By Renée Tillotson
I’m writing this letter to say that my 64 years on this earth have shown me that things DO change, that things CAN get better. In fact, throwing up our hands in helpless resignation denies the history of progress.
Shift happens… paradigm shifts, that is! And they don’t happen randomly. Human consciousness causes and shapes them. And we seem to be experiencing one right now.
I feel as if we are collectively giving birth and also squeezing through the birth canal right now. The mother is feeling ripped in half, and may not even survive the birth. The baby is undergoing bone-shifting pressure to come into the world… and may not make it. So much pain for new life to emerge. And we as a human race go through it over and over again for every precious infant who is born. I’m speaking about the Black Lives Matter movement.
For every great success in social justice, we must undergo a paradigm shift in our collective consciousness. What does it take to unearth an outdated paradigm? I believe it requires ripping our old, no-longer comfortable world-view out of our minds, and replacing it with a new, more resilient, spacious one. Anyone of conscience who has watched or heard of George Floyd’s death and many other abominations that white Americans are inflicting upon their black brothers and sisters, feels outrage and sorrow – to the pit of our stomachs and depths of our hearts.
The demand for shift screams from our heaving hearts, from the revolt in our guts. For big, long-ingrained practices to stop and to transform into a new way of being always require sacrifice, just as a mother must endure to bear a child.
I was dismayed to talk with a couple millennials last week who seemed to shrug off the possibility that violence to black Americans at the hands of police and jailers could be near an end. Some injustices are so egregious, that we’re tempted to despair of humanity ever moving on. Remember though, that for the mother and emerging infant, the intensity of the labor feels as if it will never end. But the new child does come.
Everything new in human life (as simple as a new recipe) is built upon an invisible pattern created in the human mind. Everything big (as grand as a new scheme for governing ourselves) is first fostered in our collective consciousness until it finally bursts forth into the physical world. That new thing begins nebulously as a dream, enters the human mind as a thought, is passed between minds as a vibratory image or song, is sketched out as a pattern through human language and design, and is finally brought into existence through the courage of human action.
Kindly allow me as a simple citizen of the world to share a few paradigm shifts that I know of. Each shift in the collective consciousness arose from people taking bold stances and/or suffering as sacrificial victims in the face of gross inequities. Their suffering awoke the sleeping consciences of their fellow human beings to such a fervor that social/political change for justice became irrepressible.
My story begins with Mahatma Gandhi freeing his teeming homeland, India, from more than three centuries of British domination…crafting the art of nonviolent resistance.
India 1608 to 1947
When the British arrived in India in 1608, they instantly recognized its earthly riches, while deeming its culture and people to be utterly inferior to their own. They ruled the people of India for centuries until the ugly brutality of the British
rule became repugnant to the English themselves. The Amritsar Massacre took place in 1919, when a British general ordered his troops to fire their rifles into a trapped crowd of unarmed Indian civilians, killing up to 1,000 villagers that day, and injuring thousands more. Indians were shocked by their rulers’ inhumanity, the Brits dismissive. The shift had begun.
Mahatma Gandhi stepped in to ask Indians to see themselves not as a subservient, backward people, but as a powerful force capable of self-governance. Gandhi convinced his people to non-violently resist the British laws that were unjust. He taught them to bravely turn the other cheek and take the consequences – which they and he did for decades.
The British jailed Gandhi on numerous occasions, but could not keep his resistance movement from sweeping the country. In the historically accurate movie “Gandhi” we watch with horror as one non-violent resistor after another walks towards the British and British Indian soldiers, only to be beaten down to the ground… for what? For daring to collect salt from their own beaches, which the Brits claimed they alone had the right to access but which all human beings need to consume for their survival. We watch the soldiers struggle mightily with their own consciences.
The Indians’ self-sacrificing courage in the face of violence and injustice eventually won the Britishers’ respect and commitment to moral behavior, and it swelled the Indians’ own confidence in ruling themselves. Gandhi’s people had affected a paradigm shift. In 1949 the British Empire voluntarily gave up her Crown Jewel, granting independence to India, which became the world’s most populous democracy. Victory!
The Vietnam War
Before turning to America’s racial story kindly allow me to share paradigm shifts that I experienced in the early part of my life.
Like now, a lot was going on in the mid 1960s. America sent troops into Vietnam in 1965. I recall going to Peace rallies with my parents, holding signs up against the Vietnam War and singing Kumbaya with Joan Baez at Peace concerts.
Soldiers who had no idea what they were really fighting for began coming home from Vietnam, either in boxes or with missing body parts or emotional trauma. The turning point of America’s collective consciousness seemed to come when I was in high school. Americans finally began to realize the human toll we were inflicting upon innocents in Vietnam. Seared into my brain – and no doubt into the collective
American consciousness – is the 1972 photo of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing a Napalm bombing, naked and screaming. At that moment, the winds of public thought shifted, drowning out the beat of our war drums.
The next year, 1973, America withdrew its troops from Vietnam in shame. It was the first time we had ever left a war without winning it, but I feel that it was ultimately a win for our consciences.
The Cold War
The Cold War simmered for my entire youth. I can still feel the tension my parents experienced and I didn’t understand at age 6 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day (October 16–28, 1962) confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, which is evidently the closest we ever came to dropping bombs on each other. Even after we signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963, prohibiting all testing of nuclear weapons except underground, the scare remained. A little girl I went to camp with about 5 years later cried herself to sleep every night, afraid that a bomb was going to fall on us in California.
