The Infirmary and the Gym

Living Your Faith, part 1

There’s a saying about the function of a congregation, I've mentioned before. The two-fold function of the congregation is:
to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
It sounds like two different things: comforting afflicted and afflicting comfortable. You might read this as separating the comfortable from the afflicted in much the same way the sheep are to be separated from the goats: the comfortable being the goats, are to be afflicted.

I don’t believe in a separation of people into sheep and goats. I resonate with Alexandre Solzhenitsyn who wrote:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
There’s no separating sheep from goats.

It’s not just that all of us are part sheep and part goat. The impossibility goes deeper than that. We can’t tell the difference between our own sheep parts and goat parts.

What we all are is: a bundle of competing drives and needs, and sometimes some of them need to be at the fore and sometimes others do, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at knowing which drives to attend to when, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at attending to those drives without collateral damage, so we make mistakes and cause harm to ourselves and others. There are no sheep and goats, and likewise no division into the afflicted and the comfortable.

I think what’s trying to be said is simply: Care about people.

Your congregation is not here to judge you as too comfortable and thus set out to afflict you in various ways. Your congregation is here for joy and peace – to learn about, to practice, to model, to embody, lives of joy and peace. As we go, we soon learn that caring, kindness, compassion -- love -- is at the center of joy and peace.

If you’re not living that way, then you’re not comfortable. This we know: as Benjamin Franklin put it,
“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.”
A person concerned only with their own protection and aggrandizement is a fundamentally unhappy person, never at ease, never comfortable. A certain public figure, perhaps, comes to mind: fundamentally unhappy, never at ease, never comfortable.

Your congregation is not out to afflict the comfortable. We are here to help each other care more, become kinder, less complacent and thereby grow more comfortable with ourselves and our world. Whether you are suffering from a general complacency or a specific grief, the path forward is the same: connect with people through compassionate service to others. Thus there is no two-fold function for a congregation, but a single function, which takes thousands of forms.

Another way the idea of a two-fold function is sometimes expressed is to say congregations have a pastoral function and a prophetic function. The pastoral is care and guidance for grief, loss, and heartache. The prophetic is a reference to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, et al. The traditional meaning of prophet is one who speaks for God, or by divine inspiration, to guide the people of Israel. Unitarian Universalism has been particularly influenced by strands of thought that view these prophets primarily in their role as social critics. The prophets were the ones who called out injustice – who spoke truth to power – who urged the people (particularly the powerful) to change their ways and turn away from evil.

I once characterized the pastoral and prophetic as the infirmary and the gym. In its pastoral function, the congregation is a spiritual infirmary. When you come here sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited, the congregation provides care, sustenance, replenishing rest to help you get better. In its prophetic function, the congregation is a spiritual gymnasium. Here we offer each other the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. We’re here to work out together.

Both the infirmary and the gym are concerned with health, as the congregation is concerned with spiritual health, so, again, there’s ultimately one function – though good health requires both rest, on the one hand, and exercise, on the other.

Throughout western religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – theologians and faith leaders have also grappled with and sometimes promoted another model: call it the insurance policy. On the insurance policy model, congregational life is your insurance that God is on your side -- that, as one insurance company advertises, you’re in good hands. You will be provided for on earth – and, afterwards, heaven. You pay your premiums by giving assent to doctrines and tithing to a congregation and when the time of need comes, God will issue the check to cover your need.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Living Your Faith"


Voting and Belongingness

Why do we vote? I mean, those of us who do.

I'll begin with something that appears completely different: the case of a German rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. From there, we move to the broader question of Kantian fantasy -- and from there to our popular rationales for voting, and why they miss the point.

Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (originally published 1955) includes a story of a German who says,
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,...if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
Empirically, this is untrue. The man's decision to refuse the oath would not have caused anyone else to refuse the oath. The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. If I enter my voting booth and decide to vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, changing my mind from what I told (or would have told) the pollster the day before, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. Moral decisions made in the individual isolation of conscience are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated.

"Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!" telegrammed labor organizer Joe Hill in the days before his 1915 execution on false charges. Hill understood that mass movements that bring real change require organization. One person's strong faith doesn't strengthen anyone else's faith unless there is an organized effort to frame and disseminate a certain story about that person. Case in point: Hill's own faith mattered because the story of that faith became the rallying cry, "Don't mourn -- Organize!"

