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Facing Their Pain

Rosie wanted to spend time remembering her mother, but the protests intervened. Opening herself to the protestors anguish helped her lead her art students along the same path.

J.M.W. Turner, "The Slave Ship"

June 1 was the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s death and a day of widespread protest, rioting, and looting in my city. I spent many days over the last several months thinking about how I would feel on this particular day, what I could do to remember my mom, and help other people remember her. But when the day came I found myself distracted, necessarily distracted, by what was happening in my country and in my city. My family had a Zoom call in the middle of the day; we planned to pray, sing, look at photographs, and talk about our memories of Mom. We did all of those things, but we were all distracted. Even my Dad couldn’t help mentioning how he was upset by the looting in his neighborhood.

At first, I was frustrated by my inability to “focus,” and I was frustrated with the world too. Why couldn’t the world be quiet for a day, so that I could feel my pain? So that I could wallow the way I wanted to? I thought about turning off my phone so that I could take some time to be alone and grieve. I didn’t do that. It didn’t feel right to try to ignore the pain of the world so that I could grieve in the way that I had planned. Instead, I did my best to just take the day slow, to let myself read the news; I tried to let myself feel the pain of others instead of isolating myself with my own suffering. I tried to let my grief open me up to the pain of the protestors, the business owners, and every black person that has ever lived in this country.

I saw this desire to feel the pain of others deepen in my approach to my work during the week. The school where I work had encouraged all of us teachers to help the students understand the protests through our classes during the week. On Thursday of that week I was teaching a group of students who were having a particularly hard time responding to the events of the week, and so I tried to help them as much as I could. We studied three paintings (I am an art teacher), all of which addressed injustice in some way. 

Jacques Louis-David, "The Death of Marat"

We began by talking about The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis-David, then we discussed The Third of May by Goya, and last we looked at Turner’s The Slave Ship. The first painting depicts the secular martyr Marat, who can be blamed for many deaths in the French Revolution, but his body in the image mimics the body of the dying Christ. The second painting depicts the horrors of the Napoleonic killings in Spain, and once again the central figure mimics the body of Christ (this time crucified). Then we looked at the third painting which, at first glance, looks like a painting of a beautiful sunset. As you look more closely at the painting you can see a ship in the left corner. The sun creates a brightly lit valley in the center of the painting that leads your eye from the ship to the water, and in the water you can see a black leg with a chain attached. As you look more closely at the water, you can see small black hands sticking out of it, reaching for the chance to live. 

The story of the painting is based on real events. This painting is of a slave ship that set out for sea with twice as many slaves as the ship could hold. As the ship was making its journey, it was met by a typhoon, and the captain of the ship began throwing slaves overboard. Captains of slave ships would often do this so that they could get a higher claim on their insurance. My students were stunned into silence by this story (not with a bored kind of silence--the sentiment was palpable, even over Zoom). There is no clear Christ figure in this painting, but there is terrifying pain and injustice. The contrast of man’s capacity for evil, the pain of the slaves in the sea, and the seemingly ruthless nature of a storm, all present themselves as formidable opponents to hope. 

Francisco de Goya, "The Third of May" (detail)

I told the kids that sitting with this painting helped me to face the pain of the protests. It helped me to face the protests because it made me feel the pain of the black story in America, without trying to answer it, or put a cap on it. The necessity of sharing the pain of others is why there are Christ figures in the other two paintings, because He is the one who enables us to rest with the pain of others.

After that class I knew that the story of that painting was a specific story about the evil of slavery, just like the pain of the protests is specific to this moment in time, this country, and the mistakes of its people. It’s specific, just like my pain in front of my mother’s death is specific. I know that when I suffer in my grief I want nothing more than for someone to look at the totality and specificity of my pain. This is how I want to love others, the same way that Christ suffered on the cross, his pain in communion with our pain.

Rosie, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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