They’d lived in the valley for far longer than the span of their recorded history. Since before, even, the time of the Others. Their existence was merely sufficient. Arable land was scarce in the valley, with sparse vegetation strewn like tattered rags across the scant few feet of dirt that, in turn, blanketed the volcanic floor. The land was bound on three sides by steep and jagged rock walls that rose almost two miles straight up. The comings and goings of the sun, perpendicular to the opening, left the place in almost perpetual shadow. The open end of the valley was foreboding for other reasons. A gradual incline over even more rock and through a narrowing path led, eventually, to the edge of Deadlake, a body of water that overlapped the horizons, right and left. Looking straight across, however, one could see, in the distance, desert. And nothing else. Deadlake, as its name suggested, was devoid of life. It was far beyond mere stagnation, though. It took life. Anyone who drank from its fetid depths would surely die. The people had known for centuries that to even touch that water brought sickness and death. As such, it served only one purpose–to accept those who had passed away. Whether that passing resulted from the harshness of their daily life or was due to “The Kuling,” a semi-annual festival marked by ritual murder and suicide, their bodies were brought to the shore of Deadlake and dropped there, into the depths of eternity.
The people of the valley had no word for science. Even as children, they did not question. Could not. Those children that exhibited curiosity, that displayed a spark that might one day lead them to tread the path of forbidden knowledge, they were marked for the Kuling. It was as the Others had ordained, so many centuries ago. Even in those times, they never knew exactly why the Others would take their children and kill them. Absent explanation, and powerless to prevent the practice, they surmised their own reasons, and preemptively slaughtered those of their kind whom they thought would draw the interest of the Others. The practice worked, as evidenced by the fact that the Others no longer visited their valley, apparently pleased to accept their sacrifice and obeisance at a distance.
The people of the valley had art, though. Beautiful, useless art. Their singing filled the land, reverberating from the rock walls, wails and moans punctuated by screeches and soaring, discordant harmonies. There were no words to the songs, only notes, which touched something deep within their souls that they otherwise could not reach. Their singing styles, tempos and phrasings changed wildly, from month to month, year to year, making their music simultaneously precious and disposable. Having long abandoned written language (which only served, after all, to provoke questions and hasten the Kuling), only the old ones could remember past a generation or two. But there was nothing really to remember other than the edicts of the Others, the price of forbidden knowledge, the way of the Kuling. Beyond that, their oral history consisted almost entirely of lists of names, colorful, fanciful, fantastic names….
Okay, I’ll give something away here, for the sake of discussion. The Others in the above paragraphs were just some people who really, really had it in for the people of the valley. They placed them there. And dumped radioactive waste into the lake to prevent it from ever seeming to be a source of life or hope. They forbade even the most rudimentary of learning, particularly sure to create and then reinforce technological taboos, so that the people of the valley would never again produce mountain climbers or boatwrights. In essence, they committed physical and psychological genocide against the people of the valley. At the time of the above story, the Others have been dead for over two centuries themselves, victims of their own excess, hubris, and, to my mind, divine retribution. Perhaps there was a biological holocaust that, ironically, only spared the people of the valley due to their extreme isolation. It doesn’t matter. The people in that story will never get out of that valley.
The point of it all is that the effects of psychological genocide can be, over time, more profoundly damaging than physical genocide. Under controlled conditions (say, a few centuries of almost complete domination), it should be very apparent from my allegory that such genocide can become self-perpetuating, like a computer program that can run for as long as the machine is up, with no need for its programmer, or even an operator, to hang around once the start button has been pushed. If the genocidal programming is complete enough, the continued involvement of the oppressor ultimately becomes irrelevant.
Viewed in isolation, the people of the valley appear willfully ignorant, cruel, pathetic and almost deserving of their plight, as they are too stupid to build a boat or scale the mountain to escape from their de facto prison. An assessment of their culture that takes into account the historical role of the Others, however, tempers those harsh judgements with an understanding of causation. Unfortunately, though, for the people in the valley, it will take a lot more than understanding the root of pathology to repair their society.
After centuries on these shores, African Americans are still in the valley. Sure, there are a whole lot of valleys in the world, with a lot of people in them, but we are in this one. Over here. Where some Americans see “Founding Fathers” I see “Others” who, over the span of several hundred years, purposefully instilled in us negative self-images, distrust, loathing, self-hatred and lack of confidence under constant penalty of death. Their program of physical and psychological genocide ran for far longer than the practice of chattel slavery, certainly lasting up and into the latter half of the 20th century. The results of this program are made manifest constantly, playing themselves out in our daily interactions, visible in the form of high suicide and homicide statistics, less obvious in the form of broken relationships and stunted aspirations.
That African Americans were subjected to a systematic oppression reaching the level of genocide is undeniable, and its effects palpable. Imagine what would happen if one of the great lakes were to be polluted with all manner of toxic and biological waste for 400 years. And then, for the next 30 years, folks stopped adding pollutants. Would that water then be safe to drink? Despite the great gains of the Civil Rights movement, the reflexive flourish of “black is beautiful,” etc., what we’ve experienced is a gradual diminution in the rate of the pollution (racism) over the past few decades, notwithstanding that there are still plenty of “Others” who ignore the posted signs and will back their pickup truck or limo up to the lake and dump their trash. But, concurrent with the changes in our objective environment, have black folks in America really had some sort of mass awakening, a cultural epiphany, or collective reconciliation of our new-versus-historical objective social conditions? No. Individuals in our community experience that awakening every day, but as a whole? No. There has been no cleanup. We are a psychological Superfund site. Self-Love Canal.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s very clear that Bill Cosby and others are smokin’ that Ricky Williams if they think that things like kids wearing baggy pants are the cause of some of our more pervasive problems. Even self-defense mechanisms, over time, can become obsolete. But in the worst case, they become self-defeating. I’ve heard the blues described as laughing to keep from crying. But on the real, sometimes we be laughing to keep from thinking. Laughing when we should be doing. Laughing when it’s wildly inappropriate.
In the martial art of jujitsu, one uses an enemy’s strength (and momentum) against him. Our culture and creativity are certainly among our greatest strengths, integral as they are to American culture as a whole and, by extension, global culture. And yet our very culture has been shaped, or at least influenced, by our collective experiences in the valley. In some cases, the adaptations have been helpful and necessary, like abstaining from the tainted waters of Deadlake. Some adaptations serve no purpose, like singing the empty songs; and in yet other cases, our adaptations serve, like The Kuling, to perpetuate the genocide that was initially intended for us.
In my little allegorical valley, the situation is much more bleak than it is for us in the real world. Many of us have found our way out. But how to help those who remain behind? Especially when there are still “Others” around. The present day “Others,” who profit from the sale of home lobotomy kits for a people who self-medicate self-hate. “Others” who view black youth, incarcerated at higher rates here than under apartheid South Africa, as the last great cash crop–make-work on the prison industrial plantation and good-paying jobs to replace America’s outsourced agricultural and manufacturing base. “Others” who will happily sign and vigorously promote “artists” who make songs about killing each other, and then ask the young men, “Do you have any friends?”
How do we counter that? When our valley, though less deadly, is much less defined? When our walls are transparent and the Deadlake tastes like Kool-Aid? And when there has been no mass awakening, no detailed reckoning of our current situation that takes into account the whys and the hows and ends with the what-do-we-do-nows? When external criticism falls on the deaf or uncomprehending ears of a people unable to overcome the inertia of tradition? The answer is simple, yet daunting. We need to reclaim and redirect our culture.