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Baldwin and Buddhism: Death Denial, White Supremacy, and the Promise of Racial Justice

Illustration by Rae Minji Lee

“Terror cannot be remembered… Yet, what the memory repudiates controls the human being. What one does not remember dictates who one loves or fails to love.”

—James Baldwin

More attention should be paid to why white people remain so attached to narratives of racial supremacy. This was a sentiment shared by authors Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Resmaa Menakem in an online fireside chat held in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.1 If the purpose of radical analysis is to grasp injustices at their roots, then what might lie at the aching roots of white supremacy?

Menakem’s provocative answer, in his excellent book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is that white supremacy is conditioned by generations of unprocessed trauma: “White bodies traumatized each other in Europe for centuries before they encountered Black and red bodies.”2 Left unprocessed, that trauma has helped fuel a will to racial supremacy that works emotionally to soothe people whose violent histories made them feel less-than.

A question that follows from Menakem’s powerful analysis is this: Why were Europeans dominating and traumatizing one another before their violence was directed towards Black and red bodies? In other words, is there an even deeper trauma that continues to condition a will to supremacy for white-bodied people?

James Baldwin thought so. In his powerful writings on whiteness, Baldwin argues that white supremacy is rooted in abiding terror.3 But what are white people terrified of? For Baldwin, white Euro-Americans lack the cultural resources for facing the existential reality of finitude, of death. In a powerful passage from The Fire Next Time, Baldwin observes that

“Americans cannot face reality, the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”4

Although Baldwin uses collective pronouns in this passage, he concludes by specifying that “white Americans do not believe in death.” Likewise, in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin observes that “whoever fears to die also imagines—must imagine—that another can die in his place.”5 For Baldwin, social constructions such as race and racism are mobilized as psychic buffers that help white people cope with their existential fears, albeit in infantile and destructive ways. More specifically, the fantasy of white racial superiority operates to soothe the primary vulnerability that white North Americans feel in the face of mortality. Unbearable feelings of being less-than in the face of finitude are softened with attractive illusions of being more-than vis-à-vis racialized people.

Baldwin is attuned to how race has historically been used strategically by American elites to divide the multiracial working class and to maintain class power.6 His existential analysis of whiteness, however, helps to explain why working-class whites have been so willing to choose racial over class solidarity. Gaining entrée into whiteness is a way of coping with historical trauma, as Menakem argues, but it is also a way to bear unprocessed existential trauma, particularly belittlement in the face of mortality, what the philosopher Hegel called “the absolute master.”7

For Baldwin, the ultimate hatred that white people need to overcome is the hatred they feel for themselves as mortal and vulnerable beings. If white North Americans could overcome this self-hatred by genuinely affirming human finitude, then they would be much less likely to conjure fantasies of compensatory supremacy. “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other,” writes Baldwin, “and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”8

Learning from the Blues

While Baldwin gestures towards the universal force of existential fear, he is sensitive to different experiences and orientations toward mortality among white and Black cultures in North America. The historical legacies of slavery and white supremacy have made premature death all too present for Black people. In an essay on blues music, Baldwin describes the realities that the blues draw from: “work, love, death, floods, lynchings; in fact a series of disasters which can be summed up under the arbitrary heading ‘Facts of Life.’”9 It is telling that the political terror of lynching is shared in the same breath as primarily existential or “natural” concerns: death, floods, meeting subsistence needs. White supremacy has overexposed Black people to the reality of finitude to the point where political violence is now part of the expected human terrain. But taking a dialectical outlook, Baldwin argues that elements of North American Black culture have managed to successfully transmute an overexposure to mortality into an honest reckoning with the existential reality of finitude, a reckoning that whites have mostly avoided.

For Baldwin, North American whites and the wider world have a tremendous amount to learn from blues music and its transmutation of excessive hardship. Baldwin writes: “The blues are rooted in the slave songs; the slaves discovered something genuinely terrible, terrible because it sums up the universal challenge, the universal hope, the universal fear:

The very time I thought I was lost
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”10

Freedom, and even joy, is possible in the most constrained and dreadful circumstances. In Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cedric Robinson argues that enslaved Africans drew from their ontological and cosmological systems to resist their brutal conditions.11 Likewise, while acknowledging the diversity alive in every culture, Paget Henry argues that American Blacks “inherited from Africa very ecstatic, life-affirming and participatory attitudes towards spiritual existence.”12

A line can be drawn from the life-affirming ethos Henry identifies with African cosmologies to slave songs, to early blues music, and all the way up to the works of more contemporary Black artists. Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No (I Got Life)” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” are impressive documents of affirmation in the face of “work, love, death, floods, lynchings.” Simone, for example, counters the deprivations imposed by white supremacist culture with the liveliness coursing through her body. “What have I got nobody can take away?” she asks.

