A secular sermon on race, grief, accountability, and change.
Breai Mason-Campbell || April/May 2021 || 5,129 words || a 23 minute read
I threw away half the house when my mother died. Baby shoes. Undeveloped film. Awards from third grade. All of it was important. None of it was important. Not in the face of death. I had no place to put all that shit, and I couldn’t be bothered.
One childhood artifact bound for ejection was a set of nesting dolls. The rotund woman, her company of smaller but identically contoured women tucked neatly inside her, lived in the bottom of the china cabinet. I only ever saw her when we were preparing a formal dinner and I had to pull out an infrequently used platter or set of dishes sharing the same shelf. Each time, I would deconstruct the woman, enraptured by her magic. Each time, I would return her secrets to their places, and her to the shelf.
At no point did this experience feel instructional. It was only the hesitation I felt in assigning her to the “trash or donate” pile that revealed her contribution to my education and identity. There was always more, she said, to the story. There are layers that add complexity, and that constrict. There is an outer shell and an inner core; they are the same, but not the same. This wordless woman, stored in a corner of a corner of my house and my mind, was a model for the relationship between experience and awareness. Perhaps this is why she speaks to me so clearly and profoundly at this moment, when grief — a profound experience that shifts our understanding of the world — has cast its somber cloak over all of us.
Trapped indoors as they and we have been for a year, it occurs to me that White people have just figured out what it’s like to be in a living nightmare. White America now knows a little bit about pervasive suffering: what it is like for one’s freedom and joy to be muffled by fear and uncertainty, panic over scarce resources, and the omnipresence of danger. For people to intentionally avoid and isolate you. How painful it is to hope that things are finally getting better, just to wake up to more of the same, or worse. What it feels like to be entombed inside a replica of one’s life; recognizable, but guarded and distant from one’s truest self, where neither the fullness of joy nor the insulating arms of community can reach. And they have found themselves woefully unprepared.
White people had not developed the constitution for forbearance. Protective layers forged in the firestorm of injustice belong to People of Color in this country, and are not necessary where Whiteness stands sentinel. Brazenly detached, unapologetically fragile, and woefully in denial, Whiteness outsourced culpability, and along with it critical lessons in resilience and character. Poverty overflowing into violence in your neighborhood? Buy a new house in the country! Funding model keeping your school overcrowded? Not to worry, opt for private education.
These habits of White Power are designed to create a life unencumbered by the concerns of the oppressed. A dissociation trifecta — distance, fragility, and denial — ensures that the residual cruelties of White choices are barred from White view. The result is a fortress of dispassion through which empathy is hard pressed to permeate, let alone justice. The White nesting doll is all self-actualization. The top of Maslow’s hierarchy, all to itself.
Devoid of the necessary layers of sturdiness and resilience, Nice White Folks were not prepared for a pandemic that required universal suffering under the weight of compounded and inescapable realities. This was a foray into unknown pain where White Supremacy, clad in a MAGA hat, revealed its capacity to make pawns out of its own members. This was unadulterated Whiteness, feudal and indiscriminate in its destructive impulse and maskless irreverence. Being the teacher, and the nurse, and the custodian, and the cafeteria manager, and the boss or the employee, and the significant other, and the caretaker of older parents, bound to keep smiling and keep working because your life or someone else’s depends on it — it hurt in a way that Whiteness is not supposed to hurt. It broke the rules.
It also created an opportunity for real change. This pandemic squeezed empathy from a stone by thrusting White people into the uncharted territory of unmerited adversity; plagues, as the Hebrew Bible teaches us, open small windows of opportunity for liberation. Still, even after the worst pestilence temporarily broke Pharaoh’s resolve, abuse of power would not learn. His grief turned to blind rage and a renewed commitment to destruction and domination at any cost. White Power may be down, but it’s not out.
For People of Color, thick skins of fortitude and endurance are essential to survival. Denial is not a luxury afforded to First Nations communities fighting for clean water. Dreamers have no space for fragility. And where, oh where, can I move that my black skin does not come along with me? Society shoved me into armor at birth.
