The death wail
“have you ever
a black woman weep over her skinmurdered child.
it is the splitting of atoms.
it is billions
voices screaming their children’s names
her death wail.”
- Nayyirah Waheed
It was a simple tribute, but perhaps the most powerful of all. At the base, a candle. The Blessed Mother, slowly burning. Surrounded by words and images of a few of the Civil Rights Movement’s leading forces. As my gaze traveled up the wall, enveloped in a sheer golden cloth, I saw an image of hands, open, in a sign of release. And a photo rose out of their palms. A small school photo of a black boy. No older than 16.
“My baby.” She said, over and over. “That’s my son. My baby. Isn’t he so handsome?”
I looked to my right, and the woman was a vision. Draped so elegantly in colorful African fabric, it appeared as though she were a premonition rather than a living being. As though she had materialized rather than walked to where I stood.
I wasn’t really sure if she was talking to me, or to anyone in particular. But I listened. Someone needed to listen. I had found myself at an exhibit in San Francisco, honoring dia de los Muertos. They’d taken the opportunity to pay tribute to the humans that have lost their lives due to fear of difference. Or, race. In the wake of the rising death toll in America’s war between black men and the police.
“He was so smart. He was going to go to college.” She was smiling when she said it. “He was only 17. He’s not American. He’s African. We came here when he was a boy. I wanted him to have a better life.”
She said her son was shot, in a driveby. It was outside a grocery store in what is now Hayes Valley, in broad daylight. “It wasn’t always so nice over there. A lot went down. He was with his friends after school. He was just taking out cash to buy groceries. They were mistaken for someone else. It’s because he was black.
My baby was killed. The wrong place. Wrong time. He didn’t do nothin. He was going to go to college. Isn’t he handsome?”
Her golden jewels were glistening beneath the light. Her hair in a braided updo. I asked her if she made this memorial. “I don’t know who made it. I just saw it, saw his face. Someone made it for him. That right there. That’s my son.” She shook her head, staring all the while into the photograph while she smiled through tears.
And I stood. Me as my white self, I stood beside this African woman who exhaled the incredible pain of a lost child with every breath. I stood there listening, but never really knowing. Offering the only comfort I can — the ears of a fellow human to hear her story. I stood there as long as she did. Until she walked away, not looking back, still slowly shaking her head.
I do not know. Will never know. What it is to spend a lifetime in African skin. I can’t know. I can’t feel it. And I can’t overcome the deeds, the words, the actions, the scars left by my white brothers and sisters simply by being less of a monster than some of them are, or were. All I can do is listen to the stories. And give them life. So that’s what I will do.