Each week Jeff has been writing a Sunday article called Commusings where we take a moment to think deeply on the topics of spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Today, he shares his thoughts after attending a recent Black Lives Matter march in Hollywood with his family.
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Schuyler, my three daughters and I walk east on DeLongpre to the protest.
Others are clamoring down the street, placards in hand, engaged in various forms of spirited horseplay. A sort of nervous energy pervades, like one that precedes performance. It is Hollywood after all.
I am tuned out, lost in thought, moated in the subjective experience of what it is to be me. My mind chatters on incessantly, as it has for weeks, commentating on my blundering internal investigation into where and how I am complicit in the oppression of a people who have so deeply shaped who I am.
I have never been blind to the obvious and insidious crimes of racism in America, nor my role as accomplice. But I assumed there was a fluidity to my identity because my formative years were so inextricably tied to Black musicians, writers, politicians and athletes.
As I kid, I spent the better of ten thousand hours sweating buckets in my dad’s attic, learning the repertoire of Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt on the guitar. I had this tape recorder that played half speed. I would rewind over and over a hundred times to get it right. I burned through Waller, Ellington, Strayhorn, Ella, Miles, Canonball, Billie, Monk, Nina, Herbie, Benson. Transcribed Wes, which was nearly impossible. In my 20’s, like everyone else, I wanted to be like Mike, watching TBS all night to grok every nuance of his post moves, the little lean he did to create just enough space. Those who know, know. And my moral universe, shaped through the oratory of King and Obama and the prose of Angelou and Morrison. Passages I practiced in front of the mirror and turns of phrase that I yearn to echo here.
Now I wonder if I can no longer authentically claim this part of myself. Is white hero worship of African Americans an inverted form of oppression? Or is it an expression of the best of humanity, one individual’s celebration of another’s brilliance?
What I do know is that the distance between who constitutes my cultural personhood and who constitutes the corporate boards I sit on and the student body of my children’s schools are as wide as the desert sky.
It’s hot. As we wind through the city, my moral inventory winds on, too.
My loving grandparents, whose commitment to America and the promise of its dream, put family in front of self. It is they who assured my education, who gave generously to charity, who, themselves, emerged from oppression; yet what were the derogatory slurs they uttered under their breath?
What implicit biases lurk inside me? What false narratives of history have sculpted my identity?
Where the world shapes the self, what are the devious forces that imprint our character? And what patterns must be unwound so that the self can better shape the world?
Sure, I am deeply committed to aligning my works and actions on this planet with my highest principles. I am generally kind, compassionate and generous. Yet, have I once honestly considered the benefits that I have accrued; that every loan application I’ve submitted has been approved, every insurance policy granted, that I haven’t been pulled over in thirty years?
I am sitting in the dissonance that you can be a good person and fully complicit in the structures and systems that have ravaged a people and denied them equal rights, protections and opportunities.
Of course, this moment is not about me. And yet, it is about every single one of us. Which is exactly why we are straddling the potential of true generational shift. Which way shall we march?
As we approach the Hollywood precinct on Wilcox, police outposts pop up stirring agitation among the scattered groups of activists. I am shepherding my flock north across the street when I catch the eye of an African American cop. My heart lurches in my chest as it imagines being Black and blue in this moment, bruised by a competing fealty between race and colleague. Instinctively, I give him a short, deliberate salute, a feeble attempt at empathy. He nods, gently.
We roll up to Vine from Sunset. The crowd thickens here from every angle as if the tributaries of the Nile, Yangtze, Amazon, Ganges and Mississippi are all emptying into one global ocean.
Signs of every imaginable size and tenor are held proudly aloft like an Olympics ceremony. Koreans for Black Lives. Latinas for Black Lives. LGBTQIA for Black Lives.
Even Spidermen for Black Lives. There’s a reason why it’s lovingly dubbed Hollyweird by its local denizens. The assortment of superheroes assimilates seamlessly as, of course, we are all wearing masks.
This twisted but hopeful moment in history has tightly crammed 20,000 people together in the midst of a viral pandemic, the size of the crowd directly proportional to the depth of the frustration.
Multitudes are infilling behind us but the front is not moving, packing us ever more tightly, like a pumped and untapped keg ( of Corona? not funny, I know ). There’s a restless buzzing as the electrons of our outer shells begin to bond, unifying us.
Finally, we’re moving. The drums begin beating. The crowd starts chanting, a full- throated call and response. No Justice. No Peace. No Justice. No Peace. Say his name. George Floyd. Say her name. Breonna Taylor. A mighty, rag-tag chorus of humanity.
Left on Yucca.
There’s not a single barricade yet a collective intelligence knows the way. Not a single uniform, yet everyone peaceful. People sweating and hungry are getting tossed free water and snacks, a pop-up gift economy based on need, not greed. There’s no one making money here. No VIP section. No side door. No laminate.
Just a sea of humanity, singing effusively. And, in a moment, I am a wave swept up into the ocean deep. There is no me, only the world. No conscious thought, just being. No I, only we.
If you are Christian, you might interpret this sort of experience as the oneness of God. If you are Buddhist, it might be a glance into nirvana, a transcendence of self and a sensation of emptiness. If you are Hindu, you could associate this state with Brahman, a connection to the eternal self of which our individual consciousness is a mere variation. My only association with this state is the rarest deep meditation where I feel outside of my own body.
It is in these epiphanous moments that the utter absurdity of racism, or any form of separation, is revealed. In this unveiling of the illusory self, it is less that we are equal, which assumes our individuation, and more that we are one.
I don’t pretend to know God, but divine faith may be the recognition that we are all connected by a power greater than us. And I sense God is more interested in us loving each other than He is in us loving Him.
Of course, our human experience with its structural and systemic fuckery is light years away from this exalted state but to glimpse it is to know what is possible.
Left on Ivar.
I am jolted back into the material world by a low flying drone. There’s a hapless couple with two small babies in a minivan, which they clearly parked without any knowledge of an impending march. Even they are dancing in their seats.
We spill out on to Hollywood Boulevard which offers a wider berth and the intensity ratchets slightly down. There is an old Chrysler that has managed to wedge its way into the procession. A fabulously bejeweled young Black woman is perched on the door with her torso out the window tossing granola bars.
She spots little Micah, diminutive for her age, with her big Black Lives Matter poster held high.
“How old are you sweetheart?” she hollers.
“What’s a 10-year old doing out here caring about Black lives?” Her tone is playful and kind.
The edges of Micah’s mask turn up. She feels seen.
The woman smiles at me, a distillation of grace.
I guide my estrogen footprint down McCadden Place, a side street shortcut to where our car is stationed. We peel away from the throng, back into the story of separation, where we are again just strangers living among other strangers in some crooked external universe.
I corral my kids into my car to return to my house.
It’s hot. I crack the window and turn on the 1619 podcast and drive away.
What a privilege.