One week early in May, 108 men gathered at Buffalo Gap Camp for the Cultural Arts back in the hills of West Virginia to spend six days eating, sleeping, talking, dancing, and living together. What, you might ask, is so remarkable about that? If you read the newsweeklies, you get the impression that's what men do these days -- go out in the woods to drum, paint their bodies, and ponder the mysteries of the male soul. Men's gatherings have become as much a part of the culture of the '90s as laptop computers and
Of all the men's conferences that have taken place in the last ten years, though, the one at Buffalo Gap had an entirely different complexion -- literally. Roughly half the men who attended were of European ancestry. The other half were men of color.
The call for this first Multicultural Men's Conference went out from Robert
Bly, Michael Meade, and James Hillman. Bly, of course, is the poet, translator, and antiwar activist whose PBS interview with Bill Moyers and whose unclassifiable volume of literary analysis and philosophical rumination called Iron John have made him the chief guru of the so-called "men's movement." Meade, a storyteller and mythologist, and Hillman, a maverick Jungian psychologist, have become Bly's favorite partners in the enterprise of gathering men together to expand, through myth and poetry, the painfully limited repertoire of images contemporary American culture offers men as a mirror of themselves.
These leaders had been cultivating a "mythopoetic men's movement" for several years. It had not escaped their attention that something like 98.6% of the faces in their audiences were white, begging the question: Is this men's work, or is it white men's work? To put that question to the test, in 1990 Meade created the Multicultural Foundation (now called Mosaic) and, over the next year, he and his fellow teachers set aside a portion of their income from conferences to subsidize a summit meeting with men from diverse cultural backgrounds. They wanted to explore the bread-and-butter issues of the budding "men's movement" -- male initiation and maturity, the role of men in society, and the experience of being men in America -- in the context of black and white men together, an opportunity rare enough to be practically taboo.
Why a multicultural men's’ conference? Why now? Bly and Meade had clearly done some soul-searching. As leaders of numerous conferences, they had witnessed the profound transformations that occurred when men gathered in groups to acknowledge the wounds inflicted on them by absent or disapproving fathers, to express grief, to make music and to experience in their bodies a sense of community with other grown men. They wanted to share this gift with as many men as possible, including -- especially -- those who can’t easily
afford to spend two days and $250 on self-exploration. After all, where in American culture do we ever see meaningful dialogue between white men and men of color? The make-believe world of Hollywood may hold out the buddy-cop banality of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, but in the real world the images of multiculturalism and the community of men are more likely to be those captured on a videotape of a gang of white Los Angeles police officers viciously beating a black motorist.
A desire to locate the men’s work in that real world was the strongest impulse behind the planning of this multicultural men’s conference. Call it a reality check. Bly and Meade wanted to make sure they weren’t just off in
Cloud-Cuckooland exchanging magic words with a limited cult or, worse, unwittingly cementing white male privilege with new mystifications and rationalizations.
With conference coordinator Neil Froemming, Bly and Meade spent months recruiting men to come to Buffalo Gap. They personally invited men who had attended conferences in Portland or Minneapolis and who had found themselves the only black faces in the room. They organized scholarships for
men who otherwise couldn’t afford to take time off from work and family obligations. They tapped networks of artists, educators, and social workers in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and London, raiding their Rolodexes and enlisting them in the effort to
overcome the suspicions of men who’d never attended Bly-style gatherings. These recruiting efforts would have had little effect, though, if men of color were being invited simply to another
Bly, Meade and Hillman event. The organizers wisely sought out three black teachers -- playwright Joseph Walker, poet and political essayist Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don Luther Lee) and African-born scholar Malidoma Some -- to join them as elders for the week-long retreat in West Virginia.
A multicultural men’s conference represents the intersection of two good ideas that have been received with perplexing hostility in certain quarters. The men’s movement strikes some as a particularly bratty form of
me-tooism, an attempt to play in-group catch-up after the advent of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. But is it such a bad thing that straight white men are catching up on the politics of oppression? Much of men’s work has to do with coming to grips with the position of dominance men have at the top of the social pyramid and examining the assumptions and psychological traps that go with it. By regarding men as just another special interest group rather than the template and norm of humanity, men’s work helps to deconstruct the hierarchy that enslaves everyone.