The German man's reasoning adhered precisely to the ethics of his country's philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that the "categorical imperative" was to "so act that the maxim of your actions may be willed a universal law for all." When considering a choice, Kant is saying, we should ask ourselves, "what if everyone did that?" Kant seems to have mostly had in mind bad consequences. If everyone lied, or murdered, then society would be destroyed -- no one could wish for a world in which everyone lied constantly or murdered even occasionally -- therefore, we should not lie or murder. The man in our story is imagining a good consequence: if everyone had refused the oath, Nazism would have collapsed. Either way, it is a fantasy to imagine that "the maxim of your action" could become a "universal law for all" -- or even a regional law for a few. So whether the imagined consequences be good or bad, what we're seeing is ethical reasoning via Kantian fantasy.

As long as we recognize Kantian fantasy as an ethical exercise and don't make the mistake of imagining that mass movements really will form around our example, Kant's fantasy is sometimes helpful. Asking ourselves, "What if everyone did that?" isn't the only question worth asking in an ethical context, but it is one of the questions. The empirical utilitarian question, "What will actually be the results of my action, to the best of my ability to predict?" -- and the question of calling, "What is it that I, and I alone, am called to bring to the world?" -- are very different but also worthwhile questions to consider.

Let us now consider the matter of voting. Here's a case where the arguments encouraging people to vote tend to indulge Kantian fantasy. The individual voter is asked to imagine that her vote matters because if lots of other people followed her example then it would matter. The nonvoters who could have voted tend to be poorer, younger, and disproportionately people of color. If they voted in larger numbers, then more Democrats would win more elections. But from the standpoint of a single individual deciding whether to go to the bother, it is Kantian fantasy to imagine that her decision will have any effect on a significant portion of everybody else.

An NPR story this morning asked why so many Americans don't vote. (SEE HERE.)

Let us not ignore the fact that, as the NPR piece points out, "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems (or, for the party that benefits from suppressed turn-out, true and real solutions).

Still, many nonvoters could vote. They just don't. Here are some excerpts from the story:
"Some are apathetic or too busy. Others don't like their choices, they don't think their vote matters, they think the system is corrupt, or they don't think they know enough to vote....Megan Davis, the 31-year-old massage therapist in Rhode Island, never votes, and she's proud of her record. 'I feel like my voice doesn't matter,' she said on a recent evening at a park in East Providence, R.I. 'People who suck still are in office, so it doesn't make a difference.'....Tammy Lester, a 42-year-old fast food worker in McDowell County, W.Va., can't remember the last time she voted. 'We vote these people in and they don't help McDowell County,' she said, as she walked along the deserted streets in the rundown downtown with her daughter. 'There's nothing...there's no jobs when our kids graduate, they have to leave....What good does it do, though, when they'll promise you anything and then it's a lie?'....'I just don't think my vote matters,' said Josh Mullins, as he pushed a stroller along the street in McDowell County. The last time Mullins, a 33-year-old unemployed former restaurant worker, remembers voting was in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Nowadays, he sees no point, saying the system overrules what people want....Many analysts predicted that Donald Trump's offensive rhetoric about Latinos would mobilize records numbers of Latino voters in 2016, but turnout remained relatively even with 2012. 'You may be upset about somebody like Donald Trump and what you're hearing,' said Romero. 'But if you don't see how or why...politicians and the political landscape matters for you...you don't think you have agency.'"
Included in the audio of this story, but not in the on-line print version of the story, is a brief interview with a nonvoter named Raymond Taylor, who explains that his vote won't matter because his state is a red state anyway. The reporter goes on to add,
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country. If you look at turnout from 2016 you'll notice that some of the states that had the highest turnout were places where the margin of victory was less than five percent."
All of these rationales for nonvoting are perfectly rational and true. But did you catch that brief aside -- so minor a point that it didn't make it into the print version online? Raymond Taylor voted in 2008, because he wanted to be part of history. He wanted to be part of something. Something bigger than himself. He wanted to add meaning to his life by placing it in the context of something as large as "history." Voting didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, he voted.

