O Death by Bessie Jones with Georgia Sea Island Singers
By Nature’s Cycles
Grief, in my own life, is the art of accepting life’s imperfections. My relationship with grief is not artful. Our negotiations are inelegant on the best days, and tortured during the worst days. Grief reveals a sense of loss imprinted on my spirit. At times, it asks me to carry a part of reality that overwhelms my body and psyche, particularly when life’s daily changes move at a relentless pace. Grief is a point when the experience of change simply breaks, and we must feel it. It hurts.
“He cried Oh Death (hear him singing).
O Death in the morning.
O Death (please now) spare me over another year…”
Grief’s way with me is beyond presence or absence, beginnings or endings, potential or loss. It is part of nature’s cycle that pierces through my illusion of certainty, security, and cohesion. It makes me more honest about a life that is powerfully imperfect — a world that is always reshaping my love, connection, need, and meaning. A new reality arrives along with the other realities it forms in a cascade of change. It hurts.
“Yeah, Death walked up to the sinner door
Said Oh now sinner you got to go
The sinner looked around an began to cry
Said Oh no Death I’m not ready to die…”
Imperfection is also my imperfect word. I don’t fully have language to describe a catalyst by which we experience such a wide range of change. Sometimes, we are disappointed by an expectation we held with excitement that scatters hope. Other times, we are inconsolably devastated after we survive violence and/or betrayal that traumatizes. These outcomes are painful, and so are what has changed us. Rather than name all of the world’s imperfections, the most we can say is that this world and our lives within it are imperfect by many degrees. It hurts.
“Oh Death walked up to the sinner’s gate.
Said I believe you have waited now a little too late. Your fever now is one hundred and two
You have a narrow chance that you’ll ever pull through…”
Then, still, we have to integrate it all. This style of creation, where we must adapt regardless of our consent, our feelings, our timeline, our conditions, can be coercive. It does not feel fair, yet, we exist in nature’s cycles, contained in our own physical ones no less. The stubborn truth is we change, are changed, and create change. And we must find a way to survive. It hurts.
“He said I got feets and I can’t walk.
I got a tongue mother and I can’t talk.
I got eyes and I can’t see.
Nothin’ but Death has got the shackles on me…”
Spirit gave us ritual because it can hurt so much. How else can we accept grief, be plunged into a perpetual mystery of life, manage the level of pain it invites, or live with the fact we must ultimately deal with it?
Ritual with land is our art. It is the vessel for integration carried within and through our bodies and earth’s body. Our blood and bones are the blueprint for this technology. And what we do with it can be beautiful and transformative.
Echoes of the Present
It is timely to reflect on grief in a time of a pandemic. The world is gripped by the loss of thousands and potentially millions of lives worldwide. Grief at such a scale begets more grief; we feel the collective weight of its complex impact. As the coronavirus can be traced to the natural world, and is credited with regeneration for species other than humans, it follows that the earth is where we turn to transmute our grief. Echoes of the present can guide us in profound ways. In a loop of time, we remember how we can adapt, at least with the loss of loved ones.
Mourning, an expression that is sibling to grief, requires re-imagining when our normal rituals are not available to us. To some, adapting ritual feels like a hostile disruption that affects their healing process, particularly when we cannot be physically close. We can, however, learn how to offer rites to our dead, especially if our belief systems acknowledge that earth is an extension of our bodies. Alternative mourning rituals were developed during the most recent ebola outbreak spreading in Congo last July. Notably, the adapted ritual included planting a stem or flower at the bereaved’s kin’s grave so their soul properly leaves this realm, and welcomes new life.
We know about ourselves through our rituals, and, at this moment, we are observing the limitations of our generally ritual-allergic dominant culture in the United States. Part of the dilemma with the coronavirus, beyond the risk of assembling in large groups, is that so much of modern monotheistic death ritual in the U.S. is singular and disconnected from land.