Multiculturalism has struck me, ever since I heard the word, as a felicitous term to describe an ideal as old as this country -- to have a government and
institutions that reflect the population. Yet with breathtaking speed, the concept has aroused suspicion from every point on the political spectrum. Conservatives see it as putting a banal face on evil “special interests,” while the hip L.A. Weekly calls it “the new racism,” because of the ease with which multicultural initiatives fall into the same old tokenism. Why is multiculturalism so threatening? Probably because it means that everybody has to rethink their basic assumptions. Multiculturalism means not just overlooking or tolerating difference but openly inviting it, respecting it, educating yourself about it, making room for it. It means no assuming that the next person speaks the same language as you, comes from the same family constellation, eats the same breakfast food, or shares the same cultural aspirations. It’s not just about assimilating new ingredients into the same old stew. It may mean creating a new recipe.
Feminists have long opined that it won’t be until men start acknowledging how they are hurt by the system they’ve set up that change will occur. The men’s movement is part of the
acknowledgement that even the master in a master-slave relationship is wounded. Setting aside the complications of male-female issues, at Buffalo Gap Bly and Meade invited white men and black
men to sit down together to face the mutual wounding that happens through oppression, whichever side one is on. Obviously, a multicultural men’s conference would differ from other men’s
gatherings. But how? Until it happened the first time, no one knew. What follows is not a comprehensive account so much as selected scenes from the provocative, historic drama that unfolded.
One of the last to arrive at Buffalo Gap, I finish checking in just in time for the
opening ceremony. It takes place in the meeting hall, an octagonal wood-paneled room adjacent to the dining hall and kitchen, with a tiny raised platform at one end and just enough space to cram folding chairs for 100 people. The ceremony is a libation pouring ritual officiated by Aidoo Mamadi Holmes, a Washington-based African-American master drummer trained in the West African tradition of musician as spiritual healer. This ritual gives men a moment to invite into the room anybody or anything, whose strength they wish to draw on for the duration of the conference. I hear men summon ancestors, teachers, deities, animal essences, culture heroes -- Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, the Civil War dead. I ask myself who I want to be present with me and immediately think of my friend and fellow gay activist Vito Russo, who died of AIDS the previous December -- writer, freedom fighter, gay warrior. Aidoo repeats the names that people call out, "checking" them for spiritual appropriateness, praying aloud to these invoked spirits for guidance and protection.
Ritual, prayer and the invocation of ancestral spirits automatically frame communal activities among tribal peoples. I'm familiar with these customs from Radical Faerie gatherings, arts festivals, and sweat lodge ceremonies but hardly ever encounter them in men's movement settings. Men from European, Judeo-Christian backgrounds tend to be more familiar with the rituals of staff meetings than with those involving heartfelt prayer. Already I can feel the native spirituality of non-white peoples taking this conference in a new direction. Here, acknowledging that there is another reality at work besides that which we can see doesn’t seem occult or embarrassingly
New Age. We’re drawing a sacred circle around ourselves. Within this space, free from worldly cares, transformation can occur.
After dinner, the conference convenes for the first formal session. The leaders and teachers sit on the platform at the front of the room, deliberately alternating white-black-white-black, thus announcing the protocol of racial parity that will prevail all week. After a round of poems by Bly and
Madhubuti, the teachers introduce one another and then throw the floor open for community time. Prompted by a question from Bly -- "What in your life is urgent right now?" -- men begin to unravel their stories.
"I have two urgencies in my life," says a well-spoken black man named Abati Akilana at the front of the room. "I'm the father of two boys, and I'm concerned about their safety and survival. I'm not worried about drugs but about their getting killed by policemen." Nods and grunts of assent throughout the room register this as a common fear among black men. "White men need to stand up and say, 'This shit has got to stop.' Otherwise it will continue. No one listens to the victims."
Abati, a handsome 40-ish fellow who came from Houston with his 20-year-old son and 74-year-old mentor, goes on to say that black men need to do their own healing work before joining forces with white men to combat racism. And he expresses his reservations about the conference itself. "Are black men ready to take part in a process like this?” Before there's a national black consciousness, he suggests, there has to be community, family, self, one's maleness. “Slavery took that from black men, and it's never been put back. I see myself as a shell of a man. I'm not all here."
He speaks strongly and powerfully with a preacher's oratorical tone yet without any rhetorical huffing and puffing. The matter-of-factness of his statements give his eloquence an astringent edge. Everyone in the room listens carefully.