My elders tell me that it was seeing children attacked by dogs and sprayed by water hoses and Emmett Till’s open casket that finally broke the back of legal segregation. Folks were incredulous about the stories they heard and defensive or dismissive of the abject cruelty of racism, until they saw it with their own eyes. They marched. We won. Now, I can legally vote if I can find my way through the muck of gerrymandering and the maze of restrictions designed to disenfranchise me. I can send my children to school with updated textbooks, air conditioning, playing fields, and friends of more than one hue if White Flight has not created redlined ghettos out of my community. I can run through your neighborhood if I am wearing workout clothes and not loose khakis.
Last year, it was a knee on George Floyd’s neck. For 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as he called out for his dead mother, the world watched yet another lynching where the crimes of the Black victim were said to outweigh the brutality and inhumanity of someone White. But by this time, White people had at long last experienced collective grief. They had come to know what it is like to be connected to others by a network of pain, so they finally believed us when we said that something was horribly wrong. They now understood what it felt like to be distant from their freest selves, so they listened when we said that our grief is a nesting doll: That inside the outer sphere where Corona had stolen our loved ones, our job security, and our sense of safety, was another layer. A more suffocating circle of experience that White people, previously blinded by the light of their own incandescence, could now begin to make out from the shadows, their eyes adjusted by the global shroud of doom. These grief-bound White people, uncharacteristically able to see in the dark, became more discerning. More sensitive. More human.
This wave of aberrant White awareness inspired confessions about the complicity of silence. Well-guarded, repressed wells of humanity burst forth in a torrent of notes from White friends, checking to see if I was okay. These friends went to demonstrations. They hung Black Lives Matter signs on their doors, and posted pictures of themselves marching. They invoked the Freedom Riders, Goodman and Schwerner. They called for The System to change. A crucible of isolation and uncertainty awakened 2520s just enough to acknowledge that state-sponsored violence is a problem. They offered support in whatever way I might need, and declared they were standing in solidarity with me in my moment of anguish.
Situational grief is momentary. Systemic grief is not.
One of my best friends lost her husband two years ago to brain cancer. Out of the clear blue one day he woke up unable to talk, and 12 months later he was gone. He was young, too young. We called. We visited. We sent cards. This friend recently called me crying because she is undone by the absence of a father figure in her children’s lives, although it’s not for lack of trying. She asked this one, and he fell through. She asked that one, and he dropped the ball.
The old folks say that it doesn’t matter if you miss a funeral. What the bereaved really need is support three months from now, when everyone has moved on. My friend needs someone to pick her kids up every Tuesday afternoon for bonding time. A walk in the park. A bike ride. She needs a trusted adult her kids can rely on. She got lots of pretty cards, and they were kind sentiments in the moment, but they don’t help her right now. Now, she needs us to change our lives. Her life is fundamentally different than it was. She needs her support system to recognize that and adjust accordingly.
So do I.
Ahmaud Arbery was not my cousin. George Floyd was not my uncle. But my friends get that their deaths have touched me, and they want to do something, so they speak up. That is what friends should do. But they forget the fact that their deaths speak to the doll they could not see — would not even acknowledge the presence of — until the lights went out and they felt the jaws of an oppressive outer shell close around them. Trials common to humanity like the loss of a parent or unforeseen illness are in a separate category from the collective grief borne by groups marked for derision. Such communion of stings and salves, of joy and pain (the Blues, Black folks call it) requires a second layer of thick skin — not to bear the customary weathering of life, but the brutality designed by villains to have their way.
The willful and deliberate destruction of Covid-19 has been like smelling salts for the soul, quickening even the most apathetic Whiteness. From this threadbare place, their hearts and spirits were finally vulnerable enough to feel the pain of police brutality rather than again being passive if uncomfortable voyeurs. This was a breaking point where a demand would be made for a change to the law.
But then, the political machine gave Nice White Folks a reassuring pat on the back, and let them know they needn’t continue making such a fuss: Joe Biden. They were no longer party to the raging, facist, and overtly bigoted morality whose rising to the surface of our national identity, launched them into an existential crisis. Science would prevail, Corona would be dealt with — an immobilizing blizzard of fears and worries was melting in the light of a new day.
