Myths are not lies. Myths are epic stories that reveal the hidden landscapes of the human psyche. They give us the images by which to organize our inner life and those images guide our outer life. They come from the world of dream and as the stories are told and enacted in ritual, they form our collective dream. Be it Moses and the Burning Bush, the Virgin Birth, Buddha under the Bo Tree, Krishna and the Butter Maids, Demeter and Persephone, the Anansi stories, myths everywhere define, sustain and move entire cultures.
There are also stories that are lies that function as myths. They don’t arise in dreams, but are carefully cultivated for greedy, narrow and political/economic ends. The narrative of racial superiority, for example. This was one deliberately implanted in the minds of white Americans trying to square the practice of slavery with their Christian upbringing and general sense of what is right and decent. It caught hold with a vengeance and still has us in its grip 150 years after slavery was abolished.
During Reconstruction, a period of some 12 years after the Civil War, black folks participated in the government because the Northern troops were there. But the narrative of white superiority did not change in the minds of the Southerners (or most Northerners, for that matter) and once the troops were removed, that story came alive again with a vengeance, first with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and later, the Jim Crow laws. Without a change of narrative to change the minds and hearts of the people with power and privilege, there was no change. Without a change of narrative to change the minds and hearts of the people with power and privilege, there is no change today.
All this a prelude to an old myth that illuminates a possible path to redemption in the United States. And it comes from an unlikely time and source—the European Medieval story of Parzival and the Holy Grail. In my version, the Holy Grail is the promise of the American Dream fulfilled for all its citizens, a beautiful and stirring story powerless to be wholly (and holy!) born until its conditions are fulfilled. There is one key thing missing that keeps the horror alive, that allowed for the recent fiasco of the head of a music organization to defend his all-white board by claiming that “blacks and Latinos lack the necessary keyboard skills” to qualify. (If for even a second you wonder if this is true, listen to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Andre Watts, Cuhucho Valdez, Gonzalo Rubalcabo, etc. etc etc). The story of Parzival holds the key to what's missing.
Parzival is a naïve country-bumpkin sort who decides to become a knight and stumbles into the castle that holds the Holy Grail, the chalice that received Christ’s blood from the Crucifixion that holds magical powers. He witnesses a king brought in on a litter with a gaping wound in his side that bleeds day and night without healing. Every day in the palace, a ritual involving the Holy Grail is performed, but the wounded king is unable to partake of it and thus, no one is refreshed. Indeed, the land is laid to waste (the central image of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland) and no healing is in sight until a certain question is asked of the Grail King. Parzival meets the king, but because he was brought up to be polite and not ask questions, fails to say the one thing that would heal the king and restore the Grail and the land to its fertile, life-giving power.
He leaves the castle, which instantly disappears and spends the next 30 years or so trying to find it again. When he does, it is as a mature man who has been through life’s travails and grown to some courage and wisdom. Now he asks the King, “What ails you?” And that simple question is enough to stop the bleeding, restore the Grail to its power and heal the land.
And so it is today that we white folks walk daily amongst black folks (and Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, gay people, etc.) and rarely ask the question “What ails you?” We’re too preoccupied with having a nice day or afraid to face the actual building blocks of the country we like to think of the greatest and thus, the wound bleeds and bleeds and the hurt and the harm go on. We can change the laws and give all the facts and statistics, but without this fundamental change in our guiding narrative, we’re stuck with the weird notions that “black lack the necessary keyboard skills.”
Why don’t we ask it? It appears a simple question, but it requires all our courage and our honesty and our willingness to feel grief and yes, some guilt and shame and the strength to rise up from the swamp only after we’ve gone down into the mud and muck. We can’t just text the question flippantly, “Yo, bro, you okay?” It requires some moral courage and commitment to listen deeply to the answer, to educate ourselves into the answer, to read, write, converse, to re-fertilize our own barren souls with the work of authentic creation.
I think Parzival had it right. The healing begins with a simple question.
What ails us?