By SUSAN K. SMITH
Crazy Faith Ministries
The poet Claudia Rankine writes in her book of poetry Citizen that there is something we as humans do not understand:
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
Her words hit a nerve within me as a Black woman. “The world is wrong …” Black people are told to be quiet, to acquiesce, and be content with our condition. Sometimes, people will quote words from Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in whatever situation I am in …” People who are oppressed and people who fight against the oppression, are urged to be content with their condition; to support – economically, physically and spiritually – their oppression.
Yet we cannot be content with the way this world has treated so many; to be content would signal a loss of soul, individually and collectively.
Wanting those who have been oppressed to be “content” with their trauma is an absurd and dastardly expectation. The oppressors do not expect that of themselves; contrarily, they give themselves license to complain and wail and commit acts of violence when they feel they have been wronged. They know the journey; all humans traverse the rough places of life. But because their whine is acceptable, giving them a moment to exhale some of their pain, their experience in this world is different than is that of the oppressed. They can shake the toxic effects of emotional pain out of their spiritual pores and “move on.”
The oppressed cannot do that. Whining only increases the angst and arrogance of the oppressors who are not unlike overseers, working only to keep one people down while they protect a select few others.
Rankine is right: You can’t put the past behind you especially if “the past” keeps repeating itself in the present. The oppressed live with a past that is ignored and minimized; thus, the sores of the past never heal. Scabs form but fall off when yet another act of oppression hits the same spot, causing the wound to bleed, and sometimes, become infected.
We cannot put the past behind us because the past keeps happening.
The past is buried within us, as Rankine writes; it has “turned our flesh into its own cupboard.” The oppressed are given a complimentary bag of emotional trauma, trauma that the giver of the gift does not want and would never be able to endure. Hidden in the cupboard, the world does not see the containers of pain which are filled to the brim and overflowing, and, not seeing it, convince themselves that it does not exist.
But it does exist. The cupboard holds the memory of the trauma, but also containers of hope which is needed in order to live and work in spite of the pain. When we cry, when we shout in church, when we stand silently, reaching for a God that we’re not quite convinced hears us or sees our situation, we are the beneficiaries of droplets or sprinkles of hope that stand alongside the ingredients which have made our pain so severe.
There is a haunting picture that I will never forget. It is of Michael Brown’s father, sitting alongside the coffin of his son, who was shot and killed by a police officer. While his mother looked numb and like she was on a boat which was being thrashed about by angry waves, Brown’s father was the opposite. The still picture showed him with his mouth wide open as one does when one wails. His eyes were closed. His head was back. The tears flowed. The past was there. It had shown up in the present and was burying itself in the flesh of this traumatized father, even as his son was about to be buried and left behind. The flesh of the father would face spiritual decomposition even as the body of his son would physically decompose.
We must deal with what is buried within us. No matter how long it has been buried there we must exhume it; if we do not, we will not be able to fight the oppression and other traumas of life and survive, however fragile that survival might be. If we do not exhume the pain some kind of way, the evidence and proof of our trauma, we decompose in plain sight. We cannot put behind us what is embedded in us; we have to pull it out of us.
For those who observe Lent, the 40 days is a time to figure out which pain, which trauma, we need to exhume. There may be a lot there, but in order to get closer to God, the source of all strength, we must make room in our hearts and spirits and create a space in which God can reside.
We cannot put the past behind us, but we can work to pull the effects of that past out of us so that we can breathe. We must be able … to breathe.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. She is available for speaking. Her latest book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America is available at all booksellers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.