“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground.” These are haunting words from Ella, a character in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. And they’ve stuck with me ever since I read them.
“People who die bad” as in die unjustly, untimely, in a way that doesn’t acknowledge their humanity—the Freddie Grays, the Michael Browns, the Eric Garners—they don’t let us forget, they won’t stay quiet. Their story will be told. And their stories won’t always fall on welcome ears. Some people don’t like to hear of bad deaths, especially if those deaths implicate them, disrupting their peace of mind.
Sometimes I wonder if the rally cry of peace isn’t much more than a request for silence. A request for quiet from the voices that won’t let us live in peace, won’t let us carry on like everything is ok. Some say, I’m for a response to Freddie Gray’s bad death as long as it’s peaceful. But what does that mean, I wonder? What does a peace mean in light of “bad deaths?”
What does this push for peace mean coming from those of us who live in society with white skin? What is peace for us at times like this? Is it mere quiet, peace of mind?
Does it mean we don’t want a world, a community, where all of the sudden those of us with white skin are in danger too? Well, of course, it means that. But are we willing to ask what it means when that’s the realization that all of the sudden prompts our recommendations of peace?
What does peace mean for white people in times like this? I think it’s easy to talk about peace…wish for peace…pray for peace. But what are we talking about when we talk about it? Whose peace are we talking about? Is peace a longing, a hope, for a world where bad deaths don’t occur? Is that it? Because, sometimes, it doesn’t seem like we’re aware, fully aware, of the need for peace until something bad happens and the subsequent conversations implicate us; then, and at times only then, we want to make sure everything is peaceful.
Is the peace that we whites sometimes want not much more than a silencing of the fact that, many times, a lack of peace isn’t an issue for us until our black neighbors who are constantly exposed, systemically predisposed, to “bad deaths” ask us why? Why are those with white skin not so exposed? And why is it that our answer is often: “Well, let’s talk about this but in a peaceful way…let’s make sure this doesn’t get out of control. Let’s make sure we all seek peace.” Then we light candles together, we pray for peace, and we leave glad that nobody got hurt.
But someone did get hurt. A bad death did happen. A lot of bad deaths have happened. And will continue to happen until the need for peace grows beyond the need to manage a conversation.
“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground.”
People who die badly… they don’t let us forget, they won’t stay quiet. Their story will be told. And the story of their bad death won’t always fall on welcome ears. Some people don’t like to talk of bad deaths, especially if those deaths implicate them, disrupt their peace of mind.
It’s here that I hope we come together in working for peace. It’s here, in the realizations that some of us haven’t been doing a fair or good job sharing the spaces we occupy with others, that we focus the work of peace; inciting a passion for wholeness, for the hard conversations of living together in better, more just ways…joining our longings of peace into efforts for a world where people don’t die bad.