I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet
Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light
I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.
The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting:
“I hate horror. I won’t do horror films. I don’t really, personally, see the value in them. Anything that, basically, is overtly celebrating darkness, and, to be perfectly honest, sanctioning it, that’s something I can’t personally do. I feel you cannot see the light without darkness, but, for me, a prerequisite I have for myself is that light must, eventually, win out. And that’s just what I choose to put out into the world. I believe in it; I know that films affect and shape culture, and I want to put stuff in the world that I feel is edifying, as opposed to stuff that is detrimental.”
As a classically trained actor, Oyelowo has been in a lot of Shakespeare plays, so he knows what’s possible in the storytelling art of theater. The world of the play can include both darkness and light. And isn’t that one of the great services of drama? To give us the vicarious experience of inhabiting every character, including the villains, so that, in the end, when good triumphs and evil is punished, the moral lessons are delivered directly into our subconscious.
A key narrative of the dominant culture is that we have evolved past having to put up with evil and darkness, or even moral weakness. Whether it’s science, technology, analysis, pharmaceuticals, religion, space travel, or incarceration, we have the tools to perfect ourselves. We have only to project our dark/inferior/diseased/insane aspects onto others, then treat, cure, jettison, or lock them up. This is the story that gave birth to the “War on—“ policies: War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terrorism. We have also been seeing it play out weekly, if not daily, in so-called “post-racial America.” The latest being the police raid on a teen pool party in the affluent Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas.
The dominant story denies and represses. The emerging story accommodates and embraces. Dominant story “others” and projects. The alternative story owns and integrates. David Oyelowo isn’t saying he only plays light roles. He is saying he won’t play roles that wallow in darkness, because they do actual damage. He chooses roles that integrate the dark and the light.
There’s a classic plot form called the “Redemption Story,” where the hero (or heroine) starts off jaded, self-centered and pessimistic, then undergoes a series of trials that change him. By the end, his world has expanded: lessons have been learned and his perspective shifts. He is more honest with himself, perhaps more altruistic. He does something surprising and generous, seemingly out of character. Think Rick in “Casablanca.” Sure, he knows there is evil and darkness in the world. He also knows that a light burns inside of him and it’s his choice whether to shine it or hide it behind cynicism and apathy.
I’ve written before about modern culture’s suspicion of the redemption plot. Things have gone too far, haven’t they? We can’t be so optimistic; we are doomed and we deserve it. To believe otherwise is just Pollyanna, wishful thinking. In response to this cynicism, I come back to the power of story. We create worlds through the stories we tell. It’s that simple and that irrational. There is magic and mystery in storytelling, something Mr. Oyelowo understands well.
Why not tell stories of redemption? I submit that we won’t feel we deserve redemption until we reclaim our own individual shadows. There’s been so much projection of shadows that the entire culture is blanketed by a great storm cloud. All we can see is darkness, wherever we look.
We are just coming up to the summer solstice here, a moment when night will be at its shortest. For seven months of the year, between the Equinoxes, night is either equal to day, or greater in length. We can’t avoid the darkness. Even when we sleep at night, we are dreaming, and dreams are a rich source of material for exploring the shadow. Just now, I’m wondering if Mystery isn’t having its way with me, nudging me to explore the shadow at the time of year when we have the most light. Could it be the safest time all year to delve into this difficult and dangerous topic? Only one way to find out.
The first of this series is an allegory about Opposites.