Sunday, July 21, 2013
Death…and Life Matters
Death…and Life Matters
I'm not surprised that there is a deep divide in perspective on issues of racism...and that this divide has played out on social media sites, particularly in debates about Trayvon Martin’s murder v. what many wrongly term “black on black” crime. I’ve seen many try to articulate that all life matters and that black communities do protest street violence also, and that this case specifically symbolizes the value of black life in a white supremacist society, but no explanation to date has seemed to quell the debate. In order to move from debate to understanding, we need to try to reconcile personal experiences we all share in life (and death) with our social reality.
A PERSONAL JOURNEY
We all have experienced some type of tragedy, and some time in our lives, we all will have had to deal with the death of a loved one. This is the reality that affects us all, and the humanity that defines us all. No one reading this is exempt.
It took me 10 years after my mother’s death before I was able to communicate in writing how her death affected me, and how it taught me how to live.
I’ve actually had many personal experiences with death. When I was a preteen, I lost my first close family members: my grandfather in Jamaica that I spent some summers with, and my uncle, who died of cancer while still very young in his thirties. My uncle actually lived with us for many of his last days so I saw what sickness and death looked like at a young age. And there would be others like Uncle Eric, Uncle Fitzie and Big Momma. So I learned at a pretty young age that death was a part of life. But it would be what I learned later that is important and what I want to write about now…how death taught me about life…
The most difficult time in my life was a two year period that started a year before I started graduate school (pursuing my Ph.D. in Sociology). In the summer of 1997, we lost my grandmother to cancer. She was the matriarch of our family and it wasn’t clear then how many in the family would be able to go on without her. She was even raising an uncle’s two young children so their future was really insecure. We had her memorial service in Jamaica. As soon as we returned, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. This seemed impossible in timing and irony. How were we supposed to handle this blow? We were still reeling from the loss of Grandma. But life went on and six months later, my other grandfather died. Now as I said, my family wasn’t new to death but this seemed like “too much” for one family at one time. We memorialized my grandfather in January of 1998 and had to move my mother and 17 year old brother out from Virginia to be with the bulk of the family in California later that summer because she was not going to survive her battle with cancer too much longer. My mother died in October 1998 with many of us by her bedside. She was only 54 and it had only been a little over a year since we had buried her mother and less than a year since we had buried her father. And for me, she was the one person before I got married and had kids that I knew I wouldn’t be able to live without…but I do…and almost ten years later…it’s never easy, but it is.
But our family tragedy doesn’t end there. Three months after we memorialized my mother, I got a call from a close family friend. It was a weekday morning in January 1999, and her voice was one I had become familiar with – tragedy had yet again struck. While walking to school, my two cousins (the ones my grandmother helped raise) had been hit by a car. Adam suffered leg injuries but Zondie was fatally wounded. My husband and I rushed from Irvine to San Diego to see her and hope and pray that when we got there, we would find Zondie okay. It seemed unreal and too cruel for anything else. Because we had already lost so much…and she was only twelve…and it was her birthday.
FULL TEXT = Death…and Life
MY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
My first essay was a uniquely personal one. But I continued exploring the issue and in Part II, focused on what we as a society can learn from death.
As a social activist and analyst, death has taught me other lessons that I truly believe are the answers to many of the ills that plague our societies. Death has shown me what we all have in common: reality and humanity. Too often we let ideology inform our understanding of the world instead of looking beyond ideology to see the reality that affects us all and the humanity that defines us all.
The real problem is lived experiences are too different to effectively address social problems intellectually or ideologically. People must understand on a personal level. It must be made personal.
FULL TEXT = Part Two: Death...and Life
More than probably anything else, death is a personal experience. No one comes into the world alone, but most of us will leave here that way. I have had a number of students who have lost sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, aunts and other family members from violence, and they grieve their loved ones every single day. For people that believe they don’t care, they just don’t know. I ask my students every semester what they want to see change in society (locally, nationally and globally). The majority of my students from a predominantly low income, black/brown community lists gang violence as their local issue. Most have to navigate it daily just to get to school to try to improve their life opportunities. For them, it is very real. For my former students at more affluent universities in Irvine and Long Beach, or even at a community college in mostly white Orange County, the issue was barely ever raised. Experience is everything.
As a Black woman, I empathize with my students, although never completely relate since my experience living in a safer neighborhood shields me from many of these experiences. In the same vein, the sorrow I feel for their loss can’t compare to the grief I felt when my mother died. I will feel sorry for anyone that loses a family member, but I felt a black hole of grief, like a part of myself had died, when I lost my mom. This is natural, I’m sure.
There are peace rallies and protests and community organizations that deal with street violence every day for those that do lose loved ones to this type of violence, but if you are not of the community affected by it, you probably wouldn’t know. To learn about such efforts, please read: http://bit.ly/GK6CXB
No one should assume that because s/he does not have any personal knowledge of it, or has never seen it covered on TV, it does not exist. If anything, it is more evidence to the assertion that the broader society does not give same value to these lives, because when the community is grieving and organizing to spread peace, no news cameras seem to ever be around. The same bias can also be seen in the way media covers missing women/children cases.
Missing white woman syndrome
From MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. to MICHAEL JACKSON
Death is a personal experience. If this is true and I truly believe it is, why do many grieve for people they have never met? Is it because as a society we value the life of celebrities more? That may be part of it but it is not all of it. We actually do have very personal experiences with many artists. Their art (music, acting etc) has in some way touched our lives personally. Maybe we grew up listening to their music…maybe their music helped us get through some dark days. We related personally to them in some way. Maybe seeing them in our living room weekly or daily gave us an opportunity to develop some kind of connection to their characters. However the connection develops, it is real…and it is personal.
Did you ever grieve for someone you never met in person? Maybe….
Martin Luther King Jr.?
Pope John Paul II?
John F. Kennedy?
Elvis Presley? (personal note: I’m with Public Enemy on this one...lol)
Most probably have…that is the reality that affects us all, and the humanity that defines us all.
Personally, I still miss Luther Vandross dearly.
TRAYVON = My Son
For many in Black America, Trayvon’s death represents the reality of living Black in a society where white supremacy has been the organizing principle since the dawn of slavery. He is Emmitt Till 2013. Many can relate to Trayvon and his parents. I have a 17 year old, and because of his gender and the color of his skin, stereotypes will be placed on him…and he will have to live with them every day…and in Trayvon’s case, die because of them…any black parent’s greatest fear. It does not get any more personal than that. And all will not relate, because that has not been everyone’s experience in this society…but all whom respect the EXPERIENCES OF ALL and the HUMANITY IN ALL…will understand.
All death matters, but what matters most is ALL LIFE. And nothing reveals the value of life more than death; and if that death is tragic, untimely, unnecessary, and unjust, the revelation becomes more urgent. In this revelation, we are reminded of the principles penned in the Declaration of Independence and adopted in the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s platform:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to supper, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariable the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
Life is our most fundamental right. Our lives must be respected, protected, honored, and defended…at all times, and by any life-affirming means necessary. Ashe.
Get Up Stand Up
Stand up for your rights
Don’t give up the fight!
If you knew what life is worth,
You would look for yours on Earth
Now you see the light
Stand up for your rights
Life is your right…
So we can't give up the fight.
- Bob Marley