We don't vote to make a difference. Manifestly, as individuals, we don't make a detectable difference. Even in an incredibly close race, decided by only a few hundred votes, my decision to vote will not make even a few hundred others also vote. We vote -- those of us who do -- because we feel we are a part of something bigger than our ourselves. Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection. It places the meaning of our lives in a larger context, joins us with something bigger.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters Megan Davis and Tammy Lester and Josh Mullins expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't. But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection.

Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote.

Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens.


That "Letting Go" Sigh

Asking myself: What exactly do we do when we "let go"?

It occurs to me that: We sigh. Sighing is the physical correlate of letting go. Or is it?

I gave Science a call. Science and I chat regularly. She is particularly keen to bend my ear about climate change -- and she has quite persuaded me that the matter is indeed urgent -- but she is also happy to chat about lots of other things. About sighing, Science says that a sigh is a fundamental life-sustaining reflex. It’s not just a sign of frustration or despair. “A control system in the brain keeps humans sighing about a dozen times an hour,” says Science.

Apparently our lungs have tiny sacs called alveoli, and regular breaths don’t inflate them fully. They need periodic full inflation to stay healthy, so we have a control system that tells us to take some deeper breaths from time to time -- like, about every 5 minutes. Most of the time we don’t notice that we’ve sighed.

“So, Science,” I says, “when I’m going about my work, I’m not thinking about my breathing much – which is great, because I have other things I need to be thinking about. So I'm happy to have an unconscious control system handle the breathing. But when I’m meditating, my breath is very regular – and also each breath is a little deeper, I think, than regular breaths. I don’t sigh when I’m meditating – and I know because I’m paying attention to my breathing at that time.”

Science said, “Well, but you do sometimes sigh during meditation.”

And I had to admit that, it’s true, my meditation isn’t always totally focused. My mind may get to wandering, and thinking about something sad, or the items on my to-do list, and then I’ll sigh. And I’ll notice that I’ve sighed – which reminds me to refocus. But there are also days when a 25-minute sit goes by without any sighing. Is that because I’m taking somewhat slower-and-deeper-than-regular breaths, and that’s enough to keep the alveoli happy? Science said, “I don’t know.” (Science says this a lot.) “We need more research,” added Science. (Science also says this a lot.) “But I will point out,” added Science, “that when the timer bell rings to end your 25-minute sit, the first thing you do is take a somewhat deeper breath.”

Good point, Science.

The occasional slightly heavier breath aside, none of this addresses the association of sighing with, you know, the usual associations: exasperation, regret, despair. These are the real sighs – not merely somewhat heavier breaths that happen 12 times an hour, but long, audible (especially on the exhale) breaths. What’s going on with that?

My hypothesis is that the especially heavy breath gets more oxygen into your blood stream, which helps you relax AND LET GO of whatever the issue is. Something problematic comes to your attention. Can you do anything about it – or, more to the point, will you be doing anything about it immediately? If so, your body gears up to spring into action. You might take a deep breath before taking the plunge, but this is not a sigh (the exhale doesn’t come out all at once). If not, then your body may want to sigh just to help it relax. A sigh is the letting go of anxiety about a situation that you're not going to take action to change right away. The sigh is fundamentally a device for letting go.

“What do you think, Science?” I asked when I had finished explaining my hypothesis. Science didn’t say anything. But I’m pretty sure I heard her sigh.



Dear "Spiritual But Not Religious" person,

I'm encouraged by the interest in spirituality -- in spiritual growth and development. There are lots of ways to walk a spiritual path: books, classes, spiritual directors and counselors, practices you can undertake by yourself, guided by a teacher, or books, or youtube videos.

Even without intentional cultivation of spirituality -- without any books, classes, counselors, teachers, or videos -- "being spiritual" might just mean that you're open to, and value, those intimations of wonder and peace when they come: seeing a sunset, hiking in the woods, or strolling on a beach, say.

My path happens to be more the intentional kind. I find that following some disciplines helps me be open to wonder. My path also includes congregational life as a central aspect.

Congregational life brings some unique features to one's spirituality. Some of these features may not be all that attractive -- so I can understand a decision to be "Spiritual But Not Religious" (where "not religious" means "not participating in a congregation"). For better and for worse, congregational life includes these five features you generally won't find on other paths of spiritual development:

1. Self-governance: involvement with committees; democratic participation in, and approval of, the budget process; deliberating about policies, procedures, bylaws; creating and leading programs. Yoga classes or sessions with a spiritually oriented therapist don't include giving you a role in running the institution. I know that the prospect of being on a committee may not be very appealing. For me, spiritual community that is run by the seekers themselves offers a unique level of richness, meaning, and connection. The activities of self-governance form an inseparable and integral part of my path of growth and deepening.

