The summer of grief

2015 7 27 ShandsStoltzfus_Regina15Regina Shands Stoltzfus teaches in the Peace Justice and Conflict Studies department at Goshen College, where her courses include Race, Class and Ethnic Relations, Personal Violence and Healing, Spiritual Path of the Peacemaker, and Transforming Conflict and Violence.  She is co-founder of the Roots of Justice Anti-Oppression program (formerly Damascus Road). 

This has been an incredibly hard post to write. I teach about social identity and oppression, and I spend a fair amount of time reading, writing and talking about racism. It is something I care deeply about, and it is something that impacts my life and the lives of many people that I love. But I know that in order to be “hearable” I need to foster a somewhat dispassionate tone. I need to distance myself from my passion and my own pain. I need to take care to not put people on the defensive, not to offend.

This summer, my capacity to do that has worn so very, very thin.

This is the summer of grief.

Last August brought the summer of Mike Brown, and then there was Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. This summer, the summer of grief, the names keep coming – in one horrific incident, nine names at a time, slain during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. Before we could catch our breath, Sandra Bland. By the time this is posted, perhaps another.

Will I ever turn on the radio, or sign into social media and see the report of another Black death and have it not feel like a punch to my gut? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not know the stories – one right after the other – of suspicious deaths coming at the hands of those little children are taught to go to for help.

Because you see, it is not just the fact of the deaths of these Black people. People die every day, right?

It is the fact of these deaths in the face of unrelenting disregard and outright hatred for my people.

I am a Black mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, friend.I am fortunate to have been raised by a phenomenal mother who passed on to me the beauty and resilience of my racial and cultural heritage. There is much to love – the poetry, drama, literature, dance, cinema, music, food, laughter.

But this summer… this summer has worn me down. It has been a hard summer to be a Black person. Those words feel so strange to write… as if I need to explain myself. What does it mean to be a Black person and a person who is part of the historic peace church tradition?

Can I call on my sisters and brothers in this church, in particular my white sisters and brothers, to understand this pain and to commit our tradition to ending this violence?

This is summer of “Black Lives Matter” ringing in the air as visible and vocal acknowledgement of grief and courage. The summer of the continued destruction of Black lives, embedded into the fabric of a society that has never accepted Black people as fully human, as citizens of this country. My people came to this continent in chains, owning nothing, leastwise themselves. Attempting escape brought swift punishment and being charged with theft of property, for the institution of slavery was sanctioned by religion and held in place by law; and predicated heavily on the belief that Africans and their descendants were not human, but mere chattel. Those in charge of maintaining the structure were brutal and unapologetic. For a century after the end of the period of enslavement, legalized segregation and discrimination took slavery’s place; this system, too, held in place by violence. Systematic violence against Black people has been in place for so long that no one should be surprised at this current summer of grief. After all, we are barely 50 years past the end of legalized segregation.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays about African American life, much drawn from his own experience. He poses a critical question during a period of time when basic rights for Black people in America were still being fought for:

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. How does it feel to be a problem?”

Du Bois’ question rings in my ears this summer.

Likely some who read this, or the words of others who recount this history think, “Get over it already. That was a long time ago.”

“Look at the [insert the name of another minority group]. They’re making it. Why can’t you?”

Or the ever popular, “What about Black on Black crime?”

I am tired of attempting to answer those questions. For those unable to situate the last few years of highly publicized violence against Black bodies within this unrelenting history, I can only recommend that you begin to uncover the history that most people who are educated and socialized in this country don’t get taught. And then invite you to be angry and grief stricken with me.

And then I invite you to rise up.

I wonder, if I could have looked into the future and seen the headlines and hashtags of 2015, if I would have had children. When I was younger I could not imagine Black people would still be “the problem” du Bois spoke of in 1903.

Even with all of that, because of it, I too remain amazed at the beauty, creativity and resiliency of my people. Lucille Clifton named it at the end of her poem Come Celebrate With Me:

come celebrate with me

that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed

Even when we die, we are here.

Black Lives Matter.

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27 thoughts on “The summer of grief

  1. I keep that specific Lucille Clifton poem as a constant reminder that I can make it. Yes indeed, I will.
    Regina you spoke the longing of my spirit. I await action and affirmation from our church.