"I'm a victim of a dysfunctional family, I’m a victim of racism, I’m a victim of a system that fucks with me whether I do anything or not,“ he says, urged on now by cries of “Go on!“ and “Speak, brother!“ “On top of that motherfuckin’
shit, I have to deal with the consequences of slavery, which still haunts my ass like it was yesterday. Black men are in denial about the impact of slavery on here and now. Crack is not the issue. The issue is the absence of my manhood. I was born into a conversation that said, 'A nigger ain't shit.'
"It's difficult for me to relate to white males,” he says, “without acknowledging that I'm at a disadvantage. It's an illusion to think we're on an even keel. I'm a three-legged horse running with thoroughbreds who have a 300-year head start. No way I can hope to compete. I came here for the brothers, to meet other men who understand this is is a process that will take generations to heal."
He sits down to an explosion of applause -- an outburst of relief, really, that someone has summoned the courage to leap in and nail some of the hot emotions a room full of black and white men unavoidably stirs up.
My heart reels with emotional responses. I'm shocked to hear someone who can speak so articulately describe himself as so damaged. I'm annoyed at the way this speaker romanticizes the status of white men as thoroughbred horses -- as if no white men had alcoholic fathers and Jesus-freak mothers, as if no white men ever felt themselves to be shattered remnants of manhood! And I'm disturbed to notice my incredulity that black men might acutely feel today the effects of something that happened centuries ago.
I grew up hearing that conversation, “A nigger ain’t shit.” My father was an Air Force sergeant who considered all black people too lazy to work. He came from a redneck farming family in the Midwest. They may have been poor, but by golly everybody worked even if they had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I couldn’t stand hearing that, and I got as far away from him as fast as I could. But part of me still figured if I could escape my father’s social conditioning and learn a different story than the one he told, if I could form my perception of African-Americans around the great writers, musicians or freedom fighters I admired, anyone could.
Now Abati’s speech about slavery makes me reconsider my own idealization of black men. What if you don’t have a father? What if there were no adult males in the picture at all, no model either to follow or to depart from? What if, for as far back as anyone could remember, all the men in your family had been denied work, fiar pay, the right to own property, to vote or to have their own names? Coming from such a legacy, how does a young man get the first clue how to pull himself up with those famous bootstraps?
Mostly I'm thinking what everybody else in the room must be thinking. Any idea that we might slowly work our way up to the burning issues of racial tension between black and white men has flown out the window. These issues are so scorchingly alive that they won’t wait for some conflagration carefully orchestrated by the leaders -- “Okay, we’ve spent three days building
trust, let’s say what’s really on our minds.“ No, we're in it now.
During the morning session, the teachers deliver what James Hillman likes to call "industrial-strength talks" on their pet topics. The first morning, Malidoma Some (ma-lee-DOE-ma so-MAY) steals the show with his account of undergoing, as an adult, the initiation rites traditional among his West African tribe, the
"Through pain," he begins, "I became what I am today."
To me, Malidoma is the most intriguing teacher here. He comes from Burkina Faso, a small nation of seven million people. Formerly called Upper Volta, it is located just north of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. A small, very dark, very round-headed married man wearing a modest
daishiki, gray-and-white-striped pants, and
a kufi with five white stars on it, he speaks directly and humorously in excellent, down-to-earth English filtered through a beguiling, musical accent. I don't know his age, but he can't be as young as his baby face and energetic, piping voice make him seem. He exudes the kind of razor-sharp intelligence that instantly establishes authority.
He grew up in a seminary where he was punished for speaking his native language by having to wear the smelly hide of a dead cow. When he returned to his village as an adult, alienated and frustrated by his Western education, he submitted to the council of elders who recommended that he go through initiation. "It was not fun," he recalls. "It was one of the most painful things I've ever done." His worldliness and adult awareness made it worse for him than for his typically adolescent fellow initiates. "But I couldn't back out of it. It was my only outlet to survival."
The process involved, among other things, sitting naked in 100 degree temperature and staring at a tree for three days. "It's very boring," Malidoma says dryly. But this and other ordeals forced Malidoma into direct contact with altered states of consciousness. This contact with "the other world" gave him insights about his destiny and purpose in life that couldn't be gotten from schoolbooks. "What you get in initiation is your self," he emphasizes. "The knowledge you attain is very personal. It makes you become the biggest project in your own life."
Ever so casually, he mentions, “If you die in the course of initiation, it’s quite normal,“ then cryptically adds, “It doesn’t leave a body to bury.“ Thus, after initiation, he says, "I had no fear. But I had difficulty being involved with trivia."