2. Group Identity and Belonging. Again, this may not be much of a selling point for you. In fact, the “tribalism” of religious groups may be a big part of what turns you off about "religion." I have found, nevertheless, deep satisfaction from being a member of the Unitarian Universalist “tribe.” Belongingness in a community of care and concern is a deep human need. Many such communities -- including Unitarian Universalist ones -- work at mitigating the negative, insular aspects that some communities develop. We want to ensure our identity as “UUs” doesn’t exclude other identities. UU Christians, UU atheists, UU Buddhists, UU pagans, UU Jews, UU Humanists, and others, all find belonging as Unitarian Universalists.

3. Family membership. Adults and their children share in congregational life. The concept of family involvement in a faith institution -- belonging together as a family rather than as separate individuals -- is an integral feature of congregational life. You don't get that with a spiritual counselor or a yoga class.

4. Caring for each other. Call it shared pastoral ministry: the love and care that congregation members show to other members – building friendships in church, visiting each other for social occasions and when one of us is sick. These things will naturally happen among a circle of friends, but congregational life affords the chance to have a bigger circle. It’s nice to care and be cared about by people that know you well. Caring and being cared about by group members that may not (yet) know you all that well adds a rewarding layer of meaning to life.

5. Social justice action as a faith community. You don’t have to be in a congregation to work for social justice, but in congregations justice and spirituality are integrated. This may not be so true in some denominations, but it tends to be the Unitarian Universalist way. Working with fellow congregants on justice projects is an essential part of our spiritual path.

I find these to be essential components of a rich and empowering life. That's why I choose to be Spiritual and Religious.


Good Women, Bad Women

There was something telling in one word, a mere conjunction, buried in a sentence in the 19th paragraph of an article in this morning's New York Times. Under the headline, "The Daughter of a Maverick Goes to Battle" [it has a different title online], the Katie Rogers' article began:
"As Meghan McCain delivered a eulogy for her father on Saturday, she was at times too grief-stricken to catch her breath. As she described his sickness from brain cancer or his love for her, she struggled to look up at a crowd full of boldface Washington establishment figures who had gathered at National Cathedral. But as Ms. McCain shared one of her father’s dying directives — “Show them how tough you are” — her voice stopped wavering. The warrior’s daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle."
I love that description. I went and watched Meghan McCain's full eulogy on Youtube, and I loved that too. Yes, I'm certainly ambivalent about glorifying warriors and violence, but warrior metaphors -- evoking, outside of contexts of violence, a determined and fierce resolve to represent or defend ideals one sees as more important than one's own life -- can powerfully move me.

Later in the article is the word I want to invite us to reflect on -- and it has no direct connection to the eulogy itself. (So, fair warning: the topic of this post is about to drastically change. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, in case some of my readers don't know: I'm a man.) The word at issue comes as the article moves to reviewing Meghan McCain's various political views -- as expressed on "The View" and in her writings -- and notes that she
"has long confounded Republicans who say they cannot easily suss out her beliefs, and she has frustrated Democrats who want to believe that she is secretly one of them."
Offered as an illustration of a position that confounds or frustrates is this sentence:
"She has said that abortion is tantamount to murder, but has been a proponent of sex education and birth control."
The perplexing word here is the conjunction "but." "But" indicates that the bit before (saying "that abortion is murder") and the bit after (being "a proponent of sex education and birth control") run contrary to each other. This is false. If you think that abortion is murder, then of course you would be in favor of what reduces the number of abortions -- birth control and sex education. Nothing could be less contrary to an opinion of the wrongness of X than support for steps that mitigate X. Right?

In terms of the rhetoric of partisan divide in this country, however, one cannot fault journalist Katie Rogers for this use of "but." She is correct in her assumption that "abortion is tantamount to murder" is language associated with one party and that support for birth control and sex education is associated with the other party. So Ms. McCain's position, cast solely in terms of party orthodoxy, does have one bit that runs contrary to another bit. I get that. But this begs the question: how did party orthodoxy get so crazy?

