Death, Grieving, and the Necessity of History

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941." New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941” (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

“You have been complaining at lot about being cold these days.” My dear friend, Deirdre Cooper Owens (Dee-Dee) said to me on one of our daily phone calls. “Oh, you are grieving,” she reminded herself, as if also to announce it to me.

I hadn’t given much thought to the word grief. In fact, I had not described myself as grieving. When asked how I was doing, I coolly replied, “I am OK, just as long as no one asks me that question.” My tried and true method of dealing with life’s difficulties, I would recite to my concerned friends, was to compartmentalize.

I told myself I was compartmentalizing because I needed to be productive. I was living in the success of my first book, and I was in demand for talks, conferences, book and manuscript reviews, and contributions to volumes. “I cannot feel now,” I would tell myself. I must take advantage of the wave, for this will end soon.

I continued to say yes to almost everything, even though signs that I should retreat bellowed as loud as a fire alarm. I broke down crying just before a conference presentation when a dear colleague shared with me news of her pregnancy. I felt cold no matter how many layers I wore, or how high I blasted the heat. I missed more and more deadlines. As I watched January turn into February, March, April, and May, and missed deadlines piled high, I told myself I missed deadlines because I was travelling so much and once I had time to sit still my productive rhythm would return. May deadlines came and went, still nothing, and I was still in denial.

On another of our daily phone calls I told Dee-Dee I was wearing one of my favorite yellow – bright and sunny– dresses. “It was a dark, dreary, and cold day in Connecticut,” I said, “and I wore sunshine yellow to spread the warmth I brought from home (Jamaica).”

Again, she insisted on a grief diagnosis. But this time she shared with me her recent reading of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion’s inclusion of Emily Post’s book of etiquette that prescribed offering something warm – tea, soup, a blanket – to someone experiencing loss, made it apparent to Dee-Dee that my body was grieving even if I refused to acknowledge it.

As I missed two more deadlines, I did the next thing after compartmentalization: find a book. Books always have the answer. I heard the echoes of Dee-Dee’s words about Didion’s reflections on grief, and so I started there. The first lines in Didion’s The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” brought me to a realization and a mission. I wasn’t living at all, I had no story, I needed a story.

The story that would come was not what I expected. After reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I anticipated writing a journal entry reflecting on the unexpected death of my dearest aunt on December 30, 2018 and the fear of what such news would do to my mother, Mama (in biological terms my father’s mother, my grandmother). Mama and my aunt shared an extraordinarily close bond. By April my family and I no longer watched Mama closely. From the unveiling of the terrible news through to the ni-nite (ritual of singing, cooking, and dancing at the home of the deceased to end Burial rites and mark handing over the departed to the spirit world), funeral, and burial services, Mama appeared strong.1

My 89-year-old mother/grandmother understood that her beloved daughter had died, suddenly, inexplicably. And, even though she appeared a bit confused as she moved back and forth between understanding there would be no burial because my aunt was cremated, Mama appeared cool and collected. We were all convinced by the coolness with which Mama had taken the news, and her practical (at least what was vocalized) response to the death – “we just have to bury her.” Mama’s death on April 10, 2019 came as a shock to us all. Mama was taken to the hospital the previous night due to difficulty breathing. We were not too worried as this seemed a routine emergency room visit, as had been the case on a few occasions several months prior to my aunt’s passing. A few hours later, just after mid-night Mama unexpectedly, but expectedly, transitioned. Mama had a lifelong heart disease, and until now, she had long beaten all odds and thrived.

In the midst of processing these deaths, I was contemplating a death of another kind. The death of history, or at least, as the article and discussions to which I was a voyeur, framed it, “the dying discipline.” As I danced to the rhythms of the bands that echoed into the night at the ni-nite for Mama and my aunt, my mind locked onto the songs and their lyrics. The fierce drum beats also awakened in me a fire that burned away my worries, fears, and anxieties, but kindled curiosities. Captivated by the drums’ complex beats, I wondered, is this what my ancestors intended?

Despite my compartmentalization, my worlds remain deeply imbricated; for no matter my conscious efforts to turn off my historian brain, I could not help but meditate on histories of death and grieving in the midst of facing (or avoiding) my own grief.