Initiation is, of course one of the major themes of the men’s movement. In Iron John, Robert Bly traces many of the problems suffered by contemporary American men -- and by extension American society -- to a lack of initiation. By initiation, he means not just the brutal physical trials we usually associate with fraternity hazing and army basic training, but also the emotional, ethical and spiritual instruction from elders required for men to mature into integrated individuals. Without initiation (whose ingredients include separation from the mother, symbolic
wounding, an encounter with another reality and being welcomed into a community of older men), a man often has no understanding of his capacity for pain and either goes around taking reckless risks or shrinks from any crisis for fear he won’t survive. Without initiation, a man also lacks a sense of his own responsibility to transmit his knowledge to younger men. He remains a boy in an adult man’s body, to whom life just seems like one blurry skid mark from graduation to the grave.
Judging from the awestruck reverence that surrounds this discussion of male initiation, Malidoma’s reminiscence creates a deep impression. Here’s an actual tribal person who’s undergone a bona fide initiation! For those of us harboring fuzzy ideas linking initiation with panty raids or secret handshakes, Malidoma’s story arouses a recognition of the deep spiritual dimension of male initiation. It’s so ironic, I think afterward, and typical of
American culture. We’re dying of spiritual starvation, and the people who hold the cup of nourishment are precisely the ones we
have despised, discredited and conspired to exterminate.
During the teaching sessions, Michael Meade does what he always does at men's gatherings: narrate an elaborate mythical story, accompanying himself on tackhead conga and stopping frequently to chew over events and images for their emotional and psychological resonance. One afternoon, during the allotted time for "conflict hour," Michael tells a short story that serves to lift men out of the therapeutic telling-your-personal-story mode into thinking of themselves as products of and participants in larger historical forces. The theme this afternoon is “Whatever you’re angry about is bigger than you.“ The story goes like this:
A hunter and his son have a fight, and the son runs away to another village where the king befriends him. The boy undergoes a series of tests involving killing his horse and killing a slave girl. Eventually he has to choose between killing his father or killing the king. This is the kind of dilemma story that Bly and Meade frequently use at men's conferences to trigger a discussion of father-son wounds that goes beyond recounting individual family traumas.
"How many say kill the king?" Meade asks.
A sprinkling of hands goes up.
"How many say kill the father?"
Many more hands.
"How many say neither?" As many hands as kill-the-father. This last showing, which basically registers how many players are sitting out the game, suggests the need for a crash course on mythology. "The point of the story," Meade explains, "is not to get out of the story but to locate yourself in the masculine territory."
Some of the men who are familiar with dilemma stories start to engage in the kind of dialogue that's expected, but the men who've never been to Bly and Meade conferences before (which includes most of the men of color) tend to view the dilemma literally. "I have a problem with killing as a sign of growth," someone says. Somewhat wearily, Meade soldiers on, repeating the rules of the game. He finally resorts to blatantly decoding the story's symbols:
"Mythologically, the horse is wealth, the slave girl is addiction. You have to give up these things to become son of a king."
The lackluster response to the dilemma story contributes to a growing sense I have, especially from the men of color (who are increasingly known collectively as "the brothers"), of resistance to all the talk about kings, symbolic swords, archetypes -- the mythopoetic tricks of the trade that teachers like Bly and Meade use to create a "container" for men's work, an emotionally safe yet psychologically evocative ritual space. Here at Buffalo Gap, though, the mythopoetic language seems slightly alienating and abstract. There seems to be a palpable urge for less mythology and more direct truth-telling.
While I loathe making generalizations, I can’t help noticing at this conference that the white men tend to be more successful at looking inward than at being purposeful. The African-American men, on the other hand, have no problem finding a purpose -- their communities demand their attention -- but they seem less accustomed to taking time to replenish or expand themselves. I think specifically of Brandon, a tall, fierce, somewhat haunted-looking social worker from Washington who has a wife and kids and a job at an agency with minimal job security because of cutbacks and layoffs; he works closely with Concerned Black Men, which provides mentorship and job opportunities for inner-city youths, and spends several nights a week doing political work. His commitment and his integrity are inspiring, but he seems perched on the edge of serious burnout.
As if to redress the balance, Haki and Malidoma speak persuasively about the need for self-renewal and introspection, while Bly and Hillman frequently urge men to manifest their awakened consciousness publicly and politically. If we learn nothing else from each other this week, it’s about the importance of finding a balance between doing the work of the world and taking care of oneself.
