Activism as a Sacred Space
Christine Brigid Malsbary
New York City
It happened in the middle of a gospel-funk song by a band of activists-turned-gospel-funk musicians. We had just heard 55-year old Ferguson activist Cathy Daniels aka ‘Momma Cat’, recount the ordinary events of her day, the day police shot Michael Brown and left his body in the street for over four hours, the next day she left her house to protest. Brandishing her white mirrored cane but sturdy on her two feet she declared and I haven’t gone home since.
The activists-turned-gospel-funk band and Momma Cat headed up a benefit event hosted by the Truth-telling Project. The organization supports Ferguson activists, victims of police violence and their families as well as those in the movement for Black Lives to tell truths about their experience with racism, often manifested in police brutality. It is a heavy day in the United States and racial reparations seem far like ocean horizons. Truth-telling, the organization argues, is a start. And so, we gathered there all together, me and Momma Cat and the activists-turned-gospel-funk musicians (Sekou & the Holy Ghost), and about 100 others to make art, to make music, and talk about truths.
I didn’t expect it to happen. When the words rose up inside me an on-stage singer had just tossed back his long dreadlocks to better belt out his soaring tune. Beside him a towering bassist in red suspenders dug her high heels into the stage floor to verify her rocker’s pose. Crescendos crescendoed and warmth spread through my body. I couldn’t sit in my seat any longer. “Up, up!” a woman shouted to some white folks next to her. And they leapt up with the rest of us who were jumping up and down now reaching hands high like we could touch the sun. We moved like one. The emcee, Cookie, belted a huge laugh of joy as she danced alongside the band onstage. A black trombone painted with the words St. Louis stretched across the stage goading us deeper into our righteous frenzy.
And, suddenly, I prayed. Raising my hands in gratitude up up like I could touch the sun — or at least that far off ocean horizon. Beloved Creater, we thank you. We all were praying now, all together, in song and dance and spirit and glory.
“Activism is a sacred space,” David Ragland, the benefit’s organizer, mirrored back to me when I told him of my experience over the phone the next day. “We pray with our feet as we stamp out on the street.”
Permit me to share some personal details as a way to get to my larger point, about how activism is a creative act, and thus an act of sacred healing. I have been recently engaged in a deep journey of creative healing, as a way of moving through my abusive childhood. Recently diagnosed with PTSD, I have been working with a trauma specialist to root out and discard the legacies of abuse, addiction, and neglect that have sat heavy in my DNA. Western researchers now know what indigenous healers have known for some time: trauma is coded into our DNA and passed down through generations. Generational trauma slithered through my family’s bloodlines like a rageful hurricane and culminated in my childhood.
As Paulo Freire the great educational philosopher once said: the personal is political. As I walk a journey to recover from personal and familial trauma, I have been thinking about trauma writ large. To follow trauma to its logical origins must consider how systemic racism in this country has violently abused families, their children, and their children. In other words, racism is a form of generational trauma. Thus, as trauma is coded into our DNA, communities of color do not only carry legacies of past trauma, but are consistently re-traumatized when witnessing the slaughter of young black men in our streets by police. In other words, people of color are living with collective PTSD.
Here is what I know about abuse: nothing thrives in an abusive environment. Abuse deadens our hearts. Abuse ages us prematurely. Abuse crowds out laughter and joy. My fight back to health and recovery has meant that I have learned to center and honor play, art-making, nurturing of self and others, and meditation as the permanent goals of my everyday life. I walk slowly. I eat well. I chase ocean waves. I am not busy. These precious acts are about restoration, deep love for the child self inside my adult body, a remapping and retexturing of my childhood. As I grow in creative spirit, I heal. As I laugh and dance and make art, I learn an innocence that was never available to me in childhood — and I am made whole. I reject the abuse that was passed down to me from grandmother to mother to daughter, and I reject the addictions that were my father’s legacy. In doing so, my life is a continuous prayer.
Beloved Creater, we thank you. We honor and glorify you.
I walked through Central Park in Manhattan, where I live, recently. Springtime tree limbs were showered with light green buds. I noticed a few small but strong bright green crocus leaves bursting their way out of the brown twigs dusty earth. Spring is fresh, and it is creative. It provides space for us to be new. It provides space for us to recover our innocence.
Activists are a bit like Spring crocuses, I think. They are strong and fresh and new. They break earth. When I think about activism, racism, and telling the truth about trauma, I see that it must necessarily be told in ways that also provide healing. As an act of creative restoration, then, our healing is sacred. The room that night was a room of strength, a power born of joy. This joy stares back in the face of systemic racism and says: I return your trauma to you. I do not want this. It is not mine, and I will carry it for you no longer. We recover our innocence, recover from collective racial trauma, recover together (our beloved community) in sacred activist spaces.
Christine Brigid Malsbary is a writer and anthropologist who teaches at Vassar College. Her work is concerned with race, immigration and linguistic diversity — with a special focus on these issues in public schools. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including the American Association of University Women and University of Michigan’s Institute on Diversity.