I never really understood what this was – until this past week.
Of course, I’d heard of the practice: people crying, wailing, making all manner of sounds to vocalize their pain and grief. I understood that it often was a cultural practice at funerals. But that’s how I understood it: as some anthropological note about what other people do with their grief. It was academic, and wholly disconnected from my middle class American existence.
That all changed last Thursday. It was Day 5 of an unbelievably (and magnificently) intense agitational leadership development training. In the evening session of that day, we began by having various people in the room share an oppression that they labor under. People talked about past experiences of hurt and trauma from their family, their friendships, their workplaces. I’d shared a lot during the week, but as others were speaking, I thought about one thing I hadn’t yet shared: why I never feel like I can fully claim my identity as a Latina.
My grandfather was Honduran. But it never occurred to me that his identity as a Latino had anything to do with me, until I was 16 years old. I remember filling out a form for the SATs, and coming to the race and ethnicity box, and thinking about the definition of “Hispanic” — and suddenly realizing, “Wait a minute, that’s me.” I knew where my grandfather was from, and I’d even learned Spanish in school because of him. But I never thought of that as a cultural heritage that was actually mine.
And the reason was my father, and my grandmother. They utterly rejected any identity with my grandfather’s Latino heritage: with his language, with his family. I only met family members of his once in my life as a child, for brief visit to their apartment. My dad never brought any of his dad’s identity into our family life, because it was never really a part of his life. It was the assimilationist ’50s and ’60s, and my dad and grandmother were caught up in aspirations to the black educated elite: to middle class respectability, to being acceptable to and validated by white folks. And there’s likely other relationship trauma within my dad’s family that I don’t even know about, because it was never talked about; he loved his dad, but he also clearly struggled with their relationship.
I shared this story on Thursday, and how it affected me. I started by first speaking in Spanish — which surprised the heck out of quite a few people in the room, who didn’t know that was any part of who I was. I shared how I’d never known my grandfather’s people; how I’d been too timid about speaking Spanish with him because I wasn’t perfect at it; how I wrote him a postcard when I went to Puerto Rico 5 months after he died because I wished that I could share with him my first experience of being in a place where Spanish was the dominant language. I shared how I felt broken and like I didn’t belong anywhere: definitely not white enough, told by other black people that I wasn’t black enough, and clearly not in any way culturally Latina. And when I shared how much I missed my grandfather and how I wished he were still here, I doubled over with the pain and the grief of that statement.
I sat down after I spoke, and listened to others continue speaking. It was a heavy session. We took a 10 minute break, and I went outside to hug a friend who had also shared something deeply personal and painful. And then someone hugged me, and was crying with me, and I started crying again — and then I doubled over, and had to flee to find a corner where I could experience the wave of emotion that was suddenly flooding over me.
I went to the corner, and I was sobbing. The sobs got louder and louder. And then suddenly, I wasn’t sobbing anymore. I was wailing. I was screaming. I couldn’t stop the sounds coming out of my body. I remember being aware of myself, and knowing that this was happening in the middle of the classroom building where we were having our sessions, and know that there were people who could clearly hear me — but it didn’t matter, because there was no way I could stop what was happening. I remember thinking as I was watching myself go through this, “Ah. So this is keening. I get it now.”
Folks heard me, obviously. People brought me water, and tissues. Some spoke words of comfort or patted me on the back. I was still wailing. Folks had to go back into the classrooms to start the next part of the session. I was still screaming. Eventually, one of the trainers came out, and just held me while I sobbed and screamed. I cried, I snotted all over her shoulder. And after a while, it subsided. I could take deeper breaths; I could have a little water; I could talk a bit. When I was ready, I returned to the training session, for an amazing training on how we turn our oppressions into our path to power.
I’ve never done anything like that before. But I realized that there have been many times in my life when I wanted to. I know I was keening about more than just my grandfather; I was keening about so many instances of loss and pain and rejection and unlove. Romans 8:26 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” That verse came to me as I was going through this experience, and I knew that’s what this was: the wordless groans of things I didn’t even know how to express to God, where I needed Him to heal me and liberate me.
And that’s what happened. I emerged from my keening exhausted — but free. Chains had been loosed. Prison doors in my spirit had been thrown open. I spoke to God out of the depths of my soul, and he heard me.
A song of ascents.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.