This week is, after all, a fact-finding mission. No matter how much I’ve gleaned abut black culture from books, films, and music, every individual I meet this week challenges me to open my heart and mind to a larger understanding of black men. Before this week, I’d never had the opportunity to meet 50 extraordinary black men all at once, so I didn’t even know what I didn’t know bout black men. Even without the myths, drums and charismatic speakers, Buffalo Gap would be a valuable reminder that this is where the
bridge-buidling between cultures begins: face-to-face.
Evidence of the differences between our cultures comes from surprising corners. I overhear two black men snickering at a white guy they met in the sauna: "He didn't know anything about herbal remedies -- can you believe that?" This confuses me. Do all black men, I wonder, have grandmothers or family shamans who teach them the healing properties of herbs? Over a casual lunchtime
conversation, it emerges that black men don’t consider tipping mandatory; cab drivers and waiters have to earn their tips, they feel. I’m scandalized; I would never think of not tipping. Another man points
out that this men’s movement talk about “separating from the mother” cuts no slack with black men. Their mothers are often their only source of support and unconditional love; to take that away without offering anything in its place is totally unacceptable. Of course, living off women is exactly what keeps many black men boys.
It goes without saying that white men are not routinely hassled by cops, trailed by suspicious shopkeepers and ignored by cab drivers. There’s nothing like being around black men for a week, though, to make us appreciate what a gulf that creates in lived experience. White male privilege isn’t confined to those who own banks, control empires and manipulate governments. Even the freakiest-looking punk-rock anarchist is only a haircut and a costume change away from accessing a white male privilege black men will never know.
In the conference flier, Michael Meade noted, “For thousands of years, men have been killing each other. That’s one of the activities that men do, and they generally do it to other men. There’s no getting away from it, and we carry it in our blood and in our memories. So whenever a group of men get together, there’s this issue: Is someone going to be killed nor not? And usually the second question is: Is it going to be me?”
This, by the way, is one of the reasons for men to meet separately. Around women, men often feel the need to show off and know it all, while letting the women carry the tender, tentative emotions. In mixed company, men tend to edit out whatever expression women have ever shamed or criticized them for, whether “acting just like a man” (raunchy language, crude humor, blistering anger) or falling short of the the role of strong, stalwart protector (self-doubt, tears, indecision). By themselves, men often feel freer to express the whole range of emotions.
As Meade went on to say, though, “It’s clear that men are not going to be vulnerable, are not going to trust each other, until they have some sense of the anger of the other men present.” Our first evening of community time hinted as much. The next evening puts it to the test.
Early on, Joseph Walker brings up for discussion a proposal, which has been informally circulating, that the men of color hold a meeting separate from the conference at large.
Abati, our firebrand from the first night, speaks out very much in favor. "I know all the white men I need to know. I know everything about you," he says bluntly. "I came here to be with the brothers.”
The pros and cons are weighed. Will the white men feel excluded? Do the African-Americans require a separate safe space to consolidate
their identity before entering into interracial dialogue? Walker questions whether such a meeting should interrupt the schedule that the organizers have carefully planned. Haki thinks it's a mistake to ask permission, that anybody who wants to meet should simply do so.
The atmosphere becomes quite charged. The Guys Onstage try to moderate the heat without smothering it -- except for Joseph Walker, who declines to be overly conciliatory. "I'm sitting here very angry because it’s been implied I'm a fucking Uncle Tom because I say let’s discuss it!“
“Who called you a Tom?” Haki wonders.
“This brother right here,” says Walker, pointing to Abati in the front row.
Abati starts to say, “I said it sounded like . . . “
“Don’t give me no ‘It sounded like,’
motherfucker!” A theatrical voice raised in anger can sound fairly terrifying. “I don’t give a fuck what it sounded like. I’m very angry with you.“ Walker leans forward in his chair, a ferocious lion with blazing eyes, and looks directly at
Abati. "If I was younger, I'd punch you in the face!"
I can tell this isn't exactly the way Meade and Bly expected the evening to go. I half-expect them to step into the fray as the men's-group experts and steer the conversation into safer territory or conjure images from warrior mythology. To their everlasting credit, they choose not to do that. They sit back and listen. They're learning from this like everyone else.
