The Zen Guide to Black Survival
Updated: Jan 11, 2019
Can you imagine if instead of experiencing grief in death you could actually find comfort?
I want to sidestep the narrative around the subject of death and grief. This post is for anyone, from the middle-aged person becoming increasingly aware of their mortality to someone who's loved one is approaching old age.
"If you can embrace death then why fear it?"
Some might say I have a controversial view of death because I take great comfort in it. Why? I can't wait to die quite frankly (not to the point where I want to determine that moment, I'm merely looking forward to that moment). I can take it further than comfort. I take courage in death. From comfort to courage. If you can embrace death then why fear it?
"Unsurprisingly, slaves during the transatlantic slave trade were 'preoccupied with death. Death was a compelling and ever present reality for the slave.'"
The typical view of death, the auto-view of death, to most of those in our immediate social circles (certainly in mine, although I'm yet to explore it with more people) is it's saddening.
For example, my friend's father, who's in his 80s, is in the latter stages of dementia, he's literally dying. He could be gone next week. As you can imagine it's a difficult topic to broach. I don't know what to say, I daren't ask how his dad is as it may bring my friend to tears. Moreover, it's obvious that his dad isn't very well and his outcome innevitable so why bring it up. I typically ask as a bridge rather than broach 'how's things at home?'.
But as this belief in death is growing inside me, I can't help but think this view of death could help people like my friend who are suffering. Death means an end to your suffering or yourn. Isn't that good thing? People often say of someone who has died and was suffering pre-death, "at least she isn't suffering anymore." It's true, let's take that sentiment further. Why take comfort in death at age 30 (my age)? Or at any young age? It's a source of relief. Sounds morbid doesn't it, most readers will probably think I'm a moaner or that I live a life of suffering.
"Yet if you are black in many parts of America and Britain you are still faced with the imminent threat of death, the overseer symbol has just changed from the slave catcher to the police officer."
Just think, any difficulties big or small that we're going through will come to an end eventually and that is a relief. My friend, he's 17, he seemed excited about my POV of death yet didn't want to die because he has goals to fulfil. I get that, and not everyone will get me.
So why black survival? I wonder if this is a form of black survival that I've developed. However, this isn't a psychological adjustment to our existence as a 'second class citizen' (to borrow Malcolm X's phrase), that's giving up, that's accepting our lot and not resisting. Adjustment is basically suicide. Nor is it accepting the 'white lie' that faith is primarily concerned with an otherworldly reality. That as obedient servants we can expect a reward I heaven after death. Obedient meaning adherence to the laws of the white overseer. White power can seem so overwhelming that we give up hope for change in this world. Yet black faith refuses to embrace any concept of life which makes black suffering the will of the universe.
Unsurprisingly, Slaves during the transatlantic slave trade were 'preoccupied with death. Death was a compelling and ever present reality for the slave.'(3) Today being black in a white world isn't the same as it was back then. Yet if you are black in many parts of America and Britain you are still faced with the imminent threat of death, the overseer symbol has just changed from the slave catcher to the police officer. I don't know if you saw this back in June 2017 when Colin Kaepernick highlighted to the world this exact same comparison following the acquittal of a Minnesota cop of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a black motorist.
You are twice as likely to be killed at the hands of the police, black deaths represent 9% of deaths after police contact that are interdependently investigated and yet blacks make up only 3% of the population (1). You are also eighteens more likely to be stopped and searched by the police; knowing that being stopped by the police for no reason other than being black could lead to death caused by a simple false move leaves many black men and their communities feeling vulnerable.
Begin shackled - though invisibly today unlike during slavery - in a white world and incredibly vulnerable in certain situations haven't not done anything wrong, black people can feel powerless to make white people recognise them as a person. Instead cops view blacks as animals and treat them accordingly. I recommend watching Seven Seconds a TV series on Netflix based on a real character Brenton Butler who was left to die in the snow by a white New Jersey police officer. The story line is a fictional narrative representing many black men splashed across the news.
Becoming woke about racism in the criminal justice system, my preoccupation with death is arguably legitimate given the odds of black people dying when they encounter the police.
