Good grief: Essay collection “Rebellious Mourning” places pain in resistance

An orange buffoon was elected president, and with fresh urgency everyone told each other, “Don’t mourn, organize,” a phrase often attributed to Industrial Workers of the World activist and songwriter Joe Hill, who supposedly said it before he was executed by the state of Utah in 1915. It is true; there is always work to do. But sometimes you have to make space to mourn, leaning into grief’s motivating, enervating, void-like manifestations all at once.

“Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief,” an anthology of 24 pieces by various authors (many of whom are also activists), edited by writer and anarchist activist Cindy Milstein, takes those notions and pulls them apart, asserting that mourning and organizing can intermingle. This collection was borne out of personal pain, which is “inseparable from the pain of this world” as Milstein writes in the prologue. Too often we are expected to hide pain, an expectation that Milstein calls “a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. When we instead open ourselves to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and its beauty.”

And so in the opening essay, “Feeling is Not Weakness: On Mourning and Movement,” writer Benji Hart carves out space for vulnerability and mourning within the fight for racial justice—it is, of course, natural to feel hurt in the midst of it, they write: “[Experiencing hurt] shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality as inevitable, not forfeited belief in my own right to life.”

The topics in the book’s essays flow and circle back around to each other, creating some cathartic conversation, vital and heavy as it grapples with uncomfortable truths. Following Hart, Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” goes deep into the deaths of Emmett Till, Michael Brown, the six black women and three black men killed by Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Church in 2015, the four black girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, and others, noting the dangerous ways “the white imagination” views black people (“black bodies”), historically and presently, “as property and subsequently three-fifths human.”

Rankine also considers the body as “evidence”: Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to have an open casket service, a call for public/collective grief and witness to what had been done to her son Emmett; Michael Brown’s body left to sit in the street for hours after he was murdered, and in that his own mother “was denied the rights of a mother, a sad fact reminiscent of pre-Civil War times, when as a slave she would have had no legal claim to her offspring.”

White supremacy has encoded a certain, serious anxiety into black Americans’ lives that can’t be simply swept aside, neutralized, or depoliticized—it is, clearly demonstrated, still extant. “It’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem,” Rankine writes.

Moments like this that dwell in a trough of seemingly interminable pain or inconclusive reality move in waves throughout most of the essays, along with rousing, rallying, sometimes enraging crests. In “Dust of the Desert,” Lee Sandusky writes about working in direct aid in the harsh, hot Sonoran Desert, through which people try to cross from Mexico into the United States. Sometimes people die in transit through this desert, and sometimes their bodies are never found, so their families don’t get closure.

“Border work is predicated on ending the deaths of those crossing—currently an insurmountable task—and much of the action we take is in response to grief, but also anger and hope; the three are inseparable motivations that sustain organizing and action within our community,” she writes. The stories of those who made it through help keep them going, too.

Kevin Yuen Kit Lo’s kinda meta-essay “Fragments Toward a Whole” touches on personal ramifications of trauma, unveiling both the source of his repressed pain (he was repeatedly sexually abused as a child) and the pain of essentially reliving it while writing about it for this project, by way of notes sent to Milstein, the editor: “This has been a difficult text to write, and I had lost my momentum for a while. But the darkness and movement seems to be coaxing me toward some sort of ending, if not any sort of real conclusion.”

Three pieces, one after another, rotate the issue of AIDS all around, like a gem. Sarah Schulman’s “The Gentrification of AIDS,” excerpted from her book “The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination,” makes sharp and complex connections on the epidemic and the rapid gentrification of cities in the middle of it. (Also, how the severity of that battle has largely been erased, and how people with AIDS’ “‘friends,’ coworkers, presidents, landlords . . . stood by and did nothing” and have never been held accountable.) Artist David Wojnarowicz’s tumultuous epic “Postcards from America/X-rays from Hell,” written a few years before he died of AIDS, recounts a kitchen table commiseration with a friend about AIDS, then yanks the reader around mourning lost friends, anger toward the government and society’s rampant homophobia (and complicity), and on. And anti-imperialist activist David Gilbert, interviewed by Dan Berger, discusses his organizing efforts that led to a peer education system about AIDS for fellow prison inmates—what Berger describes as “a stark example of a revolutionary commitment to confront state violence through a transformative politics of care.”

That “transformative politics of care” ethos surges throughout this book as well as, more significantly, the fight against social ills in which many of these writers are involved. There is beauty and life and other heartening themes, as Milstein hopes for in the prologue, sewn into these stories. What “Rebellious Mourning” suggests is that taking care of yourself and others takes many forms—and it sometimes looks like doing the work.

Cindy Milstein will present “Rebellious Mourning” at Red Emma’s on Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. For more info, visit redemmas.org.

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