  2. Thank you, Regina, for sharing your grief and anger. You ask:
    Can I call on my sisters and brothers in this church, in particular my white sisters and brothers, to understand this pain and to commit our tradition to ending this violence?
    Yes, absolutely. I hear your pain and I commit to doing everything I can to stop the violence.

  3. Regina,
    I am only beginning to understand my racist upbringing and how it was deeply embedded in my soul. I am so appreciative of your article. My question is one of where to start to break apart all the stuff that is below the surface of some of us “progressive” peace-makers?

  4. Thank you Regina. There is so much to do. I understand the exhaustion and despair. Many of us are with you. Thank you for your leadership.

  5. My words seem so inadequate. I want to understand the pain, your pain. I want to act for the fully recognized, appreciated, free flourishing of lives Black. The terror and harm must stop! I want to be part of the rising up to make it end.

  6. Sister Regina Shands Stoltzfus, I can’t even pretend to understand your struggle as a woman, a Black woman in America and in the Christian Church. Y’know, I’m a gay male Christian in the Mennonite Church. Luckily, I can come and go because of the color of my skin, but I’ve often repeated, I’m so tired of people debating about me and my relationship to Christ as if I’m not in the room. While all y’all debate amongst yourselves, we will keep praising the Lord.

  7. Professor, may I suggest a reframing of the horrors you reference? I suggest this not as a substitute for the frames of oppression and racism of racism you describe, but as an addition.

    We live in a nation explicitly committed to world domination. As a natural consequence of this purpose, our nation brutalizes people who are no threat to us; this is occurring continuously in the Middle East, in Libya, the Ukraine, Honduras, the Philippines and dozens of other places. This occurs directly and indirectly through proxies; ISIS is an example of the latter.

    This brutality does not stay overseas; it returns to its source here in the USA via the thousands of men and women who participate in it through the armed forces, covert operations, arms sales and the underlying structures of global trade, the media and so-called humanitarianism.

    I am in a small group with an African-American brother who lived part of his life in Kenya. He is acquainted with the ways of British imperialism, how it manufactured indigenous consent through the selective application of benevolence and fear, how it divided the population into the favored and the disfavored, how it tortured and killed those who dissented. He asks us to recognize this dimension of our oppression.

    In the USA, African-Americans as a group have earned the distinction of being first on the list of those suspected of disloyalty to the prevailing configuration of state power. In part, this is why African-Americans are often the first victims of imperial brutality, even if those individual victims were not actively resisting the empire.

    But that brutality also reaches others who resist. Certainly it will include Swiss, German, Asian and Hispanic Mennonites if and when we resist the empire in Jesus’ name.

    Might we Mennonites find solidarity and courage in recognizing together this calling to resist the evil that our nation is inflicting on the world?

    1. It’s agonizing to experience the Mennonite way of never addressing pains and problems in USA. The propositions you advance is the same as saying All Lives Matter.

      Why is it more comfortable or convenient to send money to other nations to build wells when we have done essentially nothing for our neighbors in USA suffering from environmental and economical injustice. We have people here in major urban settings and rural places that need water that is safe and affordable.

      My point, the Bible always tells us to begin at home before ventures into broader missions.

      Your reply was not to me. I am sharing my pain at the proposition and perspective you offered. If we are members in MCUSA together don’t try to shift my painful experience to make anyone else comfortable. Of course it’s is larger than black bodies dying and abused by structural racism in USA. BUT that doesn’t exempt the need to begin the urgent work of reconciliation here and now. Global racism created this national travesty.

    2. ISIS is a US proxie? What do you suggest we do about it? Just as an historical note, there was that little unpleasantness in the 1860s, as well as massive amounts of money transferred beginning in the 1960s in the effort to correct wrongs. Of course as a straight white male I need to shut up.

  8. We white Mennos have much to un-learn and re-learn, but much resistance to doing this because it challenges our basic identity as decent Christian people. God move our hearts, and wrench us from our complacency.

  9. Thank-you, Regina, for these honest and painful reflections. My book club just finished reading Blood Done Sign My Name by Tim Tyson, a white Methodist minister’s son who grew up in an eastern North Carolina town slammed by a racial murder and ensuing riots in 1970. As he tells the story, Tyson confronts white supremacy in himself and his liberal paternalistic family as well as in the local culture. I mourn the fact that white on black injustice and oppression are still causing so much bloodshed and despair. How long, O Lord?