A few minutes later, Walker jumps in a second time, a little cooler now. Apparently, he's been steaming since Abati's outburst last night. Addressing him again, Walker says, "I admire my brother's strength, but I'm not pulling back. Slavery didn't leave me with any question of my manhood. I have no apologies to make. If anything, I feel superior to most people, not inferior."
This verbal skirmish becomes one of the key moments of the conference. It teaches a lesson that’s obvious, yet always surprising: The honest expression of emotion, even anger, creates intimacy. The level of trust in the room is palpably higher than it was before. The clash between Walker and Abati demonstrates how ritual space brings out different behavior; on the street, such heated words could easily lead to bloodshed.
Then, too, watching two individuals with clearly divergent beliefs and personal styles emphatically disagree helps demolish the myth of a monolithic Black Community. I’m just beginning to
absorb Abati’s declaration that black men daily suffer from the consequences of slavery, and here is Joseph Walker saying the opposite.
“To suffer one’s confusion is the first step in healing. Then the pain of contradiction is transformed into the mystery of paradox,” Jungian author Robert Johnson writes. “The capacity for paradox is the measure of spiritual strength and the surest sign of maturity.”
Haki Madhubuti is the first batter up Thursday morning. I sense a special curiosity to hear Haki's rap. He's an intriguing unknown to most of us. The guys at the conference seem instinctively to respond to Haki the same way they do to Michael Meade. Whereas Bly and Hillman, Malidoma and Joe Walker seem older and somewhat formidable, Haki and Michael seem closer to the median age of the group (around 40), more streetwise, less like elders than brothers. Haki is from Chicago, a word man who speaks black English; he says "ax" for "ask," and he likes to say, "I grew up among pimps and whores
slammin' Cadillac doors."
His first talk succinctly and powerfully surveys black oppression. "White men in the U.S. control everything of material value -- economics, entertainment, science, sports, law, the military. Yes, Daryl Strawberry gets $15 or $20 million a year. But who's paying him?" He pinpoints the ways white supremacy in the U.S. actively seeks to disrupt black families and neutralize black men, such as supplying them with "unlimited negative options incorrectly defined as freedoms. Who says we have to party every weekend? We confuse freedom of movement with liberation." In his second talk, he concentrates on what he calls “loveships” (male-female and family relationships), and he comes down hard on black men’s mistreatment of women.
Unlike Bly and Hillman, who improvise from notes on their current preoccupations, haki simply reads about from his book Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? And while Bly comes off like the Grand Master of some Mardi Gras float, scattering gem-like literary images like gold doubloons, Haki doesn’t hesitate to offer what every man here silently craves: prescriptions for living. Being a poet he has great fondness for language structures -- rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and especially lists. His "Twelve Secrets of Life" are sometimes tough and often disarmingly commonsensical -- for example, you can study all the books and do all the community service, but if you eat junk food, your body will inevitably rebel. Likewise, his ten suggestions for
solidifying loveships are simple, but men can’t hear them too often. Listening to your partner, accepting blame for your imperfections, and being involved in the birth of your children aren’t just steps to right living, Haki insists, but definitions of true manhood.
His fiery advice-giving has passion and credibility because it conveys hard truths carved painstakingly from his own experience. “By the age of 27 my mother was a confirmed alcoholic. My 30, she was a drug addict. By 32, she was selling
herself in the street. By 35, she was dead,” he explains in his relentless
incantational style, preacher mixed with poet and a strong dose of warrior. “I’ve been on my own since I was 16. I learned what to do by seeing what not to do.”
The glorification of warriors is one aspect of men’s work that repels many people, especially women. That makes it crucial to specify what we talk about when we talk about warriors. Robert Moore points
out that, as an archetype, the warrior doesn’t stand alone but appears in conjunction with the king (representing a transpersonal commitment), the magician (skill), and the lover (compassion). Right away, that distinguishes the warrior from the soldier or, as Robert Jay Lifton calls it, “the John Wayne thing.” In Home from the War, his 1973 study of Vietnam vets, Lifton described American soldiers’ debased model of warrior hood: tough, tight-lipped, ruthlessly competitive, anti-artistic, a sexual conqueror for whom women were either inferior or inscrutable.
But other cultures paint a different picture. In Taoist, Hindu, Japanese and Native American cultures, there has always been the notion of the inner warrior, whose battlefield is the self, who faces his own fear and wins not by destruction but by subduing the enemy without fighting. Haki Madhubuti embodies this vision of the warrior for all of us.
