There were tears, of course. Plenty of those. And in moments where memories were shared, there were smiles and laughter. But there were stony faces also. Strong faces. Faces that stood resolute in the face of a horrific reality. As we celebrated the homegoing of my cousin, Vickie Lee Jones, who was murdered October 24th by Gregory Bush outside a Louisville, KY Kroger grocery store in a hate crime shooting, I was acutely aware of all the ways in which Black folks grieve; the ways in which we feel we have to hold our pain and move through the heartache that can come with constant dehumanization—the regular and consistent consciousness of how our bodies are not always safe in this world.
We certainly know how to “stand therefore” in the face of devastation as Biblical scripture instructs (see Eph 6:13).
In fact, Black folks have to be the most resilient people on the planet. We are proficient at the “bounce back.” We’ve written songs about it. Remember what McFadden and Whitehead told us in the late 70s? “But we won’t let nothin’ hold us back/We’re putting ourselves together/We’re polishing up our act!” Black folks are masters at turning pain into purpose. Turning our trauma into triumph. For over a century, Black preachers have been using these same kinds of alliterations to keep us…well…alive. We push and press on. We work and wrestle and worship our way to some semblance of progress despite white supremacy’s chokehold on our very humanity.
In fact, we’ve gotten so good at fighting our way back that we, the collective we, tend to Flo-Jo hurdle our way over pain completely. Because we know we need to get to the other side, because we know that we have jobs to do and kids to feed, and maybe even because some of us don’t want to end up in jail, we often choose to skip the pain all together. We bypass the pain, bulldoze our way through our hurt, harm, and heartache and–dare I say it–end up worse off emotionally and spiritually.
Some of us have stopped feeling to survive. We tell lies about what hurts because lies help us live another day in a world that too often wants us dead. But I often wonder if our kind of hardened resilience is so expected of us that it’s become less of a survival mechanism for our benefit and more of a way for those who hate us to continue beating up our bodies and souls. I’m reminded of the recent study that blew the lid off of the racial bias of doctors in assessing pain in black people. In short, they believe, based on racist stereotyping, that we can take more pain; that our tolerance is higher. And so we are left to hurt and bleed. Our systems (health, political, social, religious, etc) hurt us and then gaslight us into believing that we aren’t really that hurt.
And maybe we’ve bought those lies also? Resilience is certainly not a bad thing. It’s kept generations of our people alive when slavery, jim crow, segregation, brutality, and daily dehumanization should have long killed us. But some resilience comes at a cost. Some resilience is making us sick.
I don’t want to be sick anymore. And yet, I know that feeling grief and pain out loud is challenging. Some people don’t understand it. They make assumptions about you when you are open about the things that hurt you and yours. But you know what? I’m no longer invested or interested in the gaze of white folks, church folks, or any other kind of folks. I will cry sometimes because I know that my tears are cleansing. I will rage sometimes because I know anger trapped in a soul will burn it from the inside out. I will scream sometimes because somebody needs to hear my voice.
In John 5, Jesus asked a man laying at the side of the the healing pool of Bethesda, laying right BESIDE the place that could heal his pain, “Do you want to be well?”
Well, I do. And I believe my healing is RIGHT THERE on the other side of me letting go of my need to appear to be strong.
Are you ready to be well? What if wellness lives on the other side of pain and grief? What if resilience isn’t about pushing your trauma aside but about sitting still enough to observe it; not maneuvering around it but moving through it? What would happened if we released the need to show white folks that they can’t hurt us, that they can’t beat us?
I honestly don’t know what that looks like or what the end game of that would be. Would we open the door for more pain? Possibly. I just know that the masks of strengths that Black folks wear are suffocating us. I just know that our path to freedom has to be paved with empathy and authenticity—as well as fierce strength and righteous rage.