Sunday, July 8, 2018

Lessons from Shug Avery and Miss Celie: What to Do With This Rage


                       



                       



Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God.But he ain't. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don't want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it. ~ Miss Celie

For twenty-five years I have returned to this scene from Alice Walker's The Color Purple for solace, particularly at times of low faith and pure despair. I read it when I find myself suffering spiritually, especially as it concerns humans hurting other humans -- often purposefully. The scene cuts to the heart of much of my grief over my powerlessness to save myself or anyone else from pain generated by oppressive acts of violence, violence perpetrated by Shug Avery's "Man", trauma defined as natural disaster, fire/explosion, transportation accident, work, home, or recreational accident, toxic substance exposure, physical assault, assault with a weapon, sexual assault, other unwanted sexual experience, combat or war exposure, captivity, illness or injury, severe human suffering, sudden accidental death, sudden violent death, injury, harm, or death [we] cause.

Not included in this list drawn from the article,
Trauma-Exposed Community-Dwelling Women and Men Respond Similarly to the DAR-5 Anger Scale: Factor Structure Invariance and Differential Item Functioning, is government response to and complicity in these traumas. Witnessing those ostensibly charged with protecting populations from human suffering initiate, profit from and callously turn a blind eye to the pain of those we love must qualify as another form of trauma. It feels like torture. But for American "Man" (and define him as you choose) torturing black women is not new. Neither is America initiating, profiting from or turning a blind eye to the pain of vast swaths of other humans. What is new, however, is the ubiquitous broadcast of a shameless exercise of violent power against populations who have historically been othered by American Man. Every two weeks a different group takes it turn at a whipping post. Disturbing images dominate the nation, and more importantly our minds. All of this is no less than traumatic for anyone with a conscience. It is everywhere and inescapable. No matter how expert our attempts to try to protect ourselves from obvious abuse through avoidance and selective engagement, there he is, invading our consciousnesses, as if he were God and we have no choice but to respond to his power.

For me, a black woman in America, the overt televised abuse began when Barack Obama began to present as a possible winner of the 2008 Presidential election. It intensified logically as he took the reigns of power. Media mainstreamed racial and cultural insults. Radicalized peoples took hit after hit. Police lynchings of black men and boys increased in number but that Obama became President offered a bit of salve. We endured for the sake of progress. But then he began to disappoint, appearing to offer appeasement to our torturers and through compromising over health care, deportations and the ways he spoke to and about us. And we realized the salve a false remedy that insulted our understanding of ourselves and our needs from our government. So, the abuse we endured profited us little. But we endured it nevertheless. Though proud we were, we became more angry, especially as we watched him turn flips to satisfy folks who despised him because he was born.

For years I failed to internalize Walker's last line, "Every time I conjure a up a rock, I throw it."

I imagine the state of relative innocence before the Nazi's rose.

But that was yesterday, and today Shug and Celie instructs me through my vacillations between determination, surrender, and rage.

At this point in the novel Miss Celie has begun her rejection of the status quo. She's ready to respond to a life of beatings and rapes and verbal denigration and sudden loss and toil and fracture and alienation. Shug Avery has an answer for her -- it's in the trees -- but Celie's not ready to hear it. She has never fought; has been cowed all her life and at this point begins to resurrect the spirit with which she was born by picking up the imaginary -- a weapon generated by her own mind. She has to. She has no choice. Bubbling to surface is the anger within her -- a rage distilled not only by her experience in the world but also her own blindness to its systemization, her acquiesce to it , and her complicity in it. (I think of her instructing Harpo to beat Miss Sophia).

No less than ten times this month I have listened to and watched friends and relatives and strangers break down in tears just before they describe a frightening state of rage. Rage I imagine rested dormant, but in thick layers, just below the skin's surface. I've heard accounts of explosive verbal exchanges and road rage and unyielding depression -- all from women, men and queer folk of color. Almost exclusively these behaviors are described shamefully as if they don't make sense. As if they are the result of some personal failing. But I have come to believe that the denial of one's abuse and one's genuine emotional response to it are and have been the most effective tools in the imperial arsenal. (I think of abuse survivors who speak of their perpetrator's gaslight: the abuser works endlessly to convince the abused of their complicity in their abuse, thereby guaranteeing silence and continued submission).

And those of us who have survived America have practiced this art masterfully. We have been made to do it and when we fail, are blamed for our circumstance. (I think about the "escape from the hood" mythos. Why is it acceptable for us to watch entire communities in America and over the world, suffer and then celebrate those who "made it out" while ignoring the failure to address the American policies that induce one to leave one's home?)

This trickery couples well with an American Puritanical mythology that insists that even with "Man's" foot on our necks, we pull ourselves up. Get on with it. This attitude is further girded by some religious interpretations that insist that if we truly believe, we cannot feel anger. Bypass the emotion--though psychology and various other spiritual interpretations teach us this is impossible. Instead of addressing the source of our grief with clarity and strength and resolve, the way Dr. King and Sojourner Truth did -- the way Delores Huerta continues to do, we internalize our emotionality as faulty and seek all sorts of means to correct what has been made our problem. We do have to deal with the problem, however, we must also address the offense. I believe more and more that this is all our responsibility if we truly intend to live in a more just world.  

Shug Avery, who walked through the fire early, seeking to connect profoundly with her right to a peace in the trees, drops a good preacher's wisdom onto Celie's head. The conversations continue over time-- while Celie daily returns to the fire and tries to breathe. Her anger grows and as we know, she nearly slices Mr.___'s throat.

According to the above article published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, anger co-occurs with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) across various groups of traumatized individuals. Expression of this anger is not abnormal nor unexpected. But repression and non-recognition of it disallows treatment. The article further explains how the treatment of trauma -- which we all might agree as urgent to our survival -- must be specialized in its treatment of the anger that results from trauma.

I am frustrated by our culture's constant efforts to deny othered people's the right even to feel anger, as our oppressors concurrently express theirs, legitimate and not, ad infinitum. And I do not mean anger for anger's sake. But a healthy recognition of feelings and subsequently, the behaviors that accompany it. We cannot treat if we continue to hold it in our guts. It makes us sick and it eventually, surfaces, often sideways.

Aside:

While writing this, another Walker book opens of its own accord to the essay, "Only Justice Can Stop a Curse":

Earth is my home--though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe... I intend to protect my home. Praying -- not a curse -- only the hope my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save mankind. And we are not saved yet. Only justice can stop a curse.
~In Search of Our Mother's Gardens

Some days I think and feel and respond in ways I think Shug would approve. Some days, I am right there with Celie. Either way, like many, many others, I am still here working it out.


Somewhere in the distant trees I see a justice I imagine for the Earth and humankind.

Between here and the trees is ground where real people suffer and must be allowed to know they have a right to feel anger over centuries of abuse, including the gaslight. To walk through fire, we need encouragement instead of repression. We also need more lessons in how not to hurt each other while we feel the natural emotions God gave us to help us survive.

Miss Celia claimed her time and her space and eventually, ... took out toward the trees. 
While she struggled, Shug stood right beside her, holding, watching and perpetually directing her toward peace. 


Postscript: And what about in the meantime? What to do when overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and grief? I repeat what a wise person told me: Focus on doing work with which you are charged. We naturally want to relieve suffering, which is today, pandemic; but there are good willed, highly-qualified people in every field doing the work that we need. Highly qualified people doing their part for justice. Do yours, they told me, to your most excellent best.
I can teach and I can write.

Amen.


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