Author Topic: Middle Passages: Charles Johnson and the Raft of Dhamma  (Read 1588 times)

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Middle Passages: Charles Johnson and the Raft of Dhamma
« on: July 29, 2010, 06:43:14 am »
emailed to me from C. Johnson:

Middle Passages: Charles Johnson and the Raft of Dhamma
by Qiana Whitted

“I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over,
not for the purpose of holding onto.”
—Alagaddupama Sutta

At the start of Charles Johnson’s novel, Middle Passage, a former antebellum slave named Rutherford Calhoun considers the expansive view from a New Orleans pier and wonders if “the analogue for life was water, the formless, omnific sea.” To my mind, this fictional character's observations about the cleansing spray of light, wind, and mist also recall the longings of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography in which he writes of standing on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, alone “in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath” to contemplate the sails of ships gliding into the ocean. In these meditative moments, Douglass regards himself not as cargo, the way his owners do, but as a kindred vessel: “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!” He goes on to lament, “alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly!” Douglass’s counterpart in Middle Passage does not see himself as part of this moving multitude of ships, at least not at first; Rutherford, though manumitted, is still a petty thief – hedonistic, self-grasping, and bound to a desire to steal the experiences of others. Over time, though, he will come to follow Douglass’s lead, moving in and through the turbid waters that signify “countless seas of suffering.”

Rutherford’s transformational journey in this award-winning novel conveys a sense of interconnectedness that Johnson values as a black Buddhist practitioner. What’s more, in all of his fiction, essays, and scholarly writings, Johnson models a way of thinking about Buddhism that posits the philosophical and spiritual complexities of African-American narrative as a vehicle for exploring ultimate truths. In his 2003 collection, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, Johnson notes an increasing number of black American writers and scholars who are known for engaging in some form of Buddhist practice: Thulani Davis, Jan Willis, Angel Kyoto Williams, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Steven Barnes and others. Jean Toomer emerges as a literary ancestor of sorts, one whose wide philosophical interests set him apart from other New Negro writers of the 1930s. Johnson even cites fellow travelers in the entertainment industry including Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock.

 Yet when Johnson uses terms such as “radical, emancipatory, nonessentialistic, and empathetic” to characterize the Dhamma, or when he refers to issues of race “as foremost among samsaric illusions,” he is not necessarily speaking for a community of black Buddhists, but to advance an understanding of Western Buddhism that is mindful of African-American suffering. Turning the Wheel enthusiastically underscores points of convergence between Buddhist teachings and African-American creative and intellectual thought, placing the voices of Shantideva and Thich Nhat Hanh in conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr’s aspirations for “beloved community,” the sounds of “lower frequencies” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the introspective risks of poet Lucille Clifton’s “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” Consider that after Rutherford Calhoun inadvertently stows away on a ship bound for Africa in Middle Passage, he returns to the New Orleans pier changed, no longer a thief after having seen the transatlantic slave trade and survived the disease, starvation, and rebellion on board. He observes:

Looking back at the asceticism of the Middle Passage, I saw how the frame of mind I had adopted left me unattached, like the slaves who, not knowing what awaited them in the New World, put a high premium on living from moment to moment, and this, I realized, was why they did not commit suicide. The voyage had irreversibly changed my way of seeing, made of me a cultural mongrel, and transformed the world into a fleeting shadow play I felt no need to possess or dominate, only appreciate in the ever extended present.

To regard the cycle of samsara (and its cessation) through the Middle Passage experience, as this quote implies, carries profound cultural resonance for people like myself who are descended from the enslaved Africans that survived the global atrocity. Slavery, as Johnson points out in Turning the Wheel, “is, one must say, a frighteningly fertile ground for the growth of a deep appreciation for the First and Second Noble Truths as well as a living illustration of the meaning of impermanence.” He also suggests that just as racial difference has been used to build hierarchies of oppression, so do the delusions of our perceived selves keep us from a full awareness of an interdependent reality. All of us, every living being, will confront middle passages in our lives. Will we, too, take to the raft of Dhamma and emerge sea changed?

In my book on the problem of evil in 20th century black American literature, I explore the ways in which black writers engage the classic considerations of God’s goodness, justice, and power that are traditionally associated with Christian communities of faith and scripture. Questions of divine justice, I maintain, are at the heart of the post-Emancipation religious reflections by Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, Ernest Gaines, and Toni Morrison. Their characters risk the disapproval of church elders in order to reflect upon black suffering and contemplate the kind of questions that Douglass addresses to the ships at sea: “God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?”

What does it mean to explore “the sea-deep blues of american slavery” through a Buddhist framework?

What does it mean, then, to explore what poet Everett Hoagland called “the sea-deep blues of american slavery” through a Buddhist framework? Or to consider modern injustice through a religion that is devoted to obliterating suffering and cherishing others, but that is largely unconcerned with the question of God? What are the consequences of viewing the experiences of African Americans in accordance with the individual and collective dimensions of karmic law or through the precepts of an Eastern religion with its own history and cultural traditions?

One of the ways that Charles Johnson addresses these questions in Middle Passage can be seen through Rutherford’s realization of himself at sea as a “cultural mongrel” not unlike Douglass’s moving multitude of ships. The novel also makes a case for Buddhism as part of our human inheritance through the enslaved Allmuseri, a fictitious African people who embrace a worldview that is very similar to Buddhist monastics (Johnson calls them “a rather Buddhist African tribe” in Turning the Wheel). The Allmuseri, with their unlined palms, are healers for whom lying, clinging, or causing harm brings multi-generational consequences. At times, Rutherford seems to romanticize the qualities of the Allmuseri as the “Ur-tribe of humanity,” yet the path that he ultimately chooses falls somewhere between the faultless values of their leader Ngonyama and the imperialistic greed of the slave ship captain. The Middle Path.

This column, “Middle Passages,” is the first in a recurring series that will consider how Buddha’s teachings take shape in black American literary and cultural texts. I am particularly fascinated by the manner in which Buddhist practice intersects with the subversive play of language and form for which writers like Charles Johnson are so well known. It is in the spirit of such wordplay that I’ve selected the series title, for like Rutherford, I am also mesmerized by the formless sea, its undertow of suffering as well as its emancipatory potential. After all, it was in the red shirt and tarpaulin hat of a sailor that Frederick Douglass made his final escape as a slave from the Chesapeake Bay. Equipped with his knowledge of ships, another sailor’s protection certificate, and the courage of his own convictions, he boarded a train for New York in September 1838 and never looked back. A fitting model, I would say, for those of us who are journeying to the distant shore of enlightenment on our own rafts of Dhamma.

Further Reading:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845.
Everett Hoagland, Here: New and Selected Poems, Leapfrog Press, 2002.
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage, Scribner, 1998
Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, Scribner, 2007.
“Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile” (MN 22), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight.
Qiana Whitted
Qiana is the Arts Editor and sits on the Editorial Board of Prapañca: a buddhist journal. She is also Associate Professor of English and African-American Studies at the University of South Carolina, and the author of the book, “A God of Justice?”: The Problem of Evil in Twentieth-Century Black Literature.