'Race Prejudice as Self Rejection' by Laurens van der Post (1956)

A selection from a lecture given by Laurens van der Post called Race Prejudice as Self Rejection, 1956.
"As I walked about Africa I realized one day that what we are having in Africa is the most dramatic presentation of a world situation. [...] I think it is because the situation in Africa represents the world situation that it is of such interest to the world." 

Editors Note: Early in December, 1956, the Workshop for Cultural Democracy brought together at the Carnegie Endowment International Center in New York City forty men and women for an all-day Seminar on the overall subject "The Psychological and Spiritual Aspects of Group Conflict." It just so happened that this corresponded with Laurens van der Post's first visit to the country. This selection is based on a consolidation of van der Post's lectures at the public meeting and the Seminar, taken from tape recordings.

I have always wanted to come to America, and this is my very first time here. I have wanted to come because I have felt that if I came we would be able to talk together in a way in which I could not talk in Europe. I felt that here, as in my own great continent of Africa, you have what was in the beginning a transplanted European community, which started with people who had been persecuted, who had suffered for their convictions, and who had come to a great natural country with a great primitive content of its own, and had tried to make a new way of life here. This is precisely, in a sense, what three hundred years ago my ancestors did when they left Holland to settle at the Cape of Good Hope. And somehow I felt that if we came together there ought, to take place some kind of exchange which would be of immense value.
As I walked about Africa I realized one day that what we are having in Africa is the most dramatic presentation of a world situation. It is almost as if what is going on in Africa is a kind of Greek drama in which you see two apparent opposites in conflict. As in the Greek theater, the actors in the drama are always dressed in the classical colors of fate, in black and in white. And I think it is because the situation in Africa represents the world situation that it is of such interest to the world.           
Now what is that situation? I think the situation is that because of the lack of the awareness which I have mentioned, modern man is a deeply and profoundly displaced person. We all live in an age of essentially displaced people. [...] We have lost the inner sense of belonging because we have been so extremely one-sided in our development.
In Africa you get this problem of displacement in its most dramatic form. We call it detribalization there, and I speak to you now as one who is perhaps more detribalized than most.
Detribalization is the phenomenon in the modern world which is at once one of the most hateful, and one of the most depressing of all human phenomena. It is known by all of us who have become aware of modern life as it is.
We all feel that there is something in ourselves that needs expression and changing, and our communities somehow do not express this changing thing in us.
I think the reason why our communities are failing to express that is because we have completely lost track of the natural person inside ourselves. We have completely lost track of what I call the dark person inside ourselves. The black person in Africa, whom we persecute, is the natural, the spontaneous, the instinctive person. We are in a state of profound civil war, and one of the most terrible things to me, as I look back upon the history of Africa and the world, is that I see that this spiritual damage which we have done to ourselves is a spiritual damage that we have also done to Africa. One of the greatest mistakes that we made was to think that the natural man is not a spiritual man.
Actually, the natural man in Africa is a truly spiritual man. [...] He sees it in the trees, he sees it in all the objects which surround him. The tragedy is that we walked into this immense primitive spiritual world of Africa and treated it as if it had no spirit at all. I do not want to take things out of their context, out of their time context, but the things that we have done in Africa, the harm that we have done and the harm that we continue to do, is essentially a spiritual harm. Materially, Africa is better off every day. The roads get better, the hospitals get better, the medical services get better. But the spiritual injury to the man, the first man of Africa, remains. It never occurred to my ancestors, or to anyone, that this person had a natural first spirit of his own. It never for one minute occurred to them that here already was a sense of religion on to which our own sense of religion could be grafted. The early missionaries, the Jesuits first, followed by the Protestant missionaries, all wrote off the natural beliefs of man in Africa as pure superstition. They all laughed at them, and they scorned the whole lot of them.
The administrator did exactly the same thing. [...] This enormous unknowingness has led to an utter and complete incomprehension of the man of Africa.

The result is tragic. I do not want to go into the politics of it here. [...] I just would like you to see it as essentially a problem of the world and of our time, a deeply spiritual problem. 
An old hunter I knew as a boy said to me: "This conflict that you have in Africa is caused by only one thing, and that is that the natural man of Africa, the primitive man, is, and the white, the European man, has." Those are the two things that are at war in the modern world today. It is this problem of having and this problem of being. It is the having which is fighting the being in Africa.
I will not now go into the question of why color adds such a particular point to it, because important as it is, it is not important for the general realization that this is the problem of the modern man. He is in a state of civil war. We are in a state of war against that part of ourselves which has got fastened onto this materialistic world, against that part of us which is. We in Africa have to live it by coming to terms, as soon as possible, with the dark people in our society, and we can only do it, I think, by coming to terms first with the spirit in ourselves, with this natural person in ourselves. I do not think there is any escape. We have to take on the situation in which we live, first upon ourselves as individuals. The whole world must take on the question of displacement, and go to the place inside ourselves where we truly belong.

