Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Venida Browder died on Friday, October 14, 2016 at a Bronx hispital. The reported cause of death is complications from a heart attack. Maybe the reality is that she died from complications. Sixteen months earlier her son Kalief Browder died by suicide from hanging. Three years earlier, he had been released from Rikers Island prison where he spent 400 of 1,000 days incarcerated in solitary confinement. Three years before that, he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Venida Browder’s 63 years of life were undoubtedly about more than her son’s sickening ordeal, but her death was almost certainly about the heart-stopping grief she endured because of Kalief’s time in prison and his death.
Grief as a painful historical trajectory is one thing; to grieve intensely in the misery of the present moment is another. Joy James, professor at Williams College, interviewed by George Yancey for the New York Times Opinionator blog, December 23, 2014
Grief has been a steady companion in the black American community since the first slaves landed in Jamestown. Even the national song of the culture is a mix of determined hope and acknowledged grief:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. Lift Every Voice and Sing
But how are both collective and individual grief being dealt with? Does the journey follow the traditional stages outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work, On Death and Dying, or has a different model emerged that reflects the advent of social media and virtual communication? And how does grief differ from and relate to traumatic stress and other forms of mental and emotional pressure faced by African Americans? Urban poverty, mass incarceration beginning with school-to-prison pipelines, community and domestic violence, chronic illness, and racism exert an internal force on the minds and bodies of black Americans that cannot be ignored and absolutely should be intentionally addressed. We need productive, healing ways to process the grief borne by countless women, men, and children who are struggling every day to function.
Perhaps a meaningful step is to simply allow people to grieve. That suggestion sounds obvious, but the truth is that there is still too much cultural baggage around letting people express their profound sadness and sense of loss when traumatic things happen. Black women, living through the StrongBlackWoman stereotyped identity, have become especially expert at masking, suppressing, and neglecting the grieving process, and teaching our families to do the same. Black movies have provided some interesting portrayals of women who have short-circuited their emotional development by not giving themselves permission to appropriately grieve loss. A pivotal scene in the 2009 Bill Duke film, Not Easily Broken, shows a confrontation between Clarice (Taraji Henson) and her mother (Jennifer Lewis) in which Clarice challenges how her mother handled the end of her marriage to Clarice’s father. It is revealed that there were things occurring in the marriage that the daughter wasn’t aware of, but Clarice points out that holding on to her hurt and anger has made her mother bitter and hard. She realizes that she has unintentionally adopted some of her mother’s emotional strategies, and she sees the negative effect it’s had on her own marriage.
It’s quite possible that the mother never felt free to express how she really felt about her situation. Crying, yelling, breaking things, and even silence should be accepted as valid ways of dealing with intense grief. Outward expression is a critical release valve that clears the mind and heart to make room for healing thoughts and words.
Many of the experiences of Black people, whether they be personal or community based, cause us actual grief. We are constantly grieving the lives of people we do or do not know and the possibility of it being us. We have to provide space for ourselves and other Black folks to express that grief, no matter how it takes form. We have to remind ourselves that folks can be angry, afraid, and/or sad. These feelings and others are not mutually exclusive. We have every right to be angry and we shouldn’t police others who are angry. Black rage is real and should be validated in the ways that emotions that mirror sadness and/or fear would be. Quita Tinsley, Healing in the Midst of Tragedy: How Can Black Folks Keep Surviving in the Face of Constant Trauma? October 13, 2015
Having ways to process grief—besides eating or not eating—is important also. Knowing how to form a workable and healing perspective around one’s emotions and how to make good decisions are key emotional skills that help people move in a healthy way through grief. For the black community, for whom grief is not typically episodic but chronic, these types of skills are especially critical. The persistent and ongoing recurrence of racially-motivated killings and escalating rates of debilitating illness are occurrences that leave many struggling to mentally keep pace with the succession of events in their lives and the lives of others in the black culture. Mental health professionals and others trained in counseling, emotional intelligence, application of spiritual faith principles, and other “soft sciences” and healing arts are needed to develop models and approaches that can be peer taught, person to person, family to family. This is the only way forward, for us and our children.