The sigh was collective. Weighted with a tangible disappointment it was all we could do to make space for it as we gathered after class one day. Numerous stories of police violence against Black women were being highlighted within the national consciousness and our emotions were all over the place. Female members of the student body were planning some intentional time to lament over the mounting frustration we faced. It would be a time of healing and restoration – the kind of sister love we all needed.
But I didn’t go. And neither did a handful of my midlife cohorts. I can’t speak for them, but I was tired. I’d long given up shouting and self-care didn’t work for me if it was just another appointment on my calendar. I didn’t want to sit in a circle to remember any of it. No slavery, no history of brutality and racism. No oppression. No rehashing of slave songs. Just no.
My rebellion had grown quiet. My fight and fire …. gone.
It’s difficult to describe the state of limbo I found myself in. In the predominantly white communities I inhabit online and as a homeschooler, no one talked about Trayvon or Jordan. They didn’t seem to feel the fear or risk attached to the conversations I couldn’t afford to dismiss. For them, privilege was the offering of a free pass. They simply didn’t have to.
Part disenchantment, part disembodied disbelief, my personal purgatory was filled with sorrow over a clock that wouldn’t move or worse yet, a clock turned back. I couldn’t make sense of this new life where the spaces I usually entered with ease suddenly dripped a polarization you could feel. Either I felt like a lit match in a room full of explosives or the elephant you danced around. Each of these spaces begged the conversation no one dared begin. Balancing the tension of this reality was exhausting.
When Michael Brown was shot in the summer of 2014, things shifted. I lost, found, and lost hope in a country I wanted to love. This was a country whose foundational principles and wealth were bred in an insidious mix of genocide, slavery, lynchings and rape. Current tensions are a direct result of an ugly story, a story that happened and demands revelation. America can no longer look away. Confronting my own denial about this was numbing.
Since then an unarmed boy of color was killed for playing with a toy gun and a brown girl in a bikini was flung and bent like a rag doll under the knee of authority. I had more questions than my faith could hold and my mother’s heart broke trying to shield my children from a truth they deserved.
The walk toward freedom seems to be at a standstill, the road too long. Keeping my feelings about race and the growing climate of unrest in America separate, my willingness to engage in public spaces a private affair reserved only for family – had become a tool of survival. I couldn’t move because doing so would require retrieval and re-membering of all those pieces. It was too much.
Where once like Dubois, I rose above the clouds to claim the life I wanted by keeping a distance from it all – watch me my life screamed, watch me live the joy you attempt to deny – I now felt too weary for flight.
I’d grown quiet. How could I have tired of the movement?
I couldn’t hear nobody pray
Couldn’t hear nobody pray
Way down yonder by myself
And I couldn’t hear nobody pray
I’d bought a bootleg version of the dream – the one where the dust has settled and we’re all instantly living and learning in love. Race was a thing of the past – or so they said. We have a Black president and Black women are everywhere. We’re educated and vocal. We are the daughters of Coretta and Sister Betty, Rosa and Maya. We are Oprah, Shonda and Michelle. If nothing else I believed the woman with children card I carried would keep me reasonably safe. Had it been revoked – and what about my daughters? I knew about “the talk”. I’d already begun the painful dialogue with my teen-aged son – but my daughters too? The stories frightened me. I worried over the ease in which a simple confrontation could flip. Who were the officers in my neighborhood? How much of the current climate of fear played a part in fueling these events?
This version of the dream forgot reconciliation as a healing precursor to the reality of a beloved community. Without we would fail. Without it we find ourselves here.
There’s a difference between contemplative silence and a quiet birthed from fear. I found myself knotted up in the latter and afraid to admit it. It’s the kind of quiet that kills and makes hope a commodity you think you can’t afford. It’s also easier, but would never lead to the kind of redemption I sought. It was time to still my silence, unleash the internal verbal parrying to the page as prayer – to move forward in courage.
A reawakening happened as I zeroed in on the heartbeat of my everyday world. Surely I could handle one small square. Using a teaching technique that’s worked well with my children, I leaned into the specifics of my piece of the quilt – my portion. I got clear on the questions I needed to answer. Who do I want to be to my family and community? How do I want to show up in the faith communities I’m called to and how I can I align myself with the gathering of courageous ordinary people doing the work of justice in their daily lives?
With my eyes and heart fixed on every detail of the landscape I couldn’t see the hopeful steps being taken right in front of me. The pastor at my church publicly acknowledges the complexity and sorrow behind the latest headlines. I’ve watched more of my online world wake up to the reality of racism in America. I’m remembering the timeless theology of Negro spirituals and a posh church nearby gathered 60 members of their predominantly white congregation to attend a rally in Harlem. Looking smaller and deeper helped me imagine alternatives and opened space to be inspired by the work happening around me. This, is the hope I hold on to.
I feel like going on,
I feel like going on
Though trials they may come on every hand
Oh I feel like feel like going on
Tending to my one small square helped me wake up to the hope of what is possible in community. Hope for me is remembering all the things we thought couldn’t happen – but did. It’s remembering that as challenging as it may be I am living “the dream and the hope of the slave.” It’s my job to make sure I stay hopeful enough to dream – to keep the radical dream of love alive.
Justice and love work together to heal collective as well as personal trauma – a trauma lived by everyday warriors like me. The setbacks and heart wrenching stories sit in and on our bones – slowly, painfully, certainly. My fear was born of a broken heart and I didn’t know how to be that publicly. By the time I heard the cry for communal care, I’d already shut down. Only through grace was I unraveled and remade, poured into and rewoven. Each wound bound, my soul – mended. But it took reflection, prayer – time.
If I embrace the truth, the whole truth – it becomes part of my healing. And just like the spirituals I wanted to move from – as fast and as far as I could, I know now to be part of my power. Sung down deep in the pit of my soul they soften the hard things. They are the gift of beauty for ashes, a theology of suffering that’s lovingly cradled our story for centuries. The terrible beautiful things inform who I am. The struggle, in its undoing, makes me whole.