By Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Source: Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Growing up, my family ran to the TV to see black folks’ faces across the screen. I still run to see, but rarely do I stop these days. When I saw the post for this taped conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, I ran towards it, fluttering, and it stopped me for a very long time.
The message from a black feminist perspective moved me in good ways and challenged my dharma practice. But I didn’t jump to say anything publicly, as I hoped others would speak my mind and heart. I sat with the conversation for many days waiting for commentary from others about the dialogue. Most were overjoyed to see that a public conversation on black women’s voices even occurred at all. Of course, I was excited as a writer and an advocate of bell hooks’ work. I don’t have cable so I was unaware of the new superstar, Harris-Perry, whom hooks claimed at the end of the video to be her soul sister. I loved it. But let’s get on with the grit of the messages they brought to light. I wondered, as the titled suggested, “Who was listening?”
Were they preaching to the choir?
I shouted amen, but as a choir member I had a few riffs of my own that sometimes aligned with the speakers and sometimes not. I found their delivery exacting, caring and cautious not to harm others. I found myself joining the conversation in my head — adding the flavor of a Zen priest. What hooks and Harris-Perry were saying sounded like the dharma of black feminism (my words).
What came to mind was that intellectual black women’s voices, when speaking of liberation from suffering, tend to go against the stream. It is said that the Buddha described the Dharma as “going against the stream” of our conditioning as human beings. Instead of fixing or running away from our conditioning, we investigate it and learn from it.
Swimming against the stream, you realize the strength of the waters in which we live. The investigation in the Harris-Perry and hooks conversation is often overlooked in sanghas in which there are efforts at practicing “no self.” However this effort often leads to clinging to an idea of an absolutely disembodied, disconnected self, rather than viewing “no self” as an interrelationship in which everyone is seen and heard.
In the video, as black women, Harris-Perry and hook’s voices of black feminism go against the stream of what hooks calls white male heterosexual patriarchal dominance which she says is the root of suffering within systemic oppression (on a global level). I add that anyone, despite embodiment, may support patriarchal dominance, consciously or unconsciously. They were delving into their interrelated experience living in this country and yet not of it (i.e. not heard). With the conversation they were taking action and attending to structural realities that distort black women’s voices when they are making an effort to meet at the place of liberation in which many other voices of opposition have already been situated.
Harris-Perry and hooks cut deep through the waters of contemporary issues of black people across the lines of racism, homophobia, sexism, and the dehumanization of transgender people. I heard hooks say black women need to carve out a place for true dissonance of thinking and being as well as carve out different ways of living our lives as black women. As a dharma practitioner herself, hooks asked the question: “Who are we and where do we place ourselves?” Is this not an inquiry we all have had on the path of dharma?