Black people are in the belly of the beast, once we accept that we're merely surviving, rather than thriving, we can begin to support each other in the West. After centuries of oppression, we are still here, which is a testament to the spirit of resistance alive in Blackness.
I'm considering creating a death framework or a death mindset as a zen guide to take you through a proven roadmap to more courage in life and less fear of death. Death is a problem for some people, yet it's more a goal for me despite it being an inevitable reality for everyone.
This mindset could be part of a black survival programmes. Black survival programmes aren't new in the black community they were set out most publicly by the Black Panthers. Kehinde Andrews says need to create structures in the West to help us to survive the system, Huey P. Newton did this through the Panther's free breakfasts for children, medical care and liberation schools. The structures or survival programmes were equated to a life raft. This perspective can be something we take on board our life rafts. In the turbulent seas of the West, and the oasis of systemic white privilege and the storms of legalised abuse, having a better perspective of death can keep us resilient.
Racism has a life and death impact on those in Africa, where a child dies every 10 seconds from entirely preventable causes. The least of us need serving, those trying to make ends meet not those with the means suffering through the process of reaching them (like us). Having the right perspective on death means as Malcolm X says, ensuring the rights and respect of the global Black nation 'by any means necessary'. Self defence though not as violence but a response to violence.
Finding solace in our suffering and eventual end, In African thought death does not mark the end because the ancestors retain a connection to the world. Knowing that if not within our lifetime but in our child's lifetime we'll have a revolution on the African continent (it'll never happen in West) it was worth it. Our lives are connected to the younger African diaspora generations.
I En-Courage you to take comfort in death while the West that's built on racism system still exists because as long as it exists, we will all be second-class citizens. However, this isn't an acceptance of our societal conditions. No, this a rejection of conditions considered intolerable. Moreover, this comfort means that death is preferable to life, if the latter is devoid of freedom. "Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees;" this is what black survival means.(4)
Let death help you internalise the struggle. Death can't be worse than life, especially for the black diaspora in Africa. Remember to acknowledge that we're not all thriving to is collectively realise as a global Black nation that we're all still surviving.
As an aside, what's interesting is I don't quite know how I developed this perspective. I've typically thought of death as most people I know. Perhaps the experiences I've had in life have shaped in me the beliefs underlying this perspective. If this is the case how can I teach others if they haven't had the same experiences. I think the development of this death mindset is partly to do with mindfulness and yoga, both of which I practise. As I mentioned I have less fear of death and less fear has been scientifically linked with the practice of mindfulness. The grey matter in our brain's amygdala - responsible for stress - literally gets smaller. So practising a bit of mindfulness won't harm ya!
In fact, in line with meditation, the Buddha's raft parable is a parable for Black survival:
'A man is trapped on one side of a river. On this side of the river, there is great danger and uncertainty; on the far side is safety. But there is no bridge spanning the river, nor is there a ferry to cross over. What to do? The man gathers together logs, leaves, and creepers and by his wit fashions a raft from these materials. By lying on the raft and using his hands and feet as paddles, he manages to cross the river from the dangerous side to the side of safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question. What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself, That raft has served me well I will carry it on my back over the land now? The monks replied that it would not be a very sensible idea to cling to the raft in such a way. The Buddha went on, What if he lay the raft down gratefully thinking that this raft has served him well but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore? The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude. The Buddha concluded by saying, So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with—not for seizing hold of.' (5).
These structures we create to help us survive in the West can only give us temporary safety. Eventually, the raft needs dropping and our temporary survival arrangements too because true freedom, equality and justice are found in an entirely different order.
1. Andrews, K (2016) Black is a country: Building solidarity across borders. World Policy Journal 33(1): 15-19.
2. Andrews, K (2018), Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st , Zed Books, 164.
3 Cone, J (1998), Black Theology & Black Power, Orbis Books, 92.
4. Camus (1956) The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower New York: Random House, 13
5. Anderson, D. (2012 November 19).The Parable of the Raft [web log post]. Retrieved January 2, 2019, from http://findingyoursoul.com/2012/11/the-parable-of-the-raft/