Grieving and Pop-Culture

Its been nearly a week since I buried my Grandmother, and quite frankly, I am emotionally exhausted. Quite a few significant life events have taken place since she passed away peacefully on July 9th, including a fatal motorcycle accident that claimed the life of my estranged biological father. Bizarre. Surreal. Tragic. These are some of the adjectives that have been uttered to explain the nature of unexpected and shocking occurrences. Do I feel grief? Yes. Remorse? Not so much. Regret? No. Not one bit. Guilt? Absolutely fucking not.

I realize this may come off as somewhat insensitive, detached, maybe even impersonal. Perhaps, but I deal with my emotions on my own terms, in my own time, and my own way. I am writing to express what is happening in my personal and emotional life, and how I am working through sadness, depression, grief, and mourning. One of the major key alerts (thanks DJ Khaled & Chelsea) is music, art, spoken and written word. Music, songs, ballads, and blues make their way into my mind’s ears and I hear musical lyrics that inspire and guide me that its all going to be okay. You’re living. You’re among the living… but also the dead. and thats cool too!

An Iconic Artist for all times, Prince, our Dearly Beloved, predicted his own untimely death in the cultural anthem “Let’s Go Crazy”. The opening credits roll to reveal a gender-bending profile of a man well acquainted with his own mortality and ephemeral sexuality. He questions us to consider the inevitable and challenge destiny: “Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down? Oh, no let’s go!” And then he took us on a wild ride on the back of his customized Honda with the emblematic gender-neutral Love Symbol that would soon become the Sign O’ the Times. Yeah, I’m full of presumptuous Prince puns. Certainly even in his final scene and curtain call, he proceeded to sing us off stage making one last romantic gesture with “I Would Die 4 U”. And he did with a simple erotic touch of the royal purple phallus and a suggestive booty shake. Genius is an understatement.

I love the Deceased. If I’m being honest, they’re some of my best friends. I think have been secretly (or even obviously) obsessed with death culture for many years now. The Gothic, the Erotic & Desire, Darkness & Gender, the Morbid & the Mundane. Its all part of a fascination of death. What is the correct term for such a person? I suppose one might describe my preoccupation a form of necromancy – the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future. Divination, mysticism, black magic & sorcery. Or even yet, spiritual witch-craft! The Heretic!

I suppose you can read this in a book somewhere. I wonder if our dear dead friend Freud would be of the same opinion with surface analyzation of such an incredibly deep dream of psychoanalytic rationalization. Perhaps, but mine comes from a feminist practical lens, so as not to confuse it with an obsession with the male abstraction of transience, mortality & science. I deal in the metaphysical, the real, and the everlasting persistence of time, as my friend Dali would paint into surrealist vision quests. I know him ya know. He’s dead, and I know him in death. Kinda cool, don’t you think.

That is one of the remarkable things about death, is that as humans we have the capacity to transcend death, decay, and the stain of mortality. I don’t and have never believed that death is something to be ashamed of. Its one of those things one most overcome to grow. I argue that death is made to feel scary, something to hide & run away from, and fear because of its associations with sex & sexual reproduction. The eroticism of the living, breathing, lusting flesh. In youth, beautiful, ripe, firm & supple; with age, maturity, disease, spoil & rot. Its not right, and its all wrong. There are so many reasons to celebrate and delight in the art of knowing & understanding death. It can bring understanding, urgency, patience & persistence.

With this knowledge I have sought out a university education’s wealth of comprehensive critical thought & analysis. And of course because I am an artist of a writer’s nature, I studied the written work of poets, essayists, novelists, critical theorists, and philosophers. A course study on the presence of the Divine Feminine in the collective work of Toni Morrison challenged me to uncover dark histories & sacred truths that connect and bind us to the Living & the Dead. In her Pulitzer winning novel Beloved, Baby Suggs was a spiritual leader who provided sacred healing to a congregation struggling to heal the traumatic injuries and psychic wounds of economic slavery, racial oppression, and sexual exploitation. In the following passage, Baby Suggs eulogizes a sermon before the faithful of freed and escaped slaves under the cover and protection of the natural church of God, a forrest clearing:

Here… in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And I my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t love in love with your mouth… More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (104)

Learning to love one’s self, in spite of the horrors that one has witnessed in addition to the complete and total degradation that has been met upon one’s body, is the greatest of all challenges. She transforms her life of reproductive sexual exploitation as a breeder, into one of spiritual celebration of life, the body, and love.

