Monday, March 17, 2008

The Disappearing Soul

When a person--or a group of people--is defined by something which s/he (or they) are not, how do they maintain their sense of identity when that negative is removed?

More to the point, when a group of people are bound together (in part) by a shared sense of struggle, of hardship or of profound oppression, how is that group impacted by a potentially positive change to that circumstance?

And perhaps this is the real question: what happens to you when you start to get what you want?

There are several cliched answers to those quasi-rhetorical questions. Most of them involve the costs associated with compromise.

"Compromise" is an interesting word. It is a paradox that can be used in very different, but fundamentally connected ways:

"Blending qualities of two different things"
"Settle by mutual concessions"
"To cause the impairment of"
"To expose to an unauthorized person or enemy"

That's almost a four-step outline of how to sell one's soul.

The first step is fairly benign. If you're Black and you live in a post-slavery, still-segregated America, you'd probably want the freedom and equality that some white dude long ago wrote into the founding documents of the country you might call home.

The second step speaks to the process associated with obtaining that freedom. Basically, the people oppressing you are gonna have to agree to stop that shit and you, as the oppressed group, are gonna have to agree not to kick the shit out of all those people for everything they ever did wrong to you and your folks.

The third step furthers the second by implying that getting what you want (rather, getting some of what you want) will cause you to sacrifice some things that you already have. If you're a group of people who has previously been segregated (either in part or holistically) then your forced and logical communal ties could suffer once you and the group you are a part of are integrated into a larger society. In short, both your collective and individual identities are gonna need to be rethought and possibly re-expressed.

The fourth step indicates that something may have disintegrated in the quest to obtain the goal outlined in the first step. If you're Black and you live in a post-Civil Rights, legally-integrated America...well...I'm not sure exactly how you'd feel. There are millions of people far more qualified than I am to intimately articulate that experience. BUT...from an outsider's perspective...I have to think that you might feel as if you've sold a piece of your soul in order to enjoy the basic rights and freedoms that had been so egregiously denied to you, your parents, grandparents, etc.

At least, that was one of my takeaways from watching ESPN's documentary mini-series, Black Magic.

Frankly, that should be part of the jump-off from that film. Granted, Black Magic is an outstanding piece of filmmaking. Something I wish I would have made myself. Something I will be among the first to buy whenever it's made available for sale. Mostly so I can cherrypick from the craftsmanship of it for my own future reference.

I suspect, though, that Dan Klores and Earl Monroe (along with Ben Jobe, Jon Chaney, Earl Loyd and the rest) would be terribly disappointed in all of us if we didn't dive a little deeper than that after seeing the film.

If you haven't seen it yet, Black Magic is nearly four hours of stories about the forgotten generation of Black basketball players who played at HBCUs during the 50s, 60s and 70s and who integrated that sport while America itself was being integrated. As you can imagine, there's lots of ugly history there which is offset by magnificent stories of personal triumph. Along with some personal tragedies. Both minor and major.

In sum, it argues that the people who just wanted to play ball (at the highest levels) and the people who created the space for them to do so (when the highest levels weren't accessible) gradually sacrificed the integrity of that space in order to obtain the right to play ball at the highest levels possible.

Or so it would seem the argument goes.

Whether it was intended or not, we could scale that argument to apply it to the identity chronology of Black folks in America during the last 150 years. We could also scale it to explore the principles associated with the process of reaching compromise. We could even scale it to the assorted acts of being alive.

Really, that last one is what I s'pose I'm most interested in. On some what is soul? steez.

I have neither the time nor the energy to even count, let alone read about and meditate on all the various ideas and theories about what the human soul is and how it contributes to a person's existence. I do, however, default to Funkadelic whenever anything about the nature of life is in doubt for me.

(If I wore acronymic wrist bands, mine would read "WWGCD?" After all, there may be worse moral barometers (or better ones) than George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, Fuzzy Haskins, Bootsy and co., but what's really funkin' with them? You can have your Moses or your Buddha and I'll be just fine with all the Woo in the world.)

Soul, as Funkadelic would tell us, has everything to do with how you relate yourself to the world around you as well as, conversely, how you digest that world to achieve your own ends.

At some point, every soul arrives at a crossroads faced with two choices: 1) stand on principle every time in perpetuity without flinching no matter the cost or 2) compromise once and once again every day for the rest of your journey because once you make one concession, you'll never reach a point where you concede no more forever.

If a soul (or a group of souls) chooses the path of compromise, it is not necessarily a well tread road to hell. Nor is it an easy path to paradise. It is a struggle. One that is different from its prideful (patently stubborn and generally courageous) counterpart. No less prone to success or failure. Just different.

But (here's the rub, kids) a soul who chooses compromise has to understand the potentially pyrrhic nature of that path. The choice to compromise could be the most mutually beneficial for everyone involved, but it's going to cost someone something. Sometimes, it costs some folks everything.

Going back to the takeaways from Black Magic, I can't say that I feel hopeless. Nor would I encourage anyone else to be. I do believe that enough time has passed since the close of the Civil Rights Era, that we can place certain issues of identity in their proper context thereby adopting a healthier approach to solving today's problems which are clearly rooted in the problems of the past yet are altogether different.

Which is why I'm particularly curious about the dialogue Barack Obama is about to launch concerning race.

If for no other reason than a leading presidential candidate is about to tackle the biggest, meanest elephant that has ever thundered through any room in this old American house.

Certainly because, now that we know the cost of compromise, we might actually be able to address this thing with some candor and without the belligerence that so naturally accompanies it.

All of us may have shaved a little piece (or two) off our souls to get some of what we wanted, but we haven't made them disappear completely.

Not yet anyway.

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