Many folks perform very similar death rituals, mostly inside, quite solemnly, and briefly. There is hardly consideration for ritual to hold other grieving events in our lives. Our comparative resistance to, or slow adaptation, might flow from these factors. Birthing new rituals requires willingness, resourcefulness, and imagination. We can also look toward the past for inspiration.
What We Did Before
Iam a child of the Southern United States. I was raised in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., which isn’t particularly southern. Yet, I spent my first year of life in Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, where my mother’s family is from, and spent summers near my maternal grandfather’s family’s piece of earth near Texarkana. My formative young adult life was between Williamsburg and Richmond, VA, the cradle of colonialism and the Confederacy, respectively.
In my early 20s, I was able to reclaim the South, as it reclaimed me, in my queer Black wholeness. In my late 20s, I found my spiritual lines, re-established my ancestral communication, and accepted a call to practice the old ways. I am now a folk healer, conjurer, and shamanic practitioner (and still a lawyer, facilitator, creative, and strategist).
I map my lineage to add context about why I particularly care about what we did before. Conjure, the spiritual and magical tradition I call home, is a system of beliefs and practices to affect conditions, originating in the U.S. South among enslaved folks of the African diaspora. I rely on conjure to understand how to stay human and powerful under the harshest circumstances.
It is a system that came from, and endured through the extreme brutality of slavery and racial terror, and existed, in part, underground. This is a system, too, which is as eclectic and resourceful as the diaspora, innovating on knowledge from Central and West Africa, indigenous peoples, Europe, and Jewish traditions. I believe much of our psychic healing is tied to blending the old and the new ways to mend across generations, and conjure is a natural vessel for this healing.
I want to learn about grief work from people who were seized by the grips of grief in their daily lives. Forced migration, separation from family at auction blocks, loss of freedom, constant threat to the most ruthless physical punishment, subjected to unrelenting sexual violence, poor living conditions and medical care, if any, and deprived from the profits of their labor — these are the people who are deeply familiar with grief. In many instances, they found ways to survive it.
Yet, what I know is sparse. There is precious little in books about grief rituals among enslaved people — perhaps for many reasons. Most of what we’ll continue to recover will likely come from our ancestral memory through our remade practices. I can share, however, what we know from our most well-respected collection of conjure research.
The ring shout, well known among Christian Black church-goers of the charismatic persuasion, is a conjure-rooted practice that while organized for many sacred occasions was also organized for death ritual. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, author of Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System, is one of several sources cites ring shouts as part of sending the departed off:
[T]he sacred circle dance [was/is] performed by African American bondsmen and their descendants. The dance was always performed in a sacred context such as worship, death rituals, and other sacred occasions. It was observed from St. Louis to the Gullah Sea Islands, from Virginia to Mississippi, in Philadelphia, and in Maryland. The dance was always performed in a counterclockwise circling formation, with the center reserved for those who fell under the spirit and experienced possession. The ritual was modified with the introduction of church pews to the old ‘praise houses’ and with the standard church pew formation in black churches. The ritual continues today as ‘shoutin’ or as ‘ketchin the spirit.’ The Ring Shout can still, occasionally, be seen in its original circle formation along the Gullah Coast in older churches in communities like Awendaw, Buck Hall, and Pineland, South Carolina, on special occasions like Mother’s Day.
The ring shout, in my shamanic view, incorporates a number of familiar grieving practices. The ring’s formation of a circle is a remnant of Kongolese cosmology that relates all things to natural cycles.¹ Moving together in a circle kept folks’ bodies in close rhythmic connection. When sacred dance is combined with song, like call-and-response, an ecstatic sensation is borne. In death ritual, ecstatic dance forges an embodied intimacy with Spirit(s) that open a portal for collective mourning — a chance to surrender the interlocking burden that inhabits grieving bodies. I imagine, in some cases, the shout welcomed the dead to visit through spirit capture (possession), and in doing so, allowed kin and community to be together with their dead perhaps for a final time.
Grief ritual that combines full expression of body and sound, and goals of spirit integration are very recognizable across older, nature-centered spiritualities. It’s curious that the ring shout in modern practice is not tied to grief work, though it made sense that it once was. The ring shout, in its more indigenous form, fell out of fashion after Emancipation as Black respectability became a prevalent survival strategy. I want to encourage all of us to create more group-ritual spaces that invoke surrender and offer our bodies to do essential spirit work, like grief.