Justice was a seasonal item, it turned out. And empathy, its sister-at-arms awakened by the storm and subsequent power outage, was being sent back to the secreted and suppressed corners from whence she emerged. Her only-just-forged outer doll dismantled and packed up in the garage. Back to business as usual. Back to normal.
Shock and fear made more White Americans willing to negotiate. *Beware, long post* admissions about their role in our oppression, copping to the blood on their hands. Maybe Corona felt like karma, and enough good deeds would buy their freedom from risk? Hopeless and scared as they have been, suddenly cast out of the impenetrable bubble of safety that their skin prejudicially provides, penance was cathartic; a prayer whispered to God in apology for their heinous crimes. Their new, woke armor was a brace against the weight of the unwelcome epiphany that Black people feel like this all of the time. These mourners wore sackcloth for themselves.
Now the collective grief that transformed denial about my daily experience of racism into a call to fix it is vanishing into thin air, and I have That Knot in my chest. That White-people-can-only-take-so-much Knot. That if-you-keep- pushing-they-will-turn-against-you Knot. That if-a-fucking-insurgency-in-the-halls-of-the-capital-can’t-change-them-you-damn-sure-can’t Knot.
But I also have That Fire in my belly. That I-didn’t-come-this-far-to-turn back Fire.
The White people who sent me cards only see the surface problem. They have awakened to the fact that police will shoot me through the window of my house because my door is open, casually keep their jobs, and move on with their lives while I am dead. They have not awakened to their recurring role on Sisyphus: The African-America Story as Martin Luther Karen, our passionate and politicized best friend who goes to marches, but says she’s too tired to keep fighting and gets angry when we tell her that the problem is actually not fixed. Karen is, at the end of the day, White, and this shit does not affect her unless she chooses to empathize, and she does not always choose that path.
She certainly does not choose to live in my neighborhood. Or to send her children to the school my children attend. She has a logical explanation: Her children need more of a challenge. Her children shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of being the only White child in the room, or the setbacks caused by the absence of foreign language classes. She doesn’t mind Black people, it’s poverty she has a problem with; at least, its behaviors. How disadvantage turns to violence, or into needs that detract from the attention she wants for her children. Do her choices play into the maintenance of said poverty? She can’t fix it all. She’s only one person.
For 402 years, Black people have been kicked back into place each time we have made strides toward a greater measure of access to our own humanity, in our moments of daring to dismantle a layer of the doll. Slavery? Sharecropping. Reconstruction? Jim Crow. Civil Rights? A flood of drugs and mass incarceration. Obama? Trump. Each backlash a gut punch of indescribable magnitude, doing its intended job of maiming and intimidating. Like any abuser, Whiteness becomes most dangerous when we try to leave the relationship. I have to wear all of these dolls, you see, so that Whiteness does not have to wear any.
Over the years, similarly disenfranchised White people — tenant farmers, miners, factory workers — sometimes put shoulder to stone beside us when the particulars related to them, until the irresistible carrot of Whiteness offered respectability and casserole at dinner in exchange for names. Butchinoff became Baker and Hamburger became Hamlyn and suddenly there were fewer White hands sharing in the struggle of pushing the rock of justice uphill, and more, silent, Anglicized, White lips watching it roll down again. White Power is transferable only to Whiteness. White grief is situational, not systemic.
Today, enough stores have been closed for Black Lives to Matter, our cause providing purpose for the gentle and amusement for the bored. But generational experience teaches us that this window of white attention will close, because Nice White Folks confuse moments with movements. If it took an international pandemic, 12 months of isolation, and the fear of their own deaths for Nice White Folks to respond to the grotesque treatment of human beings in acts they would not see done to a dog, where is our hope? Would White people stand by and let a police officer kneel on a dog’s neck for nine minutes? (No.)
Grief is an armistice: the dispossessed are too tired to fight, and their enemies respect the white flag. Today, we are all cocooned in a shell of grief that Nice White Folks recognize, but we were socially distanced before Covid-19. Ahmaud wasn’t killed by cops, and neither was Trayvon. They were killed by their neighbors.
