I wrote this last week after going to the wake of someone who died too young.
The grief of a black woman in mourning is overwhelming. We’ve seen it, all too often unfortunately, on the evening news. I saw it tonight in person. It’s noisy and uncontrolled, yet somehow almost ritualistic, like when folks in the black church “get the spirit.” The pain it reveals is impressive, its source so deep and raw that it is impossible to be unaffected by it.
Where does such an unreserved response spring from? Maybe from centuries of historical suffering. Perhaps its roots are in the exuberant kineticism that is so characteristic of black music, dance, and art. The creative impulse in black people, it has always seemed to me, is in some way an act of survival – a defiant display of self-expression that says to the forces of oppression (real or imagined, internal or external): “I am alive.” “I am not still, I am alive.” “I am still alive.”
As it is with creativity, perhaps so it is with the wrenching keening of a black mother approaching the open coffin that bears her prostrate son. She bore him nine months; this ornate wooden box will bear him forevermore. She thrusts her head and her arms upwards but she does not open her eyes, does not look heavenward. She does not cast blame, but cries for mercy. Her anguished wails, her swaying body, make it clear that she is not the one who is dead. The dead cry for no one, least of all for themselves. It is the living who must bear the unbearable pain, feel and endure the loss, ask the unanswerable “Why?”
The dead accept death as no living person can. Certainly no mother of any kind anywhere can accept the death of her child. But I, distant enough to feel regret but not to mourn, for I did not known him, try to find a blessing. This dead man, this young black dead man, knew love and did not die from violence. He died playing soccer, a sport he loved. But his heart took an unexpected time out and his last kick was his last kick. It could have been worse, thinks I.
White, paternalistic impression? Perhaps. To me, it all could have been much worse. Not so to his mother, who shouts his name over and over as she leans over his unresponsive body and strokes his face. (What will become of the tears she sheds onto him, I wonder, when this night is over and the coffin lid is closed? Some of her will be with him always, I presume, even under the surface of the earth.) Not so to his wife, who is white and young, and who will spend their second wedding anniversary quite unlike the first, which no doubt had been imbued with so much hope, so much promise, and the unspoken belief that they had so much time ahead of them in which to fulfill their expectations.
The black mother, the white wife, they will try to go to sleep tonight. They will be haunted by the shock, by the loss, that still seems unreal. Somehow, rest will claim them and they will arise tomorrow morning – at first with a millisecond of hope that it was all a dream and that today will be another day of assuming the world’s terrors are not their own. Then with the hard slap of memory, they will understand that it is true: he is gone. And the sadness will return. And the anger. And the disbelief. And the grief. The grief, the overwhelming grief of a world in mourning.