Crossroads & Cemeteries
The other area where ol’ style conjure teaches us about grief is through the symbol of the crossroads and the worksite of the cemeteries. The crossroads in conjure represents spiritual borderlands between life-and-death, as well as decisions, fate, and consequences. Crossroads, like the Bardo in Tibetan tradition, symbolizes the psychic liminal state between life and rebirth. The symbol of cross connects to the “‘four moments of the Sun in Kongo theology, representing the eternal movement of the human spirit through the worlds of the living and the dead.’”² This explains why conducting spiritual work at crossroads — center of two roads, railroad tracks — are particularly powerful sites.
Graveyards are the ultimate crossroads. Although there are many different opinions about the sanctity of performing ritual at graveyards among conjurers, they are undeniably powerful places. Hoodoo Sen Moise dedicates a lot of attention to graveyards in his book, naming it as a
“place that has been consecrated with prayers and blessings so that the dead can be at peace and the spirits can have their rest, should they so choose. See, the dead are always talking, but sometimes we may not be able to hear them because of blocks, because of not maintaining relationships with those spirits…”³
I believe it is everyone’s duty to maintain relationships with ancestors, and some of us will hear the dead more closely (the honorable dead at least). Performing grief rituals allow us to honor this connection, and also create capacity for us to listen well, too.
The relationship to the dead, and power of the crossroads, is so strong in conjure, you can do any work at the cemetery, not just grieving. Dead spirits can assist with blessings, prayers, and more nefarious aims in exchange for trades, like flowers, liquor, and other enticing offers. It is careful work, in which a practitioner must know how to respect what shouldn’t be disturbed, discern between helping and harming dead spirits, and possess clear motivations and skill. In fact, “goofer dust,” known as a potent mojo bag ingredient and for hag (negative spirit) removal spells, is graveyard dirt. There probably is no other singularly important worksite in conjure than the graveyard (including the ocean where many of our dead remain from the Transatlantic Slave Trade).
If we can treat our burial grounds as sacred places for memory and spiritual work, then we can bring more intentional and consistent ritual to nurture our grief.
Land and place occupy such critical meaning in our markings for grief, yet, we starve our grief by often ritualizing at these sites one time to leave our dead behind, and too often alone thereafter if we commemorate them.
Returning to land and place as an integral part of our grieving lives can unlock deeper and more powerful relationships with ourselves, among each other, our dead, and our collective psyches.
Wisdom is sourced from many places, perhaps most important, our own mending hearts. To intellectually write about grief at this moment feels gutless. I have known more grief these last two years than ever in this lifetime. My own dance with grief bitterly sanguine, swaying through generations — between secrets and suffering. Still, Earth has taught me that, even in the midst of these stinging movements, nothing is wasted. Our decaying pain can be mixed with the rest of us, tended to slowly and carefully, and become something other. I’ll share a couple of my own grief stories.
Return It Through the Earth
In October, it was time for ritual. A year-an-a-half passed since my granddad crossed over. He was a brilliant, dark-skinned, strong-willed man, from a small eastern Texas town, in a very cash-poor family, who maneuvered himself into Colonel rank in the Army as an intelligence officer. My brother and I spent almost every summer at our grandparents’ home, at Caddo Lake, which they built for his early retirement, after he was forced out of service by a racist superior. I’m named after him — Richard — of which Richael is my mother’s middle name. He and I were the stoic intellectuals of the family who said few words, who thought hard and loved harder, and valued honor and integrity at an intrinsic level. He is the closest person in my life to die.
I needed ritual because his homegoing service was shameful. My mom and I suspect my granddad’s spirit nearly knocked over his own casket during the honor guard procession, to expose the foolishness among the living. He always had a subtle, wry-ish sense of humor.
