African Traditional Religions prepared me to grieve my mother
I am still hers. I am still hers.
I’ve learned it’s best not to try to control how the memories of my mother show up, or what emotions they are wearing when they enter. This one is dressed in a rare crossbreed of inconsolable laughter and a stabbing sob, and it’s seeping out of my iphone from wherever the speaker is located on this godforsaken device. I put one end near my ear and then the other, trying to get a better listen, but neither seems to bring me much closer to her voice—the words shivering slightly with static as if rubbing up against stubby hair follicles on a head freshly forced into shaving by cancer. “Just thinking about you, son,” my mother says softly, after singing the chorus of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in one of her voicemails I started saving after her diagnosis.
And right here is the memory of how my mother always referred to me as “sun” with a “u” in writing—which is funny because if anyone was like the sun, it was her. If anyone was the thing that kept me warm even when it sometimes burned—was proof of something greater and life-giving, was what everything in my world revolved around—it was my mother. And now she’s gone. So I laugh. And I cry. And I wish I could hear her voice just one more time a little bit clearer. Please.
I’ve learned there is always someone listening to your pleas, and no one you love ever really leaves you, completely. Mata taught me those things. They are core tenets of the Hare Krsna religion, a branch of Hinduism to which she converted at twenty years of age alongside her mother in 1972, when they were some of the first Black Americans to do so. I have never known anyone else to believe in anything as strongly as my mother believed in Krsna and the boundlessness of His love for our eternal spirits. Everything she did was related to her belief in something greater than this life. Including pushing me away when I told her I was queer. Including putting in the work to get me back when pushing me away didn’t do the job of expressing the love she knew her god wanted her to express. I didn’t always understand her beliefs. I still don’t, but now that she is gone I think I understand much more.
It was my mother’s belief that made the impossible possible. She raised her ten children as a stay-at-home mother struggling alongside a working class Muslim husband in Cleveland, OH, and homeschooled almost all of us until high school. She always made sure we were fed and were generally safe despite often having no money, because she never stopped taking the next best step, assured it would lead her where she wanted to go, even if not within this lifetime.
I wasn’t always convinced of her destination myself, but finishing the life she led in the way she did is proof enough. Even if there isn’t anything beyond this life on earth, the place to which searching for something greater took her is surely enough of where she wanted to go. She died lying in a great new home her eldest daughter bought her, surrounded by all of her children—some of us having quit our jobs and packed up everything to come to North Carolina and take care of her in the middle of a pandemic, all of us loving on each other and her more than we ever thought possible. “It’s okay,” my brother chanted as I held one motionless hand reduced to skin-covered bone and he held the other, “it’s okay,” and then her labored breathing stopped right where there couldn’t have been more love even if you tried to force it.
If you had asked me a few years ago what my spiritual beliefs were, I would have responded with some canned answer about not being very religious and then changed the subject. For most of my adult life, I associated spiritual beliefs not with what my mother accomplished, but with what was taken from her, including integral parts of her relationship with me as we clashed over my queerness. But having experienced these last two years of her slowly dying of cancer, I’ve had the opportunity to think more deeply about my response to this question as thoughts of an afterlife became unavoidable. In doing so, I understand that perhaps my previous perception of my mother’s spirituality was skewed. What if what I was attributing to her spiritual beliefs was actually when they faltered? If my mother truly believed we were not this body, if she and Krsna truly loved me, then how she treated me during those fraught times wasn’t evidence of her belief in something wrong, but evidence that her belief, however strong, was sometimes not strong enough.
As a police and prison abolitionist, I believe other worlds are possible. I believe we are more than mindless monsters who need cages and abuse in order to live in community with one another, and so I am not afraid of a world without state-sanctioned punishment and death. But my mother’s passing finds me on a mission to believe this at least as strongly as she believed in her most unfaltering moments—to understand this within the context of something bigger than me—because she proved this is one sure way to begin to create the world in which you want to live. And today creating that world is more pressing than ever, because I don’t think I could stand to live another second in one where my mother is not here.
A few years ago, I began exploring Hoodoo, a Black American spiritual practice rooted in African traditions, after I reached out to my friend Myesha Worthington, a priestess and creator of Cognac & Conjure, who encouraged me to set up an ancestral altar. As someone who grew up with sacred altars, creating another felt less foreign than a close childhood friend who has hurt you so you don’t speak anymore. Before a lot of the healing work my mother and I accomplished prior to her death, I associated these spiritual rituals with the harm I’d experienced at her hands, but it was through Hoodoo that I discovered I could make these associations with the love I’d experienced from her too. I could create from the still standing foundations she established, rather than only parsing through the rubble, if I believed I could.
