I know Halloween has come and gone, but let's talk about ghosts. Not the cartoon Caspar kind nor the Hollywood horrors, but the kind that diverse cultures have noted, the invisible ones wandering amongst us made visible by the way we carry their unfinished business. In most such cultures, a ghost is the spirit after death of an unsatisfied human being or a soul of a person who dies in unnatural or abnormal circumstances (like murder, suicide or accident). A ghost can be a person who was unloved in life and unmourned in death. (Think Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol). Their souls are doomed to wander without rest and in some cases, they come back to haunt and torment the living.
I once visited a plantation in Louisiana with my colleagues James and Sofia. The tour was centered around the ghost story of an enslaved woman who was the plantation owner’s mistress. One day, she happened to listen in on a business meeting and he punished her severely for eavesdropping. In retribution, she poisoned the food of his wife and children, was later caught and punished by death. The tour focused on various sightings of the ghosts of both the enslaved woman and the plantation mistress and her children.
When we left, Sofia made an extraordinary comment: “The real ghost story of that place is all the enslaved people whose names we will never know.” She rightly perceived that the whole plantation is haunted by institutionally-approved white supremacy and that this other ghost story was yet another cover-up designed to keep us from having to face our own history.
And the cure to set these wandering souls to rest? Finally telling their stories, saying their names, properly mourning for them in both community ritual and personal grief and doing the necessary work to heal what they suffered and what we continue to suffer because we refuse to face what happened. The work that we as a nation have refused for over 400 years— the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the subordination of women, the cruelty toward children, the rape of the land— it’s a long list of unresolved grief that hangs in the air around us and works its way into our bodies and mind.
Martin Prechtel, an eloquent and courageous man who apprenticed as a shaman with a Mayan group in Guatemala, talks about it like this:
“If not enough grief is spent on the passing of a person who has died, then that person’s spirit will never of its own accord be able to cross time’s ocean to arrive on the Beach of Stars. (A Mayan equivalent of Heaven). There will be no happy ancestor to pull them in and they cannot turn into a Helpful Ancestor that helps the living continue living. This is where the big trouble begins…
…if a single individual gives lodging to these many ungrieved, feared, unwanted, disenfranchised souls turned hungry ghost, eventually a syndrome develops, breaking up the family life and driving irreconcilable havoc and pain into the surrounding society.
The limit is five generation until a family problem becomes a tribal problem and three generations more until a tribal problem becomes an inter-tribal problem.
And then it becomes, you guessed it: a national habit.
And that’s exactly where we are. 150 years (about 8 generations) since slavery officially ended and still we refuse to properly grieve, apologize, offer reparations, begin to have the needed conversations. And so the ghosts hover around us and no healing can begin.
I know this is not common territory for the political discourse we have in this country, where everything is about laws and courts and justice or injustice. All of that is essential, but it doesn’t go far enough and can’t do its work fully until we enter this other level. Without taking the time to look our history directly in the face and feel the grief and hear the impossibly hard stories and figure out how to tell those stories to our kids, nothing moves and we simply pass the burden on to the next generation.
To take this out of Hollywood images of vengeful ghosts, it’s more useful to think about it like this: Our silence around our own atrocities, our refusal to put them in the history books and bring them out into the open land of national discourse, our denial, our obsessive attempts to bury it under shopping malls and comedy shows and have-a-nice-day smiley faces, our national habit of distraction, is complicity in keeping it all going, is refusing to feed the hungry ghosts.
And the burden is heavy on the white community, the way we were casual or accepting or promoting or thinking “no big deal” when it came to driving Native Americans from their land, to lynchings, to Jim Crow, to blackface minstrel shows, to Klan terrorists dismissed by white juries, to innocent black youths murdered by cops who are then acquitted, to women raped, abused, beaten, refused jobs, to 70 million plus consciously voting for a guy incapable of grief, apology, compassion, capacity to tell truth. And this includes letting children graduate from school with no exposure to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, never mind Chick Webb, the Nicholas Brothers and Big Mama Thornton. Not to mention the absence of Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Mother Jones and a long list of worthy human beings who tried to move the moral arc one inch closer to justice. Our ignorance is yet another sign of keeping our ghosts wandering amongst us.
But there are hopeful signs. Suddenly, an increased number of us white folks are actually realizing that Black Lives Matter. That the unprocessed racism our ancestors refused to deal with is alive and well in our own bodies and minds and brings harm to all of us. As well as the sexism and classism and homophobia and unchecked greed and disconnection with the natural world— we’ve inherited it all and if we choose not to look at it and work with it, we pass the ghosts on to our children and haunt them their whole lives.
And it may start with little gestures like changing our language or deciding not to sing this song or that, but that’s the mere surface. None of it means anything without the genuine capacity to grieve. That essential human faculty that they don’t teach in school and gets virtually no encouragement whatsoever in any corner of the culture. Instead of three-day affairs with intense drumming, dancing, weeping, wailing and rejoicing like you would find in Ghana, our funerals tend to be short, polite, clean, a few cute stories about the deceased next to the cliched readings. We are not good at grief. And as Martin Prechtel lays out in his book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, that means we’re also not good at praise. At praising the beauty in each other, in ourselves, in the world around us. And we become a nation of living hungry ghosts, perpetually unsatisfied and unable to satiate our deep hunger for connection and belonging.
That’s enough for now to think about. Not as much fun to read or write as the last post on cleaning out my sock drawer, but at the bottom, the same deal: It feels good to clean that which was messy, be it socks in a drawer or 400 years of systemic racism. We need both.