Liberty Matters

The Water Truce


Roosevelt Montás beautifully captures the relevance of the canon to all people, and his thoughts cause me to reflect on a passage in Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book. In the book there is a list of the various laws that govern life in the jungle. One of those laws is “The Water Truce.” Because all creatures in the jungle have a common need for water, the law states, “By the law of the jungle it is death to kill at the drinking places.”[1] When it comes to hunting or eating, a creature can find something to sustain them, even if there is a scarcity of prey, but for water there is no substitute. Everyone needs water. Everyone uses water to survive. So the Water Truce provides a safe space for all creatures of the jungle to drink safely in order that all living creatures can sustain the cycle of life and progress. 
Classics could be a “Water Truce” of sorts. Because a plethora of people have connected to these texts, they provide a neutral space. Many have come to this space of classics to “drink and be refreshed.” This is possibly the one thing humanity has in common. Even though the stories that bring us to the texts may all be different, the texts still enlighten us about our shared humanity and seem to neutralize the often conflicted spaces of diverse peoples. 
Montás mentions a passage from one of W.E.B. DuBois’ essays in The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois describes a version of a “Water Truce” when he describes a vision of himself dancing with some of the authors. DuBois wrote profusely on the topic of the relevancy of classics to Black people. Many of his writings found in The Souls of Black Folk and The Education of Black Peopleintroduce us to a world where Black people were able to find refreshment at the same watering hole that the Founding Fathers, Phillis Wheatley, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Huey P. Newton, Chinua Achebe, John Locke, Wole Soyinka, Paulo Freire, and many others drank from. By drinking from this same water source, many were able to engage in a dialogue which gave space to be heard, because the source of language and understanding was the same. 
I am especially drawn to the story of classics in the Black story. DuBois was the first to open my eyes to this narrative. In the essay “Of the Training of Black Men,” from Souls of Black Folk, he articulates why classics is a way Black people can free their minds from the stigmas chained to them by their oppressors. In reading these texts, the ancestors did not seek to reject their African heritage, but they saw these texts as a gateway to gaining literacy in the foreign land where they were forced to live. Du Bois does not argue that reading the texts grants us a way to say, “Hey, we are just as smart as you because we can understand these texts too.” Instead, he posits that in these texts he found a world where all men WERE equal, with common experiences to be shared. This is representative of the “Water Truce.” At the watering hole all animals were equal, requiring the nourishment of water to thrive. Like the watering hole connecting prey and predator, these experiences connect us and solidify our understanding of our common humanness. Their brilliance is that they are not only particular, but universal. These texts tell the human story, not just the “white” story.
Montás shared one of my favorite passages from DuBois. In the essay “Of the Training of Black Men”, DuBois writes a sort of “opus” to his belief in the power of these books:
…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightley America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?[2]
This passage reveals that classics could be a common ground, a watering hole, a place to discover oneself, and a connection to other human beings. The work of classical study could be something other than the chore of treading through line after line of complex text; it could be a labor of love, even a dance. In Du Bois’ metaphor, he is dancing with the authors in a joyful exchange, where he feels nothing but equality and acceptance. The authors engaged in the dance did not know or experience what America has been like for Black Americans. The authors were coming from a completely different place. Of course, that place was not devoid of prejudice, but modern American racism, with its history of chattel slavery and Jim Crow oppression, would have been utterly foreign to it. These authors were not writing to promote a racist worldview, but they were writing to move people, to teach them, to tell the human story. 
I end with a quote by James Baldwin, who reveals an interesting perspective on why he engaged with the culture of “the West”:
…I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use--I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine--I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme--otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.
These books are a part of the story of how all of our ancestors obtained the key to understanding the shared history of all humans. They are a life-giving spring of wisdom from those who have walked life’s path before us. I know that many names of color and women have been left off of the list of authors, but I will expand the list. The Watering Hole I see is a vast mountain spring of refreshing water that flows with the wisdom of diverse human beings. When I read these texts, I do not just see a white heritage, but I learn the stories of how my ancestors connected to these texts to comprehend and articulate their painful and beautiful story in the language of a foreign land. As prey drank beside the predator in The Second Jungle Book, may we all come together and drink from the watering hole of wisdom found in classical texts, the collection of wisdom left for us by ALL of our ancestors. 
[2] Du Bois, 1903/2005, p. 108.