So thanks for all of the cards. Seriously. Reaching out to a friend when there has been a death is the right thing to do. It is kind to write to ask how I am doing, good to say that you care. Your words have been a buffer between my heart and the pain. They have meant something. But I do think it’s time to be specific and unequivocal: This is the funeral. Thank you for coming. How are you going to help the family now?
A close friend of mine is a singer who saves this special gift for big holidays. On one such occasion, I took my children to a church over the county line to witness this clandestine spectacle. There were no fans supporting the local mortuary, ushers in white gloves, or large decorative hats, only golf shirts and fine-knit sweater sets. It was White Church. My kiddos and I were the “spots in the milk,” as my mother would say.
This was not strange to me. As the daughter of a woman determined to better her station, I learned to code-switch early on and hadn’t come dressed in my Sunday Best. I had made the mistake of bringing children; there were none to be seen otherwise. It was a dinner party atmosphere, and I’d missed the asterisk indicating that it was an adults-only affair.
As I frantically hushed my rabble, embarrassed at the prospect of confirming for the White folk that Black children are, indeed, an unruly lot in need of greater measures of character and discipline, the words, “Mom, you’re such a bitch!” rang out from a pew in front of me. A blonde teenager — 14? 15? — stomped to her feet and stormed out of the sanctuary. Not. A. Head. Turned. No bullshit. The only thing stranger than the outburst was the complete, intentional insistence that it wasn’t happening. Every Lacoste-inlaid collar kept facing front.
I watched the mother’s face as she swallowed her rage, my neck swiveled in disbelief. She gritted her teeth and kept her seat, imploding. She did not quietly follow the girl out to address the situation away from the peeled ears (if averted eyes) of the suburban congregation, much less snatch her by the arm and ask her who the hell she thought she was talking to. Here I was, embarrassed about my children being children, talking and squirming in their seats, and this girl had just cussed her mother out in church. Oh, to be White! Teflon for accountability.
This little White girl was allowed to feel all of her feelings. She could be angry, irreverent, cruel… all with no consequences. Whiteness demanded it. She could not be White — they could not be White — were they to hold her accountable. She must be above the common indignity of shame or duty. Her only job was to be free to do whatever the fuck she wanted to do. Then, and only then would she, and they, be really, truly White.
The thing that occurred to me sitting there, suddenly ashamed that my shushing and chiding was reinforcing the lesson that Black people need to be hyper-aware while White people revel in irresponsibility — reinforcing it for my Black children, and for the whole congregation — is that what Whiteness is all about is being better. Deep down, in places White folks care not to admit (except where the Proud Boys are concerned), White people believe in their superiority. When they make questionable decisions, it’s because the situation is difficult, i.e., “The Opioid Epidemic” or “The Covid-19 Crisis.” When Black people make questionable decisions in a similar set of circumstances, it’s because we are morally deficient, i.e., “Crack Heads” and “Welfare Queens.” Unwillingness to admit to this belief in their superiority keeps us trapped between the rock of violent, insurgent white supremacy, and the hard place of liberal denial.
Nice White Folks have not truly let go of the belief that this is a mess of Black people’s own making. Not seeing the team of dolls trapping me in my place enables the illusion of meritocracy: White people are doing better, it is easy to believe, because they are just more organized and make better choices. It is really sad, Nice White Folks might say, that Black communities are so broken. That there is so much poverty and crime, but they are doing it to themselves. They shoot each other. They sell the drugs.
With their situational grief-inspired dolls dismantled, we look big and scary again, thickly armored as we remain. They don’t believe that there are real people trapped in the center of the golem, much less that it is a monster of their own creation.
James Baldwin’s observation that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” is apropos. The fallout from this pervasive rejection of accountability is the assignment of all essential duties to my lot. I do not have the social capital, skin tone, or moral disposition to sidestep culpability. Instead, blame and hyper-responsibility are my constant companions. You shouldn’t have been trying to pass a fake $20, selling loose cigarettes, or not signaling a lane change while driving. Whatever happens, it’s our fault. Whatever happens, it’s never White people’s fault. EYE wasn’t there during slavery! It wasn’t ME holding your ancestors hostage! We were forecasting — how were we to know that all those subprime loans would bring the market tumbling down along with your life savings?
