When Natural Black Death Feels Like A Small Victory

I accepted the certainty of losing those around me. Then I found joy.

When Natural Black Death Feels Like A Small Victory David McNew

My grandmother’s mother died a few miles from her home, in a stuffy, one stoplight town. We buried her in Polk County, Florida. It was the nexus for the three places I watched Madea wander in her lifetime — from the plush-red rocking chair in her daughter’s living room, to the nursing home, and, finally, to the casket tucked neatly by the altar of her church. During her wake, I stood in the back. Four hands held my shoulders. I couldn’t have told you who they belonged to.

My grandmother sat in the front, flanked by her five children. Those were the faces I recognized. Everyone else was new. They couldn’t have all been family, Madea didn’t keep many friends, so it struck me as wild at the time: all of these people congregating for a tragedy. It’s never good form to call a funeral packed — it quantifies the event, leaves you wondering where everybody came from — but the air in the room was sopping, an amorphous mass in our throats. Between the toucan hats and the pimp-blue suits there was hardly room to breathe.

But to my 12-year-old self, what felt even wilder were the cheers during the service. And the dancing and the shouting and the swaying with the organ. Their stomping rocked the aisles. The church literally shook. When the pastor called Madea’s name, the choir roared behind us.

All of this, I thought, for someone who’s just passed.

All of this, I thought, is fucking crazy.

Except really it wasn’t — if anything, we’d received a gift. A natural black death can feel a lot like a commodity. From the television alone you’d think it was something that never happened: black people are gunned down in cars. They’re gunned down in bars. They’re gunned down on intersections and sidewalks and lawns. They disappear from prisons and street corners and parks and, in this way, old age and a funeral are a blessing.

In Madea’s case, no one took it from her. She was not some weekend’s hashtag. It was something she lived to see herself through.

I’ve been to more funerals than I have weddings, 12 in total. Don’t ask me how that happens. The first was a friend of my cousin’s, a young man who’d drunk and drove. It was sparsely attended, but the friction was there: four or five women sat cross-legged throughout the church. They hopped between expressions of disgust and remorse, since these women, my cousin told me, had been his girlfriends at the time.

The man was handsome in the photo they’d chosen for him — so handsome that the frame went missing immediately afterwards. We spent an hour after the service lifting cushions with his mother, who whispered any number of names that could’ve taken it under her breath. “Could’ve been her,” she’d start, wringing her hands, before deciding that, no, “It was that one. Definitely her.”

Another funeral, in 2008, was for a family friend, the second for someone I’d actually known. I had met R, grown to like her, and then she had suddenly died. One of the last times I saw her, we sat in the grass, and apropos of nothing she told me her life story: she’d been in the Navy, she’d left home and traveled the world, she’d married and had a daughter, and she still did what she wanted.

“That’s it,” R told me, “That’s the lesson. Do whatever you want.”

This time the church was bigger. Catholic, with the Jesus windows stained in burgundy, green, and blue. Except for R’s family, nearly everyone else in attendance was white. Many read from slips of paper. Everyone was earnest. The comments were short, apologetic, polite.

There was a cocktail party after the service. R’s family had called it a night. The rest of us stood in their living room, talking too loudly about days past and days ahead. I ended up on a barstool with an older Mexican guy, and after his fourth beer he admitted the whole thing had been fucking bizarre. He told me he’d grown up in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and his father had died when he was young. To honor him, he said, they put him in the ground, covered him up, and ate the chicken he’d killed that morning for dinner. This, he said, was different. This thing tonight was not that. Then he grabbed another bottle, nodding at the karaoke being yelled behind us.

The last funeral I went to was in New Orleans: I’d stepped out for a haircut, and gotten stuck behind a second-line. It’s essentially a funeral parade, a tradition developed by slaves in the port city’s Civil War days. A huddle of mourners stood around in a ring, with the outer layers fanning themselves on the edges. Some stragglers ambled around in sandals. A few held cameras but most of them didn’t. When the body was led from the church, the trumpeters stomped their weed on the concrete, and they blew into their horns, and the procession rolled down the road.

The whole family danced. Their friends did, too. The dead stayed dead but it didn’t feel much like an ending.

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All of which is to say: black death and black joy aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re cousins in the neighborhood of feeling, harbors on the opposite side of the shore. And, for a while, I thought that expulsion of grief was exclusive, as if anyone had a monopoly on the most visceral of human experiences, but in the same way that every loss is an individual burden, there’s also something collective in it, a moment to experience being part of the whole.

It’s easy to forget that there’s exultation in loss. And it’s easier to forget that it can all come crashing down. But you have to remember it — it’s the only thing we ever really have to remember — and when the joy does come you’ve got to hold it until it’s gone.

So when the pastor at Madea’s service finally took the stage, he yelled for the rest of us to shut the hell up. It prompted a spat of cheers. Several people fell out. Here we were, smack in the center of nowhere — in this town with half of a community college, a shitty mall, a Publix, and a couple hundred laundromats — but we still had all of the emotions, all the Greek tragedy anyone would ever need. Paying witness to a peaceful passage was victory in itself.

When the funeral was over, we drove Madea to the cemetery. My father and his brother stood on either side of the coffin. Strangers palmed every inch available, and of course the box was heavy. I could barely reach the handles. The pallbearers made space for me anyways. And when we lowered her it felt like the new life had already started, like we’d already stumbled into the beginning of something else.

October 27, 2016
When Natural Black Death Feels Like A Small Victory