It is man’s role
In this evolving universe
To teach the terrors of his nature
And his world to sing
-Lillian Smith, The Journey
I watched Mike Tyson give this interview and I thought that his openness was extremely valuable to discords on the state of black culture. Its at about 13 minutes into the video where he states that, “We [black people] have the greatest egos in the world and the lowest self-esteem. I just come from a dark place.” This is the issue we need to address as a culture.
For black people in the United States whose ancestors were part of the African Diaspora, we are generally descendants of slaves. Almost by definition, slaves were not allowed to develop self-esteem. The sense of accomplishment that comes from honing a skill and increasing one’s value and self-sufficiency for whatever benefits one chooses, was lost for generations of people. Another important part of developing one’s self-esteem was also lost, and this was how to deal with failure.
Something I read highlighted a crucial aspect in our universal narratives about what it means to become enlightened. I am paraphrasing, but what it said was that, “in virtually all major religions around the world, the fall is a common theme.” It is through disempowerment of some kind —a loss of innocence, or fall from grace that we evolve. Failure propels us to our next step in spiritual, mental, and emotional advancement —if we allow it. This takes humility and emotional bravery.
Black culture incentivizes youths never to accept such a fall. We defy narratives that ask that we as a culture take anything “lying down”. This galvanizes people and can be instrumental in activist movements for positive change, but it can also be a shield that creates immutable barriers to developing genuine self-esteem.
Sometimes pain and failure have no redeeming value in and of itself. Sometimes there is no story where the failure leads to a triumph in the end. We don’t teach this in American culture and it can eventually prove to be our undoing. Refusing to accept losses inevitably leads to retaliatory behaviors and or unethical means of gaining advancement. Under such circumstances one might see a high rate of violence due to a need for one party to settle a score against another, as well as a disproportionate number of people willing to break the law to circumvent the rules they do not see a successful way through.
It is through embracing the humility of loss and the value of redeeming one’s soul through subjugating the needs of the ego that true self-esteem is established. The one thing so many of us fear the most is appearing weak to others. People quite literally would rather die than appear weak. Take a moment and think about the magnitude of that statement. People are not just willing to die, but are willing to kill another in service of avoiding the appearance of weakness. This is the ego at its worst. This doesn’t simply show up in extreme examples of life and death, we do this every day in our lives. Refusing to apologize when we are wrong, or not readily admitting when we have made a mistake are based on the ego’s need to uphold our image of strength. Not admitting fears and vulnerabilities don’t make you strong at all. They are indeed the source of your greatest weakness.
The slaves that were forced to sacrifice the very essence of what it means to develop a sovereign identity due to the daily subjugations of their bodies and their very lives to those who wielded power, did indeed find a means to cultivate self-esteem in a more surreptitious form. They survived.
It was through their survival that their strength, resilience and industriousness was able to be passed on to future generations.
They survived so that I and millions like me could live and build a better future on their sacrifice. There is no redeeming value in the horrors they experienced. There is no happy ending to hold up and celebrate the nightmare they lived through. They experienced the fall. It is blasphemous to exchange the genuine sense of self that we have been endowed with through their sacrifice for the cheap idolatry of the ego. We have to place a higher value on humility in our culture. Teaching children how to accept failure is just as important as teaching them how to achieve success.
It is our job now to stand as testimony of the terrors of mankind, hone our greatest potentials by using the gifts our ancestors left us —and to teach the world to sing.