My granddad also needed ritual because he took command of an astrology reading I received. He had instruction about warring factions in my family whose dividing lines were inflamed by his modest estate. Ritual wasn’t necessary to mourn, rather, we needed to enact peace in our spirits and lives — to soothe the restlessness and hurt that pulsed through our family’s blood and bone. My granddad’s crossing made me more sensitive to other losses in my life, those needed to be acknowledged and cared for, too. I was called to return it all through the Earth.
Let me share a special thanks to my community at Potomac Vegetable Farms in Purcellville, Virginia. Their ethos of radical hospitality welcomed me for an anticipated two-day stay at the farm for ritual. They offered me a private place to sleep, respected my wishes not to be social, offered up their kitchen and plant-based meals.
These supports felt like a luxury as a city-based person; I’m accustomed to doing much with very little nature in my surroundings. The farm’s spaciousness offered me room in my spirit to work. It translated to only four hours of physical ritual, and more like 20 hours of spiritual ritual: deep breathing, contemplation with the wind, star-talk, and an obligatory solo diner visit — because I’m a southerner. Physical and spiritual ritual are only distinctions suited for writing. The entire experience was ritualizing, and to the extent I can describe the things I did. I gladly share them here.
Myphysical ritual consisted of five parts: throwing the bones, water listening, release prayer, found object altar, and seed planting.
I started my physical ritual by throwing bones, a traditional conjure divination, near the farm’s former slave quarters. It was my duty to ask permission from the land to complete my works, and in balance, ask for ways I can support its healing. I threw the bones on an altar cloth near the building’s guardian tree, an older, gnarled-knotted growth, which absorbed so much of the land’s pain. It felt healing to communicate with the land under the cover of its sacred tree. The bones (and shells and couple of curios) were clear, generous, and direct. I was able to continue with my ritual as planned after making some promises. It is very possible that one of the land’s exchanges was hosting my wedding at the farm.
Next, I was led to a small gazebo beside the farm’s pond. Gazebos, like any structure, can serve as a portal, and this one transported me back to eastern Texas with sticky humid air, draping moss, and soft, marshy earth descending into the water. An open sky smiled on me, asking me to listen, so I did. I was in silent and writing meditation for an hour. To prepare myself, I smudged with a wildflower bundle, which was grief medicine sourced from another reading with a friend; I drew a card from my Soulflower deck, gifted to me by another spirit-kindred. I listened alone, and together with many.
The sounds of my body
Are the sounds of the unhealed
Knees that creak under pressure,
Teeth that decay from too much sweetness,
Joints that inflame with overuse,
A spine that slumps from worry.
I love these sounds,
As much as they are familiar.
It is finally time to rest.
Be still, rub balms, eat wholesome,
Lay with the sun rather than work under it.
Let the rays outstretch and kiss me,
Pulse through my tiredness.
I notice the wind pushes,
My breath out for me.
And I wonder how long my body has been put,
In opposition to itself.
The so-called powerful must have failed,
Because I am here,
No longer forcing, pushing, holding or resisting.
The firmness of earth is underneath me.
The same earth that extends feet away,
Collecting the full breadth of these quiet waters,
I know this quiet in which,
Ache and anguish are still moving along,
Into a deeper gulf, like the earth beneath me to the lake before me.
Light glistens across the ripples,
I hear the choppy rise and fall,
Of my own laughter,
Followed by a flop of a frog.
After the stillness of absorption of listening to the water — both of the pond and inside my body — I was asked to complete a release prayer. In spirit works, sometimes the most effective way for somethin’ to run through you is to move it. It was time to push the pain through and out my body and back into the life cycle.
The nearby woods and creek were my set. This prayer would be a kind of performance, a style of movement that I seldom allowed myself in my waking life, unless I was drumming. I found a wishbone walking stick along the way which boded well. I staked myself at a small island within the creek. I lit four sticks of frankincense-myrrh resin incense in the primary directions. I fetched three herbs from my sack, rose, lavender and calendula. I stretched my torso and legs for a moment as I listened for direction.
