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Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Death In Our Family

So here we are again - communities enraged and demanding action, tweeted sentiments from the famous folks, eloquent words from our nation's Commander in Chief, and the dueling camps shouting "Black Lives Matter"/"Blue Lives Matter"/"All Lives Matter" while television cameras stand poised and waiting for the balloon of frustration to pop and set our streets on fire. But all I feel is sympathy for two families grieving the wasted lives of two black men who made a difference every day in the lives of their families, their friends and their communities. Five little children will wake up every day for the rest of their lives knowing that their daddy is gone and will never return. A young woman will never be able to close her eyes at night without seeing her boyfriend killed before her eyes. Two men died, and though they were not related to me by blood or by marriage it still feels as if there has been a death in the family.

A look through my Facebook posts showed me that I wasn't alone in this sense of communal grief. One of my friends, who is white, told me that he felt ashamed to face his friends who are black. What he might not have guessed, though, was that I, too, felt ashamed of my own inaction and fear. I have consciously chosen to stay out of tough conversations regarding race and racial violence out of a sense of self-preservation. In college, black student enrollment on my campus hovered around 20-30 students out of 1100 students total. What this meant in practical terms was that acts of racism on campus went unanswered.

My graduate school career was almost the exact opposite - no racist jokes or overt acts of racism - but there was a pressure to conform to a certain flatness of being that de-gendered, un-raced, and erased cultural and sexual forms of self-expression that might mar the soup of inclusivity. In this pre-NPR StoryCorps framework, one could talk about racism and sexism and any other "-ism" as if they happened outside of ourselves. This approach allowed us to dissect and discuss and dialog (used here as a verb) in a way that allowed everyone to fully engage without being labeled as victim or aggressor. Yet, even in this environment I was uncomfortable with sharing just how uncomfortable this process made me feel.  To share my experiences would mean that I would have to share my own feelings of helplessness and fear and anger and once you go there it's difficult for people to un-see it. But, that's what happens when we grieve - the masks come off and we're face to face with the rawness of sorrow, and sorrow is what I feel right now, and it's really what we all feel, isn't it?

Let's unmask ourselves and look at a world whose face is contorted in sorrow. Sorrow for the deaths of these two black men and the thousands of others killed in this country; sorrow for the thousands of people slaughtered in acts of terrorism; sorrow for the mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts who are raped and murdered; sorrow for the military families whose loved ones are not coming home; sorrow for the scores of refugees who, right now, are braving oceans with their babies and belongings strapped on their backs looking for a safe place; and yes, even the sorrow of a law enforcement officer who has taken someone's life and is beginning to question how it all got so out of hand so quickly.

I thought that I was creating a safe space for myself where I could hold the sorrow at bay. I used anger and sarcasm - every weapon I had at my disposal to distance myself from my feelings. But, there is no such thing as a safe space. The barriers we erect can and will be breached because sorrow has no gender, race, religion or nationality. Growing up Roman Catholic, I remembered the nuns teaching us about the saints and what was called the "gift of tears" - a way that the Holy Spirit manifested itself through their tears during times of distress. Pope Francis has spoken several times about the "gift of tears":

We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of 'suffering with'. 
-Pope Francis, Excerpt from homily delivered in Lampedusa, Italy July 2013

On the day that we buried my father, I let go of all dignity and decorum and collapsed weeping into the arms of my friends who had come to mourn with me.  They held me up and my sorrow became our sorrow. And so we all mourn together, now - black people, brown people, white people, men, women, transgender, cisgender, lesbian, gay, straight, questioning - because there has been a death in our family.


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