Friday, January 23, 2009

Releasing the grief

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 burden of rage and pain is built one brick at a time and must be managed in order to survive in this culture.

But recently, I've been trying to listen about 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, this evening 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."


Thank you Rev. Stewart.

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