Thursday, March 3, 2016


Last night I took part in a spirited and honest discussion with nine white men about white privilege. We had the luxury to quibble semantically about whether “privilege” was too accusing a word and wonder what we were expected to do about it. Well, in a nutshell, that’s white privilege. The luxury to choose whether to think about it or talk about it or act on it. Groups of people that are marginalized in mainstream culture— blacks, Native Americans, women, gay people and more— don’t have that luxury. We could agree about that philosophically, but were left with “What to do?”

I wrote earlier about Truth and Reconciliation, about public apology and will write soon about Bryan Stevenson’s four suggestions for changing what so desperately needs to be changed and has needed to be changed for so long. But I I left last night thinking about grief and ghosts. I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

There is so much undigested grief in this culture. Funerals are fast, quick and efficient, with a couple of cute stories about the deceased person’s favorite cocktail. When people tear up at a wedding or funeral, they often find themselves apologizing for emotion. The day after 9-11, Bush urged people to go shopping.

The prevailing wisdom amongst mature cultures is that grief is a serious business—and that’s why funerals in some places can take up to three days or Jews sit Shiva for seven or West Africans hire professional mourners in case there aren’t enough tears for the occasion. As Martin Prechtel points out, the tears of the people left after death are the oars that row the deceased across the ocean of death to the beach of stars and the ancestors eagerly awaiting. Without sufficient grief, we create ghosts who linger and haunt us because they can’t get across and complete their journey.

When I visited my one and only slave plantation in Louisiana, the tour was all about the ghost story of a slave murdered by her master (who also slept with her) and came back to haunt him. My friend who was with me afterwards commented on that story as a screen to hide the real ghosts of every single slave who ever worked that plantation. It had been turned into a titillating bit of tourist fluff to avoid looking at the real horror.

The lack of Truth and Reconciliation continues to screen that horror we’ve inherited. The missing government apology is the political side and important. But equally important, and perhaps more so, is the spiritual side of going down deeply into that grief and feeling the full pain, not only of the slaves from hundreds of years ago, but for the family of Michael Brown last year.

In my jazz course each year, there comes a moment where the grief enters the room and we all feel it and sit with it a bit. It’s heavy and uncomfortable and real tears flow and we don’t apologize for breaking down. But blame, shame, guilt are not the end of the matter— a little of all is necessary, I believe, but does not bring the healing we need. At the other end is hope and redemption. And so this is the moment when we sing this song and dance it out and lift ourselves up having paid our dues to go down into grief.

Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer.
Crying and a-weeping over all she has done.
Rise, Sally, rise. Wipe those cryin’ eyes.
Turn to the East, Sally. Turn to the West, Sally.
Turn to the very one that you love the best.

It was good that we had a difficult discussion yesterday. But for me personally, amidst the defensiveness and sense that we couldn’t solve it and acknowledgment of complexity, I felt something important missing and I think this was it —grief. A sense of shared grief over what’s gone down and what’s going down and the courage to feel it and sit with it and not try to solve it. Of course, feelings can never be mandated, it perhaps wasn’t the right moment in this particular discussion for such sorrow to arise.

But I missed it. I felt the ghosts hovering in that room, waiting for us to help them. I felt the presence of the ancestors saying to us all: “There is more work for you to do here.” And I think they’re right.

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