In the culture of my origin (family culture, and larger white protestant middle class culture), there isn’t much place for lament. I remember looking at National Geographic pictures of people in lament, and even reading about professional mourners. I was puzzled. I lived right next to the church building where my dad was a minister, but my parents felt I was too young to attend the funerals there. I would hold my own sad vigil trying to conjure what it must be like for the pregnant young wife to bury her new husband who died a soldier in Vietnam, or the family of a state government dignitary of some means who passed despite his influence and power…
I first attended a funeral, believe it or not, when I was 18 or 19 and in college in Chattanooga. Some of the kids I taught in an after school and summer reading program through my inner city church had lost their grandmother. People cried, and cried out, and sang their full-hearted sorrow. This seemed more realistic to me. This was lament. I was both moved and humbled to be included in that private space in that small Black Baptist Church.
Ecclesiastes 7: 4 says “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” That feels apt this New Years 2021. We are still in the middle of so much collective suffering. Maybe white Americans need to learn to lament. If we are viscerally expressing our anguish, maybe it won’t lead to rage.
In the fall, I virtually “attended” an excellent “Healing Racial Trauma” panel discussion by the Cyrene Movement in Boston. From that discussion, came the assignment God gave me that precipitated the poem “Wade in the Water: A Prayer of Lament.” Since lament is visceral, I reflected on painful aspects of racism I have experienced by association as a white woman married to a black man and raising biracial children in the South.
Honestly, it was excruciating to dredge up experiences that I usually tried to minimize as we experienced them, I realize now, so as not to upset my white family members. When we married in 1981, I didn’t want them to think my life would be a daily emergency because I married a black man, and it wasn’t, except when others made it so. We processed it together, and with other black and biracial families, but not with my family.
Just as the epigraph says, it was a difficult but humanizing exercise, in the face of the racial trauma memo finally hitting the fan this past year and the racial protests visibly in mainstream news.
Perhaps one role of the poet in this world is to be a professional mourner, to give form to grieve that others can’t, or need help accessing.
Wade in the Water: A Prayer of Lament
“Racism dehumanizes; lament re-humanizes.” Liza Cagua-Koo
Get me out of my Western European
head-space, roiling with cold intellectual argument.
Summon me, O Righteous Savior, back
into my body, my only vessel,
to feel the holy toll the death of each brown mama’s child
exacts from me, whether they slid from my womb, or another’s.
Wade in the water
This razor is so sharp, it draws blood before I can feel pain.
Each tiny cut creates the hemorrhage:
My rookie confusion at a North Georgia State Park when two men
said they’d get shot guns if my future husband and I didn’t leave.
“and take the same roads you came by.”
My mother’s frantic letter sent six weeks before our wedding admitting
to white privilege, with the question: “What about the children?”
The adrenaline anger of my young husband, yanked into a squad car
while walking in our mixed neighborhood, where black still meant “suspect”.
Children, wade in the water.
My heart thumping fear during a contraction
as two white men in a work truck get out and glare
when my husband stops at a gas station on our way to the Birth Center.
It took years for him to tell us how a white teacher whispers
into my brown son’s dreds, before he crosses the stage at graduation:
“Do me a favor. Stay out of jail.”
Seven referrals by one teacher that got my youngest son
put out of the magnet school he had attended since kindergarten.
His Asian and white friends said they were doing the same things
Rachel Landrum Crumble
first published in Bluing the Blade December 2020