jimmy in my autobiography that I have gained a better appreciation of how deeply rooted his views on religion were in the continuing struggle of blacks to achieve their full human potential.
Jimmy had grown up under the influence of the generation of blacks who created the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and intellectual movement born out of the tremendous sense of human possibility enjoyed by the thousands of blacks who had left behind the restrictions of life in the South and were reveling in the freedoms of city life. From their southern roots these blacks retained reverence for life, for community and for elders. But they disdained worship of a transcendent deity with its implications of submission to external forces. Instead they embodied an exuberant faith in their own individual and collective powers which was close to religious in its intensity. Eubie Blake, as Ann Douglas points out in Terrible Honesty, her brilliant and monumental account of this period, summed it up when he said in l924 that “‘jazz,’ as he loosely called it, expressed the ‘Negro’s religious emotions.'”
From Terrible Honesty I got a sense of the philosophic and theoretical leadership that black intellectuals and artists were giving to American society in the l920s and l930s, anticipating the role that the black movement would play in the l950s and l960s. At a time when the work of white intellectuals mostly expressed pessimism and despair – for example, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and The Hollow Men – the work of black musicians and black intellectuals inspired belief in the potential of Americans to fulfill the American dream of self-government and control of our destiny. Whites flocked to Harlem to catch the spirit of Negroes. It was a period in which the struggle for self-definition, as Douglas puts it, took the form of a debate between white theology and the black religious sensibility, between Euro-American cultural pessimism and the Afroamerican cultural optimism, between dogma and experience, between privatized and communal expression (117) Jimmy had grown up with the music and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. It was his religion. Its spirit gave him the confidence that rank and file working class blacks like himself could provide the leadership to advance the whole country. It was because this period was so much a part of his own development that Jimmy could be so relentless in his criticism of the black church and so bodacious in his projections of black leadership for the American revolution.
That is why, despite his relentless criticism of the black church, Jimmy was able to work closely with a black radical pastor like Albert Cleage who portrayed Jesus as the black revolutionary or Black Messiah who went from town to town, city to city, creating a movement and an organization to build the black Nation. Throughout the l960s we held countless political meetings at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, organizing struggles against police brutality, for community control of schools, for black city councilpeople, etc. We only split with Cleage and the Shrine when, following the l967 rebellion, they became chiefly concerned with using the church to advance their members to political office.
The rebellion of l967 forced us to rethink a lot of philosophical questions, and especially to draw a clear distinction between rebellion, which is a spontaneous reaction by the masses to their oppression, and revolution which requires an inner transformation (metanoia, the Greek word for transformation in the Bible is translated as change of heart or a change in ways) or a great leap forward in the continuing struggle to become more socially and politically conscious and more responsible for governing ourselves. In our exploration of the meaning of transformation we were inspired by the ongoing revolutions in China, Vietnam and Guinea-Bissau in which Mao, Ho and Cabral emphasized the role of self-criticism and self-transformation in revolutionary struggle. This emphasis on transformation was at the root of our split with C.L.R.James who, maintaining the traditional Marxist position that the working class is socialized and organized in the process of capitalist production, continued to celebrate spontaneity. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the rebellions had also challenged King to deepen his concept of transformation. Our struggles to clarify these issues and arrive at a dialectical humanist philosophy of the freedom struggle were conducted mainly through our conversations in Maine – which have been published in part in Conversations in Maine. Based on this philosophy we wrote Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century and embarked on the creation of a new organization, NOAR, the National Organization for an American Revolution.
While we were building NOAR, it was very exciting to witness the emergence of Liberation Theology in Latin America and the growing rapport between Marxism and Catholicism as Catholic theologians began criticizing the non-subversive side of the Church, emphasizing the spiritual aspects of Marxism, building base communities among the poor and aligning themselves with the spreading revolutionary movement in Central America. Catholics were urged to see God and Religion as a force that exalts the humble and casts down the mighty from their seats, gives bread to the hungry and reduces over-eaters to hunger.
As a result, during the l980s thousands of Americans of all religious and non-religious persuasions, including members of NOAR, went to Central America as Witnesses for Peace. In Detroit we participated in countless demonstrations with priests and nuns carrying crosses in support of the revolutionary struggles in Salvador and Nicaragua, and today I am amazed at the number of Catholics who are my friends and comrades in the movement to rebuild Detroit.
Towards the New Millenium: Dialectical/Sacred Humanism
In the last few years I have been actively involved in two closely-connected movements: (1) the movement to rebuild, respirit and redefine Detroit as we come to the end of the industrial era; and (2) the Environmental Justice Movement which was launched by African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans at the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October l991. I see my activities in Detroit Summer, the Detroit Agricultural Network and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice as an integral part of the struggle for a revolution in philosophy as monumental for our time as the advent of Christianity and the democratic revolutions of the l8th century and the socialist revolutions in the 20th were for theirs. This revolution in philosophy is necessary not because the truths of the past have become errors but because our scientific knowledge and technological skills, based on the objectification of Nature and a sharp dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, have brought us to the point where we have the power to destroy ourselves as well as the biosphere and to eliminate the need for Work as we have known it since the beginning of the industrial era. “We have become far too clever,” as E.F.Schumacher put it, “to survive without wisdom.” Or in the words of Elaine Pagels, Princeton Professor of Religion, “In the past people located God in the corner of their ignorance. What we don’t know belongs to God.” Today it is because of what we know that we need to relocate God. We need a new philosophy to provide a framework for our economic and political decisions, a philosophy with a more unified concept of the spiritual and the material, a more immanent concept of the divine and a more sacred concept of Nature. In creating this new philosophy we also need to learn from other cultures whom we have regarded as backward because their inter-communion with Nature has inhibited them from exploiting it. As Pierre Pradervand writes in Listening to Africa: “The time has come for us to realize that the material poverty of Africa has blinded us to its amazing human and cultural wealth – just as our own very recent material wealth seems to have hidden from us more insidious forms of spiritual, human and moral poverty.”
