February 18, 2022
Gifts in the Ashes
Loss & Moving Forward
Lights surrounding the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool as a memorial to COVID-19 victims, Washington D.C., January 19, 2021
Many worldwide are dealing with loss and trauma. According to Dr. Girishkumar Dhorajia, head of Addiction Recovery and Mental Health Services at Carle BroMenn Medical Center, there has been “an increase in anxiety, insomnia, and stress-related disorders… suicidal ideation and substance use.”[1] And these “disorders tend to manifest on the ‘tail end’ of traumatic events… the initial rise in the numbers for mental illness is probably going to continue to spike, even when the pandemic resolves,” which means we will need to learn to adapt and cope in healthy ways.[2] For the African American community, loss and trauma have often been present.
William Cousins, Jr., c. 1950s (left); Bernice King and her mother Coretta Scott King at the funeral of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 9, 1968 (center); and Bernice King in front of a portrait of her father, undated (right)
Judge William Cousins, Jr. (1927 - 2018), who served on the Illinois Appellate Court and the Cook County Circuit Court, told of childhood trauma at the age of five, which resulted in his family picking up everything and moving from Mississippi to Tennessee: “The death of my sister [Beatrice Cousins] probably had something to do with their [his parents] wanting to locate elsewhere… we had… a potbelly stove and the door was open. I don't know how the door came open but a blast of fire leaped out and engulfed my sister. That's how she happened to be fatally burned… she was between three and four… my mother happened… to have been outside of the house… And a neighbor came by and… helped to get the burning under control. But it was too late.”[3] Bernice Albertine King, the youngest daughter of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected on her childhood where death was ever present: “She [King's paternal grandmother, Alberta Williams King] was killed in 1974 while she was playing the organ at church, at Ebenezer [Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia]. She was playing 'The Lord's Prayer,' …I would have been eleven then. We drove up to the church and noticed there was an ambulance… And a deacon came up to the car and said, ‘You all need to go to Grady Hospital 'cause your grandmother was shot today.’ … I spent a great deal of time in my childhood trying to understand what was going on with all of these deaths… Then my uncle… Alfred Daniel King who drowned when I was six… in July of 1969, a year and three months after my father [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was assassinated… And my mother [Coretta Scott King] said I blurted out, ‘I'm not going to any more funerals…’ I was very confused… And in a sense became very withdrawn and afraid to live… it would shut me down… that's the real, the traumatic impact that it had on me for years."[4]
Manning Marable in his New York City office, 2001 (left); and poet E. Ethelbert Miller speaking, undated (right)
Traumatic experiences can profoundly impact the brain as noted by Manning Marable (1950 - 2011), founding director of the Institute for the Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, in his description of fragmented memory: “[We] organize memories and present them as a type of representation of self. And because people represent themselves through the architecture of memory, they have a deeply engrained interest to forget certain painful events or to push them to the periphery and to put in the foreground those singular events… which are achievements and accomplishments… and move them forward rather than backward; and even when people don't engage in dishonesty they subconsciously do it because the mind is trying to protect the body… those who have experienced mass trauma or catastrophic trauma… you have fragmented or fractured memory.”[5]  Poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who has worked with vulnerable groups like soldiers and their families, made this observation:  “How you deal with the silence is you battle against forgetting… you become a writer of witness… you have to speak the truth; it means a certain amount of courage… if you have any scar, it heals, but it leaves a mark, and you remember it. So… you want to forget, but there's also remembering… as individuals, we have to balance that.”[6]
Lynn Norment speaking at a National Association of Black Journalists event, 1989
For Lynn Norment, former staff editor for Ebony Magazine, the triggering event was the death of her mother: “My father had taken all of us to school that night… We had just gotten home, and I remember my father getting a call and we knew something was wrong… and I remember him just breaking down and crying and said, ‘Mama is dead, Mama has died.’ … we were all just kind of stunned and startled. We knew she was ill, but… we didn't know… anything about pancreatic cancer and that it was terminal… my sisters and I were very close… we were all sharing one room… So we talked and that is consolation… [And] I would retreat to books during that period of mourning… That's how I escaped and realized there's a bigger world out here… and then that fostered my interest in writing.”[7]
Maureen Bunyan, c. 1970s (left); and Maureen Bunyan addressing attendees at the Hubert H Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner, 2010 (right)
