In The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press, 1992), Patricia J. Williams draws on contemporary events to discuss her views and experiences of racism in everyday life. My first thought after reading the first three pages of The Alchemy of Race and Rights was, “Not much has changed in twenty-four years.” This made me wonder: what type of epilogue would Williams write for a 2014 edition of the book? Aside from this sad observation, three themes caught my attention: the place of (the) spirit, seeing/being seen, and polar bears.
Williams addresses the commodification of humanity, or the selling of a fictionalized life to all willing to purchase it (chapter three), using terms like “buying one’s freedom” and/or “paying the price.” In chapter four, Williams introduces the term “spirit murder,” which she defines as the “disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard” (73), and using various examples illustrates how we have successfully omitted personal responsibility from life, making the Cain and Abel motif Williams’ touches on (chapter three) our reality. “I am not my brother’s keeper” may be the motto of the20th and 21st centuries.
While Williams brings up the concept of buying freedom and paying the price, she does not, in the theme of spirit murder, mention the idea of “selling one’s soul” as part of paying for and/or buying what has been dressed up as freedom. We are responsible for refusing to acknowledge the spirit of humanity, yet, we have been tricked into releasing our own spirit and selling ourselves into a culture of commodification. Thus, we simultaneously ignore the indwelling Spirit (gifted to us by a God in whose image we are made), and we handover our access to spirit so that we may participate in a manufactured existence based on a system of constructed power. Everyone in the power imbalance has sold their soul: one side because they are bullied into choosing the lesser of two evils, the other, for the sake of wielding imaginary power that isn’t power at all.
Williams also mentions the removal of passion from law, which reminds me (rightly or wrongly) of a scene in Legally Blond. Elle Woods has just begun classes at Harvard Law, and one of her professors mentions Aristotle’s definition of the law: “The law is reason free from passion.” If passion is truly beyond the bounds of law, why then do we discuss “crimes of passion” or violent events erupting in the “heat of the moment”? While justice should be administered without bias, this certainly does not exclude passion or spirit from being involved in restitution. The passion I mean here is not the type of retaliatory justice Williams describes in chapter four (a product of fear and bias). Instead, I mean passion found in forgiveness, compassion/empathy, and reconciliation—a sense of spirit that has been removed from “law” and relegated to religion, even though the two areas are not necessarily separate. Passion is the energy of existence that ignites us to turn spirit murder into spirit celebration.
The book’s title refers to alchemy, a process in which fire (both physical fire and the fire of the spirit) transforms. For speculative philosophy, the goal of alchemy was to turn metals into gold and/or discover the key to immortality. Analytical psychology (i.e., C.G. Jung and depth psychology) uses alchemy in reference to the process of moving from lack of (self-) knowledge into a realm of conscious awareness of oneself as an individual in the world. While Williams seems to refer to the philosophical understanding of alchemy (163), it seems as though part of the narrative journey entails moving from a lack of knowledge (or a lack of spirit) into a conscious awareness (built on, or with the help of, spirit) of race and rights, both for herself and her readers. For Williams, this awareness seems built around seeing and being seen.
Williams threads her book with a discussion of her great-great-grandmother, her relationship to both this ancestor and the white slave owner who impregnated her relative, and her experience seeing reflections of herself (or, being seen as property and seeing ourselves, or others, through our own eyes). The blood that runs through each of our veins tells us a story about who we are, one that no one except our family knows about. It tells us about our resilience of spirit, what we’re capable of enduring and surviving. I am not just Alex Carroll in 2014, I have the blood of Polish farmers and factory workers in me, an Irish firefighter, a Scottish clan, and, among others, a grandmother who got her first job, after her husband died, when she was in her sixties.
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we do it mainly to access our presentation to the world: Is my hair in place? Is my eye shadow smudged? Are my clothes clean? What I felt Williams call attention to, as she described seeing herself in NYC store windows, was not just a presentation but a reflection of the generations (good and bad) that contributed to making her.
When we look deeply at our reflection, there are times when we cannot recognize ourselves, most often when we are ill, exhausted, overworked, stressed, etc. At those times, are we even looking at ourselves, or are we looking at our blood, our ancestors refracting generations of weight and spirit murder back to us? Perhaps this is part of the problem, one that keeps us tethered to continued engagement in spirit murder, continued because we don’t know any other way of being. Or, is our inability to see the generations in our reflection a deliberate excision of the past from us, so that we believe we truly stand alone as individuals, and not on the shoulders of those who came before?
For example, Williams’ discusses violence incurred by the revelation that Beethoven was mulatto during a discussion between two young men (112). The perpetrator, who defaced the poster of Beethoven and then hung it as a kind of anti-icon for his African-American friend, claimed that he was aware of such dehumanization as a Jew, but ignored what that reflection told him about how to bear responsibility to others. The knowledge of the pain of generations seems to have existed in him, but the disconnection between himself and the pain of the generations that made him (one instance of spirit murder) lead him to create another incidence of spirit murder. Perhaps the action was a form of retaliation, a misplaced display of rage and pain that he could not show those who dehumanized his ancestors, so he directed it toward his contemporary. The incident itself points to the damaging effect spirit murder has on oneself, not just against others. The rage Beethoven’s lineage ignited in this young man reflects his inability to experience spirit revelation whenever it manifests.
The Beethoven incident points to the rage that accompanies seeing, while the conclusion of Williams’ book points to the rage of not being seen, of being ignored, and of forcing others to see you. One example demonstrates the desire to refuse the spirit (the Beethoven incident), while the other (Williams’ Dartmouth experience) presents the demands of the spirit. How do we know, in each and every instance, when anger is a product of ignoring the spirit and when it is an assertion of the spirit? Perhaps the criterion really is nothing more than the presence of dehumanization versus humanization. But, how do we fix this problem when spirit murder may be both external and internal?
The crux of spirit murder, passion, and seeing/being seen comes together in Williams’ concluding references to polar bears, including a brief vignette of two polar bears in captivity, who were depressed and/or went mad. While the anecdote may seem random, the images of captive animals and their madness dramatize the dangers of spirit murder, and parallel the freedom-without-freedom in which we exist. Captivity destroys the spirit, yet we insist on placing wild (i.e., free) animals into unnatural, restrictive habitats for our enjoyment. For some reason, we cannot tell that we engage in this type of behavior on a daily basis with ourselves and those around us. Those in power believe they are free and have power because they offer choices (that aren’t really choices) to others, and dictate when, where, and how others should live. These same so-called powerful people, however, cannot sense that the restrictions they place on others restrict themselves. As long as this cultural contribution to captivity goes unrecognized, spirit murder will prevail. We are living like the polar bears, in small habitats that we have constructed for ourselves, and in which we claim that one lives with the freedom of the spirit. How many generations have lived within these restrictions? Is there anyone who remembers what it is like to live in spirit and without spirit murder?
Part of the problem, it seems, is the belief that to achieve freedom one group must put another down, so that that “other” doesn’t impinge on the freedoms the powerful desire for themselves. By refusing to engage the spirit, however, those is power ignore the fact that there is enough freedom for everyone. Spirit does not shrink or dry up, there is enough for all. Spirit does not exist in a preset quantity, like a pizza that has only so many slices to go around. However, the perception of privilege prevents us from accepting spirit as it truly is.