James Hillman stays quiet all week, which I gather is typical of him. Although he's something of a fixture in men’s work, he doesn't mix it up with the floor the way Bly and Meade do. They tend to wield him as a kind of secret weapon, the resident highbrow. He uses his fiery erudition basically to aim a urine-like spray of lighter fluid at cherished notions of Western civilization and then flick matches at them.
His topic this morning is white supremacy, a notion that he presents as embedded in our language and culture. Its association with all the preferred moral/intellectual qualities -- peace, divinity, order, joy, abundance, ancestors, home, harmony -- contributes to what Hillman calls "the archetypal pressure" of the color white. Associated with innocence, white maintains its supremacy by exclusion, by the absence of anything noxious or harmful. "Black becomes necessary to represent what is excluded from white." This definition-by-exclusion leads to oppositional thinking. "Either-or is a product of the white mind."
Historically, Hillman says, it was the English who first defined people by their skin color. British sailors in the mid-16th century described the people they encountered on the west coast of Africa, no matter what tribe or nation they belonged to, as “black” -- creating with a single word a monolithic Other to satisfy the fantasies and paranoias of imperial Europe. Only after that, in 1604, was the word white used to define an ethnic group. As he reads some of the definitions of “black in the Oxford English Dictionary at the time the sailors first saw Africans -- "deeply stained with dirt, foul, malignant, deadly, iniquitous, sinister, atrocious, horrible, wicked" -- the men in the audience groan as if stung by bullwhips.
In 1704, he continues, Newtonian optics replaced the mythological sense of color as a rainbow linking us to heaven with a scientific sense of color, which crowned white as the color of light, the god of colors. Black therefore became equated with the deprivation of light, the lack of enlightenment, the absence of good. Though recondite, these ideas influence human behavior on a historical scale, he says. “In social history, this equation promotes missions and colonialization and suggests blacks are savage and stupid.”
This is Hillman at his best, using his fierce intellect to provide food for starving souls. His analysis penetrates so deep you don’t know what to do with it. It inhabits you in ways you can’t control or predict. The next morning a dream-like vision appears to me in meditation: a basket lined in dark
purple cloth is placed in front of me, and in it I place a drowned baby, completely black and lifeless. This powerful image conjures for me my unloved self, my unborn dreams, my disappointments. I wonder how much this rejected blackness has to do with the pain of separation from my African brothers.
One night, growing up in a racist household becomes the theme of community time. Larry, a
Washington advocate for mental patients, regales us with tales of his mother's nostalgia for slavery. "She read antebellum novels and longed for the days when women didn't have to dress themselves," he says. "I was taught as a child that the way I could right the world would be to restore slavery." Larry’s dry, delicious storytelling drawl captures Southern attitudes so perfectly that big laughs of recognition fill the room.
By contrast, Bob, a sad-looking Bostonian with a ponytail, speaks with considerable anguish about his ancestors who owned slaves. "As a child I was not allowed to sit in the back seat of the car with our black maid," he recalls. "The tenant farmer on our land was never allowed to set foot in my grandmother's house."
Bob talks about his father and brothers, who are still racist. “What does that make me? These are my people. I’m not proud of them. I feel ashamed and sad.” African-Americans have found power and strength by studying their family histories and reclaiming their roots. When white men do the same, what do they do with the horrors they find there? I don’t know. But for the moment it seems important to own up to our own part -- past and present -- in the shameful game of race, and for men of color to witness it.
The next morning we're back in the octagonal meeting hall. "This room feels lighter," Haki observes. "A lot of weight has been lifted." It's true that a lot of the emotional and intellectual baggage we brought with has been jettisoned: suspicion and apprehension we brought with us about other men and other races, ancestral fears and guilts and passions we've been carrying because we had no place to put them, media-stoked impressions about men of other races and what a "men's conference" might be like, anxieties about physical comfort in this summer-camp setting. All that stuff created a thick atmosphere that we've been cutting through with honesty, courage, and articulate rage. Now we see each other more clearly.
The quills of caution may have settled down a bit, but so too has the euphoria that arose when we realized that, yes, this kind of multicultural summit could actually happen. We've sniffed each other out and determined that we're not enemies. We agree that the world is in dire shape and needs drastic changes, and that part of our project as men is to put our warrior energy at the service of the larger community.