  10. My words are so inadequately…..but, I will not turn away from your pain, I will listen to what you must say and I am seeking to work with others for a world where there is full flourishing of lives Black. The evil and violence already done, and being done, is UNACCEPTABLE!! It must stop. I want to rise up as you call us to. I am so sorry.

  11. Berry, if you really want to resist the empire, the first thing you have to learn is how to be quiet. Be quiet, for mercy’s sake. Learn when your voice is NOT needed. You are a privileged, American, presumably straight white man. Why on earth would you think that it is appropriate, in this moment of horror, after Regina Shands Stolzfus has expressed the effects of living under the threat of white supremacist violence against her Black body and her Black family, would you think that it’s remotely appropriate or helpful to condescendingly preach at her about the connections between her lived experience and empire? Have you not received enough space to air your views? Do you think she doesn’t understand any of these connections? Do you think the specific experiences and analyses that she has shared as a Black person living in the United States are not important enough on their own merit to be worth you absorbing, deeply, and without comment?

    You effect an attitude of all-knowing detachment when you make comments like this, but that’s because you swim in a culture of privilege that allows you to get away with that posture. This culture never lets Black women get away with the attitude or tone that you took in addressing Regina here. One of the widely-acknowledged mechanisms of empire in this world is the persistent entitlement of economically privileged white men to thoughtlessly assume that they always have the most wisdom, the most objective analysis, and the most right to the space of knowledge production. You’re guilty of this in spades.

  12. Professor Stoltzfus issued a call to which I responded with what I regard to be wisdom from a brother who has seen up close the impact on imperialism on Kenyan society. His concern–which I share–is that too often the horrible violence of our society is framed in ways that do not build solidarity but separate us into competing people groups.

    You know, like you just did, Stephanie.

    1. Barry, I think herein lies the issue. The assumption that Regina does not know the links between imperialism and the racism that she is effected by. I had Regina as a professor and is taught me more than anyone, about these link. We studied, in depth, the history of colonialism in African states. Trust me. She gets it. This is the difference between writing an academic paper and her pouring her heart out in an editorial. She is talking about her very real pain as a black woman and mother, when almost everyday there is a new story of death… In her hometown of Cleavland, where her children are out and about. Let’s just be with that. Let the empathy and grief that it stirs
      Lead us towards decreasing racism, brutalization and oppression everywhere we see it. Intellectualization is a defense and I imagine why we may want to employ it right now. Everywhere I look, I see horrific things happening to black and brown bodies….which brings us back to the point. Regina and her story.

  13. Berry, I think you and I both still have some lessons to learn from Professor Stoltzfus.

  14. Even white middle class women like me are enveloped with a helpless, sometimes angry, grief about what has been revealed to be standard practice towards black people from law enforcement. I will not recite the words of blame; hands clasped in mourning do not point fingers. Know that I, and many white friends hear the silent moans of pain, feel the wracking sobs of other mothers, and taste the tears of bitter and tired grief. I will do all I can from where I am to help shape a more sane and kind society. We are tired. We are sad, too.

  15. Regina, thank you for sharing this powerful message. I am sad; my heart aches and I don’t know how to respond other than to ask if you have suggestions for how we (especially white Mennos) can work to end this violence.

  16. Regina, you have put it so clearly. I hurt with you, although I have no right to do so, being part of the unknowing white privileged system. Even though you are tired beyond belief, it is so important for you to continue to remind us of what is happening, why it’s happening, and what we can do to help end it. I consider it an honor to consider you a Sister.

  17. Thanks to Regina for expressing this. A real challenge to our churches is to question and challenge the presumption of innocence of our own society’s institutions, such as law enforcement, courts, penal systems, financial markets, etc. Black lives are under immediate threat from that privilege that is afforded such institutions, and our churches need a spirituality of resistance, of mission for change. When such a spirituality takes root, the links between Ferguson and Hebron, Baltimore and Gaza, Texas and Galilee, become clearer

  18. A related essay that connects to the pain addressed in Stoltzfus’ essay and the comments following: “Does America Have a Gun Problem . . . or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?” by Joseph G. Ramsey. I found it at Counterpunch.

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