Releasing the Grief

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Over years of watching and listening, I’ve learned just a bit about the many large and small ways that people of color in this country have to swallow the rage they feel and experience on a daily basis. It seems to lay there just below the surface. But as Clarence Paige wrote, people of color are taught from a young age to not show their color when they’re out and about in the world at large.

If you listen, sometimes you can get hints of the emotional burden people of color bear. Like the time a few months ago when an African American mother told me that she made her son cut his dreadlocks when he turned 13…she was afraid of the attention they might draw. Or the young African American man who still has his dreadlocks and tells me that he gets pulled over by the cops about once a week for “driving while black.” The fear that fuels this reality that most African Americans live with daily was realized this month when Oscar Grant didn’t survive just such a confrontation with the police. So the burden of rage and pain is built one (sometimes small) brick at a time over years and must be managed in order to survive in this culture.  

But recently, I’ve been trying to listen to something else I’m sensing. I know that many of us are relieved at the election of Barack Obama. But people of color, and especially African Americans, are feeling something special. While its easy to intellectually understand what that might be, yesterday I heard a commentary on Minnesota Public Radio that helped me understand it a bit better in my heart. The commentary was by Rev. Gordon Stewart, who marched with King in Chicago and experienced race riots in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Throughout the next morning I wondered why I was so unmoved by the ceremony of the inauguration. I was watching, but it wasn’t touching me. I was a distant observer…until… until Yitzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma begin to play that sweet Shaker hymn “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple” … and the camera zooms in on the smiling face of Yo-Yo Ma with his cello. His face is beaming with joy! And now the camera moves to the President-elect sitting serenely, his posture erect, his head bowed, his eyes closed, the look of a man at prayer and peace. And I lose it. Tears and vocal sobs gush up in me like a geyser of tears blocked up for years.

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they’re about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy… and hope… that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation’s shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they’re also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison — the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger — the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma’s face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that’s able to take us where my generation cannot — free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

The inauguration felt like that moment — a kind of ritual cleansing where grief gives way to joy and hope for a better tomorrow…where, in the words of Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, the silenced voice of his dear friend Martin once again rang out across the Washington Mall: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way, Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light: Keep us forever in the path.”

The only thing I can add to that is to say, “Thank you Rev. Stewart!”


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  1. a bit better why this song has been playing in my head ever since Rev. Lowery’s benediction. Pay special attention to the second verse.

    • Edger on January 24, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Hold On, I’m Coming! 😉

    • Alma on January 24, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I had a different perspective than I normally would have had for the Inauguration.  

    It was so beautiful to see people of color so happy and proud all week.  During the Inaugural ceremonies the lady from housekeeping was sticking close to our room so she could catch what she could of the festivities.  It was a good week to be in Detroit.  

    • kj on January 24, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    well, that music seemed to be the only truly fitting emotional response from me, as well, that day… although i had no inkling why that was so.  this helps explain it.  🙂

    we are broke, as are most, but i like this city we’re living in.  we rent in a cluster of condos in a mixed race neighborhood.  i like looking at houses, so once in a blue moon i search real estate on-line.  there are these cool old homes in the center of town that go for under 100,000 with porches and hardwood floors and tiny yards, and i love those places.  they are located in the parts of town where it would be ‘scary’ for a white person to live.  just today, just in the minutes before coming here, i found a couple of homes on those ‘scary’ streets and for the very first time thought, you know, it would be okay to live there now.  it would be okay.  (of course, we can’t afford to buy anything now.)

    so, i’m not saying what i think or feel is in anyway close to what someone with more color to their skin than mine is feeling, but thought it might be worth noting.

    and that music, it was exquisite.  

  2. and will admit that I’m a sucker. But I LOVE this picture from just before the inauguration. There’s a lot of strength in this relationship.


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