Black folks are allowed no feelings, no space for absolute freedom or innocence. If I ever cried for anything aside from a skinned knee or other physical injury, I was rebuked: corrected out of feeling, or instructed in the acceptable parameters of my emotions. Frustrated protest of some age-appropriately-perceived injustice — finish your vegetables, no to ice cream? “I’m gon’ to give you something to cry for!” dried my tears. A friend hurt my feelings? A command to stop being so sensitive. “Hush that noise!” was the constant edict.
White girls can cuss their mothers out in church, but when I am upset, hurt, or afraid, I am making noise, an unwanted thing. Time spent on me, my feelings, my needs, and my humanity is an annoyance, if not an affront, to decorum.
During the Congressional debate over whether or not to impeach Trump for the second time, the Right argued that holding him accountable would further divide the country when what we really needed was to “heal.” Classic Jim Crow. Classic denial of black grief. Classic white absolution from responsibility: “Boy, you got a good thing going on here. Things work just as they are, now you gotta go around stirring up trouble? We get along just fine with you sitting in the back. Why you wanna make all this fuss and cause confusion for?” My call for respect, recognition, or remuneration amounts to an inappropriate and unwelcome disruption to the way that those in power enjoy living. Because they are uncomfortable, we are wrong. They want to have more than everyone else; it makes them feel safe and powerful. They want an unfair advantage. They deeply believe in rank, and status requires that someone be below you when you look down.
Blackness by extension, is a lifelong lesson in accepting less. Worse, it’s a lesson in believing that you deserve less and passing that logic onto your children.
Now cue all my inner dolls.
Being female exacerbates and underlines these lessons. One insidious feature of racism is its patriarchal backbone. The nation will take to the streets for Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland, because they died in the way that Black men often die and it’s White men who are being held responsible, but there is a wall of silence around unchecked abuse by intimate partners. The name Delashon Jefferson probably doesn’t ring a bell despite the fact that the Black Women’s Health Project has determined domestic violence to be the number one health issue facing my demographic. 92% of these cases are intra-racial: Black men are more likely to try and kill us than the police.
If I dare to speak up about such abuses of power by Black men, I am accused of undermining the project to protect them from the police. I am contributing to the narrative that they are violent, and thus endangering the view of their innocence needed to dissuade police brutality. Because Whiteness sees Blackness as a monolith, I have to play along, swallowing my pain, my needs, my grief, and my abuse and hoping for the best. My father was an alcoholic, as was my mother’s father who beat my grandmother to a pulp. But to keep Black men as allies, I mustn’t hold them accountable. It would be divisive.
Open my doll again — I am working class. How nice that the first time you cleaned your own house, it was because a pandemic prevented your housekeeper from visiting. And, again — I am a single mother of three. Twelve months of having everything on your shoulders got ya down? Try eighteen years. And again — I come from generational heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. These are metabolic disorders resulting from overexposure to stress. Covid-19 has a vaccine. Racism, not so much.
How much trauma must be unpacked and how much injustice beaten back to give the tied, gagged, and suffocating woman held hostage at the center of this menagerie of stoic veneers a chance at real life? We all share the grief of Covid-19, the outer doll of fear, uncertainty, and isolation. But beneath that breastplate of horror, there are layers upon layers of sarcophagi limiting the agency and humanity of people like me.
As long as order is prioritized over justice, this will continue. A few simple questions: Do you have Black neighbors? Who do your children play with? Who comes to dinner at your house? How do you make your money? Who benefits? Who suffers? Did you move to a “better” neighborhood for your kids to go to school? What happened to the neighborhood you left?
What do you have to do? How will you maintain commitment to that effort? “Global Pandemic” will soon be off the table as an accountability partner.
My neighbors have a lot of… traffic in and out of their house. People drive up, pick something up, then drive off. There are regulars, and new faces, and fighting, and drama. On one such occasion of violence, a kind, White neighbor called to ask if I was okay. She and her husband had driven by and seen cars blocking the street, and heard voices raised. There had been a shooting not long ago, and she was worried for my safety, but she was also worried for the safety of the young men whose dealings were erupting outside my door. She knew the police were dangerous, and that calling them might mean death for any of us. She knew I had three small children. What she did not know was what she should do, so she called me.