The whole experience was an engrossing blur. I vaguely remember the sadness emerging from the depths of my lower back and hips, and welling into tears that tricked down into the wet land. At some point my lucky stick was beating the earth and water as I moaned and breathed heavily. I let the hurt spill out in waves, unevenly and unkindly. I never worried about my safety or body losing control, perhaps the presence of others who spotted me.
When I tired, my body slowed to a rocking back and forth as I stood. Prayers for release came to me like mantras, “I release, I release, I release.” With each refrain, I offered flowers to the rushing waters of the creek. They carried along nicely. I didn’t look at them long for fear they’d linger. My body eventually stopped moving. No more tears flowed. My hand was limp. Birds sang again. The water flowed. And I swore that the creek began to rise.
My load lightened after the release prayer. I walked from the anonymity of the woods back to the farm. As I emerged, the sun glowed brighter and my steps sprung. It was a while until I looked ahead, and I noticed the O’Sage oranges strewn across the left side of the footpath. O’Sage oranges look like neon brains, so they’re hard to miss. One asked to travel so I obliged.
When I returned to the place where I was staying, I set it next to a couple of cotton squares that I collected earlier, not far from the former slave quarter house. Piled next to these finds was a piece of rope that I stuffed in my pack near the pond. Soon, I assembled a found-object altar. It was both my commemoration of these works, and my protection for my remaining time.
Nightfall was coming. I wasn’t afraid of anything in particular, but I was aware that my body and soul had to integrate all of the communication and immersion of the day, and truly, the weeks of preparation that allow the works to appear.
Planting of New Seeds
I woke up the next morning with a deer outside my window. It quietly grazed as I admired it. In many shamanic traditions, deer represent reconciliation and love. I felt affirmed about my final ritual act — the planting of seeds.
I didn’t go far. Behind where I stayed, and across a jagged crevice of earth, I visited bushes on the other side. I was following my instinct, not farming best practices. It was October, so planting blue button flower seeds was unwise for its survival. I understood that my ancestors believed anyway. The symbolism mattered. My hands in the dirt with an intention toward new life mattered. Accepting the imperfection, and even likelihood of failure, mattered. My grief could live and grow here.
I am grateful for all of the life that supported my ritual. From the farm community, to the trees, to sky, birds and deer, kindred and growers, and my partner who held vigil those days. A reminder that my vitality is as strong as those around me.
Power of Place & Low Ceremony
Three months later, I have another direct encounter with grief. I’m aware that, at some level, we are always grieving. Or, we are living and we are also dying. One of my beloved spiritual counselors, Abdi Assadi, often describes meditation as the practice of dying.
From a conjure perspective, we can locate ourselves at all points of the Kongolese circle of life. If grief is an attendant state to dying, then, the difference between our daily lives and our grieving lives is simply how direct it is felt. My grandmother, no longer able to bear her aloneness or suffering, crossed in mid-January this year. It marked the end of an era.
When my brother and I attended her homegoing services, at a church down the block from my granddad’s funeral (and his family church), we perceived an end. My grandparents’ home was a couple of hours away from the family plot in a small, residential lakeside community in rural Texas.Their closest grocery store was in Shreveport, Louisiana. Their home was so close to the southeastern gulf, where the coastline that is all its own, and which is not distinct between states, a reminder that an arbitrary border was cleanly drawn onto a map years ago.
During one of our trips growing up, I couldn’t wait the full hour drive between the Shreveport airport and their house, so I went in a jar lodged between the front and backseats. My grandmother threw the contents of the jar out the window as we passed the Welcome to Texas statue on the highway. The running joke is that I peed on Texas. I have no regrets.
We had a lot of fun and formative memories from The Lakehouse — what we called my grandparents’ home. I later learned that it was a harder place for my mom to visit because the home stored items that reminded her of less-happy times, when she was a child and vulnerable to my grandmother’s drunken cruelty. I am thankful that my brother and I were never subjected to more than a stern talking-to, and sometimes, the deprivation of dessert.
