In This Episode
Damon gets inside of grief, with Hanif Abdurraqib and Imani Perry, and tries to understand what it does when it’s inside of us.
Sensitive Content: Hey everybody, just a note, this episode contains adult themes and language.
Damon Young: So two years ago, I wrote a two-thousand word essay for Esquire Magazine about my mom. Specifically about how I believe that her city and her country killed her. She died in 2013, after being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer a year before. And I suspect that the cancer would’ve been discovered sooner if her pain she had been experiencing, in the years prior, had been taken more seriously. Am I certain of this? No. But there’s enough historical and present day context of doctors and nurses mistreating and dismissing Black women for this suspicion to feel real.
I wrote the first draft of it in two hours. And then my editor and I tinkered with it for two months afterwards until it was ready. I was proud of the finished product. The writing felt…right. Was even able to use old pictures of my mom for art for the piece.
And the response to it was great. People shared it and said how “beautiful” and “powerful” it was. Some even volunteered similar experiences with their parents, and sometimes even themselves.
But something, I don’t know, something felt off. Felt unsettling. It just made me feel kind of yucky and queasy.
I’d already grieved my mom, multiple times, on every social media platform that I’m on. I’d already written about her pain, and her treatment, and the pain it’s caused my family, in other essays—including in my book, where I devoted an entire chapter to it.
So if I’d already articulated this grief, in public, and I already attempted to contextualize it, and if doing it made me feel like shit, why did I do it again? Who was I doing it for?
This is Stuck with Damon Young, the show where we’re all grieving someone, or something. On today’s episode we get inside of grief and mostly try to understand what it does when it’s inside of us. And also how social expectations of grief affect us.
Hanif Abdurraquib: I’m only ok at baking and cooking, but I do love making food or making anything really, crafting something that someone I loved who is no longer present taught me. It’s kind of like bringing a small part of them back to life, you know? Those are my first rituals, I always go to: what did I learn from this person and how can I execute it in my everyday life now?
Damon: So that’s Hanif Abdurraquib, author, poet, music critic, and MacArthur Genius, and I wanted to talk to him about grieving in public and also how we grieve celebrities.
Damon: I’ve been thinking a lot about the performance of grief, particularly like the public performance of grief. And I’m going to take you back a bit. First time we actually met was at the Ford Foundation. They had a convening for critics of color over a couple of days, I think it was either 2016 or 2017. We met in New York City for a couple of days. And I remember the biggest panel there, or the panel that got the most people talking and most people interested was the one about the Village Voice. And The Village Voice was a publication that I obviously was very familiar with, but I did not have the same relationship with the Voice that other people in the room did. And this is a way of me talking about Greg Tate, right, who passed last year. And, you know, he was just this behemoth for Black writing, for Black criticism, for hip hop writing, for journalism, for, you know, all these, you know, just different functions of what we do. And I remember, you know, when he passed, there were so many, so many beautiful remembrances and eulogies and stories about him that were just all up and down my timelines because I follow other writers and media people, whatever. And I did not have that same relationship with him and his work. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, but I just wasn’t as familiar. But I felt a pressure to respond. Because so many of my peers, so many people that we knew were responding and responding with this really this deep love and admiration and honoration. And I just, I don’t know, have you ever felt social pressure to grieve publicly in a way that, you know, may have felt somewhat inauthentic to you?
Hanif: Yeah, I used to, but I didn’t…I’ve been thankful enough to be able to let it go. And I say that because what I actually think happens is people feel isolated and people feel on the outside of an emotion. I think that’s the actual mechanics of it. And that’s why so much of the performance of grief, say, on a place like Twitter after a person passes, can be so nightmarish because it is isolating to watch people mourning someone who you don’t feel a connection to. And there are a lot of ways that manifests itself, that lack of connection or that distance. Sometimes it’s with rage. Right, and sometimes it’s like doing the thing that some people do where they kind of rain on the parade of those mourning.
Some of this is faith based for me. I just really do believe in, no matter who it is, I just really believe if a person passes, then, it is almost out of my hands, you know, like, Madeleine Albright passing I, I’m not going to unfurl the scroll of war crimes then, because I’ve done it already, done it while she was living. Um, and I don’t think…and this isn’t, me like even wishing her well or anything, it’s just me saying like after, in a moment, after a person dies, I like to decenter myself unless I actually have something worthwhile to say. I mean, you know, Tate, you know, I’m someone who wrote something after he passed that I you know. It is, yeah, I mean, it goes without saying, I think at this point in my life, career and anyone who knows my writing and all that Tate’s work meant a lot to me and he meant a lot to me. I’m currently like, you know, you still mourn. I’m working on my new book right now and I wish I could send some of the pages to him and I can’t, you know. And so there’s a way that I think we mourn publicly or that I mourn publicly that sets an intention for how I live in honor of that absence going forward. And if I can’t do that, if I can’t do that publicly, then I don’t really say anything these days. But I used to, I mean, particularly with musicians, because there was a point in my life where I think people really turned to me when any musician died and looked for something. And there are some musicians who I just have nothing for, not because, you know, I don’t want to get in the way of folks who have real palpable, layered relationships with anyone, anyone’s music, anyone’s whatever, by throwing in some kind of half assed thing just to check a box. I think that’s kind of what turned the tide for me. I mean, I would say that happened around 2017.
Damon: What happened in 2017 that I guess caused a shift, was there a catalyst for that?
