I did two things last week: listened to Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly–for the first time–and started Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. Neither piece was approached with jubilant anticipation–Lamar’s album has been out for half a year. I resisted the exploration of both for a number of reasons–all of which boil down to bias. Growing up in a digital world where everyone has license to publish an opinion makes it difficult to have an original thought, or at least an autonomous experience of a piece of work, without the assistance, or distraction, of someone else’s view. Of course I could join generation X in blaming the Internet for…everything, but as an adult (who is still growing) I can acknowledge that I resisted both pieces of work out of fear and ignorance. Fear of what? Having my views challenged, liking something I thought I wasn’t supposed to, changing my mind? It was a culmination of all three. K. Dot’s album dropped at a time where everyone who looked like me was dying at once and the ones who looked like me with money and “power” were either blaming us, ignoring us, or pimping us. Kendrick had his infamous interview with Billboard where he stated:
“What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” – Kendrick Lamaar
without even reading the full article, I tuned him out–decided he had nothing worthy for me to listen to. That’s where my own ignorance came in. I couldn’t have been more wrong about Kendrick. At the time, I felt like an exposed nerve that was being hit and hit and hit. I couldn’t take anymore thinking, feeling, healing, whatever–I was just raw, raw and angry.
Those feelings seemed to sew my mind up and leave my conscience huddled in a safe corner clinging on to the things that either justified my anger or made me feel good. I wasn’t challenging myself. I was even proposing the expulsion of books and writers who didn’t speak specifically to “me” and those who forms of my identity. My ignorance, my resistance was slowly forming a cave and I was blinding myself to my own manipulation of images. This affected my ability to socialize, my ability to explore, my ability to grow.
Coates talks about a similar moment during his time at Howard, “The Mecca”, where the notions he walked in with were being conflicted and challenged. He believed that his search for the history of Europe’s violent under development of Africa would be “a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected,” but, through his readings, his exploration, he found “factions,” and “factions within factions,” where one black scholar/theorist/artists’ plausible idea was “smashed to splinters by another,” equally plausible idea, leaving “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just often marching away from each other.” His comforting singular ideas were being shredded; leaving him open, conflicted, confused with multiple ways to go. But where I shied away from the “intellectual vertigo” he indulged. He continued to read, even pieces that dismantled his dream. Where I shut myself up in the cave of my limited thoughts he made the painful process of stepping out into the light. Such is the journey Kendrick takes throughout his album. In To Pimp a Butterfly there is a poem that begins as follows:
“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
I didn’t want to self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
the poem continues to weave through the rest of the album, taking us deeper into his existential, intellectual, and moral crisis of battling what he knew and what he’s learning all while trying to remain a humble leader and lover is his people. We see that same indulgence in “intellectual vertigo” Coates also relished in. Like Coates he too took a trip away from his streets, his home, away his world, and into a world that challenged, conflicted and, ultimately, changed him:
“I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget/until I realized I didn’t know shit” – “Momma”
There is no way To Pimp A Butterfly could exist without Lamar’s own personal metamorphosis. It’s the very thing he discusses on the final track of the album, “Mortal Man,” where he engages in a conversation with Tupac about a series of things, one of those being Lamar’s poem on the caterpillar’s pimping of a butterfly:
“Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots” – “Mortal Man”
Like Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave, the caterpillar is shrouded in the darkness of its cocoon–never breaking free of the projected images in order to walk into the light of consciousness. Though I am a woman from an upper-middle class suburb, who can only look into Coates’ and Kendrick’s childhood worlds from the outside, I can relate to the darkness. I can relate to the resistance of the light, the pain, the journey of becoming a butterfly. But where both Lamar and Coates pushed forward, I remained inert. Where both took on the work of metamorphosing, I was stationary, comfortable, stagnant. Until now.
When I was interviewing my friend, Kopano, for my Why I Read docu-series she said something that always stuck with me: “when you’re reading something that’s uncomfortable…keep reading it.” I was astonished. Though, in romantic theory, I agreed with her I was totally incapable of practicing it. My biases, my ignorance, my resistance couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow me to come in contact with what offended, challenged, or contradicted me. I was afraid. Of what? Confrontation? Transformation? Both?
My bias, my ignorance is my cocoon, my cave, but my recognition of both and my continuous desire to challenge both is what brings about a metamorphosis that is perpetual for there is, as Coates articulates, power in “discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear.” Constant challenging, defending, learning, and unlearning is how evolution works. The mind must remain kinetic or it risks a dormancy worse than death.
Each day is a conscious act to fight my resistance. Where others run into the wind open to its ever changing direction I step in, cautiously, with my windbreaker stubbornly walking in my own direction–fighting its current. In some respects I am thankful for my stubbornness–it is a testament to my independence–but in some cases where it renders me provincial I am…not ashamed, but alarmed and determined to change. I’m determined to enter my journey of “intellectual vertigo,” to forage through my cocoon and emerge a butterfly, who is by no means perfect, but who is constantly trying to soar higher. It is the same journey I read in Coates’ book and it is the same journey I hear in Lamar’s album.
I’ve had my mind, my emotions, my sensibilities on training wheels. I’m a big girl now and it’s time I take them off. It’s time I embrace challenges of the mind. Holding on too tightly of previous notions will never allow space for growth or inspiration. The Bible says “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” Erykah says, “The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all,” Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” I say, resist your resistance; you’ll be a better person for it.