We found a lot of magic at The Lakehouse — we were attracted to the wildness of swamp, its creatures, and southern life in the country. I enjoyed freedom, play, discovery, achievement (I was rather good at fishing), and hushness. As an introverted child (with an extroverted younger brother) it was comforting to hear croaking choirs of frogs and crickets at night instead of the rudders of airplanes flying into Dulles airport. My relationship with my grandparents, especially as I learned more about their lives as parents, is complicated. However, my connection to their home — this place — was enduringly providential.
Conjure has made me a believer of low ceremony — ritual that is high on simplicity and low on resource. Make do with what you’ve got. My enslaved ancestors were denied the opulence of high ceremony, a pageantry of pomp and circumstance inside safe church walls. It’s true, too, that there are many more centuries without high ceremony than not, and many more “low” observances through a year than “high” holidays. And sometimes, all of us are our bodies, our memories, and the places where we are. We make do, and we do very well.
My brother and I visited our grandparents’ home, likely for the last time, after my grandmother’s burial. We were joined by great-aunts and cousins whom we rarely see, based in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas, and California. Our late uncle played host as most folks chewed through the best local barbecue, recalled stories, and collected any heirlooms they desired. I rummaged through old photographs my mother requested; I didn’t want any material things from the house. I did, however, want to say goodbye to the house, and more importantly, the place — its sounds, its odors, its vistas, its waters, its dirt roads, and its remoteness.
Mybrother snapped a few photos as I thanked this place for holding us each summer, and for being home to our grandparents who loved and supported us in expansive ways — deeper and better than how they loved my mom and uncle. The power of place is undeniable, and indelible in our hearts.
Family politics was in part why we knew that this was our last visit. My uncle, who was the caretaker of my grandparents for years before they crossed, was estranged from my mom and virtually from us; my main interaction with my uncle was when I was 15 and he, not sober, picked a verbal fight with me, called me selfish, and went on to call me my mother’s name for the tirade’s duration. I later heard that my mom threatened to fly to Texas to both reclaim her children, and to fight my uncle.
Nonetheless, funerals were the second, third, and last occasions we saw him from what I remember. His body was found a month later at The Lakehouse. He died from alcohol-related complications. Several days passed before his body was found. Death had become familiar there, at the house, and to this place. I hope the next occupants aren’t seduced by the home’s lavish trappings — it’s a tragically beautiful structure where a lot of pain dwells. The Lakehouse’s environs, however, already know this pain and display its haunting in its cool water, entangled grey moss, and stump-ish wood growths near the shore.
My ritual was to surrender my family’s generational pain to the arresting expanse of the lake. It seems to go on forever, like my family’s betrayals. I asked this place to let the pain die here in trade for my happy memories. A strange parting after thirty years, then again, Caddo Lake is a very strange place that I love(d).
Healin’ for a Whole Lot of Us
I began writing this essay at a different time. In fact, I started at the end of 2019. My grief ritual at the farm was behind me, and a lot of grief was ahead of me in the new year. I trust that we teach the medicine that we need. My writing, turns out, was portentous — anticipating what a future version of myself needed. While grief is still more a stranger to me than many other folk, as I sometimes say, “I’ve been through some things.” The hard, unexpected changes that we frequently experience prepare us for more perilous grief. The healing we struggle for, scabbing-over we recognize, and survival-strengths that we develop are our testimonies. We should not forget.
I find it easy to talk about grief without using the word. On one side, like others, I talk around it, typically describing the constellation of feelings it invokes. On another side, I see many faces of grief.
I can envision numerous rituals for the iteration of grief we experience. An end of a partnership is distinct from the loss of a life, which is in turn, distinct from leaving a home. To that end, how we experience change shapes our grief’s texture, too. In the rituals I shared, and in my practice as a folk healer/spirit doctor, I have touched several versions of ritual that can be outlined by element: bury, burn, and buoy.