We're interested in tackling problems we face in common. But not too fast. When we get into fixing things too soon, it’s awfully tempting to focus on the cuts and scrapes that are easily healed while mortal wounds go unattended. At the moment, we’re trying to get a full picture of all the problems.
One of the running themes of the day has to do with adding to the agenda. Why haven't we talked about this or that? Interracial couples. Heterosexual child molesters. The poverty of white culture. The connection between the decline of education and military buildup. The lack of compassion for workers in service jobs. This capacity for naming the enemy and resisting self-congratulation is a scent in the air, and Robert Bly picks it up and grounds it with a Rilke poem that goes, in part:
What we choose to fight is to tiny!
What fights with us is so great!...
When we win it's with small things,
And the triumph itself makes us small...
This is how [man] grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
“The patriarchy is over,” Bly announces at the beginning of his last formal presentation. He’s not speaking hopefully; he thinks it’s a mixed blessing. At the end of the patriarchy, he says, the father is weak, without authority, unattached to God. There’s no grace, no moral authority coming from above. He cites an image from an Irish story that represents, to him, the patriarchy in decline -- seven eagles sitting at the top of a tree eating meat and letting the rotten pieces fall to the ground where swine eat them. "You're looking at television," he says in a low, exhausted version of his patented growl. "What falls down from the media is rotten meat. We're starving for spiritual food."
That makes us the swine -- not a very flattering image. But look at the food we eat, full of chemicals and stripped of
mana. Look at the spiritual food we consume: the idiotic tabloids, the bad TV and the capitalist propaganda called advertising. Not flattering, but perhaps appropriate.
What replaces patriarchy is a sibling society, Bly says. Instead of being vertically oriented, looking up to the father and the mother and further to the sun, the society becomes horizontal. The sibling society offers distinct advantages: the possibility of a new relationship between men and women, one whose highest goal is Blake’s ideal of “constant creativity,” and the possibility of friendship among the races and cultures through shared power.
But there are disadvantages as well. "Patriarchy requires that someone kill the king and take power," he says. "Siblings don't want power. The saddest thing is that in a sibling society people want VCRs. The temple becomes the mall. You don't need authority to buy things. You don't want authority, so the bureaucracy is perfect. Nobody takes responsibility because everybody's just doing their job."
In a horizontal society, he says, it's difficult to maintain an individual set of opinions; mass opinions overwhelm you. It’s difficult to find purpose in life. It's harder to separate from the mother, for the boy to become a man. Without models of renunciation that provide motivation to conserve energy for the needs of the soul, it's harder to resist collective demands to consume, to seek instant pleasure. Addiction goes with the territory; there‘s a desire to be in the king‘s house without earning it. Bly’s ambivalence about these changes is evident. Again and again he emphasizes, “The life we’re about to live is not going to be easy.”
The conference at Buffalo Gap took place more than a year ago now. I came away from it convinced that it would make a significant impact on American culture in the next ten years, based on the quality of the men who were there and the work we did together. The mainstream media assumption about men’s work is that the participants are marginal individuals, avant-garde visionaries if not borderline flakes. But the men at Buffalo Gap were smart, skeptical and accomplished, the men who would be at the center of any sane society. Many of us went looking for tools, guidance, concrete information to do things in the world: heal pain, fight injustice, manage diversity in the workplace. And many of us left inspired and energized and focused on what to do.
Our lists of things to do varied. In the closing session at Buffalo Gap, Hillman named resolutions that he could practice at home: in the subway he would consciously choose to sit next to a black person, look that person in
the eye and say hello. Bly and Meade sweepingly declared that they would never again conduct men’s conferences with only white men. A prison
worker announced that the conference had reversed his spiral of feeling defeated; a schoolteacher registered a renewed commitment to working in conditions he’d come to consider hopeless. And Haki later said, “In my life, I’ve met few white men I felt were serious about good things. I guess I believed there were good white people, but I didn’t know any. West Virginia opened up possibilities and retuned my ear to listen to white men differently.”
Today I ask myself, “What did we really do at Buffalo Gap? What have we done since then?” If the key to making a multicultural society is inviting everyone to share their gifts, it’s sobering
to admit how far we are from that. By any standards, the road to a free and just American society looks long and bleak from here.
In six days at Buffalo Gap, we weren't able to do anything concretely to change the world. But who knows? What we did may be equally important. It is certainly something that's not always easy for men -- simply to be, black and white together.
Common Boundary, September/October 1992.
See also: “Stepbrothers: Gays and the Men’s Movement”