A fair amount of my life up to this point has been instinctively framed by a concept which the late Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) attributed to his character Don Leo XII Loayza in the novel Love in the Time of Cholera:
"He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."
That sounds, does it not, very close to Jean Paul Sartre's (1905-1980, another Nobel Laureate, although one who declined the prize) pronunciations on the philosophy of existentialism. It is worth pointing out in the context of these notes because of what it implies about options inherent to any given biographical or historical moment. Namely, that although they might require a price––in the form of struggle or sacrifice–– choices, of one kind or another, in the face of adversity and hardship is always available.
If I were to tweak Garcia Marquez's and Sartre's existential proposals, it would be to suggest that the revised lives morphed from one demanding season to the next are assumed for reasons greater than basic survival. The ultimate purpose of these adaptations and transformations is to construct a definitive identity able to bear the weight of its singular destiny. A time--such as the eve of the third-score summer of a life--arrives when you hope such an evolutionary synthesis has indeed occurred.
Born of Flesh and Fire
The labors undertaken to give rebirth to myself over and over again have been committed to ink in volumes of essays, memoir, poetry, and fiction. As, however, the third-score-sexagenarian chapter of my life's journey approaches, I keep thinking about and squirming over a discovery made while conducting research for a recently-completed book of creative nonfiction. It was the revelation that on the day in July when my mother gave birth to me at home in southeast Georgia the temperature hit 91 degrees Fahrenheit and two days later went up to 97 degrees. We were certifiably poor and air conditioning was not something found in most black folks’ homes back in those late 1950s days.
How strong were notions of compassion way back then? And what kind of differences did they make in people's lives?
You could say that I was born wedged between two overheated opposing conditions: one a culture of racism dedicated to maintaining my status as a second-class citizen, and the other a culture of resistance pulling in the opposite direction. That original mortal birth came at a time when black leaders were carefully weighing strategies for protesting the oppressive conditions that routinely snuffed out aspirations attached to black lives. Silent protests, voter registration drives, sit-ins, marches on Washington, economic boycotts, violent retaliation, and prayer, depending on the neighborhood and the strategists involved, were all on the proverbial table.
For some, exercising compassion towards those identified as persecutors was an essential component of many plans of action. Why? Because it was believed many of "them" were also victims: of political manipulations, economic deprivation, and institutionalized cultural bias propped up by over-exaggerated fears, hatred, and ignorance.
What kind of difference could adherence to a code of compassion make to my chances for surviving a period in U.S. history when black men and women (mostly the males) were shot and killed, at least as frequently as they have been from 2015-2017, but without the benefit of social media to immediately publicize their deaths?
An Operational Framework
Key figures among leaders and followers insisted we look beyond how the dynamics of racism impacted a single group of people. They implored us, if we could survive long enough, to view it as an operational framework. Through such a perspective, we theoretically could make a substantial contribution to the refinement of American democracy and to the elevation of the world community's moral consciousness.
That was a very tall order for someone bombarded daily with signs and laws proclaiming your inferiority and expendability as a human being. Successfully carrying it out, however, could mean becoming heroes of a kind. Or, put another way: by resisting the temptation to exchange mindless rage for mindless rage, we whose ancestors were victims of human trafficking rather than adventurous immigrants could further advance that great experiment in freedom started by the America's forefathers.
History, too, has a penchant for giving birth to itself over and over again, and those it appoints agents of change and progress do not always accept their destinies willingly.
Already available to us to were long-standing legacies of some of the greatest practitioners of compassion the world has known. The instinct to join with others in the midst of their suffering to help bear, heal, or transcend it had by then proven universal enough that every major religion and world culture could point to exemplars of the same. More were emerging as: Martin Luther King Jr. (1902-1968) worked to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and American citizens as a whole prepared to grapple with a decade in which cultural norms and legal standards pertaining to racial equality, military campaigns, women's rights, sexuality, and economic disparity would meet with unprecedented challenges.