In particular, what is going on in the psyches of people who are so horrified by women's reproductive choice that they seek to . . . ? oh! I see it now. They seek to restrict women's reproductive choice because they are horrified by women's reproductive choice. Duh.

Of course, this is not what supporters of banning abortion say. They don't come out and say that they are against reproductive choice tout court. Rather, they draw a distinction between reproductive choice before conception (which is fine) and reproductive choice after conception (which is murder). But if this is really what they think, then why the opposition to measures to ensure reproductive choice before conception -- i.e., sex education and access to birth control?

I don't know. I suspect they don't know either. (None of us understands very much of our own motivations, and others can often see them better that we ourselves can.) My guess is that they really are, despite what they say, uncomfortable with reproductive choice tout court -- whether before or after conception. Here's how I think that works.

There's a moral narrative about "good women" and "bad women." There are many variations on this narrative -- and they usually include some internal contradictions when unpacked -- but a common thread is that good women don't get pregnant outside of marriage. Pregnancy and motherhood are the appropriate consequence for bad women: either as a punishment for being sexually active, or as a way to bring them under control (subdue them into the domesticity of child-rearing), or both. It's offensive that bad women would be allowed to "gallivant around" (i.e., be sexually active in a way that is acceptable in men), yet continue, between liaisons, to carry on their lives "acting" as if they were good women. The social order requires that the bad women be clearly demarcated -- and if they don't get pregnant, how can they be identified? That these "hussies" would get to "parade" around as if they were "normal, virtuous" women is intolerable. Women themselves sometimes pick up on this narrative, and, seeking to prove themselves to be among the good women, or adopting a device for condemning a female rival for a man's loyalty, become reinforcers and perpetrators of the narrative. Hence the proportion of women that support an abortion ban is only slightly lower than the proportion of men who do.

There are also class and race aspects to the narrative. Poverty is itself a moral failure, according to the narrative, and dark skin an indicator of suspect morality, so poor and darker women are in particular need of moral policing. That is, wealthier and paler women may be allowed more sexual freedom because they are basically good women. Their virtue entitles them to a certain gallivanting -- just as wealth entitles them to a more expensive car (or a car at all) to use in the process. Part of what's going on is that the spectacle of poorer and darker women being as free as wealthier and whiter women is difficult to abide.

When you have a moral narrative so powerfully at work, all the attention is on the moral judgment. Empirical facts are beside the point. Standing upright against moral evil is important -- conducting and paying attention to research on what will actually, in fact, reduce that evil is not important. Thus, it's irrelevant that empirical findings show that sex education and access to birth control reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and thus reduce the number of abortions. The important thing is to stand against evil, not to reduce it.

We don't always know what the elements of our moral revulsion are. Studies have found that moral revulsion is tied to sensory revulsion: people standing next to a smelly trash can, for instance, express harsher condemnation of, say, first-cousin marriage. So I imagine that revulsion against images of fetal dismemberment is part of the picture among proponents of an abortion ban. I have a negative reaction to those images, too. But, for me, positive associations with images of fierce and independent women (e.g. "the warrior's daughter steeled herself, drew her eyes up and stepped into battle", or, say, Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech) are stronger. I don't doubt that pro-ban folks truly are horrified by fetal death. But I think that horror is significantly boosted by an underlying and often unconscious horror at women's, especially poor and darker-skinned women's, sexual freedom.

How does one get to a place of moral outrage while not caring about what would reduce the purported evil? In this case, one arrives there from a sense that the evil is not, or isn't just, the purported one (abortion). The deeper evil is the prospect of women being free and in control of their own sexual and reproductive lives.

Why else would "but" be the conjunction between "has said that abortion is tantamount to murder" and "has been a proponent of sex education and birth control"?


Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 3

Amid the women’s world of clothes to wash, food to cook, Nikki's poems voice a recurrent theme of loneliness. With chores that don’t end, and relationships that do end, the celebration of strength and the saving grace of family and community do not save us from getting lonely, too, sometimes.


there is a hunger
often associated with pain
that you feel
when you look at someone
you used to love and enjoyed
loving and want
to love again
though you know you can’t
that gnaws at you
steadily as a mosquito
some michigan summer
churning his wings
through your window screen
because the real world
made up of baby clothes to be washed
food to be cooked
lullabies to be sung
smiles to be plaited
ribbons to be bowed
coffee to be drunk
books to be read
tears to be cried
loneliness to be borne
says you are a strong woman
and anyway he never thought you’d really miss him
* * * 

In “Boxes,” Giovanni expresses fatigue with the boxes of race and gender – and with the box of being strong, and even with the box of being poet. She writes, she says, because she has to. This reminds me to advice that is given to young people thinking about a career in the arts. Don’t do it unless you have to, someone might tell them. Indeed, twenty years ago when I was considering becoming a minister, I went to see my minister to ask whether she thought I should – and that’s what she said: Don’t do it unless you have to.