 It seems to me that the most important matter before us at this moment is to find a way of fighting against evil in such a manner that we do not become just another aspect of the thing we are fighting against, which seems to be going on all over the world. I have seen this happen so much in my own lifetime. I have seen people fight against what they call colonialism and imperialism and get their way, merely to become another form of the colonialism and the imperialism they are fighting against. The problem is to fight against evil in such a way that we do not become the evil itself. There is a very old French proverb, and a very wise one, which says that all human beings tend to become the things they oppose [editors note: it was an old saying also that people resemble the things that they love, glow with its light]. [...] That is our immense dilemma at the moment. I think that the only answer is to turn to these spiritual sources in our natural selves, to turn to the source where we find the dream, a good dream. The primitive people of Africa say that there is a dream dreaming us. It is a good dream. The only trouble is we live it badly.
You can find the dream in the natural part of yourself. If you turn to it you will find that in it there is no sense of displacement. That is where you belong. If you can somehow transcend the kind of civil war from which we are all suffering, the war between our natural selves and our so-called civilized selves, you will lose your sense of displacement. Above all is the very fact that we can share our sense of displacement. The minute you realize that you are not the only one, you realize that you are not displaced, because you belong to something which in a sense does not yet exist. You belong to a community which is coming. At once you are at home. To me the most exciting thing in the world today is that the moment one speaks of these matters, one finds that he really is not alone.
How do we reconcile the various aspects of ourselves, at a time when we are so dreadfully divided against ourselves ?
What is the split, the fateful split? [...] ...it is because there is this gap between the natural instinctive person and the extremely cold, calculating, materialistic person we have made of ourselves. It is of the utmost importance that the gap be closed. But, the moment you close that gap the chances are you will be in a state of profound revolution, not in the Marxist sense, but in the New Testament sense. You will be a revolutionary example and you will be utterly at home, because you will have that feeling of belonging.
The great need of our time is somehow to get rid of the pretence, this awful secrecy in life, where people profess to be one thing and live another. Somehow that has to be brought out in the open, so that we will stop pushing the natural part of ourselves into a corner. We have slums in the spirit just as we have them in cities We have the despised black person in ourselves just as we have despised black people in Africa. That is where it starts, I am firmly convinced. It starts because we resent this dark person in ourselves, and then we get it mixed up with the dark person in society. The way to put it right is to see, for instance, the black man in Africa for what he really is. He does not feel himself to be black. He feels just as light as we are, just as full of light as any of us. 

The thing that I can never get people in Africa to see is that black people have exactly the same values about black and white as we have. When the Zulus talk about a man who is a great tyrant and extremely unpleasant, they say he has a black heart. In other words, he is different from the ordinary Zulu because he has a black heart. And I think this is the way we have to start and the way to start is to think about ourselves in a new way; to get rid of the ideas and things that are not proper to our experience. We want to turn from dogma and doctrine to our own living experience; to the dream which is behind all experience. Here we will find a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and a sense of direction.
There is an immense meaning, a meaningful activity, in all of us which transcends words, and even transcends action. That activity is presented to us in terms of images. And these images are always greater and more powerful than the use to which we can put them, and the expression which we can give to them. I think that is absolutely basic. There is this immense world of images that comes up and there is this image of the shadow. And a human being is not truly real unless he has a shadow. When human beings acknowledge that, they see it instinctively. If only we could come back to this natural side of ourselves, to see meaning instinctively as well as intellectually! The old Chinese recognized it.
We are always less than the vast cosmic activity which is in us, and we can only select certain aspects of it from moment to moment, and reject others. And the shadow is the image of the ones we reject.
I think that in this inevitable rejection, in this process of selection and rejection, is the price we pay for consciousness. It is not easy to be conscious; it is a serious battle to be a conscious, aware human being, one's own human being is really being in the fire. In the process of selection in which we are inevitably involved, we are also involved in a process of rejection.
What is it in our time, in our age, that we particularly reject? What is this aspect of the shadow that we have, this darkness? Well, it happens to be everything that the natural man stands for at this moment in time. The things we have rejected are the things which the dark man, the black man, implicitly accepts as basic. In Africa, and in the world, we have produced an extraordinary kind of hatred and a kind of love for this dark image in the human mind. (To me it is striking that the world-wide movement for the abolition of slavery, which was a recognition of the wrongness of that rejection, started at the same time as the idea of the "noble savage," that came out of the mind of Rousseau.)

I am certain that in my own country it is not black people as such that we are legislating against. It is not the black man as he is in our society that we are legislating against. It is a projection of this rejection inside ourselves of the natural man. That is what we are doing in my country; I am absolutely convinced of it.

