“We cease to be haunted when we cease to be afraid of making what has been untouchable, real. Especially our understandings of the past; and especially those we wronged or were wronged by; or those we did not help. We become real by forgiving ourselves and we forgive ourselves by changing the foundational pattern, and especially to changing our present behavior to those we have hurt.” –David Whyte Consolations
After praising David Whyte yesterday, I promised a reflection on a chapter in his book and here it is. Let’s start with the idea of haunting. Years back, my colleagues James and Sofia and I visited a plantation. I was fascinated by how they would spin the story of slavery and it definitely was an odd mix. The books they were selling would say things like “Slavery was bad. And here’s the room where the mistress made a list of the day’s chores.” The tour guide mostly focused on a story about the ghosts in the house, a slave who was a mistress to the master, poisoned his wife’s food and then got caught and of course, killed. My colleague Sofia wisely noted that they were focusing on this particular story of haunting to distract us from the real story, about how the whole country was haunted by 400 years of brutality that we never have properly atoned for and thus, the wandering spirits of restless souls can be felt everywhere, from the tourist plantation to the New York City ghetto.
We love to watch all the occult movies about ghosts, are fascinated by it and fail to note the deeper story of the sins our ancestors committed that have been deemed untouchable, unspeakable by mainstream culture. And thus, all we wronged and all we did not help are still waiting for us to speak what needs to be spoken before they can rest in peace. When it comes to things like the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of West Africans, we can’t forgive ourselves too easily with surface consolations that we didn’t do it and “thank goodness things are so much better now.” We indeed must hear the unspoken stories, feel the grief, look for rituals of reconciliations (The Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa were a good step in that direction, the apology from the Australian government to the Aborigines another worthy model) and most importantly, “change the foundational pattern, change our present behavior.” The recent epidemic of police slaying of young black men who are then absolved of the crime is a sure sign that such atonement has still not happened and more haunting will continue on to the next generation.
My entry into all of this is my 8th grade jazz history class, where I enter the stories through the filter of jazz and it’s brutal and triumphant history. I’m thinking about writing a book titled: Stormy Weather: Social Justice, Music Education and American Musicals. Intriguing? My theory is that if every American child were mandated to take a course on the American Musical seen through the eyes of the unspoken not only told, but sung, danced and played, that we could finally claim the full measure of our identity— acknowledge the practiced terrorisms of our government and the consenting silence of our citizens next to all the bravery and courage and beauty of those who spoke out, in words, in actions, in songs, in music, dance, art and more.
I imagine David Whyte was thinking more of our personal haunting than our collective one, but it’s all one piece. Both are necessary to pay attention to. Watching the Warrior’s game yesterday, I was trying to imagine all commercial breaks with vignettes from Howard Zinn’s book telling the captive audience what really went down in our country. Of course, the commercials were the same-old same-old—violent video games, military ads, movies showing San Francisco being destroyed by natural cataclysm, sexy and powerful cars and of course, beer. (Bad beer, I might add.) And so the haunting continues and no end in sight.
My new motto? One ghost at a time.