“We’ll Understand It Better By and By”: Black People and Rituals of Mourning

I have been thinking and writing about grief in the African American Community this summer. Of course, over the past couple of months this grief is not only about the African American community, but also about how it has touched us as Americans–the Orlando Mass Shooting, a child facing a gorilla–the gorilla dead, a child snatched and killed by an alligator, a constant “red record” in Chicago of gun deaths, Muhammad Ali and Prince gone. Americans have had to process over and over death, calamity, destruction, and loss in a way that they don’t often allow themselves. However, this “weeping time” is a time when the rest of the country can learn from black people about how to move on from tragedy, because we know how to mourn. We are professionals. We are the only people who could have changed the noun funeral into a verb to funeralize. We funeralize instead of merely holding a funeral because our burial and mourning traditions need to do something, to move us forward and make us stronger. Karla FC Holloway’s wonderful book Passed on: African American Mourning Stories talks about how our burial traditions are integral to our culture. I remember that my grandmother’s daily ritual for 30 years was to make breakfast and then open the Florence Morning News immediately to the obituary section so that she could see who died, who had the body, and who would be going to what funeral to bear witness. It is like my grandmother literally had to plan her day around death. 

Because death was always planned for, it meant that she became very intentional about what she did in life. I have been thinking about the Charleston Shooting at this time that marks a year’s anniversary, and I have seen the way that Charleston has been, in some ways, able to get clear about what it is doing to move people forward.  Clementa Pinckney’s televised funeral, the blackest Spoleto Festival on record, the ongoing ritual of commemoration in Charleston (see the mural below of Rev. Pinckney), and the Confederate flag coming down have made sure that SC hasn’t only been stuck in that moment of tragedy.  

This is not to say that means that South Carolina has all the answers and doesn’t have any problems still remaining around race. However the people of South Carolina understand that even without the answers, you still need to go through the ritual. I am also reminded of a hymn that we sung growing up in my segregated United Methodist Church, particularly the end of the first verse, which goes

By and by, when the morning comes, 

when the Saints of God are gathered home,

we’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,

 for we’ll understand it better by and by.


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