Perhaps one of the most masterful passages of lyrical and poetic prose, Morrison gives birth to the creation of the divine feminine within her writing, an empowered woman whose tongue speaks the spiritual truths of the most High. Baby Suggs’ sermon is instructive in detailing the cruel injustices of the outside world, those who inhabit it, and would seek to systematically mutilate, destroy, and consume the Black body. While she is courageously resolute in her critical indictment, she preaches self love and acceptance, taking assessment of each part of the human anatomy and giving it life. Her words lift up the community, encouraging them to love their bodies, the site of which has been the source of unbearable pain, heartache, and sadness. There is a deep spiritual recognition of the divine nature of the female body in that within the woman’s flesh resides the source of all life and sustenance. Her words are a reclamation of all that all has been stolen, abused, and exploited, and the formation of a resolute empowered Black woman.

There is something powerful and unique that happens at the intersections of popular culture, art, and critical theory. Its the differences that create possibilities for transformative growth, collective change, and creative maladjustment, as our dearly departed friend Dr. Martin Luther King would advise.

In our refusal to conform we create new space for creative resistance, disobedience, and dissent. Internal dissonance have given way to disillusioned societies of Divine Discontent, remedied only by artistic rebellion, transgressive curiosity, and transformational Love. Its the only way. Especially now when all we see and hear is about how another soul has been stolen in violence, war, and state terrorism. Its everywhere, even here at home in the United States. Just this past week, Korryn Gaines, Skye Mockable, and Joyce Quaweay, three known women whose lives were taken by the police carceral state, patriarchal domestic assault, and hetero-patriarchal terrorism. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re living in a globalized state of white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, and guess what — its dangerous and violent against the racialized, gendered, and non-conforming body.

Is this popular culture? Yes unfortunately it is. We all need to know about it, and this is my truth in dealing with death, grief, and cultural decay. The corporate media conglomerates strike terror on the screens of homes everywhere, broadcast violence, and inflict psychic, mental, physical, and sexual trauma on the bodies of citizens on our very streets. WE THE PEOPLE… How ’bout that. How about we say their names, those who are gone. Their stories must be told.

“Gotta lotta work 2 do / Nothing can stop us / Whatever’s in are way / We got 2 go through it 2 get 2 it / I heard somebody say.”

That somebody was Prince in his revolutionary roll call, Willing to Do the Work. Another favorite.

I’d like to continue this conversation, but I believe I will have to save this story for another time. In the meantime I am going to enjoy life while I can in each present moment for as long as I can. Life is a beautiful thing. My fictional friend Nate Fisher from the HBO critically acclaimed show & a personal favorite, Six Feet Under, comforts a woman mourning her beloved Aunt when she questions why do people have to die? “To make life important.” Life is important. It’s that beautiful, magical, and miracle of creation thing that we each personally design & experience reality in the presence of design. Holy Shit. Thats a big fucking deal.

So with that thought, I’d like to leave this entry on death, mortality, and well, violence, with images of eternal rest, peace, solace, and power. Photographic Artist James Van Der Zee captured the beauty of death, the dearly departed, and ceremonial funerals in the extraordinary exhibition with the Harlem Book of the Dead. In these intimate portraits, Van Dee Zee creates captivating images that superimpose religious symbolism and spiritual mysticism of the after life over the physical manifestations of reality and the body left behind in death.

In the forward from The Harlem Book of the Dead, Toni Morrison reflects on the “Remarkable concert of Black subject, Black poet, Black photographer and Black artist focuses on the dead is significant for it is true what Africans say: “The Ancestor lives as long as there are those who remember”.

I have chosen to remember, reveal, and reimagine the narrative of death. And I’m not scared and I ain’t sorry. Thanks Beyoncé. I think I’d like a cool glass of that Lemonade now.

Now thats what I call Death in Pop-Culture. God Bless America. James Van Der Zee


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