June 15, 2007

Charity and the Imagination

Caribbean-American Heritage MonthJust before I gave my speech at the Miramar Civic Center, I had a fascinating conversation with a JC Old Boy, we'll call him Michael to save him from su-su, about charity in the Caribbean. It soon became an interesting discussion that drew in a few others, and I made a comment about recent post in Moving Back to Jamaica, "Giving is Hard to Do," where Francis lamented:
We in Jamaica make it so hard for ourselves. While there is a lot of in your face begging, even from the able bodied, our organizations are so poorly run that they cannot accomplish even the simple task of receiving gifts of time and money.

The deeper our conversation went, the more I learned that our giving, when it does happen, flows in the form of remittances from one family in the US to an extended family in Jamaica. That charity, however, rarely extends to members outside the family. The seriousness of our discussion was brought home by the plight of our alma mater, Jamaica College.
As I got ready to go onstage, Michael asked me how I thought the situation could be changed. I sensed that Michael was a no-nonsense, bottom-line kind of man, so I sipped my Johnny Walker and crushed the ice between my molars. Bad for my teeth, but I've known people like Michael all my life.
I wanted to tell Michael that the only time that humans give is when they feel an intimate connection with the receiver--when we believe that the receiver's welfare is tied to our own. Giving, therefore, is tied to an idea of oneness and is a product of the imagination--a unique faculty in humans. And this faculty has to be trained.
I wanted to tell him about one of the saddest moments of my life as a teacher and poet. I used to work as a "Bicycle Poet" with Adrian Castro and several other poets. We'd make arrangements with an elementary school, ride our bicycles into the playground where the kids used to wait for us under a tree, not knowing what would happen next, and we'd read poetry to them and teach them how to write poems and stories. The kids loved it. One day, however, I went to a school and the teacher kept the children in the classroom and refused to take them to the library. When I got there, no matter how hard I tried, the kids found it hard to use their imagination. Even when I tried to get them to use similes under the guise of telling lies: "Let's tell some lies about ourselves! My skin is like the bark of the avocado tree," they just stared at me. And the teacher had a look of "Don't you dare put your hand up or after he's gone you'll see some lies and similes." Fear dominated the classroom and it showed in the children's faces and in their body language. A complete failure of the imagination. Here was a class where a teacher was willingly training her students to become zombies--unthinking, unfeeling, unimaginative beings who do as they are told and never question anything. They were being trained not to give of themselves or their imagination.
And it's not that I don't understand the teacher's point of view. She had to manage a classroom of thirty or more kids and the last thing she needed was for them to be asking stuff. It was either them or her, and she wasn't about to give them an inch.
And why should she anyway? Giving is unnatural because it goes against our thinking that there isn't enough for everyone. So hold on to what you got, baby.
And yet we hear in the news everyday stories of people giving their lives for other people. We witnessed behaviors like this during 9/11. Why would anyone do that? According to Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, this was a question with which Schopenhauer grappled until he came to a tentative answer that this kind of giving "represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life" (138).
But experiences like that are rare. So how do we get a group of people to care enough about each other so that they can perhaps come to the point of caring about each other? Or even change? The only way is through the imagination. The Greeks knew this. They had festivals where comedies and tragedies were performed and Aristotle witnessed a collective catharsis. The source of the catharsis, as James Joyce reminds us in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is terror which "arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause." Through the willing suspension of disbelief we enter a universe where a collective emotion is shared. When people start book clubs, it is usually because they've found other people who have shared those moments of pity, terror, and humor between the pages of a book.
These experiences and feelings are generated by the imagination. Any work that requires the sustained attention of an audience, if the artist is skillful, can achieve this--especially with readers who have been taught how to read by recognizing the patterns in fiction and are not just struggling through the thicket of words in a paragraph.
Our imaginations determine the quality of our lives. Change, personally and nationally, occurs when the imagination is engaged in purposeful activity. But to bring about the change that Michael wanted would mean investing in the tools and the people who are trained in the ways of the imagination--without the surety of the desired effects. Michael was a result oriented, if-I-put-money-in-it-I-better-see-results-soon-guy, and this kind of investment involves risk.
My friend didn't want to hear that.
Caribbean-American Heritage Month & Jamaican Diaspora Day Jamaican Diaspora Southern United States
A Celebrity-Media Mini-Sports & Health Awareness Day
Saturday, June 16, 2007, 2pm – 7pm
Delevoe Park
African American Research Library
2650 Sistrunk Blvd, Fort Lauderdale

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