I got my arms, got my hands
Got my fingers, got my legs
Got my feet, got my toes
Got my liver, got my blood
I’ve got life, I’ve got my freedom
I’ve got life13

Simone turns to fleshly, carnal, and finite existence not as an oppressive burden, as it is often experienced in North America’s death-denying (and thus life-denying) culture, but as a source of freedom.14 This life-affirming ethos, which Baldwin also draws from and develops, is central to what Robinson calls “the Black radical tradition”—the “values, ideas, conceptions, and constructions of reality from which resistance was manufactured.”15

I do not mean to suggest that there is a unitary Black way of confronting death. Without cultural resources for transforming it, the fear of death easily feeds a compensatory will to supremacy for all peoples. As philosopher Cornel West recently observed on The Tight Rope podcast he co-hosts with Tricia Rose, there is “something inside of us that does have a propensity towards cruelty. Sometimes gratuitous cruelty in terms of how we deal with life knowing that death is coming and the insecurities of wanting to be superior. Black folk vis-à-vis Black folk. Black folk vis-à-vis brown folk. That’s a human thing.”16

For Baldwin, any future possibility of building a “beloved community” would require that all people start the process of reckoning with their existential reality. At the end of his essay on the blues, he warns that “if you spend your entire life in flight from death, you are also in flight from life.”17 It is this flight from death that has disconnected North American whites from the fullness of life, thus making certain aspects of contemporary culture so deadly for Black people and, as ecological crises intensify, deadly for all of us. Denying the reality of death only brings forth more death.

Baldwin and Buddhism

Baldwin’s existential analysis of whiteness is deeply resonant with Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa’s diagnosis of political injustice. For Trungpa, “A great deal of chaos in the world occurs because people don’t appreciate themselves. Having never developed sympathy or gentleness towards themselves, they cannot experience harmony or peace within themselves, and therefore, what they project to others is also inharmonious and confused.”18 Our lack of appreciation, according to Trungpa, arises because of “fear of death, fear of oneself, and fear of others.”19 To transform this fear, we need to examine it through meditation. Trungpa’s claim is that if we look closely enough, we’ll see basic goodness, or fundamental workability, at the core of our experience. For Trungpa, “we can work with the rest of the world, on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves. Therefore, meditation practice is regarded as a good and in fact excellent way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare.”20

Buddhist philosophy and meditation are powerful resources for white people looking to overcome their ontological self-hatred, thereby short-circuiting compensatory attachments to white supremacy. But if Buddhist praxis were sufficient for achieving racial justice, then Buddhist communities in the Euro-Americas would be beacons of beloved community. Cue the laugh track. As bell hooks has observed, based on her experience as a Buddhist practitioner and a Black feminist, exclusions along multiple axes of oppression—such as race, class, and gender—continue to shape the dissemination of meditation and yoga in the Euro-Americas.21

James Baldwin himself was critical of early white popularizers of Buddhism. For example, he derisively called beat generation poets such as Jack Kerouac “Suzuki rhythm boys” (D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen was a popular book at the time).22 Baldwin was particularly frustrated by Kerouac’s romanticization of racialized peoples without any attentiveness to the violence of racism in the United States. He noted that Kerouac wrote from a place of alienation and pain but that the pain expressed in his writing was “thin” because of its removal from the realities of racial violence.23 Much of Euro-American Buddhism—despite its efforts to grapple with the existential challenge of impermanence—is “thin” for this same reason.

Thankfully, a strong current of racial justice Buddhism is now ascendant due to the long labors of teachers such as Rev. angel Kyodo williams, bell hooks, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Larry Yang, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and Lama Rod Owens.24 The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and East Bay Meditation Center are organizational leaders in this current. There are also non-Buddhist organizations informed by Buddhist praxis, such as White Awake and UNtraining, doing vital racial justice work.

