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Born Into This Body: Black Women’s Use of Buddhism in Autobiographical Narratives

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 183-210 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0000

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This essay treats three African American woman’s Buddhist autobiographies— Faith Adiele’s Meeting Faith (2004); Jan Willis’s Dreaming Me (2001); and Angel Kyodo Williams’s Being Black (2000)—as part of revelatory African American women’s writing, showing how autobiography can expand expectations and the genre in ways some think neither possible nor necessary.

How Three Black Women Find Buddhism

As far back as 1992, as Bruce B. Lawrence points out, bell hooks, a practicing Buddhist, decried the fact that black Buddhists were absent from any discussion of immigrant Buddhism or American converts to Buddhism (85). In fact, black people have consistently engaged with Buddhism as dabblers, adherents, and scholars. The writers examined in this essay—Faith Adiele, Angel Kyodo Williams, and Jan Willis—illustrate this range of connections with Buddhism in the African American community while also allowing readers to discover a unique chapter in the history of black American women’s autobiography. Their explorations into Buddhism result from the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Access to education led to worldly exposure and the opportunity for travel and study that would not have been available to a woman a generation earlier. Their writing about these experiences and the resulting discoveries and beliefs, however, place them squarely within a tradition of African American women’s spiritual autobiography. Unfortunately, this tradition includes deeming unnatural and detrimental to the community black women who speak of individual religious experiences.1 Although much of the tendency toward extreme condemnation has passed, these three women still write about and analyze the same anxieties over community and its concerns. Their forays into Buddhism offer both isolation that allows them to put their concerns into perspective and the opportunity to write about often-ignored issues that are specific to African American women’s lives.

American black women have encountered Buddhism as both a spiritual and political tradition. According to Carol Cooper, “[i]n the half-century since Buddhism re-entered American pop culture . . . more and more black females—children of the civil rights movement, champions of black nationalism, feminist iconoclasts, and intellectuals—have been finding their way to Buddhist practice.” Cooper goes on to refer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nomination of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize and his adoption of a Hindu practice of nonviolence as some of the most prominent examples of how Eastern religions can complement black American life. Author, professor, and Buddhist practitioner Charles Johnson similarly connects King’s embrace of nonviolence and Buddhism:

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. I link King with Buddhism because his statements are very close to the idea of dependent origination. He talked beautifully about how the world we live in is one of mutuality in which we are all equally dependent on each other. King embodies both social change and spiritual growth. That’s what made his 14-year public ministry— from the Montgomery bus boycott until his assassination in Memphis—as a leader so important.

Because Dr. King made his religious and social philosophies explicit and public parts of his activism, the connections that he made to Eastern philosophies and spiritual leadership of movements around the world were available for individuals in the African American community to discover. Much of the detailed information about what he incorporated into his activism has faded from memory even though his image has not. This set of circumstances makes him an ideal example to present to black Americans wondering about Buddhist practice.

Buddhism pushes new practitioners to examine their ways of connecting their interior lives to the external world. Such encouragement helps ease the minds of black people who may worry about indoctrination. The beginnings of Buddhist exploration can act as a self-assessment or self-examination that feels empowering. Angel Kyodo Williams sees Buddhist principles as aids in helping people become responsible for their own spiritual health (“‘Revolutionary’”). Meditation teacher Ralph Steele and Shu Shin priest Joseph Jarman cite examples from their own lives. Steele used meditation alongside other forms of therapy to recover from flashbacks he suffered after serving in the Vietnam War (qtd. in...


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