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We’ll be carried forward upon the whispers of our elders

Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director UC Berkeley Public Service Center | May 3, 2020

 

Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today

To get through this thing called life”

~Prince

One evening in early March, before we were all sent home to shelter, I got a call from my mother. She told me that her cousin and her cousin’s husband had been rushed to the hospital. Both were diagnosed with pneumonia. Shortly after entering the hospital, my mother’s cousin died. She was 88. Her husband spent weeks linked to life by a ventilator. Tests later revealed that they were both positive for the Coronavirus. 

Funeral attendants in Dawson, Georgia, place a casket into a hearse. Nearly one-third of those who have died from the coronavirus are African American (AP photo/BrynnAnderson)

Funeral attendants in Dawson, Georgia, place a casket into a hearse. Nearly one-third of those who have died from coronavirus are African American (AP photo/Brynn Anderson)

When my grandmothers died, family members spent hours by their bedsides, soothing them as best we could as they transitioned beyond the veil. 

Death by an infectious disease however, is an exceptionally lonely experience. No one was allowed to be close to our kin, to hold her hand, gently knead aching muscles, or express words of love that may have been deeply felt but perhaps never shared. In her final hours she did speak to a family member by phone. Her last words, spoken between labored and fragile breaths were, “Remember….me.” 

Traveling upon the misty vapors of our exhalations, this tiny crowned conqueror has wound its way across the globe devastating families, cities, even countries in its path. Along it’s journey it unveiled truths about our current state that are breathtaking in both their beauty and brutality.  The sounds of sheltered Italians singing together from their homes in the medieval town of Siena reminded us that our desire to connect transcends our ability to share physical space. And then there were the calls that came from pundits and elected politicians to sacrifice our elders on the altars of the American way of life. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick of Texas framed this fatal bargain as such:

“No one reached out to me, as a senior citizen to ask, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in”

The Lt. Governor’s notion that some lives are expendable to save our “way of life”, (and his odd arrogance in thinking that he should have been consulted about whether millions should live or die), did not emerge anew during our present crisis. In fact this callous logic, what veteran freedom fighter Ruby Sales has called “Empire Consciousness”, lies within the very foundations of the America Lt. Gov. Patrick believes we are all so eager to preserve. 

Empire consciousness prizes domination for the chosen few above all else. It thrives by seeking to snuff out genuine human connection, our collective narratives, historical memory, and embodied spirituality, and to supplant these qualities with a social order that deifies the constructs of whiteness and wealth concentrated at the very top.  

The self destructive and dehumanizing contradictions of Empire Consciousness are embedded in the very birthing of America, for was it not slave owning patriot Patrick Henry who emphatically declared, “Give me liberty or give me death”, even as he denied dozens of enslaved human beings their liberty?  Like many politicians of his day and ours, Patrick Henry betrayed his deepest values to preserve the reigning economic order. For even though he was a vocal opponent of slavery for years after the revolution, it appears he did not free one single slave throughout his lifetime or even upon his death, as he could not fathom he would say, the “general inconvenience of living here without them”. 

Despite all efforts to conveniently erase the humanity of enslaved Africans however, the Empire Consciousness enterprise failed completely in this regard. While the unspoken aim of Empire Consciousness is to crush the souls of the oppressed and oppressors alike (for the souls of Patrick Henry and his brethren are surely fractured by their choices), enslaved Africans and their descendants were liberatory geniuses in “finding a way out of no way,” as the old adage goes.  Across the span of centuries, they found a way to keep the internal fire of future liberation aflame even when there was no evidence that freedom would ever come. 

To dream of freedom while suffering under the lash and the lust of slave owners requires a level of consciousness about your worth and the worth of your people that runs counter to everything Empire Consciousness holds dear. This consciousness rejects the notion that certain lives are expendable in order to prevent the “general inconvenience” of the privileged few. In defiance against the hopelessness systems of oppression cultivate to maintain command and control, those operating from this plane of consciousness understood that our liberation was not bound to a body or dependent upon the graces of a totalitarian power. 

Freed from the constraints of time, place, and corporeal reality, the potential for “mountaintop consciousness” as Ruby Sales calls it, can be discovered within each individual spirit. It is activated when grounded in something larger than ourselves, gains strength when we gather together as fellow travelers, triumphs when we act collectively and courageously, and is carried through the ages upon the whispered wisdoms of our elders.  