For Emmy Award-winning television news anchor and NABJ cofounder Maureen Bunyan, exercise and music were her salvation after her mother’s death from breast cancer: “I developed a sense very early that you have to explore your inner life in order to survive the outer life… And after studying depression… I think I've come to understand the significance of stress on the body… as I got older in my twenties, I realized that I was an anxious person. I realized that I was prone to depression… and I also fortunately learned how to manage it and I found out while my mother was sick that one of the ways to manage it was with exercise and music… my father was a music lover… and I credit music with helping me through my mother's (laughs) illness and death… Classical music… caused me to meditate and to become introspective… Rock and roll helped lift my spirit.”[8]
Left to right: Lula Roberts, undated; Cheryl and Lee Saunders, 1999 ; and Cheryl Saunders leading an ensemble, Huddersfield, England, undated
Music also provided solace to choral director Cheryl Saunders upon her mother’s death: I was depressed, very depressed. In fact, I didn't sing for months… And I remember a guy from Pensacola calling… asking me to play for their crusade, and I loved playing for crusades… I told him in my mind I was saying no and when I hung up my husband said, ‘I thought you said you weren't gonna do it.’ I said, ‘I did tell the guy I wasn't gonna do it.’ He said, ‘no you just told him ‘yes.’ I was too embarrassed to let him know that I wasn't all there, so I just kind of fell into it, and it was the best thing that happened to me because I found when I was giving to other people, it helped me to cope with my own grief, my own loss.”[9]
Zenobia Washington and her brother Trevor, Bronx, New York, c. 1970s (left); Zenobia Washington’s doll titled ‘A Woman Ruler’ (center); and another of her dolls titled 'Black Butterfly Dancer' (right)
Doll artist Zenobia Washington’s passions were fueled by the illness and death of her younger brother, Trevor Grant:I thought it would make me weak, but I think that it… was one of the most wonderful things that could have happened in my life--to be able to care for him like that… And I thought… I would be fine, because we were prepared for his death. But I really realized that you can't be prepared for something like that… And that's how the dolls came about. After he died, I went through this real bad depression. And then these dolls just kind of came to me; these women just… started kind of invading my brain… they would ask to be, ‘I want to be done first.’ And I didn't know what it meant… I started experimenting with different materials… And here these dolls started to appear. And the only thing I knew is that they made me feel good… I didn't know anything about selling 'em… And people started… having a connection with them… and then galleries started approaching me… to speak on the subject of creativity and grief.”[10]
Siblings (left to right) Debbie, Michaela, Eddie, and Monica, c. 1970s (left); and Michaela Angela Davis in her home, undated (right)
When activist and writer Michaela Angela Davis lost her brother, dance became the healing force: “My brother, Eddie… fell from their balcony at six o'clock in the morning. And the cause of death was extreme trauma to the head… And I remember I didn't believe it… I went to school the next day… and they announced it over the, the PA system [public address system] that former… student, Eddie Davis died and I fainted… I remember standing behind my mother at the funeral and watching her like stand up and faint and stand up and faint… I did a piece after that, like kind of like a dance… that was how I healed, was trying to negotiate this stuff creatively… I think that's the gift in having something that traumatic happen, and surviving… when you get shattered, you get to then look at those pieces in a whole new way.”[11]
Badi Foster, undated
Badi Foster (1942 - 2019), former CEO of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, described the effect of his son’s death: “Qasim was allergic to peanuts. And there was a Halloween party at school, and someone brought some cookies that had a peanut product in it. And even though his records showed that he was highly allergic, the nurse blew it; the docs blew it, and unfortunately, he died at the age of nine… it's one of those decisive moments. And I can now say that if it weren't for my faith, my family and my friends, I probably would not have accomplished much after that. So I have a great deal of empathy for people who experience that kind of shock... and I reach out and without imposing myself on other people to know that when people suffer that, you can turn it to your advantage or you can turn it to your disadvantage… We have never had an argument in the family since 1986… No nasty words said because you just don't take certain things for granted… I guess when you lose a child or there's some other major event, and you step back, and you say, wait a second. I do have choices to make… being tested by adversity… It's ‘I'll baptize you through fire…’ the reality is that it's only through adversity that you get struck.”[12]
Iva Carruthers, c. 1960s (left); and Iva Carruthers, Ph.D., c. 2010s (right)
Sociologist Iva Carruthers, who was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University, spoke of her devastation as a new mother who lost her husband: “I had to deal with the reality of taking care of an eleven-month-old child and I decided I would get a master's in counsellor education… I came out three years later with a Ph.D. in sociology…  I had two jobs, I had a baby, and I was a student… I knew that despite this, I had two choices--I could turn lemons into lemonade, or I could just sit there and bemoan my situation. And so, it was important for me to translate that trauma and those experiences into ways that had benefit for others as well as that helped to heal… me and to strengthen me to move forward.”[13]
