In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he calls upon Jew and Gentile alike to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord. He challenges them further to embrace the teachings of the gospels and to disavow a strict adherence to the old laws proscribed by Moses and the Old Testament prophets. His tone does not chastise from the high-minded perch of the pulpit. Instead, he shows them his own human failings so that they understand his message as universal, one intended for all men. He too, is impaled by the sins of the flesh, and only through God’s forgiveness does he gain salvation. He writes, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
As I reflect on the year that has passed since your death, I find myself in Rome reading Paul’s words and remembering you. It has been a trying year. A friend was buried yesterday, and the black body has continued to be marred by death and destruction. In your time, you witnessed your fair share of the white man’s wrath, and his racist predilections haven’t abated. Just days before your death, you saw Michael Brown lying prostrate in the street for hours after he was struck down by an unrepentant cop. And the slaughter has continued. Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old, was slain for playing with a toy gun in a playground. There was no warning, only shots. Eric Garner was strangled to death on a busy Staten Island street corner. Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer as he ran through an open field, treated like one of those target practice silhouettes. Freddie Gray had his back broken for running away from the police. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after refusing to extinguish a cigarette. Samuel Dubose was shot in the face during an unwarranted traffic stop. Nine parishioners were killed in an AME church, including Clementa Pickney, an elected official and man of unquestioned faith and considerable promise. Kalif Browder’s death shook me the most. He was a young man who was wrongfully jailed for three years and who upon release was showered with attention from celebrities and concerned citizens in the hope that he would be able rise above his trauma, but he killed himself because the pain was too much. He could have been one of my students, anyone of the young men and women who are ensnared in criminal justice system. This year confirmed that death is all around us.
Paul also teaches that “he that is dead is freed from sin.” And in this way there is a blessing in death. I have understood this blessing to signify eternal life through Jesus Christ, but it also acts as a shield against the troubles of the world. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”
Your death has given me peace. I still struggle with sin, but with each coming day, I find myself drifting further from the flesh and more towards mindfulness. This year my publications have increased considerably, and more than anything, I understand my purpose as a writer. I embrace the sacrifice it requires and cherish my mortality. I am not driven by worthless, material possession because therein lies certain death. What drives me is your spirit and all those who live by Paul’s words: “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”
Yesterday, as I knelt before God in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the largest cathedral in the world, I wept for you, not because I was sad, but because I realized how far I had come from, how my blessings had multiplied tenfold. Never had I thought I would see such a grand monument to Christianity. The beauty of the chapel was breathtaking and I found myself overwhelmed as I walked the aisles of the nave and gazed upon Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and bowed before St. Peter’s remains. I can detail each tomb and statue, but I know it would be redundant; you were there with me. While I miss your physical presence, rarely does a day pass that I don’t feel your love, which first nurtured me a boy, and now guides me as a man.
I know that I will still face tribulation, but unlike my former self, I’m not afraid of death. I’m more afraid of not living. This year, I’ve driven the coast of California. I’ve visited the tombs of Dante and Galileo, and today, I saw the Sistine Chapel. Tomorrow and on into the future I hope to explore more. But my blessings are not singular, for as Paul reminds, “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.”
My blessings are our blessings. Anthony passed his GED this week after spending a couple of weeks studying with me this summer, and I’m so proud of him. He is and wants to be a good father, and he has begun to embrace education as a means to uplift himself. Please continue to watch over him. My father was awarded his disability claim and feels whole again. It was hard for him asking me, or anyone, for money, but now he can provide for himself, something that everyone deserves. My mother and I have also grown closer. But we all still need your love. Each of us, and I mean all of your family and friends, has struggled with your departure, so please continue to speak to us through your spirit.
Most of all, help me conquer my fear of saying what needs to be said about us, for us, the black community, in America and abroad. I’m certain that this is my calling, but there are so many naysayers and would be critics now with the growth of the internet, and I admit that I have been affected by some of the baseless comments hurled my way. My chief goal is to live in the absence of fear and desire, and I have learned to curb my desires, but it’s the fear that still lurks over my pages. The doubt can be crippling. Yet when I write with you as my audience, the words seem to flow unmolested. I am so grateful for your ear and guidance. Right now, as I write this letter, I feel alive grandma, and I owe this sensation to your love. I am so grateful that you were here with us. I am so grateful that you still are.