In the days following the news of another black teen killed by a white policeman in Missouri, I found myself carrying this death – and the ancient complexities of racial conflict – around with me.
A person I know with incredible healing capacities often asks me where, in my body, I hold different memories, emotions, or relationships. This question draws my attention away from my spinning head and into the deeper wisdom of my whole self.
So I wanted to ask:
Where, in your own body, do you hold the pain and loss of others? Do you hold it in your arms, like the Pietà – like a mother endlessly bereft over the death of her son? Or do you hold it in your lungs, which Chinese medicine describes as the organ of grief?
For myself, I hold the news of another African-American teen killed as I do my own shadow. Sometimes, it is completely invisible, stored deep inside. At other times, it stretches long and dark before me, my own self in absence, firmly attached to my soles.
Following the death of Michael Brown, I wrote an essay, ‘Black Body,’ in which the image of Brown’s body lying in the street becomes a reality that is impossible to bury or erase. This body stands for itself – for the individual soul it once housed – as much as it stands for centuries of racial conflict.
I can’t stop thinking about the young men of color lying in our streets, especially on the heels of another shooting. I want to explore why this is so personal for me, and why it should be personal for us all.
In her incantatory poem, “From the House of Yemanjá”, Audre Lorde speaks as a daughter to her mother. She voices what she needs for nourishment as she continues to dwell in a space of unreconciled encounter:
Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
We all live in or visit ‘the sharpened edge’ where many worlds meet, but do not become one. People are coming together like never before, and yet, we don’t ‘get’ each other, we fear each other, we label each other. Then, when we bump into each at night, emerging from a convenience store, or walking head bent against the rain, we panic and run. Or shoot.
What we need, according to Lorde, is ‘blackness…as the august earth needs rain.’ In my reading, this ‘blackness’ is not race or skin color. This blackness is our body itself. It is our substance and presence in the world: our ability to cast a shadow. ‘Blackness’ symbolizes the full embodiment of the human condition – which rests in paradox. We are day and night. We are the sun, the moon, and the hungry earth all at once. Gold, silver, and the blue-green-redness of oceans, forests, and plains.
Philosopher Richard Kearney speaks of the distance and alienation we often feel from the world, and its remedy in embodiment:
“…the potential beauty of incarnation is, it seems to me, extremely important. But that means accepting the messiness of the body, the contingency of the body, and the frailty and vulnerability of the body. And they’re the kind of terms that people are very uneasy with.”
In the same interview, Jean Vanier, a Catholic theologian and founder of L’Arche, a community where able-bodied and disabled individuals live and work together, explains what it means to love the ‘other’ as a body:
“…love is manifested through the caring of the body and the weakness of the body. I mean love is something about appreciation of the other, who has, who is, a body…To be with people is…to be with them in their bodies, to listen to them, to be open to them, to relate to them, to celebrate with them.”
While engaging with the minds and souls of others is essential, this exchange happens through the medium of our bodies. This manifest love makes it possible for us to reach out, again and again, to those we fear or distrust. At the same time, we must nourish our bodies by joyful encounters – street festivals, not only street protests.
I believe that our capacity as humans to connect and empathize is expanding. But this expansion also means that we often feel overwhelmed by the conflicts taking place in religion, politics, and race relations, whether in government, in our families, or in communities like Ferguson, Missouri.
This is why I asked, at the outset, where you hold another person’s untimely death in your own body. Because whether or not we’re actually aware of it, we do carry the physical pain and loss of others – even total strangers – within us.
Perhaps this explains why I hold the news of human beings killed in our streets as I do my own shadow. Their lives and deaths are part of my substance and absence both. Sometimes I am aware, and see and feel their presence acutely. Other times, the reality of racism and divided communities exists within me, but I can’t grasp or comprehend it – much less fumble toward a remedy.
So what are we supposed to do now? How are we supposed to deal with the aftermath of another death, another reason to fear and distrust each other?
While we can’t escape the reality of another young man’s body lying in the street, we must nurture and revive the part of ourselves that absorbs his death. Instead of allowing a piece of our humanity to die alongside Michael Brown and other individuals caught in racial crossfire, we have the choice to resurrect our most receptive – and embodied – selves.
In this way, we can participate in the deep turning toward connection witnessed in society today. We must not leave the body of humanity to absorb its pain alone. Instead, we must accompany each other in the long work of bringing the body – our collective body – back to life.