Black American buddhism: History and representation

Linda Furgerson Selzer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


In one compelling scene in the racially controversial film Crash (2004), a successful black television producer and his beautiful wife-Cameron and Christine Thayer (played by Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton)-are pulled over by a racist cop and his reluctant young partner. The scene quickly escalates from an ostensible case of mistaken identity to one of full-blown police intimidation. Just before pulling the couple over, Officers Ryan and Hansen (played by Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillipe) had received a police alert describing two armed black men in their twenties traveling in a stolen, late-model, black Navigator similar to the one in which the couple is riding. Although both officers clearly are aware that neither the license plate of the couple's Navigator nor its occupants match the dispatcher's description, senior Officer Ryan, motivated by a simmering racism that has recently been brought to a boil by a black insurance agent who refused medical aid for his ailing father, decides to pull the couple over for his own purposes. Early in what will become an increasingly abusive encounter, Officer Ryan places his hand on his police-issued Glock and tells Cameron to get out of the car. At that moment Christine attempts to defuse the situation and defend her husband by pointedly telling the officers, "He's a Buddhist, for Christ's sake!" Within the context of director Paul Haggis's Oscar-winning film, Christine Cameron's "Buddhist defense" of her husband lends itself to several interpretations. Most immediately, Christine uses the observation to suggest that her husband would never drive drunk (although she herself is somewhat inebriated, the couple having come from a celebratory awards ceremony). More important, Christine seems to use her husband's Buddhism in an attempt to distinguish him from the officers' stereotypical expectations, or as a defense against racial profiling. By implication, Cameron's Buddhism suggests that he is not an "angry black man," but a peace-loving and nonthreatening citizen. As the scene develops, however, the pacifism implied by Cameron's Buddhism takes on disturbing overtones when Officer Ryan forces Christine to submit to a humiliating and sexually abusive body search while her husband stands passively by. Finally, Cameron's Buddhism is positioned by the film not simply to imply that Cameron doesn't fit the officers' stereotypical profile, but also to suggest that he is in fact racially and culturally inauthentic-charges the black couple aim at each other in a later scene, when Christine tells her husband, "the closest you ever got to being Black was watching the Cosby show," and Cameron replies, "at least I didn't watch it with the rest of the equestrian team." Crash therefore gestures toward the growing number of black Americans who are practicing Buddhism, while the film simultaneously raises questions (both intended and otherwise) about the cultural representation of Buddhists and black people, especially in relation to issues of cultural and racial authenticity. Since the 1990s, black Buddhists themselves have been writing about their religious practice with increasing frequency, addressing in their own voices the complexities generated by their multiple cultural identities. Such writings offer an invaluable firsthand account of the challenges-and opportunities-that confront contemporary black American Buddhist practitioners. At the same time, the emergence of a black Buddhist voice in American letters prompts serious consideration of the cultural history of this group. This chapter examines what Turning Wheel: The Journal of Engaged Buddhism has called "Black Dharma" by analyzing black American Buddhism from its early roots in the nineteenth century to its contemporary expression in a variety of articles and books that have been recently published by black practitioners, including works by figures such as bell hooks, Charles Johnson, Angel Kyodo Williams, Jan Willis, and fellow traveler, Alice Walker.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWriting as Enlightenment
Subtitle of host publicationBuddhist American Literature into The Twenty-First Century
PublisherState University of New York Press
Number of pages32
ISBN (Print)9781438439198
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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