Hoodoo is rooted in the idea that Black people are more than the abuse we experience, and we have not lost our connection to our history and our power. Central to the practice is ancestral veneration, a way of connecting with something bigger than yourself by connecting deeper to your own personal history. Besides my childhood associations with religion, I also feared possibly doing ancestor veneration wrong before starting this journey—and by making mistakes somehow inviting negative spirits—and so it took many months after speaking to my priestess friend for me to follow her guidance.
But Hoodoo has taught me that there is no wrong way to honor your ancestors, if honoring is what you are doing; there is only starting and getting better. Just like there is no wrong way to fight for a better world, there is only starting and getting better. Just like there is no wrong way to grieve.
A few days ago, my brother noted that my mother has probably been grieving the entire time I’ve been alive. Since before I was born, my grandmother struggled from an intense and for a long time untreated bipolar disorder, and my grandfather, whom my mother rarely discussed, died long before grandma, who passed in 2014. I guess I didn’t really see what my mother was experiencing as grief because she always exuded a type of joy that is hard to explain, a type of joy I never knew could be compatible with such profound sadness of loss. But I am finding bits and pieces of what feels like my mother’s joy in this new grief of losing her—in listening to this voicemail, in recalling how she referred to me, how she loved me—and it is deeper than anything I’ve ever felt before, even as my world seems like it has fallen apart. This is a power that only comes from knowing there is still a connection between me and my mother, a connection that can never fully be severed, regardless of death.
As an amalgamation of over 40 different African traditions passed down orally and adapted over time through only the best possible tools when slavery made many impossible, Hoodoo is what happens when Black people start their journey toward making themselves whole and get better. Hoodoo is where my Black mother’s power to find joy in grief, to make the impossible possible came from, even if she didn’t call it that.
I became an abolitionist because I saw this world which is so deadly to Black people crumbling many times before this. I saw Trayvon Martin murdered, then Michael Brown, then Tamir Rice, then Korryn Gaines. It was tempting to see such copious death through one of two lenses of misery: either there is just nothing we can do but make small, hardly effective changes toward “progress,” or nothing will ever ultimately change and so we might as well succumb to nihilism. Before my mother’s diagnosis, I was nearly seduced by the latter perspective, convinced to surrender to unchangeable systems as long as most of the world is against me and may never be on my side. A world without police and prisons is an unreasonable demand to too many in power, and so fighting for it was as much a fool’s errand as believing I could commune with my mother after she died. But the next best step demands more than giving up on what is necessary just because someone might call you a fool.
So I sit in front of my altar, light a candle, and ask my mother, “How am I going to get through this without you?” She smiles in the picture in front of me, in the warm blood rushing through my veins as my heart beats in longing. She responds in the noises I hear outside of the window—kids laughing and birds chirping, all screaming life, all screaming live. She responds in the chills I feel in my skin when anger erupts towards those birds and the people who get to live when she doesn’t. She tells me to listen to my anger, explore what is really at the center of it. She tells me to cry more in a gasp I cannot contain, so I do. She tells me to cry as much as I want to. As much as I need to. My body has always had what it needs inside of it. Has always had her inside of it. And listening to it is how I get through. How, as a people still waiting for abolition, we always have.
When the sun dies, scientists believe its core will compress while its flaming surface expands, becoming what is known as a red giant. Its fire will envelop all of the inner planets, including the earth, but burn enough to warm the outer planets into potential habitation for another billion years.
My sun is leaving. The old world I knew does not feel like it exists anymore. But I’ve learned through my mother, through Hoodoo, through rediscovering belief in something bigger than me, through science, that nothing we love ever truly leaves us, that there are other planets, and those are where the heat from this dying sun might allow us to foster life for the next countless years, if we try at it and get better. If we are really intentional about connecting with our ancestors, those are where our abolitionist societies will be created. And I still wish I could hear her voice just one more time a little bit clearer—and maybe I will always wish that—but somewhere on those new worlds my mother also hears me making this plea in front of my altar and she answers, however staticky, with this joy she will never stop bequeathing me. And even after these countless years pass, there will be other suns for other solar systems. Because I am still hers. I am still hers.