Grief is a stubborn emotion. I was reminded of this as I watched the coverage of Saturday’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, feeling equal parts numb and in shock. A white 18-year-old is accused of spewing white nationalist views and walking into a local Tops grocery store carrying an assault-style rifle with racial slurs written on it and livestreaming parts of his attack on unsuspecting Black shoppers. Ten people were killed, and others were injured.
I told myself that by now, I should be accustomed to the aftermath of such events: Video footage of the scene draped in yellow police tape, the somber statement from law enforcement detailing the tragedy and community members holding one another, overcome by the weight of loss.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Emmett Till’s lynching and a bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls, all of these events intersected with the lives of men and women of Whitfield’s generation.
In this country, these images are painfully familiar, whether the setting is a spa in Atlanta, a church in Charleston or a grocery store in Buffalo. Once again, a community is left in mourning as a result of racial hatred embodied in the perpetrator and documented throughout the annals of this nation’s history.
As in times past, when I saw the faces of the victims, my numbness to this tragedy eventually broke with tears of anger, grief or whatever unnamed feeling the two emotions create. Despite the seeming frequency of such events, the loss of life, each and every life, takes a toll that words cannot fully express. But it was a photograph of one of the victims, 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, smiling with her husband of 68 years, that caused my grief to take the form of a question: How could we lose our elders in this cruel manner?
There is a special reverence many of my peers and I hold for Black elders. One can get a sense of this in the honorifics we use to convey an individual’s status within the community. The title “Mother,” for example, is typically given to senior women in church to reflect their faithfulness to both their religious and social communities. The honor bestowed on elders is an acknowledgment that they possess the kind of wisdom not found in archives or textbooks.
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In a city like Buffalo, many in the Black community migrated to the region or are descendants of those who migrated during the Great Migration. Like other Black Americans who moved to cities in the North and Midwest during the early and mid-20th century to flee southern Jim Crow laws that criminalized many aspects of life, Black migrants to Buffalo arrived with hope for themselves and their children. When they packed up their lives and moved to new cities, Black Americans brought with them the stories of survival shared with them by their own grandparents, some of whom were likely enslaved. Those stories of pain and resilience were passed from one generation to the next, documenting a history they knew would not be taught in schools. When we lose elders prematurely in the way we did on Saturday, we are losing a loved one, a community member and people whose lives and stories connect generations. Such a loss is incalculable.
There is a special reverence many of my peers and I hold for Black elders.
In the Black community, funerals are often called homegoings to indicate that the departed have completed their sojourn through this life and have now found rest in their eternal home. Funerals for elders, those in their 70s and beyond, are often a blend of tears and laughter, with loved ones recalling with fondness a life lived in full. For a woman like Whitfield, born in the 1930s, the most horrific acts of the 20th century associated with racism, the kind of acts we try to convince ourselves belong to some bygone era, existed in her lifetime. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Emmett Till’s lynching and a bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls, all of these events intersected with the lives of men and women of Whitfield’s generation. So, to think that at her own homegoing, her loved ones must mourn the fact that the white supremacy she survived all her life was there at the very end is unfathomably heartbreaking.
When I consider all the elders who were lost in Buffalo — Whitfield, Pearly Young, 77, and Katherine Massey, 72 — I cannot help but think about all that they’ve witnessed and survived, only for their lives to end the way they did.
And for Heyward Patterson, 67, Celestine Chaney, 65, and Geraldine Talley, 62, on the cusp of entering a stage in the Black community where the title of “elder” would be bestowed upon them, that honor was robbed from them.
Losing those in the middle of still collecting their own stories and wisdom to one day be passed on as an elder — Aaron Salter, 55, Andre Mackniel, 53, Margus D. Morrison, 52, and Roberta A. Drury, 32 — is also a tragedy.
In the wake of this latest racist attack, there will be much talk about what our society can learn. There will be speeches and training, roundtables and news conferences, all with the goal of attempting to make sense of the senseless. In my professional life, I have participated in some of these efforts and what I can say, without reservation, is that we cannot train our way out of white supremacy. There is no diversity, equity and inclusion workshop that would have prevented a man from walking into a store to kill others because he viewed their very existence as a threat to his own.
I know that as a society, we try to assuage our fears by telling ourselves that white supremacy is limited to the images of burning crosses documented in films and pictures. But the reality is that the white supremacy that our elders tried to escape in their youth hasn’t vanished. Instead, it has evolved and is as dangerous as ever. The sooner our society grapples with this uncomfortable truth, the sooner we can call out racism in all of its insidious forms. Until people who profess to be committed to the work of justice lead courageously, recognizing that this work cannot be borne solely by the communities most harmed, the news of lives lost at the hands of hate will only continue.