Well, I had to. Discernment of an inner compulsion validates a calling. But sometimes it’s just a box that we’re tired of. Sometimes we wish we didn’t have to.


i am in a box
on a tight string
subject to pop
without notice

everybody says how strong
i am

only black women
and white men
are truly free
they say

it’s not difficult to see
how stupid they are

i would not reject
my strength
though its source
is not choice
but responsibility

i would not reject my light
though my wrinkles are also illuminated

something within demands
or words
if action is not possible

i am tired
of being boxed
muhammad ali must surely be pleased
that leon spinks relieved him

most of the time
i can’t breathe
i smoke too much
to cover my fears
sometimes i pick
my nose to avoid
the breath i need

i do also do the same
injustice to my poems

i write because
i have to
* * *

The paradox is, the very boxes that make one tired are also the ones that give us identity. In the case of a black woman, it may be a prison in some ways. But she is determined to make that prison an identity to embrace and celebrate. It’s a delicate line to walk, a constant paradox to negotiate: To see clearly the wrong of racism and sexism, to be adamant and militant about overthrowing it – while at the same time honoring and celebrating the identity that racism and sexism created.

Poem (for Nina)

we are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins
and some of us have said so be it
if i am in jail my castle shall become
my rendezvous
my courtyard will bloom with hyacinths and jack-in-the-pulpits
my moat will not restrict me but will be filled
with dolphins sitting on lily pads and sea horses ridden by starfish
goldfish will make love
to Black mollies and color my world Black Gold
the vines entwining my windows will grow butterflies
and yellow jackets will buzz me to sleep
the dwarfs imprisoned will not become my clowns
for me to scorn but my dolls for me to praise and fuss
with and give tea parties to
my gnomes will spin cloth of spider web silkness
my wounded chocolate soldiers will sit in evening coolness
or stand gloriously at attention during that midnight sun
for I would have no need of day patrol
if I am imprisoned in my skin let it be a dark world
with deep bass walking a witch doctor to me for spiritual
let my world be defined by my skin and the skin of my people
for we spirit to spirit will embrace
this world
* * *

Nikki Giovanni is a professor of English at Virginia Tech, as I mentioned. As of 2007, she’d been on the faculty there for 20 years. A student in one of her poetry classes was Seung-Hui Cho. She found him overtly menacing and mean. She went to her department chair to have him taken out of her class. She said she’d resign rather than keep teaching a class with him in it. Then in April that year: the Virginia Tech shooting. When she first heard of the shooting, Giovanni immediately suspected Cho – which turned out to be correct.

Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on April 16, 2007. The Virginia Tech president asked Giovanni to speak at a campus convocation the next day. The chant poem she delivered to close the ceremony spoke to the horror, and also contextualized it. As she has done her whole long writing career, she faced tragedy frankly and found within it, identity and hope.

We Are Virginia Tech
We are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and
we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech.
We do not understand this tragedy.
We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS,
neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army,
neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory,
neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized.
No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech.
The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds.
We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.
We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.
* * *

Fourteen years earlier, in 1993, Giovanni had also evoked hope amid tragedy – the tragedy of slavery and the ongoing oppression of racism – when she spoke at the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon. A new day is always beginning. 

But Since You Finally Asked
No one asked us -- what we thought of Jamestown -- in 1619 -- they didn’t even say -- ”Welcome” -- ”You’re Home” -- or even a pitiful -- ”I’m sorry -- but we just can’t make it -- without you” -- No -- No one said a word -- They just snatched our drums -- separated us by language and gender -- and put us on blocks -- where our beauty -- like our dignity -- was ignored.