It is in the writings of radical Catholic priests like Thomas Berry CP, Thomas Clarke SJ and Matthew Fox that I find the most dialectical appreciation of the philosophic revolution that is now required in the continuing quest of human beings to reach their human and spiritual potential. For example, in Befriending the Earth. A Theology of Reconciliation between Humans and the Earth, Berry says that the main limitation of Christianity is its concept of a Transcendent God. Thus it (1) desacralized the natural world, alienating us from a living relationship with the natural world, even when the natural world is explained as good and created by the divine; (2) made human beings special, elevating them as spiritual at the expense of the spirituality of other living beings, thus laying the basis for seeing the world as a collection of objects rather than community of subjects/ending up with Cartesian mechanism; and (3) conceived of redemption as other-worldly. That is why, according to Berry and Clarke, we are coming to the end of the Judeo-Christian tradition that began 3500 years ago with a transcendent God. We need a new ontology, a new ethics and new language.
In The Re-Invention of Work. A New Vision of Livelihood for our Time. Matthew Fox provides us with a very useful chart of the Paradigm Shift that is now urgently needed to save our own souls and the biosphere as we enter the post-modern, post-industrial world. Fox’s call for a re-sacralization of the universe and of Work especially resonates with me because it relates so immediately to the critical issues affecting our young people and our cities today. The industrial revolution, he insists, has not only polluted our soil but it has shrunk our souls. Working only for a paycheck has destroyed the joy, purpose and hope which human beings should be able to experience in the exercise of our natural and acquired powers in the work process. We can only recover our souls by connecting our work to the creation of community and to the great work of the universe, which is a form of worship.
Because we have corrupted Work by reducing its purpose to the earning of money, we have also corrupted Education, reducing its purpose to individual upward mobility and making more money so that you can consume more. The result is the increasing alienation of young people which expresses itself in violence and drugs and in periodic rebellions against injustice which end up in widespread looting. Teachers are unable to make their students care about themselves or anybody else, parents push their children into middle class careers because the only alternative seems to be ending up in prison, inner cities communities disintegrate as those who succeed in the system move to the suburbs and those left behind see themselves as rejects and take out their resentment in vandalism, and charter schools proliferate increasing the gulf between the middle and underclasses and creating a constitutional crisis over the use of public funds for parochial schools.
Speaking in December l990 in the Martin Luther King Jr. Forum Series at the Schomburg Center, I said, “I like to think that if King were alive today, he would be struggling to apply Gandhi’s philosophy of Education to the crisis in our cities, with the same courage and far-sightedness as 40 years ago he struggled to apply Gandhi’s philosophy of Non-Violence in the civil rights movement. Gandhi knew that education in India had been structured mainly to supply the next generation of clerks to sign, stamp and file all the paperwork needed to run the British Empire. Meanwhile, the villages where the vast majority of the people lived were left untouched, seen only as suppliers of cheap raw materials for the British or as potential markets for the finished goods the British wanted to turn around and sell them. Against this system of education set up to serve British interests, Gandhi proposed a system of popular education to serve the Indian people. Teach people those things which will truly help them, he said, not to become servants and bureaucrats but in all the little things of village life. Education should be of the heart, the hand and the head. It should give children an understanding of themselves and where they stand in the world and from there, their obligations towards their neighbor. The three main resources for this popular education, he said, are the community, the natural environment and the work environment.
“Today, if we substitute our cities for Gandhi’s villages, we can see that we are at a similar crossroads. Our educational system has been set up to supply the next generation of servants and bureaucrats for the American industrial-military-political-medical complex, a complex which is fundamentally undemocratic because it reduces the majority of people to passive consumers.”
That was seven and a half years ago – before the founding of Detroit Summer, before the launching of the Environmental Justice Movement, before cities like Detroit were beginning to come alive with grassroots struggles to build healthy, environmentally just and sustainable communities – and also before I had written my autobiography which forced to think more seriously about King’s response to the black rebellions than I had ever done before.
As a result, I am less tentative today about what I think King might be doing were he alive as we approach the Millenium. Because of his deep commitment to community and to active citizenship, because of his pro-active approach to non-violence, because he viewed materialism or passive consumerism as one of the “giant triplets” (the other two were racism and militarism), because he deplored careerism and the middle class values embodied in our school system, and because of his ability to respond to contradictions by lifting the struggle for freedom to a higher plateau, I am confident that he would be urging the active involvement of young people, including school children from K-12, in the struggle to rebuild our communities and our cities with the same audacity with which the civil rights movement involved them in the struggle against segregation. That, I believe, is the most effective way to transform the ongoing struggles to rebuild our cities into a self-developing movement.