UNtraining, for example, offers separate workshops for white people and people of color who want to undo social conditioning and heal from white supremacy. The curriculum combines antiracist education (i.e., lessons on how racism works individually and structurally) with deep personal work, including the use of techniques such as meditation, contemplation, and reflection. The UNtraining curriculum is anchored in Chögyam Trungpa’s concept of basic goodness. In the context of UNtraining, working to embody basic goodness helps white participants deal with the shame that can arise when they confront their attachment to white supremacy. The assumption is that despite oppressive social conditioning, participants remain “basically good.” Developing greater existential trust helps white participants undo their conditioning without spiraling into shame and resentments that might inadvertently feed future oppressive behavior.

Following Baldwin’s theorization of whiteness, embodying “basic goodness” can help short-circuit the illusions of supremacy that people generate to cope with existential fear. Recall Baldwin’s powerful observation that white people need to learn how to “accept and love themselves and each other and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”25

Given Baldwin’s account of a whiteness born of self-hatred, racial justice Buddhism holds tremendous transformative potential because it addresses itself to the existential and political drivers of white supremacy while prioritizing healing for racialized peoples who are daily menaced by it. White supremacy has multiple roots and thus many paths of transformation. While not a Buddhist himself, James Baldwin’s existential analysis of whiteness helps point to racial justice Buddhism as one powerful pathway to the uprooting of white supremacy.


This essay draws from a larger project I am co-authoring with Anita Girvan. Our conversations have shaped this analysis in vital ways. Likewise, I would like to thank Gabe Dayley, Lesley Erickson, shah noor hussein, Francie Reed and Trudi Lynn Smith for their editorial insight. All mishaps, however, are my own.


James K. Rowe is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria. He is currently writing a book called Radical Mindfulness.


Artwork by Rae Minji Lee


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Notes

  1. Resmaa Menakem and angel Kyodo williams, “20th Anniversary of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace,” Unscripted Fireside Chat and Live Q&A, August 2020, https://www.zenchangeangel.com/fireside-chat-rev-angel-resmaa-menakem.
  2. Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 11.
  3. James Baldwin, “Martin Luther King,” in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 651.
  4. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1991), 22.
  5. James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (New York: Owl Books, 1985).
  6. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 682.
  7. Georg Wilhelm Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 177.
  8. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 22.
  9. James Baldwin, “Uses of the Blues,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Vintage, 2010), 71.
  10. Ibid., 80.
  11. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 122.
  12. Paget Henry, “African and Africo-Caribbean Existential Philosophies,” in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. Lewis R. Gordon (New York: Routledge, 1997), 13.
  13. Nina Simone, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” ‘Nuff Said, RCA Records, 1968.
  14. In On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Vintage, 1969), 67, Friedrich Nietzsche impugns the life-denial endemic to Euro-American Christian culture: “The darkening of the sky above mankind has deepened in step with the increase in man’s feeling of shame at man… so that he sometimes holds his nose in his own presence and, with Pope Innocent the Third, disapprovingly catalogues his own repellent aspects (‘impure begetting, disgusting means of nutrition in his mother’s womb, baseness of the matter out of which man evolves, hideous stink, secretion of saliva, urine, and filth’).”
  15. Robinson, Black Marxism, 309.
  16. Cornel West and Tricia Rose, “Former FBI Agent Erroll Southers Says Police Should Be Guardians, Not Gladiators,” September 3, 2020, in The Tightrope, podcast, https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/former-fbi-agent-erroll-southers-says-police-should/id1524242837?i=1000489994392.
  17. Baldwin, “Uses of the Blues,” 80.
  18. Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), 24. The organization that Trungpa founded—Shambhala International—is currently in crisis because of abuses of power (including sexual misconduct) perpetrated by Trungpa’s son, who now leads the organization. The Shambhala case helps to clarify that mind/body practices such as meditation are insufficient for transforming systemic forces such as patriarchy. Patriarchy, like white supremacy, likely has existential drivers, thus necessitating embodied approaches to gender justice. But those embodied approaches need to be joined with collective efforts to target institutional dynamics if they are to be successful.
  19. Chögyam Trungpa, The Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), 18.
  20. Trungpa, Shambhala, 17.
  21. bell hooks, “Buddhism and the Politics of Domination,” in Mindful Politics, ed. Melvin McLeod (Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2006), 60.
  22. James Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” in Morrison, Collected Essays, 277.
  23. Ibid.
  24. For a helpful collection on racial justice Buddhism see Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections, ed. George Yancy and Emily McRae (New York: Lexington Books, 2019).
  25. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 22.