Arthur Ashe and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, New York, 1977 (left); and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and her daughter Camera at the U.S. Open, 2010
Photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe also experienced the loss of her husband, tennis legend Arthur Ashe: Grief is a lifelong process. It does get much more manageable… you have to learn how to partner with it and I think the first year I did not and I slowly gave in to partnering with grief. And it was a great lesson that I learned to do it… it keeps coming up and at first there are just waves and waves of it. But as time passes by… there are events that will continue to bring it up… And there are people who have completely denied it and not allowed grief to happen and they're paying for it (laughter). They're probably managing but with grief comes fear and you really have to face that fear, just partner with it.”[14]
A teacher and his students at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School where trauma-informed social-emotional learning is successfully implemented, Nashville, Tennessee, undated (left); and Charles M. Blow, c. 2010s (right)
Partnering with trauma as we continue to navigate difficult times is essential. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, author of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, reminds us: “There are a lot of gifts in the ashes… because life is irrepressible, it gives as much as it takes.”[15] So let’s take what life has to give us, even in trying and perilous times, and learn how to survive and thrive.
[1] Sarah Nardi. “A Carle BroMenn doctor says the trauma of the pandemic could be an issue for years to come,” WGLT, February 16, 2022, accessed February 17, 2022. https://www.wglt.org/local-news/2022-02-16/a-carle-bromenn-doctor-says-the-trauma-of-the-pandemic-could-be-an-issue-for-years-to-come
[2] Ibid. 
[3] The Honorable William Cousins, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.009), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, William Cousins remembers his sister's death.
[4] Bernice Albertine King (The HistoryMakers A2008.032), interviewed by Denise Gines, February 27, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Bernice Albertine King recalls coping with her family members' deaths.
[5] Manning Marable (The HistoryMakers A2005.228), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, October 5, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 1, Manning Marable reflects upon the effect of trauma on memory.
[6] E. Ethelbert Miller (The HistoryMakers A2007.216), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, July 27, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 7, E. Ethelbert Miller reflects upon writing about trauma.
[7] Lynn Norment (The HistoryMakers A2008.012), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, February 6, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Lynn Norment remembers her mother's passing; Lynn Norment (The HistoryMakers A2008.012), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, February 6, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Lynn Norment recalls her early love of reading.
[8] Maureen Bunyan (The HistoryMakers A2012.230), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 29, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Maureen Bunyan talks about her family's emotional distress during her mother's struggle with breast cancer and upon her death; Maureen Bunyan (The HistoryMakers A2012.230), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 29, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Maureen Bunyan talks about being prone to depression, and managing it with exercise and music.
[9] Cheryl Saunders (The HistoryMakers A2002.160), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 13, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Cheryl Saunders talks about her depression following her parents' deaths.
[10] Zenobia Washington (The HistoryMakers A2002.222), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 5, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Zenobia Washington describes taking care of her brother when he was dying of AIDS.
[11] Michaela Angela Davis (The HistoryMakers A2014.219), interviewed by Harriette Cole, August 15, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Michaela Angela Davis remembers the death of her brother, pt. 1; Michaela Angela Davis (The HistoryMakers A2014.219), interviewed by Harriette Cole, August 15, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Michaela Angela Davis remembers the death of her brother, pt. 2.
[12] Badi Foster (The HistoryMakers A2003.021), interviewed by Amy Billingsley, January 25, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Badi Foster discusses the death of his son.
[13] Iva Carruthers (The HistoryMakers A2003.308), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 12, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Iva Carruthers describes getting her Ph.D. at Northwestern University and later teaching at Northeastern Illinois University.
[14] Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (The HistoryMakers A2007.008), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 15, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 6, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe talks about her grieving process.
[15] Charles M. Blow (The HistoryMakers A2014.208), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 11, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Charles M. Blow talks about the impact of his childhood trauma.