No one said a word -- in 1776 -- to us about Freedom -- The rebels wouldn’t pretend -- the British lied -- We kept to a space -- where we owned our souls -- since we understood -- another century would pass -- before we owned our bodies -- But we raised our voices -- in a mighty cry -- to the Heavens above -- for the strength to endure.

No one says -- ”What I like about your people” -- then ticks off the wonder of the wonderful things -- we’ve given -- Our song to God, Our strength to the Earth -- our unfailing belief in forgiveness -- I know what I like about us -- is that we let no one turn us around -- not then -- not now -- we plant our feet -- on higher ground -- I like who we were -- and who we are -- and since someone has asked -- let me say; I am proud to be a Black American -- I am proud that my people laboured honestly -- with forbearance and dignity -- I am proud that we believe -- as no other people do -- that all are equal in His sight -- We didn’t write a constitution -- we live one -- We didn’t say “We the People” -- we are one -- We didn’t have to add -- as an after-thought -- ”Under God” -- We turn our faces to the rising sun -- knowing -- a New Day -- is always – beginning
* * *
See also
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 1
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 2


Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 2

Nikki Giovanni's celebration of black women was accompanied by a celebration of black men. “Beautiful Black Men” appeared in her second book, Black Judgment. The second came out in in 1968, just a few months after her first book, Black Feeling Black Talk, and, like the first, the second was self-published. "Beautiful Black Men" mentions activities which we might judge unsavory -- but the poem reminds us that these activities, too, are carried out by human beings manifesting their beauty in all that they are and do.

Beautiful Black Men
(With compliments and apologies to all not mentioned by name)

i wanta say just gotta say something
bout those beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight
black men
with they afros
walking down the street
is the same ol danger
but a brand new pleasure

sitting on stoops, in bars, going to offices
running numbers, watching for their whores
preaching in churches, driving their hogs
walking their dogs, winking at me
in their fire red, lime green, burnt orange
royal blue tight tight pants that hug
what i like to hug

jerry butler, wilson pickett, the impressions
temptations, mighty mighty sly
don't have to do anything but walk
on stage
and i scream and stamp and shout
see new breed men in breed alls
dashiki suits with shirts that match
the lining that compliments the ties
that smile at the sandals
where dirty toes peek at me
and i scream and stamp and shout
for more beautiful beautiful beautiful
black men with outasight afros
* * *
Along with the celebrations of womanhood -- and manhood -- Nikki's poetry includes frank indictments of the way that gender is constructed: the demands placed on women, the enforced domesticity, and the double-standards used to judge and dismiss women’s poetry – the assumption that anything a person of color says must necessarily be unimportant. "A Poem Off Center" appeared in Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978).

A Poem Off Center

how do poets write
so many poems
my poems get decimated
in the dishes the laundry
my sister is having another crisis
the bed has to be made
there is a blizzard on the way go to the grocery store
did you go to the cleaners
then a fuse blows
a fuse always has to blow
the women soon find themselves
talking either to babies or about them
no matter how careful we are
we end up giving tips
on the latest new improved cleaner
and the lotion that will take the smell away

if you write a political poem
you’re anti semitic
if you write a domestic poem
you’re foolish
if you write a happy poem
you’re unserious
if you write a love poem
you’re maudlin
of course the only real poem
to write
is the go to hell writing establishment poem
but the readers never know who
you’re talking about which brings us back
to point one

i feel i think sorry for the women
they have no place to go
it’s the same old story blacks
hear all the time
if it’s serious a white man
would do it
when it’s serious
he will
everything from writing a
to sweeping the streets
to cooking the food
as long as his family doesn’t
eat it

it’s a little off center
this life we’re leading
maybe i shouldn’t feel sorry
for myself
but the more i understand
the more i do
* * *
Born in 1943, Nikki Giovanni celebrated her 75th birthday a couple months ago, on June 7. Through her late-20s, 1968 through 1972, poems were pouring out of her. Those were the years that saw publication of four books: Black Feeling Black Talk (1968), Black Judgment (1968), Re: Creation (1970), and My House (1972). She gained fame those years as a foremost author in the Black Arts Movement, offering a strong and militant voice for Black Liberation. She’s been called the Poet of the Black Revolution.

I mentioned that Giovanni speaks with both righteous anger and tender joy. In “The Great Pax Whitie” -- from Black Judgment (1968) -- the anger at America’s persistent and destructive racism is in full voice. The title evokes the “Pax Romana” – the Roman Peace, during which areas under Roman control were taxed and subject to Roman military control. There was a kind of peace, but no independence, no liberty. It was peace through suppression and oppression. The White empire parallels in that regard the Roman Empire. 