All of my immediate neighbors’ doors stayed shut that day. No police cars arrived, so I presume that no one called for help.
Had every neighbor come outside — all 15 or 20, bearing witness to what was happening and declaring with their presence and courage that this was not to be borne — I would have found safety in collective grief. In the banding together of the community to feel the depth of the problem, and face it together. Instead, our friends up the block moved to a new neighborhood under the shadow of night, and another family moved to the county without even saying goodbye.
Change can not be delegated to pen and paper. Voting rights didn’t fix “it,” nor did desegregation laws, because the letter of the law cannot counteract the apathy of a people. Adversity, Coronavirus has taught us, works to awaken compassion. But mercy — the commitment to alleviating or eliminating the suffering of others — requires armor.
White men, White women, Black men, cis women, cis men, hetero folks, people with degrees, people with generational wealth, anyone who doesn’t share their neighborhood with drug dealers: Corona helped you build up some armor. Use it. Now is the time to show mercy with brave and decisive acts. Stop confusing irresponsibility with freedom. Accept accountability for the fact that where you live, what you buy, how you handle the noise on your block, and where your kids go to school all help or hurt somebody’s chances at life itself. Make. Different. Choices.
My oldest son will be thirteen this summer. Because of social distancing guidelines, I can’t sit in the barbershop to wait for him to get his shape up, so he was to call me to pick him up once he is finished. This last time he called, he said that he would walk the five blocks home instead. A few minutes later, I looked up to see him running towards me. This was the first time he had walked back alone, so my first thought was that the thrill of independence had worn off quickly and he’d decided to narrow the distance between himself and home by picking up the pace. He was so tall and lean and suddenly so grown up.
A look of distress widened his gaze and I stood up, a lump forming in my throat. My son was running. Without his thick, unwieldy coif, he looked older. He looked like a corner boy. Handsome, well-groomed, sturdy. Black. Someone we judge on sight and deem deserving of punishment. What will it take for him to be safe? His brother? His sister? Do White women ever feel like this — not because their sons are a soldiers or front-line workers, but just because they’re running down the street?
If you shoot him, I will die of grief. Even if I am still walking around, it will be in the haze of pain and defeat that so many Black people are judged ignorant, dangerous, or angry for displaying. If you do not get to know him, all of you will be more likely to be that assailant, or to wrongly absolve whomever might fill that role. You cannot know him if you will not live next door to us, or send your children to school with him. You will not live next door to us or have your children go to school with him if it does not feel safe. It will not feel safe until we all know each other, share in each other’s pain, and stand up together, for as long as it takes for all of us to be unbound and ungagged.
Do not retreat to the blindness that you enjoyed before the long night. Don’t move, fight for fair school funding! Don’t call the cops, come outside! Don’t pretend that this isn’t happening because your color allows you to opt out of grief at the cost of multiplying mine.
The price for your return to normal is my life.
Written by Breai Michele Mason-Campbell. Breai Michele is a Baltimore native, community activist, teacher, dancer, and kinetic storyteller. A Harvard graduate, Breai Michele is the founder of Moving History, an arts-integrated dance curriculum that teaches students and communities about the contributions of African Americans to American history through movement. Her work has been supported by grants from Teaching Tolerance, the Frankie Manning Foundation, and the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, which supported Moving History’s efforts to bring racial equity to education with a $179,000 grant in 2018, and another in 2019. She’s the proud mother of three. Learn more and support her work.
She would like to thank Cricket Barrazotto at Sowebo Community Church for the wonderful sermon that provided the definition of “mercy” used above.
Illustrated by NoelleRx. NoelleRx is the artistic signature of Candice Tavares, one of a new breed of illustrators who are creating digitally, reaching clients and building an audience using social media. Sharing powerful messages about racial equality, family, and human love through her art, her illustrations are clear and direct, realistic and intimate.
* * *
Edited by Michelle Weber.
Fact checked by Matt Giles.