A few years ago, I began researching these topics to throw off the shadows that loomed. I spent almost a decade in the archives confronting death after death after death of enslaved women and children who succumbed to the ravages of their enslavement. My mind remained unsettled as I pieced together ciphers of lives. I told a story of those whose only evidence of existence was tabulations that marked increase and decrease profits. Told as an elegy, I wrestled with the idea that the enslaved celebrated the death of loved ones because death was a passage that transported the departed home. But could one have celebrated such passage knowing that the river now flowed in multiple directions? Mothers and children were born of different worlds: one African, the other, the Americas.

The winds of winter howled in the frozen north (Connecticut), and I remained chilled not by the arctic breeze but by specter of dual separation: separated by death and separation from home (Jamaica). I needed a passage and a vessel from my exile. And there it was, the promise of summer peeping through Sankofa’s eyes.

I have known of Haile Gerima’s film, Sankofa for many years now, but until this semester, I had not conceived of a way or time to include it in my classes. Unavailable for purchase or loan from my university library or local libraries, I could not access the film. But the weekend before I planned to screen it, Dee-Dee brought her copy to loan me while we were unexpectedly working in Philadelphia. I am reminded, trust in the wisdom of the ancestors and those they inhabit to guide the wayward.

Sankofa is an Akan word that means go back and get it. For the African Diaspora, it means commingling the old with the now to create something new. In a version of the ni-nite songs, the commingling becomes apparent. Singers celebrated reuniting with decedent loved ones in a heaven because they never visited an Obeah man or bathed in ‘madda’s (mother) bathpan’ (to take a ritual bath).’ During the era of British colonial rule and enslavement, colonial authorities forced Christian conversion, and criminalized and prohibited Obeah and other spiritual traditions practiced by the enslaved. Despite criminalization, some practices endured, though not unscathed. Belief in an afterlife persisted in song, but the requirement of shared birth place lost significance in favor of shared beliefs and rituals (Christian). Surely, the British remained implacable colonizers, but the incorporation of Christian beliefs reflected the needs of the subjected population, who turned “sorrow into meaning” by pulling together a phantasmagoria of old and new traditions.

The sun is hottest on the first day of returning home. At nights the drum rhythms bellowed sweeter and the songs echoed more deeply. I floated without a body, taking in myth, ritual, and community. I floated at the crossroads of historian and ritual participant. I marveled at the uses, beauty, and the necessity of history. Reading The Year of Magical Thinking led me back to the magic of history. I didn’t need to be alone so Mama and my aunt would come back. I needed the community of my kin.

We collectively burrowed our way through the cruel and heavy fog of death by narrating stories of a future reunion, threaded by a knowing of the past handed down through singing and dancing, drumming and storytelling. The warmth of home travelled with me and cracked the ice to which I returned. My body now warms from shared ritual but burns from anger of history’s predicament as a dying discipline. Interpretations of the past are a necessity for living. From an artist’s muse “to construct meaning in the face of chaos,” to chronicles that tell of a nation’s building and greatness, a community’s struggle for self-understanding and understanding their relationship with other communities, and an individual’s search for meaning, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” History is the story and the foundation of the stories we tell. 2

*A version of this essay also appeared in the Newsletter for the Coordinating Council on Women in History.

  1. Ni-Nite (in some writings nine-night) practices vary across Jamaica. In some sections of the island, the first eight days after death are marked by Dinki Mini singing and dancing, and the ninth night is concluded with a religious observation. In other parts of the island, the ni-nite, also known as the set-up, is the only gathering of singing, music, and cooking following death. Despite differences, they all intend to convey the handing over of the dead to the spirit world. For descriptive accounts of see, Edith Clarke My Mother who Fathered me: A Study of the Family in Three Selected Communities in Jamaica (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966), p. 224-226 and Laura Tanna, Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications), p. 46.
  2.  Toni Morrison’s inspiration from Margaret Garner’s life in the creation of Beloved is one of the best examples of this. For Morrison’s reflection on her wrestling with larger questions of Garner’s life and the time and place in which she lived, see Christine Yohe, “Enslaved Women’s Resistance and Survival Strategies in Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s “The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Margaret Garner” in Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner edited by Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013), p.108-110.
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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.