The Loss of Empathy: When We Can No Longer Mourn Our Dead, We Become Dust

by Dr. Herukhuti

We don’t love each other, not because we don’t have the capacity. But because our trauma has so disrupted our natural instinct to do so.

The intergenerational trauma of experiencing settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy has wrought havoc on our collective empathy. It is easiest for us to mourn the loss of those closest to us–or at least it’s supposed to be. The mirror neurons are supposed to fire and cause empathy to be the outcome of our seeing ourselves in another. And the principle of ubuntu–that we find meaning and identity through relationship to a community–is supposed to guide us toward empathic connection with members of our village.

But what happens, when because of the widespread dispersal of African people from their tribal homes and territories during the transatlantic trade in slaves, what village means changes and the boundaries of village expands to a Pan African community? Can we practice empathy in that context?

In our communities, the practice of mourning and holding space for homegoing, returning to the earth, crossing over, traveling to Amenta, etc. are very important. On the continent and throughout the Diaspora, we have created elaborate ceremonies and rituals, crafted ornate vessels to hold the physical remains of our loved ones, and developed cherished roles for members of the community to perform the act of honoring the dead. For some communities, like the Dagara of Burkina Faso and Ghana, there’s even a process, ancestralization, after a community has taken care of those physical remains of a departed community member that the community performs to address the metaphysical needs of the departed.

Since the beginning of our beginning, Black folks know how to mourn and send our people home. That knowledge has had to serve us through good times and bad. The MAAFA, the devastation and catastrophe of the Middle Passage and Transatlantic Slavery Trade, created an unprecedented need to mourn and send our people home. Over the subsequent centuries under the carnal brutality of settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, we have continued to need to mourn and send our people home as the matrix of domination we have lived within has churned their black bodies within the gears of its complex system.

But we have lost the ability to mourn our dead. We can still mourn the death of some of us. When the departed is someone whose life we admire or aspire, we can mourn. When the deceased is someone who reflects our values, we can mourn. When the people who have transitioned are people we consider one of us, we can mourn. The mirror neurons fire, ubuntu functions as it should, and we can mourn.

When a member of our community is someone outside of the boundaries of our empathy, many of us struggle to find the psychic resources to mourn them or even believe they are worthy of our mourning. When Ermias Joseph Asghedom aka Nipsey Hussle died recently, many LGBTQIA folks in the Black community and their supporters expressed that they could not summon the emotional resources to mourn his death because of his past homophobic/hostile comments. Despite the impact of Asghedom’s death on his family, friends, and loved ones and his extensive development efforts in the Black community, his colonized position on sexuality and gender disqualified him as a Black person worthy of their mourning.

When Timothy Dean recently died, many LGBTQIA and cisgender-heterosexual folks in the Black community could not summon the emotional resources to mourn his death because he, a Black queer man, died from drug overdose in the house of a prominent man racialized as white in West Hollywood who is suspected of having a sexual fetish for drugging Black men and watching them lose consciousness or die. Despite the impact of Dean’s death on his family, friends, and loved ones, his association with that white man and the nature of his death disqualified him as a Black person worthy of their mourning.

When Dana Martin and Ashanti Carmon died this year, many cisgender-heterosexual folks in the Black community could not summon the emotional resources to mourn their deaths because they, two Black transgender women, lived their gender in ways that did not conform to the colonized beliefs of gender within cisheteropatriarchy. Despite the impact of Martin’s and Carmon’s deaths on their families, friends, and loved ones, their deaths were deemed not worthy of mourning, their murders have been deemed not worthy of the outrage of the Black community.

It is worth noting that Carmon was fatally shot on March 30th, one day before Asghedom was fatally shot. Two sets of families, friends, and loved ones had reason to grieve that bloody weekend. But we as a community were divided in our mourning, divided in ways we must attend to if we are to fully be whole as persons and as a people.

To the cisgender and heterosexual members of the Black community, I ask: Who/what taught you to believe that anyone who was Black and not cisgender and/or heterosexual did not deserve you to mourn for them when they die in the same ways you mourn for other Black people? I suggest to you that when you follow the trail in answering that question you end up with settler-colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy whether it be in the form of Christianity, Puritan or Victorian cultural norms and values, or some other ideology backed in the furnace of Western European cultural thought and behavior imposed upon our people.

To LGBTQIA members of the Black community, I ask: What does it serve you to fight for the right to love whomever you desire in whatever form you desire and be loved in the embodiment that you need to feel whole but to relinquish your ability to love your people, Black people–even in their post-traumatic slave/colonized response to sexualities and genders that have transgressed the norms they were conditioned to maintain within settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism? I suggest to you that the ways we have been framing our rights and the goals we have set for those rights are, in large part, also a function of the same conditioning within settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. Love is too broad and powerful an energy to relegate it merely sexual and gender identity politics. Love is a necessary element of making our people whole again.

Oftentimes, when members of our community want to berate us about being divided they oftentimes use the crabs in the barrel metaphor. Sometimes, they vilify us as the crabs in the barrel who climb over each other to escape. But more often then not they castigate us as the crabs in the barrel who would rather drag down other crabs who are in the process of escaping than to be alone in the barrel–misery loving company. The use of that metaphor always focuses on the crabs and never the barrel. It never acknowledges that the barrel is not the crabs’ natural habitat. The crabs are in a system not of their making or choosing. That system creates conditions inhospitable to the health and wellbeing of the crabs. It keeps them alive just enough for the consumption of others but never sufficient for their living and thriving. When people use the metaphor, they rarely ask who put the crabs in the barrel, in whose interests does their containment in the barrel serve, and what are the aims served by their containment.

Tiffany King offers a different metaphor for considering our experience as Black people in settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. King applies the concept of fungibility i.e., the degree to which individual units of a product or good are interchangeable for each other, which therefore limits the value of any one individual unit. Fungibility makes something or someone able to be cast away, discarded, or disregarded without consequence due to their perceived value. King argues that settler-colonizers and imperialist have viewed Black folks and our bodies as fungible. Fungibility was originally applied to agriculture when considering the fungibility of seeds and how much wasted seed was allowable considering the projected yield. Artist, activist, scholar, Syrus Marcus Ware introduced me to the concept and King’s work at a presentation at Goddard College recently.

I want us to consider how fungible we perceive each other. To what degree do we think that we can disregard those niggas over there because they are not like us and we are the real members of the community? To what degree are we unable to mourn the dead when we hold that perception? And what are the costs to those perceptions? How much of our community have we become accustomed to letting die without mourning because we have considered them fungible–a waste of flesh?

I would suggest too much of our community has become like dust to us. And in so doing we, too, are becoming like dust.

Therefore, I invite you to take what I am calling the 5000 Year Challenge (#5000YearChallenge) with me. The title is designed to recognize the enormity of our past and future. The challenge begins with the following pledge and continues with the daily practice of the pledge in our everyday lives:

I commit to not allowing settler-colonial, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchal propaganda to make me consider my people to be my enemy, my culture to be my enemy, or my community to be my enemy.

I commit to not allowing settler-colonial, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchal propaganda to motivate me to separate from my people, my culture, or my community.

I commit to not allowing settler-colonial, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchal propaganda to make me fault my people, my culture, or my community for the harm that settler-colonial, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchal trauma has wrought upon us.

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