By bearing witness and sharing legacies, through their devotion and their admonishments, even in the lessons learned from witnessing the travails of unmoored lives, our elders bring forth the wisdoms that have sustained us. And at their best, their lives stand as a testament to the evolution of our human journey and inspire future generations to grow beyond what they could imagine.

This call to sacrifice the elders is not noble, as Lt Governor Patrick suggests. It is not just a heartless disregard for the lives of those who are no longer seen as worthy contenders in the fictive race for the survival of the fittest. It is an age old tactic that has been used throughout American history to hobble our future liberatory possibilities by attempting to destroy our kinship with the past. It failed then and it will fail now; if we stand, united, against the destructive Empire narrative and have the courage to birth a new story.

It is ironic that an illness that takes our lives by stealing our breaths also invites us to consider what needs to be breathed into life in our time. For some of us the experience of sheltering has been chaotic and  frightening. For others it has seemed like endless solitude or a time of reflection and reconnection. Wherever this moment finds us, the possibility of reimaging new ways of being with and for each other lies there as well. 

And so dearly beloveds, we are gathered here today, in this precious, pregnant pause, to figure out what we need to do and who we need to be to get through this earthly experience. This marathon riddled with maladies and melodies, joys and pains. This thing called life.  

After the ill winds of illness have ceased to blow, will we choose to ventilate our world with justice and compassion? When the sting of grief for loved ones lost and the passing of a torturous but familiar normality has subsided, what wisdoms of the elders will we bring forth and what new story will we willingly embrace? And as the tides of our lives turn towards holding more yesteryears than future horizons, and our voices are reduced to whispers, and the fruits of what we did with our time, in this moment are laid before another generation, may we be remembered as the brave and true ones, who dared to stand, hand in hand, hearts open, unafraid, ushering in the break of a new day. 

Cross-posted from LA Progressive

Comments to “We’ll be carried forward upon the whispers of our elders

  1. Your piece was touching, with pain and promise. It invited the reader to think deeply about this life and what we judge to be critical, important to us.We admire what you’re doing for your family and the high standard of example you’ve set for us.

    Warmly,

    Hugh

  2. I cannot relate to the African-American experience as it relates to daily life or Covid 19 but I do relate to the human experience. You write in such a way that I felt the pain of the unfairness of this horrific virus (dying alone, without family close by) and of the unfairness of life……sometimes.

    • Hi Janene.

      And thanks for your comment. (For context, Janene and I have known each other since we were probably 6 or 7 years old! Such a privilege to still be in conversation after all these years.)

      I can only speak to my African American Experience, but my hope was that my piece would encourage us to think about the importance of all elders and wisdom traditions. Sadly, attempts to erase elders because they were not economically productive or threaten the ability to “conquer” a people, were part and parcel of slavery and colonization around the world. In the end, it comes undone because we all need and crave a deeper understanding of who we are and where we come from (and we’re seeing a lot of reclamation of that wisdom and those traditions everywhere). But these attempts have caused a lot of harm and heartache.

  3. “Death by an infectious disease however, is an exceptionally lonely experience. No one was allowed to be close to our kin…”

    Actually medical professionals put their lives at serious risk
    sharing the same space and caring for your kin
    as they care for other victims of the deadly infectious virus.

    And the families and loved ones of those medical personnel become at risk.

    Yes, there are always oppressors and exploiters …
    but often there are also quiet unassuming heroes.

    • Dave as usual makes a lot of logical sense. Let’s hope leaders do too, like Mike Pence. Hence, Trump! Let’s not expect a lump…of coal. I really think he’s in the know. So I hope he doesn’t kow tow to the lower row of his political dough.

  4. Thank you very much for this excellent call to action. Our Museum (the Brea Museum) in Southern California has begun a Community History Project to collect and preserve the communities Covid-19 experiences. Your article eloquently reminds us that our experiences are priceless and we remember when we share them.
    Thank you!

  5. This is so touching, it brings back memories of the death of my cousin. He died last month, he was in his twenties. He suffered from Sickle cell anemia for years before he died.

    I have still not come to terms with his death. This article is so soothing. Thanks

    • Thank you Amanda.

      And my sincere condolences. Members of my extended family have also passed from sickle cell anemia so I understand the difficulty of that illness.

      Please stay well in these difficult times.

      Warmly
      Sandra

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