Our whole way of living is so much a rejection of the natural, the feeling, the warm, the human being, that we keep nature in a little box of its own. And we confuse this shadow that we throw with the black man without. We see confusion with the image in our own minds, and until one comes to that point and to that realization, we are not really free of what I call color prejudice. Once you have seen it, once you have realized it, the whole thing goes up in smoke. Immediately you become free... .
But we must face up first of all to what it is in ourselves that we reject that makes us reject a person who mirrors our own rejection in the outer world. This to my mind is the real problem in this kind of race relationship, because it is not like other race relationships. We must face up to it because it contains the color element. It is not like the problem we have with the Russians, for instance. It is not at all like it. There we have a race problem too, or if you like, a national problem. You had it in Germany with the Jews. Darkness was tragically mixed up in the German mind. The problem was and today is the acceptance of the image of the dark, of the darkness, of the darkness in ourselves.

But we fight against it as bad, even though we are secretly attracted to it. And since the dark-skinned man has it more than we do, we fight against him and what he represents. And we let our inner image of black as the symbol of the devil, the unknown, and evil in general, project itself in hatred on to the "black" races.
Secretly, my countrymen hate or are afraid of the black man in Africa because we could like him too much. In a sense we love his indifference to our values. In a sense be does threaten us, because he provokes the natural in us, and we are terrified of the natural. We are terrified of going black in the spiritual sense, not in the physical sense. When we say we are afraid we will all go dark, and must preserve white civilization, what we really mean is we are afraid of going dark spiritually, going into our own shadow, taking up this thing that we have rejected, and to which we owe so much. And that is what happens.
There comes a moment in the history of the world when you have to come to terms with yourself in order to be a complete person, to be a complete society, to be an integrated society. You have to come to terms with what you've rejected. You have to bring that up and take it in. And that is why we are frightened -- the day of reckoning must come. We are frightened because we might feel too free. Heaven knows what we are going to do next when we let life in on that scale. We might even stop going into Parliament! One might just like to sit in the sun all day. One might become so natural he might love everybody. It would be disastrous. So we push it, we fight it, we push it away all the time.

The interesting thing is that this imagery works very clearly in the minds of the black people of Africa. They have the same image of darkness we have. When they feel threatened by the unknown, it is dark, it is black. They do not feel dark at all. They feel just as light as anyone else in the world. Some of them are more full of light than any of us. When they speak of Chaka, the great Zulu tyrant, they say, "Ach, be had a black heart." And when the "black" man sees the "white" man as his enemy, he sees him as very black. In the mythology of Africa the children of the Spirit are white. And that is where the mixup came. We white men started with a very unfair mythological advantage, when we went into Africa, going there in this image of whiteness.

If black and white do not get together and meet inwardly and outwardly on friendly terms, there may occur an event on a world scale symbolized by the story of the white and the black knights in King Arthur's Court:

There were two brothers, the Black Knight and the White Knight and they set off on a quest, each on his own, one going north and one south. After many years they met in a dark wood and did not recognize each other. They immediately assumed they were enemies and when both were lying bleeding to death on the grass, they undid their helmets and recognized they were brothers. God grant that our own act of recognition comes before the contest, and not after.
This legend, I feel, illustrates in its deepest sense the problem of rejection -- a rejection in ourselves, in society, and in civilization. Perhaps the mythological aspects of this machinery of rejection will help further to illuminate the situation.
I think perhaps the best myth I can take is our own myth. I find it so tragic and ironical that the age in which we live should regard the word "myth" and "illusion" as synonymous, in view of the fact that the myth is the real history, is the real event of the spirit. It is this immense world of meaning with which the image links us. The myth is the tremendous activity that goes on in humanity all the time, without which no society has hope or direction, and no personal life has a meaning. We all live a myth whether we know it or not. We live it by fair means or we live it by foul. Or we live it by a process or a combination of both.

The sense of a journey must always be expressed in the most contemporary way in the material, in the circumstances of one's life, in what is first and oldest in the human spirit. This is beautifully told in the opening phrase of our own Judeo-Christian myth. In the Bible, the opening journey is concerned with the first great discovery, the discovery of laws:  with the lawfulness of life. Then you get a period where the people try to stand still in that lawfulness.

 Then comes the second phase in the myth, where God comes down to the world to become a human being. He is no longer aloof. He is no longer separated. He has actually become flesh and blood.

Consider what Christ was from the little history that we have of the event. The myth starts straight away with rejection. He was born outside the law.

