Several years ago I was an art teacher in a South Bronx middle school. I worked alongside a woman whose character reflected the problems of our students in the New York City Department of Education: resentful, violent, manipulative and plagued by a constant need for revenge.
This is a woman who, upon learning that one of my students damaged a work of art in a museum during a field trip, publicly congratulated him because she didn’t like the co-worker I organized the trip with.
One spring, she wrote, directed and starred in a play that mocked other teachers. This woman worked very hard to instill fear in everyone so that no one would challenge her. It worked: The principal of the school would not even look in her direction.
This was not someone whose friendship, or even attention, I wanted. I saw her as the enemy.
I stayed away.
So a few weeks ago, when the announcement of her father’s sudden death – and invitation to his memorial service – arrived in my Facebook inbox, I promptly ignored it. Another plea for attention, I thought.
Why was she even inviting Facebook friends she hadn’t been in touch with for years? And from what I remember, she hated her father, never said a kind word about him. What kind of sick publicity stunt is this? Is nothing – not even death – sacred to her? I sent a quick reply of condolences and forgot about it.
Then a friend and former co-worker – the woman I’d organized that museum trip with – texted me: “Memorial service: feel obliged but won’t go alone. Plans for Saturday?”
Well, certainly this changed things.
The two of them fought constantly. They hated each other – or at least I thought so. What harm could it do? I’d recently had another experience that showed me the amazing power of redemption.
The two of us met up, dressed in modest, somber attire, and took the subway to a church in West Harlem. When we got out of the station, we heard drumbeats in the distance. My friend promptly remembered that her father had been a drummer.
Could it be?
We followed the sound to the church. Sure enough, 44 drummers stood outside, playing a traditional African rhythm. They lined the sidewalk, illuminating it with their brightly colored daishikis and djellabaas. Their sound, primal and mystical, lit up the area with communal power. It was deeply moving.
They slowly started a procession into the church and we followed. Inside, countless women in vibrant African headdresses and caftans quietly mingled. The drummers surrounded the altar and continued playing. In front of the altar, his urn. Incense wafted from below a poster of him and his daughter, my former co-worker. Someone handed me a program with her father’s life story.
The story of a life
We never knew what an accomplished, successful man he was. In the 1960s during the civil rights movement, he began a drum circle that lasted through to this very day. Many of the 44 drummers playing were in that original circle he started. They had enjoyed much success, touring to Africa and playing at the 2009 Presidential inauguration.
During the late 60s, he began talking to fellow academics and activists. From their conversations the idea arose to start teaching the lost culture of the African diaspora in higher education. The end result was the creation of the groundbreaking, now-prestigious department of Black Studies at CUNY’s City College. He remained friends with every last founding member, all of whom showed up to pay respect to him in his passing.
Over the course of his life, he’d fostered more than 140 homeless and orphaned children through a local charity. He’d done it all as a single father, raising not only his daughter but each and every child that passed through his home, however brief it had been.
Every one of those children, now grown, were sitting in the back of the church, looking as if they were orphaned all over again.
When his daughter spotted us – and we were easy to spot, being the only two white people and the only two wearing somber clothing – she burst into tears. She seemed genuinely surprised and touched that we showed up.
As she walked towards us, arms wide, I found all my past feelings completely faded. I looked at her again and saw myself in her: a woman who just lost the father she spent her whole life resenting.
I won’t know her reasons for that resentment – jealousy, perhaps, at the foster children, or wishing he’d left instead of her mother – but I do know how she felt.
I felt it myself for 23 years. When my father died, I was at a complete loss as to how to grieve for a relationship I never had. I understood that specific pain of losing someone who caused pain, of losing something that never existed.
I lived her story.
I wanted to tell her all this, but there was no time. She ushered us to a pew and went back to her seat. What she left me with was the realization that she’d never known how I felt about her all those years ago. She never knew how much I avoided her or what little respect I’d had for her or how much I disapproved of her behavior.
And I was infinitely grateful, because I suddenly felt protective toward her. I saw how much I’d been holding on to my own self-righteous indignation. I also witnessed the healing power of empathy.
For the next four hours, poets gave their eulogies. Singers gave tribute. Preachers gave testimony to this man’s incredible life. And behind it all, the drummers never stopped, steady and primal, just like the heartbeat in all of us.
One preacher said something I might never forget: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Our life in this world is our human experience. We must remember our human weakness is not stronger than our divine strength.”
Our human experiences – resentment, jealousy, judgment, indignation – are never as strong as our divine experiences, the ones that give us the power to forgive, to let go of the past, to empathize, and to love our enemies.