Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nonviolence Now! Author Alycee Lane discusses her book

Alycee J. Lane is a former professor who taught African American literature and culture at UC Santa Barbara. She is author of "Coming in from the Cold," a blog in which she analyzes political and social issues through the prism of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence. A student of Engaged Buddhism, Alycee in 2012 participated in the year-long Commit to Dharma course offered by the East Bay Meditation Center under the tutelage of Larry Yang. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Howard University, Doctorate of Philosophy from UCLA, and Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley (Boalt Hall). Alycee currently lives in Oakland, California. Alycee was one of the presenters at ACN's 2015 conference on "Challenges to Nonviolence."

ACN: We were so pleased to meet you when you came to Ashland earlier this year and presented a terrific paper about the ways that the language of nonviolence gets co-opted by official and governmental appeals to "peaceful protests." Now it's great to celebrate the recent publication of your book, Nonviolence Now!: Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign's Promise of Peace. Could share with us, first of all, the reasons why you wrote this book?

AL: Nonviolence Now! was not the book that I intended to write. What I intended to write was a book on the subject of African Americans and Buddhism – a topic inspired by my participation on the East Bay Meditation Center’s year-long Commit to Dharma (C2D) Buddhism study group, facilitated by Larry Yang. In particular, I was initially interested in the growing African American Buddhist community and how it was thinking through the relationship between African American histories/cultures and Buddhist practices.
At the same time that I was participating on C2D, I was also blogging regularly on political, social and cultural issues through the prism of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing and, more specifically, through his philosophy of nonviolence. I had taken up this project because my readings in Buddhism drew me to the issue of nonviolence and I had come to realize how little of King’s work I had actually read, let alone studied.

My practice, my study of King’s work and my blogging – and thus the idea for my book – really just came together on May 16, 2013, the 100th day of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ hunger strike. By asking myself the questions -- what can I do to help bring the terrible injustice of indefinite detention to an end? What am I doing or not doing to make Guantanamo possible? -- I found myself having to go deeper and to ask: what does it really mean to live nonviolence in thought, word, and deed, to embrace it – as King urged – because “of the sheer morality of its claim”?

I answered all of these questions by turning to the Birmingham Campaign’s commitment card, which King discussed and reproduced in Why We Can’t Wait and which I saw with new eyes. I saw that it was not merely a formality, a thing that volunteers would sign off on in order to get on with the “more relevant” business of nonviolent protest. It was, instead, a guide for becoming, at the level of everyday life, an alternative to our violent society as well as a purposeful actor against injustice and violence – wherever and however they manifest. It was a deep inquiry into how we live our lives and whether we contribute to the violence around us. It was a reminder that the business of creating a peaceful world, of making sure such travesties as Guantanamo never happen again, will never be complete unless and until we also do the arduous work of transforming the violence in our own minds, hearts and spirits.

And finally, the commitment card was for me a mirror through which I could see that my own personal, everyday investments in violence absolutely compromised my ability to make peace. I wrote Nonviolence Now! because I imagined that this is true for many of us. I wrote it because I wanted to urge us on to the unfinished business of practicing nonviolence as a way of life.

ACN: Tell us what you hoped to accomplish.

AL: Through Nonviolence Now!, then, I hope to awaken us all to the deep radicalism of nonviolence, to start a conversation in African American communities and beyond about what nonviolence actually requires of us, so that we can move forward from the limited and relatively easier conversation about nonviolence as merely an issue of strategy or tactics. To limit the question of nonviolence in this way is to do nonviolence on the cheap, for it never forces us to look at the ways in which “normalized violence,” as Leela Fernades argues, “creeps into our everyday actions and behaviors in ways that are not reducible to questions of structured inequalities.”

But this is what I also hope to accomplish: that we rethink who we are, how we walk in the world, and how we define ourselves in terms of our shared commitment to a peaceful and just world. Through it I suggest, as did King in “Beyond Vietnam,” that a politics grounded in such political and social identities as “race, nation, and tribe” are ultimately inadequate to the task not only of challenging the crises we face (war on terror, resource depletion, economic inequality, climate change, racism – to name a few), but of creating the kind of structural changes required to manifest the kind of world we desire. I see the practice of nonviolence as a way for us to recognize the “radical interconnection between all of us” (again to quote Fernades) “that necessarily transcends narrower forms of identification” and that is necessary for real and meaningful change.

ACN: Why do you think these topics are particularly important now?

AL: The “malady” in the spirit of the nation that King identified in “Beyond Vietnam” (a malady that, to King, expressed itself as both the war and the “giant triplets” of “racism, materialism and militarism”) has continued to deepen. Our refusal to address climate change, our wars, increasing economic and other forms of inequality, out-of-control race-inflected gun violence by police and citizens alike, the deterioration of our civil discourse – all these things and more reveal that the healing power of nonviolence is needed now more than ever (as promising as such movements as #BlackLivesMatter are in tackling these issues, they play out the continued split between nonviolence as strategy and nonviolence as a way of life, and thus are on track for missing the more radical challenge that nonviolence poses).

Now more than ever, we need to develop a practice of nonviolence because the choice we face between “nonviolence and nonexistence” has become a more urgent choice to make.

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