“People of different cultures sometimes differ to the point where, although we could probably understand them, we might not want to make the effort. Then all we can do is show some humility and simply greet them.” —Edmund Carpenter
The above image, entitled “Lee Memorial: Color is Not a Crime,” was originally a photograph of the base of the Lee statue in Richmond during the spring protests. As prepared by Derek Kannemeyer for the cover of his new book of poems and images, the image reminds me of the wide, elephantine forehead of Ganesh, the Obstacle-Remover, peeking from the wounded Earth and encouraging us to greet change. One resists such greetings. Edmund Carpenter noted that the cultures of some indigenous peoples might be understood through anthropology, but for us to understand them in any other way might be too much of a lift. As he says, “we might not want to make the effort.”
Certainly, I am not interested in the Inuit’s diet. And I fail to share a gothic’s fascination with mutilation and ghoulish imagery in October. And I fail to share a fan’s persistence in November to watch games and super-games and to recite sports statistics as part of the ritual. Nor am I a fan, or likely to become one, of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, the Grateful Dead, or of various sects, evangelistic movements, and political cults. But Edmund Carpenter is not simply saying that it’s a waste of time to argue about taste (de gustibus non est disputandum). Actually, we do more than argue about taste. We go to war over it.
To avoid that, and lesser issues—like taking a governor hostage until she recants—we can recognize and greet another way of life rather than denying it, despising it, slavishly aping it, or attacking it and taking hostages. Every way of life has its own provisions and visions.
Sometimes we can appreciate them and try to make bridges, however imperfect. Example for the elderly: Paul Whiteman playing what he called big band jazz. It was an homage, but not to be confused with the real thing.
Sometimes we can appreciate the other way of life and simply refrain from imposing ourselves on it. As Joe Henrich and others describe in their study of the “weirdness” of Western cultures (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/05/weird), the tactic of restraint has rarely been employed by Western cultures.
And sometimes we can appreciate the other way of life simply by listening, greeting, and going on our separate ways. I have been wondering about the nature of that greeting—the greeting of Ganesh.
(Here are some of the people who erected the Lee statue.)
(1) The greeting is genuine; therefore inclusive, and therefore self-sustaining. A welcome with reservations is no welcome. My self-respect does not justify domination over the other. To greet the other is to acknowledge self-respect on both sides, even though we may respect ourselves with regard to different criteria. A greeting must be genuine.
(2) A genuine, welcoming greeting draws the other into one’s sphere of concern, and accepts inclusion in the other’s sphere of concern. Again, the criteria on each side may differ. In an extreme case—say the other is a cannibal—inclusion will not last long. But a greeting is not a commitment.
(3) It is an expression of genuine welcome and inclusion, with the possibility of an extended relationship which sustains self-respect on both sides. We may not change. We may not want to change. But we can live in welcoming relationships with most people and most cultures. In fact, in the United States, we have proved this. More than India, or the former Yugoslavia, or other areas of heterogeneous ethnicity, we have found practical ways for many peoples to live in welcome.
We have called it “pursuing happiness,” “free enterprise,” “a government of laws not men,” “a melting pot” or “stew,” and “justice for all,” but these phrases are very imperfect descriptions for the relationships we have invented. Often, we only value a welcoming relationship after it has been damaged by the tactics of domination, zero-sum analysis, exclusion, and deception. There are no borders on the Earth, only on our maps. Every damaged welcome becomes another barrier. So we come to the present time: Ganesh peeking over the Earth.
It is sad to realize that elephants will not be on Earth much longer. They require a large, uninterrupted habitat, not “reserves” where they can easily be rounded up. We also require an uninterrupted habitat of good will, not a fragmented, depleted, and overheated one. We also may not be on Earth much longer. But that broad, elephantine forehead greets us with a push: A huge push.
In the present sociopolitical churn, we know that we are being pushed. Pushed to genuine respect, self-respect, and welcome. Serious and humane effort depends upon self-respect, not bravado or self-delusion. But sustained self-respect requires attention to the self-respect of others. What self-respect does a caged child feel? Or an enslaved girl? Or a man whose color is his crime? Or a trans person whose body is their crime? Or a woman bullied for having an unwanted pregnancy? Or a worker required to behave like a machine? And how does the suffering and death of any of these bear on our own self-respect?
“Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,” said John Donne. So we must resist others being pushed about. But I find that resistance is not so much a decision as a bodily response to the assaults on self-respect. Sorry, but it is like vomiting—an act of revulsion and resolution. What are some forms of local literary resistance?
Consider: the poems of Nathan Richardson and his performances as Frederick Douglass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7M7F6B5ESY&ab_channel=RiverviewParkCitizens)
Consider: S. Ross Browne’s new exhibit at the Black History Museum, “The Surrender of Lee: A reverse mandala” and his new mural in downtown Richmond on Robinson & Cary. (https://richmond.com/entertainment/richmond-artists-the-surrender-of-lee-on-view-at-the-black-history-museum-cultural-center/article_7564f720-aa3b-54ab-9f0e-81f516640a2a.html)
Consider: Joanna Lee’s continued efforts to keep the Richmond poetry community alive at River City Poets (https://rivercitypoets.com/)
Consider: James River Writers outreach and conferences (https://jamesriverwriters.org/) e.g. Helon Habila Ngalabak (https://jamesriverwriters.org/tag/character-development/)
Consider: The B-Corp Handbook: How You Can Use Business as a Force for Good by Ryan Honeyman & Tiffany Jana (https://bthechange.com/what-were-reading-the-second-edition-of-the-b-corp-handbook-851d42d3d75a)
And consider my new book of poems: PushBack (Atmosphere Press, 2021), a book of stories, Forms of Resistance (no publisher yet), and a website dedicated to showcasing my work: Forms of Resistance—all coming in 2021.
Live in Welcome.