On our 2017 road trip, Rob and I took our children to the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. Grass on the front lawn had already browned to a crisp that July day, and the Monroe Elementary School building offered a welcome respite from the hot sun outside. Our family had spent the preceding spring studying African American history together. The words of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the stories of Jacqueline Woodson and Rita Williams-Garcia. We wanted our children to visit this sacred place to make the stories we’d read together come alive.
Hand in hand, we walked through the quiet linoleum school halls, reading plaques and studying displays. I narrated for the younger ones who couldn’t read well yet; Rob attempted to answer questions as best he could. But as we entered the multimedia exhibit about the history of Black oppression, a single question from one of our children stopped me in my tracks. “Why is the man hanging like that, Mom?” We had studied lynchings, but nothing could have prepared little eyes for seeing that image. My eyes clouded and my face grew hot as I searched for the words to convey so much anger and grief to one so young.
Over the last weeks, I have thought often of that conversation as I have followed the news of Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s deaths and watched protests form across the country. In the face of such heartbreaking news, I have often felt helpless and without words; the problem is so big. Reflecting on our country’s tragic heritage, my beloved seminary professor and thesis reader, the late Dr. Bruce Fields wrote, “Some crimes are so overwhelming to the senses and reason itself—inflicting pain and sorrow of unimaginable proportions—that no real restitution can be made for them. Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.”
“Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.” Dr. Bruce FieldsTweet
Through the years, Rob and I talked with our children about racial inequality and the image of God imprinted deeply on each of us. As a family we sought to work for justice in ways that honored those whose rights and privileges, though seemingly identical to ours on paper, vanished when they needed them most. We tried to model for our children what gracious living looked like in the kingdom of God.
And yet, I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to live under the oppression of generations-long racism. I do not wish to cast myself in the role of a white savior or preach a message I do not fully understand. I have confessed my own complacency and complicity. And in recent days, I have realized that there is something more I can do, however small. I can offer the one thing I have learned to do well in the last year. I can grieve.
Of all the emotions that startled me after Rob’s death, grief’s anger surprised me the most. Though Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified anger in her five stages of grief more than fifty years ago, for some reason I didn’t think it was an emotion I’d need to experience. I usually have a pretty high threshold; I don’t get mad easily.
Nevertheless, following Rob’s death, I was surprised to find that I grew angry. About the injustice of my four children growing up without their father. About the pervasiveness of sin’s stain that marked my life with tragedy. I looked out at a world indelibly scarred by pain and suffering, and it made me feel hopeless and helpless. And furious. Anger, I discovered, was a normal, healthy, necessary part of grief.
We often welcome peaceful discourse but see anger as crossing the line. But deep sorrow exhibits a wide variety of emotions, and anger is one of them. As I look at the broken world around me, my grief’s anger mourns fully and deeply for the sin of racism. It acknowledges the dreadful breadth and depth of our collective sin. This holy fury finds its source not in politics but in the same tragic truth that I mourn as I weep for my lost husband. This world is not as it should be. The curse of sin runs painfully deep. This world is so broken. Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.
“Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.”Tweet
As I weep with those who weep, I am looking for ways to listen and grieve better. In the words of Efrem Smith, I know I need to “sit at the well of the African American church, the church that was birthed from slavery, from oppression, and sit at the well and ask for a drink.” Even when — especially when — it is a bitter, sorrowful cup to drink. I know that I will love best when I listen attentively, when I am willing to be a companion to those who carry this deep grief of oppression. When I get angry about the things that break the heart of God.
We each must find our own expression of lament. We each must work for justice in our own way. To that end, I share these resources that I’ve added to my reading list. I look forward to listening and learning from these voices. I would love to hear which ones touch your heart and open your eyes to new ways of love and forgiveness. May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.
“May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.”Tweet
Black Grief Resources
African American Grief
Paul Rosenblatt, Beverly Wallace
Passed on: African American Mourning Stories
Karla FC Holloway