That is the flight to Egypt. That is the land of bondage [out of which the myth first emerged]. It is a return to the very beginning of the myth, as it were, in order to make it reality. It goes right back to Egypt. There is the mysterious disappearance into Egypt before it re-emerges and there we have to deal with the God who has become... the rejected aspect of that society. And what is this rejection? It brings something which the law, important as it was, has ignored: the discovery of love. It is the discovery of forgiveness... . Life could not move on because it could not forgive itself. It stood still in this law. It was pinned down, and the human mind, the human spirit, could not move on until there was this discovery of the reality of forgiveness.

This forgiveness is not a cerebral, soft or sentimental thing. It is not a kiss against the sunset. The new, immensely heroic reality which is God's Son brings a sword. But it has this extraordinary basis: the capacity of forgiveness. And this, in a world drunk and obsessed with law. It is the Roman might and power which this rejected being, this rejected God, discovers as He makes a wonderful remark already prophesied in the Psalm which He refers to when He says, "The stone which the builders have rejected shall be the cornerstone of the building to come." Thus there is a resumption of the journey, and the resumption starts with the acceptance of the rejected aspect of society.

          From that time, 2,000 years ago, until now we have refused to go on with the journey. We have not, in a sense, many of us, even come as far as this mechanism of forgiveness. Spiritually and intellectually, we have tried to limit that myth to a particular event. In the meantime, another kind of rejection was piling up because this great discovery of the new, Christian reality has also brought about the rejection of the natural, primitive, instinctive man. The imperative of our time is that the journey must go on again. We have to strike our tents and be on the march and come to a new aspect of ourselves. We have to deal with this new kind of rejection.
I feel there has also been a third great discovery in the mechanism of man. It links closely with what is implied in the process of man becoming God. This discovery owes an enormous amount to Carl Gustav Jung. He has found that by delving into dreams and into the rejected aspects of the psyche there is found the godlike mythological activity in the human being, a sort of master image which, if you can get hold of it, can deal with the mechanism of rejection.
In each of us there is a transcendent image that can reconcile these opposites; bring them together and make it possible for us to move on again. This is the phase at which we stand today. This is the opening, and I think it is a turning point in the history of the human mind. This is the facing up to the mechanism of rejection in ourselves, the realization that the thing we reject in order to become what we are, unless we meet it as a friend, comes one day knife in hand, demanding to sacrifice that which sacrificed it. That is an absolute law. That is how it works, whether we like it or not. That is how it works in us, how it works in groups, how it works in the world. We have had disastrous illustrations of it from time to time, particularly in this generation in which we live. Twice already have we seen the sacrificed aspects coming knife in band, being dealt with by foul means because we would not deal with by fair means.

And here we have a fact of tremendous religious importance. But it is not being dealt with in our religious life if we allow dogma and doctrine to destroy the sense of journey in human beings, this sense of becoming... .

 If we look into ourselves, we find mirrored in our society the vagaries of our lives. We have slums in our minds before we have slums in our streets. We have these prejudices inside our minds before we have them in our societies.

 This is what the natural people of Africa do. They attach great importance to their own myth, through which they know their shadow. They live their myth, which is the natural language of the spirit... .

That is difficult for us to do; besides, it is very dangerous to give up a concept -- to break it down and build it up again. Yet it is a necessary task to be done at all times. The Bushman's saga is told in images, and illustrates how among the earliest human beings the god himself had to be renewed always. That is, the image we have of God has to be renewed from time to time in true contemporary terms. It cannot be pinned down indefinitely. If it is not renewed, we do not have the power to move forward as individuals, even as the Bushman does in his saga.

Here in Stone Age language is pointed up the necessity to do what we have to do today to deal with the shadow, to deal with the All-Devourer and to move to a new, a truly contemporary statement of ourselves. Because that is what is lacking -- there are no modern people in the world today. There is no truly contemporary expression of all these old things in our nature.
We, too, need to have access again to these spiritual well-springs. We need to come again, as we once did as children into the wonderment of this mythological process that we have been educated out of, so to speak. We must find its meaning and express it through our lives.

Our great technological advances need not be a barrier to this aspect of our being, particularly as science itself, at the moment, has taken a significant turn. Modern physics has altered the whole approach of the scientist who once attached so much importance to the object, the extreme object. He has now gone into the object so deeply he has found that that which is so solid, at the other end of his electronic microscope vanishes and he is again faced with stars and moons and with atoms and particles that behave mythologically. The deeper he goes the less lawful becomes the behavior of the matter that he is dealing with. These objects that are so solid, on deeper examination are such stuff as dreams are made of. They vanish at the outer edge. So the scientist stands in the presence again of a great and wonderful mystery, as do all men.
We are lucky that in Africa we have this fine, preserved mirror of the past in primitive man, to show us how the spirit was felt in the beginning. Can we take hold of it and carry it forward and give these things a contemporary expression?