The Great Pax Whitie
In the beginning was the word
And the word was
And the word was nigger
And the word was death to all niggers
And the word was death to all life
Andthe word was death to all
peace be still

The genesis was life
The genesis was death
In the genesis of death
Was the genesis of war
be still peace be still

In the name of peace
They waged the wars
ain’t they got no shame

In the name of peace
Lot’s wife is now a product of the Morton company
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Noah packing his wife and kiddies up for a holiday
row row row your boat
But why’d you leave the unicorns, noah
Huh? why’d you leave them
While our Black Madonna stood there
Eighteen feet high holding Him in her arms
Listening to the rumblings of peace
be still be still

He wanted to know
And peter only asked who is that dude?
Who is that Black dude?
Looks like a troublemaker to me
And the foundations of the mighty mighty
Ro Man Cat holic church were laid

hallelujah Jesus
nah, they ain’t got no shame

Cause they killed the Carthaginians
in the great appian way
And they killed the Moors
“to civilize a nation”
And they just killed the earth
And blew out the sun
In the name of a god
Whose genesis was white
And war wooed god
And america was born
Where war became peace
And genocide patriotism
And honor is a happy slave
cause all god’s chillun need rhythm
And glory hallelujah why can’t peace
be still

The great emancipator was a bigot
ain’t they got no shame
And making the world safe for democracy
Were twenty millon slaves
nah, they ain’t got no shame

And they barbecued six million
To raise the price of beef
And crossed the 38th parallel
To control the price of rice
ain’t we never gonna see the light

And champagne was shipped out of the East
While kosher pork was introduced
To Africa
Only the torch can show the way

In the beginning was the deed
And the deed was death

And the honkies are getting confused
peace be still

So the great white prince
Was shot like a nigger in texas
And our Black shining prince was murdered
like that thug in his cathedral
While our nigger in memphis
was shot like their prince in dallas
And my lord
ain’t we never gonna see the light
The rumblings of this peace must be stilled
be stilled be still

ahh Black people
ain’t we got no pride?
* * *
Nikki Giovanni never married. She is the mother of one child, Thomas Watson Giovanni, born in 1969, which probably had something to do with the fact that she began writing children’s literature in the 1970s. Aside from organizing and parenting and writing, Nikki Giovanni is an English professor. She’s taught at Queens College, Rutgers, and Ohio State. For the last 30 years, since 1987, she’s taught at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

She’s expressed the anger of the nation’s injustices, as we’ve seen. Giovanni’s poems can also pause to take delight in simple pleasures. And those pleasures, in turn, become a metaphor for the affirming and nurturing power of community and family and love. "Winter Poem" appeared in My House (1972)

Winter Poem
once a snowflake fell
on my brow and i loved
it so much and i kissed
it and it was happy and called its cousins
and brothers and a web
of snow engulfed me then
i reached to love them all
and i squeezed them and they became
a spring rain and i stood perfectly
still and was a flower
* * *
Yet that web that waters us into bloom can then turn around and constrain. Women are expected to fill positions of service and support – passively waiting for a fulfillment that never comes. "All I Gotta Do" is from Re: Creation (1970).

All I Gotta Do

all i gotta do
is sit and wait
sit and wait
and it's gonna find
all i gotta do
is sit and wait
if i can learn how

what i need to do
is sit and wait
cause i'm a woman
sit and wait
what i gotta do
is sit and wait
cause i'm a woman
it'll find me

you get yours
and i'll get mine
if i learn
to sit and wait
you got yours
i want mine
and i'm gonna get it
cause i gotta get it
cause i need to get it
if i learn how

thought about calling
for it on the phone
asked for a delivery
but they didn't have it
thought about going
to the store to get it
walked to the corner
but they didn't have it

called your name
in my sleep
sitting and waiting
thought you would awake me
called your name
lying in my bed
but you didn't have it
offered to go get it
but you didn't have it
so i'm sitting

all i know
is sitting and waiting
waiting and sitting
cause i'm a woman
all i know
is sitting and waiting
cause i gotta wait
wait for it to find
* * *
See also:
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 1
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 3