“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
|No One Is Safe|
|This is a subscriber-only edition of Unsettled Territory, a newsletter about culture, law, history, and finding meaning in the mundane.My head and heart would ache when people described my 2019 book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, as prescient. They meant that the book seemed timed perfectly for a country that watched George Floyd get killed. Didn’t they understand, I thought, that it will always be on time to write about the dangers of living while Black, no matter how much joy we hold on to? America has been killing Black people since its inception ad infinitum. Breathing in the face of that is all we—Black people of the United States—have ever known of living.Several years ago, I committed to not watching the footage. I didn’t see the Akron police riddle Jayland Walker’s vulnerable back with bullets last week, inflicting more than 60 gunshot wounds. But by accident, when I was too distracted to change the channel, I saw the people in Highland Park running for their lives from a mass shooter on the Fourth of July. I heard my own crying, loud and ugly, before I had time to process what I was feeling. Just families out for a parade, the joyous sound of a klezmer band, then the gunfire pops and the screaming. Terror is an American familiar.There is the particular heartbreak of American racism, and there is the general heartbreak of American violence. Heartbreak squared. There is also the collision: the voices immediately saying of Highland Park, This is a safe neighborhood, meaning not like Chicago, meaning not Black, not poor, not overrun by illegal handguns, not like the people we expect to die. To my ears, those voices are only a hair’s breadth away from justifying Jayland Walker’s horrifying death, a summary execution for running. If you shoot at a person and inflict more than 60 gunshot wounds, you are trying to do more than kill them. You are mutilating, desecrating, trying to completely eradicate that person and whatever you take their life to mean. We—and here I mean the particular Black we—noticed that Robert Crimo, the Highland Park shooting suspect, was taken into custody without a single shot. We know what the collision means. Heartache squared.Some people are far more vulnerable than others. Those who are further from whiteness, wealth, gender norms, able-bodiedness, and citizenship bear the brunt of harm in the United States. But when you create a nation that fetishizes firearms and rejects interdependence, respect for all, and the public good, no one is safe. We are all learning, slowly but surely, that you cannot contain this easy-bake gun violence.I don’t mean that as a way to cluck disapprovingly at those who are only belatedly recognizing the fragility of their human bodies. Instead I want to implore us—and here I mean the general us of an American, or better yet global, public—to enter into a season of transformation.I hope that people become cracked open enough to turn away from shoring up their own security—status, wealth, property, citizenship, legal documentation—and allow the opening created by this unrelenting terror to grow into empathy and solidarity. Because no one deserves this. No one.|
One of the most difficult aspects of someone dear to you passing away is that the world just keeps going. Your internal world stops, sometimes for months, but the external world spins along, unceasingly oblivious. And you still must be a part of that external world no matter how much you don’t want to be.
You feel alone in your grief, unless or until you recognize that others feel the same way, that billions before you have felt the same way. It binds us. We’re alone together in our grief, processing it in our own way, but living through it collectively. It is the human experience.
After death, art takes on new meaning, the sunshine means a bit more, time with family and friends is more precious. We are shaken out of our quotidian routine for awhile, suddenly painfully aware of the now.
My mother was the first death I really experienced. My great-grandmother passed away a few years before my mom. Although I loved her, her death didn’t shake me the way my mom’s did. After all she was 92. She lived a long life.
But my mom died very young and in my childlike ignorance and innocence her death was completely unexpected. It was incomprehensible. Impossible. Completely inconceivable.
She died on Thanksgiving Day, 1997 which is 25 years ago. A quarter of a century. Over half my lifetime ago. She’s been gone in my life longer than she was alive. In May, I will be the same age she was when she died.
I can still hear my dad’s voice in my head. He died in 2008. But I can’t hear my mom’s anymore. I haven’t been able to in a long time. It upsets me.
A week after her funeral, I had to perform Braham’s Ein deutsches Requiem with the MSU chorale and symphony at the Wharton Center. It absolutely broke me. To this day I cannot listen to that piece without crying. Braham’s own mother died in 1865 and he completed the piece in 1867. Many scholars think he wrote it for her. It is a devastatingly beautiful and somber expression of utter bereavement.
We have experienced so much death in the last two years. So many friends and family members gone. I think we are all in a collective shock. I don’t think we’ve even begun to process it all yet. Most of the time, when I think about it, I just go into a daze.
So instead I try to constantly shift my focus, to enjoy and hopefully strengthen the relationships in my life, to increase my empathy and assume the best instead of the worst of people, to try and understand where people are coming from and always be kind first. I try and oftentimes fail. But I don’t worry about the failures, I just try again.
Love one another as much as possible. I think we’re heading into some very, very dark times. Hold your loved ones close.
Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves
For all flesh is as grass,
and the glory of man