By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly – expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears – instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.
It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses “no significant threat” while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only “crime” had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.
Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best…writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I’ve lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul…and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.
On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of “There is Room at the Cross,” playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person’s own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.
The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are “ungrievable.” And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren’t taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening’s news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.
At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place – beyond words or sermons or essays – which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others. But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar