Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther Kind, Racism, Corporatism, and Some Personal History

On the day Martin Luther King was shot, I was living on a block in the black and Puerto Rican section of Brooklyn known as Brownsville. Though not as notorious as the neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville was equally as poor and troubled. For some reason, in Brownsville the ongoing protest against the conditions of life took the form of about one fire a week on the block on which I lived. On the week after Martin Luther King was killed, the fires went up to one a day.

One of those fires was set by my at the time girlfriend, a black welfare mother, who unable to get the welfare department to give her permission to move to a better place, decided to slip in amongst all the action. Saving a few of her things, and putting on an appropriately tearful response to the fire department, she got temporary shelter in a downtown hotel, and then relocation to a better house.

What was I doing on Legion Street in Brownsville Brooklyn? I was there for at least three sets of reasons. One, curiosity. I’d spend the summer before in an organization called Appalachian Volunteers, a summer version of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, this during the time of the War on Poverty). During that summer I’d lived in a black section of a hillbilly town in the western tip of Virginia, a town named Norton, where the nearest big town was Bristol, Tennessee. I’d been shocked to discover, having been raised in a Lilly white town with no blacks, browns and very few Jews, that black people weren’t “just like” white people with a black paint job. They actually smelled different and laughed different and danced different (close, I mean, really close), and ATE WATERMELON. This was fascinating to me. I wanted to discover more about this.

Two, I was there out of the youthful idealism: how could I HELP make difference in this messed up country of ours.
Three, I was there to save me skin. By being in VISTA (the internal Peace Corps, as it were), I was granted a deferment from the Vietnam War, a place I very much did not want to go.

So I was in Brownsville, and I saw people shooting up, and I saw people having parties where they raised the rent by charging people to come, and I saw people setting fires to their apartment to get the welfare department to act, and I saw bedbugs and cockroaches and learned about landlords who would abandon buildings rather than bring them up to code. I got involved in welfare organizing, which was a long strategy (that failed) to force this country into a child support system, but involved informing welfare mothers of their rights to so many blankets, so many sheets, so many towels and so on, adding up the list of how much money to which they were entitled, often a huge amount, and then heading down to the welfare office with a big group to collect. And staying the night until we got what we were after.

This was interesting. This was fascinating. This was a learning grounds far more valuable than much of college.

And it began to seem a fraud. For even if we, the noble white volunteers, succeeded in helping bring about change, this would just prove, once more, that blacks couldn’t get the deal together on their own.

So, some of us gravitated toward trying to figure out how to organize against racism in the white community, and it was through a rather militant group called Whites Against Racism, that I met the mother of my children, would been dragged to a meeting by her sister, who had organized with the blacks down South.

So Martin Luther King tried to make a difference, and did, and then was killed. And I tried to make a difference, and, maybe, in a small way, did. And at least my mind was opened, and I saw how dark people were treated.

And I came to understand that this racism was part of a larger strategy, the age old divide and conquer strategy, since American corporations, especially in the South could keep their workers from organizing by always luring the white workers with the idea that “at least you are better than the blacks. You don’t want to organize with them, or they’ll be something wrong with you.”

Which is why the word, Corporatism, in the title of this essay. The world now is in a mess, and as Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad clarify in their book, The Guru Papers, lots of working needs to be done understanding and undermining and freeing ourselves from authoritarian structures in our religious and relationship systems, I want to emphasize that a world where corporations can push whole countries and economies around, is a world in deep trouble.

And what, pray tell, does this have to do with the Feldenkrais Way?

Well, the Feldenkrais Way is a way of moving toward freedom from the limitations inside which our habits have us trapped. By creating lessons where we are not aiming to “get it right,” where we are not imitating a teacher (since the teacher gives verbal directions in the group lessons, but never demonstrates the actions), since we are usually involved with our eyes closed and paying attention to differences inside ourselves, since there are many opportunities to “rest” and notice the differences as we go along, since the goal isn’t the thing, but the “how to” on the way to the goal, we begin in Feldenkrais lessons, to understand again that leaning is about exploring and discovering, not about imitating and getting it right.

In a sense, we are learning again to think for ourselves. We discover our habits, we explore options to those habits, we sense deeply how those options feel and work. We learn who we are as a pure and simple (and miraculous) brain learner and body mover system.

And our culture: there are some habits that need understanding and changing: of judging and placing people by sex, by race, this keeping people divided and conquered and unhappy, as the corporations swallow up (consume) the world, to make more stuff for the people to buy (consume) to alleviate their unhappiness and disconnection and partial servitude.

Can Feldenkrais, and WakeUp Feldenkrais, which is just a way of saying a more open dedication to awareness as the foundation, help with undoing these social habits, this destruction of our world and of people’s lives that is going on?

It could.

The habit of avoiding the Big Picture is another one. The habit of creating these wonderful things like yoga and Feldenkrais and then offering them only to those with money and leisure is certainly something that is going on.

And then, those of us who teach and practice Feldenkrais, and those whose lives have begun to become more open and free from this work, maybe somehow we can apply these strategies of learning and creating new pathways to the larger social issues.

If nothing else, the Feldenkrais Way is one of seeing that a sore shoulder is not just a sore shoulder, that ribs and spine and head and breathing and pelvis and feet and most of all, brain and understanding and awareness are all involved. It is a path of seeing the Whole Thing.

Our culture, our human species, at the edge of throwing itself off the cliff of ecological extinction, could do well to look at the Whole Thing, because the Whole Thing needs to be undone and redone.

A big job. Martin Luther took on a big job. Martin Luther King took on a big job. So can we, remembering awareness on the way, an a non-obsession with the goal the means to more adequately achieve this goal.

This essay, too, like yesterday’s (at Slow Sonoma) longer than usual. So be it.

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