Before I share thoughts and examples, a word about ritualizing from my conjure perspective. Rituals never need to elaborate, only be true. I follow five principles:
1) Have clear intention (be precise about why you are acting and why the effect serves you, collective, and universe);
2) Show respect (make offerings with herbs, libations, or altar work and give thanks);
3) Symbols matter (your ritual is as strong as your representations);
4) Let yourself be guided (listen, remain open to changes in the work, be humble);
5) Believe. Have faith in your ability to affect change.
Otherwise, allow your grief to show you what it needs, treat it with care because it is a loving part of you that hurts.
Bury. Burn. Buoy.
Bury. Returning through the earth is a powerful ritual for certain endings. It can be helpful to release strong attachments to people, relationships, dynamics, among other things. The earth element is associated with roots (life-giving sources) and underworld (place for rebirth, ancestral realms); therefore, offering to the earth in ritual can lay matter to rest, and never return in similar form. Examples: burying letters from rice or seed paper, commemorative garden, time capsule.
Burn. Burn ceremony is about transformation, releasing what is no longer beneficial and allowing the rest to remain and change. Fire ritual invites us to burn through our attachments with discernment — what did you need, what will you need — with fast and thorough effect. The fire element is associated with smoke (rising before changing), ash (residue in-between dead and aliveness), ember (soft, hopeful glow of survival), and resetting (practice of fire-tending). Examples: burning journal pages, old photographs, clothing.
Buoy. Water is the most gifted carrier, which can create the distance we need to heal or summon healing from far away. It is, of course, our most reliable cleanser (when it’s clean and available). Water ritual can serve our need to become unstuck, to allow movement in our spirit when we are devastated, hopeless, or confounded. The water element is associated with shape-shifting (expanding or contracting with space), directions (from things like rain, springs, ocean), and resilience (garnering force with pressure). Examples: spiritual washes, sending natural prayer bundles down the river, wailing circles in oceans, trance dances.
The only way I see us releasing our collective trauma is through public ritual. Our ability to acknowledge what is, correlates with our will to learn and act differently. It is our moral imperative to not only ritualize the imperfections in our own lives, but to honor difficult changes in our shared lives. It is hard enough to live, so why would we deal with those hardships alone? The cure, in my conjured view, is to foster relationships.
I have offered public healing in the past as a kind of ritual; healing in the park we used to call it. A few kindred would join me as we offered healing touch, divined, drummed, affirmed one other and elevated energy. Grief was present in these spaces, even indirectly. From repressed grief that so many held in their physical, emotional and psychic bodies, to passers-by who felt excitement to see us but also felt disappointment when they learned our conjurin’ was (or wasn’t) a pop-up event. I learned so many folks were reminded of the loss of group ritual by our presence. I hope more of us can create these spaces.
Public ritual is also an opportunity to teach. I used an opportunity to speak at a Richmond spiritual center to ritualize the death of the Confederacy. I shared a little history but spent most of our time (The ritual was a mixed-race space and my protection spirits were workin’ overtime that day — I survived and enjoyed some of the discomfort in the room.) My point is that we learn about our grief and how to steward it through ritual together.
I started this essay with the spiritual, “O Death.” One way to interpret this hymn, in a Christian context, is only when death visits, do sinners realize their errors and regrets. Are they therefore chastened to live good lives to prepare for death, which might even pass them over for another year, if they deserve it? Another way to read this hymn is that death is always close to us — we are foolish to deny that it is a part of us, our nature, and our world, and when we escape death, we are merely fortunate.
The wisdom of “O Death” is a reminder that we live in mystery every day. Our lives are painfully or mercifully temporary, and we visit this earth — this land — very briefly in each lifetime. The more honest we can be about grief, our heartbreak about this impermanence and its imperfection, the better humans we can be. Hopefully, the better ancestors we can be. Let us move together toward this reality where grief is understood, honored, and a way of life.
- Read more about central African traditions’ influence in conjure in Black Magic: Religion and The African American Conjuring Tradition, Yvonne P. Chireau, pp. 36–38.
- Read more about death and folk healing in African American Folk Healing, Stephanie Y. Mitchem, pp. 161.
- Working Conjure: A Guide to Hoodoo Folk Magic, Hoodoo Sen Moise, p. 91.