The Soviet Union seemed like a scary thug overhanging all of Eastern Europe, and it seemed absolutely impregnable
to me from my earliest memories. I was a little too preoccupied having our three kids in the 1980s to fully take in the immense paradigm shift taking place under Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced the most striking political, economic and social reforms since the Russian Revolution. His new concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) shook new ways of thinking through the communist block.
Imagine my utter astonishment when the Berlin Wall, which had so stubbornly separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany under the Soviet Union for my entire lifetime, was suddenly dismantled in 1989. I felt as if I were in a dream, the event was so inconceivable.
Meanwhile, a dissident Czech playwright named Václav Havel led the Silk Revolution, a completely nonviolent separation of Czechoslovakia from the dreaded Soviet Union, also in November 1989. The communist world was ripe for radical change. By 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved, freeing all of its republics.
Black America 1619 to 1865 to 1964 to 2020
In 1619 black slaves, the majority of whom had been captured by West Africans and sold to European slavers, arrived in the American colonies. The American South built its agricultural economy on the backs of these doubly-sold slaves and their decedents.
Perhaps we all remember shuddering as children when we saw drawings of slaves stacked like cordwood within ship hulls, or separated on the auction block from their spouses and children, or lashed to near-death by their heartless masters. Such images haunt our collective conscience, especially in a country where we resonate to the principles of human and individual freedom.
When we could live with ourselves no longer, President Lincoln officially freed the slaves in 1862 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Dialogue between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, a self-educated escaped slave, evolved Lincoln’s thinking on slavery. Huge suffering, including the Civil War in which black soldiers fought valiantly, brought about enough of a consciousness shift that Congress ratified the 13th Amendment in 1865, purporting to legally end slavery in America.
Immediately, the South enacted Jim Crow laws in 1865 to at least separate whites from the blacks they could no longer enslave. During my parents’ youth in the 1930s-50s, blacks in the South were legally barred from eating in the same restaurants, using the same toilets and attending the same public schools as their white counterparts. But public sentiment was beginning to change, especially after black American servicemen distinguished themselves in WWII.
The US Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the public schools in 1954. Victory! Actually desegregating schools has happened slowly.
On December 1, 1955 (one week before I was born), Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on the bus. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. peacefully led his first protest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. MLK went on to lead the American Civil Rights movement, modeling it – to the extent he could – on Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent strategies.
Protesting blacks endured tremendous hardships, with Dr. King and his family receiving numerous death threats. In my memory, the real turning point of the movement came when Bull Connor, the Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety endangered the lives of black youths in 1963 by turning police attack dogs and fire hoses on them during a peaceful protest. As the viciousness of those attacks came over our television screens, white Americans were sickened and ashamed. The collective consciousness in America shifted, pushing Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Victory! For the moment.
In order to gain the majorities needed to pass these acts, politicians sadly had to remove clauses that would have explicitly outlawed violence against African Americans. They bowed to Southerners’ demand for “interposition”, allowing local and state governments to control their own law enforcement standards. We sadly left that battle to be fought at another time, in fact in another century… in fact, NOW!
In the ultimate sacrifice, Martin Luther King prophesied not “getting to the mountain top” with his people, and he was assassinated the next day. The sacrifices – willing or unwilling – continue.
There is no way to comfort a weeping parent of a black man or woman who has been killed by stone-hearted police officers, and no way to say we’ve achieved anything like racial fairness in this country. Yet the sacrifices made along the way have made a difference.
Among many other gains, we’ve elected a black president for not one but two terms – the recoil of which we are currently experiencing in the backlash of white supremacists today. I take joy knowing that two black women, Michelle
Obama and Oprah Winfrey, are among the most widely known and respected human beings on the planet. While blacks continue to fill the majority of our prison cells, women, blacks and other minorities have made strides in education and income.
What strides we’ve made since only land-owning white men filled America’s early Congress, Supreme Court and Presidency. How our paradigm has shifted in terms of who should hold office in America! Here’s a snapshot of minority representation in the US Congress In 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed, compared to minority representation in TODAY’s June 2020 US Congress.
And we still have more work to do.
None of these changes in social justice spontaneously occurred on their own – they grew out of paradigm shifts in human consciousness – shifts demanded by the human heart and foreseen by the human mind. The people’s demands of conscience and their clear vision of a new tomorrow ushered it into reality, time and time again. Had they simply resigned themselves to the status quo, nothing new would ever have arisen in the face of seemingly insurmountable resistance.
My greatest concern lies with those who are suffering from the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party, whether the minority people of China who live with spies called “aunties” and “uncles” planted in their own homes to make sure they aren’t privately practicing their religions, the Tibetans whose genocide and ethnocide continues, and the people of Hong Kong, around whom the Chinese fist is tightening its iron grip. I can only hope that hidden flames of change within the collective psyche of the people will spring up someday and surprise me within my lifetime.
We cannot allow our lethargy or our lack of creative vision to perpetuate the old way. No! As human beings, we need to continue to keep our hearts wide open to each other’s suffering, and our sight trained on the next step to a better future. This is not only necessary, it is possible.
These and many other events in my experience have given me great hope for the present situation being a watershed moment in the United States… at least a significant step towards diminishing racial injustice and increasing racial harmony. I have faith that America’s conscience will ultimately win the day.
About the Author
Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!