Hanif: So in 2017, this thing had happened where, and I don’t remember, I will say I don’t remember who asked me this or or you know, why they asked me. But Chuck Berry died in 2017. And I remember I was asked to write something and I just didn’t, I think I did, and I remember even now, if I look back on it, I’m like, this is my best work and it’s not my best work because I just, I have some complications with Chuck Berry, one. As a person, you know, personal complications with Chuck Berry and two, my relationship with his music is actually not that strong now. My relationship with his legacy. Sure I guess. But I remember feeling like I wrote this because people look to me to write things when musicians die. And then in June of 2017, Junie Morrison passed away, Ohio funk legend, Ohio players, Funkadelic, all of that. Like legend, legend. But he’s less known outside of the borders of the state of Ohio, or at least he’s less appreciated because, you know, Ohio funk pioneers, it be like that with their legacies. And I couldn’t find anyone to like, let me write about Junie Morrison, who I loved, you know, whose music I loved, who meant so much to the state, and the music that was formed in this state. And I remember thinking like, I can’t believe I exerted this energy. And I say this not to disparage Chuck Berry, I suppose, or at least I’m indifferent about the disparagement of punk, Chuck Berry. But I expended all this energy writing about a musician that I had a average at best relationship with. And this one that I just had this fluorescent relationship with, I could not find anyone who was interested in that because he was not as big. And it trended me down this road of needing to give people their flowers, so to speak, both while they’re present, but also preparing for a world where I can do it on my own terms. The thing I wrote for Greg Tate, I wrote just on my blog because one, I didn’t want to get paid. I didn’t want to get paid for writing about Greg Tate. And I didn’t want to be edited. You know. It’s different when it’s personal in that way. I didn’t want to get, I didn’t want to profit off of mourning someone who meant to me what Greg Tate meant to me. And I didn’t, I didn’t want to have an editor picking through sentences on a line level in that process of mourning. So that’s, you know, 2017 just because of that. But I’ve also began thinking about how to get better at the slow and real honoring of elders, of everyone, but particularly of elders in music.
Damon: Has there ever been a celebrity or musician’s death, who’s who’s, I guess, impact on you surprised you?
Hanif: Little Richard was hard for me. And it’s weird because Little Richard had been unwell for a long time. I mean, you know, some would say Prince. But an interesting thing about Prince is that, we kind of, I had prepared myself for that. What I think people don’t remember is that the Friday before Prince passed, he passed on a Monday. The Friday before there was that report that came out about his plane making an emergency landing and the details were vague. I remember this. I worked for MTV News and I was at a party on that Friday night. And the news had come down about Prince, Prince’s plane making an emergency landing. And I got a text from my editor, Jessica Hopper, or perhaps it was in the like group Slack and it was like, okay, we got to maybe prepare something because it seems like Prince might not be well. And then and then the report kind of went away, but the back of my mind was like, Oh, I’m a little worried that maybe something’s up Prince. So there was a way that I had prepared myself for the reality that Prince was not going to be with us. And it was, it didn’t feel sudden.
The strange thing about Little Richard that still kind of haunts and I mean, Whitney too. Whitney maybe is, Whitney, I want to say, Whitney, before I dive more into Little Richard, because Whitney was devastating, in part because I just knew, I was among the Black folks who had been rooting for her so vigorously. And I knew so many Black folks who’d been rooting for her so vigorously. And it seemed like she was perhaps, I don’t want to stay on the other side of where she was, but it seemed like she was rejuvenated at that point in her life and career. She seemed rejuvenated and to kind of have that taken away in that manner and I haven’t, her death was made to be so salacious in a way that didn’t do her life justice, which happens, I think, with Black women in particular. Um, you know, people latch onto what can be made tragic about them, but Little Richard too, because gosh. Little Richard spent so much of his life trying to tell people how great he was and people still didn’t get it. And he died with people still not really getting it. And that was really hard for me because I think so much about lineage and legacy, not my own necessarily, but the legacy of people who I believe have put far more into the world than I have, and ever will. And, it’s just, I was so heartbroken because of what I know, not what I believe, what I know, and what I know about Little Richard and how much more he deserved. And how he never lived a life that offered him the fullness of what he deserved. And that was hard.
Damon: Yeah, I think that the two that surprised me with how they hit me and still affect me today when I listen to their music. One is Amy Winehouse. And when Amy, when I heard that she passed it just, and I was a fan, but I wasn’t like an Amy Winehouse fan, but I liked her music a lot. But when she passed, it just felt like, you know what she is like Babe Ruth calling his shot, like she had been writing about it. She had been singing about it, she had been talking about it. And then it happened. And it just it is, it was just like, oh, she knew. She knew. She knew, she knew this. She knew, she was, she knew she wasn’t going to be here very long. And she wrote about it. She sung about it. She lived through it. And just that, thinking about that, the weight of having that knowledge, right. It still haunts me. It still haunts me when I think about that. And also when a Prodigy from Mobb Deep passed.
Hanif: Yeah, man.
Damon: And when he died, like and I’m not going to say it surprised me because Mobb Deep is …like if Wu is 1A, Mobb Deep is 1B for me in terms of my, you know, my, my favorite all time groups and the people who I grew up on, the cold weather music. And you know after he passed I went back and I listened to a lot of you know, I listened to Hell on Earth. I listened to the Infamous, mostly those two. And I just listened over and over and over again, even Murder Music a little bit too, but mostly Infamous and Hell on Earth. And what really struck me, listening to it now, instead of as a 16-year-old, 17-year-old in high school was how depressed they were and how that depression just existed throughout their music. Like even you know, you think about the first album they’re what, 16, 17-years-old making this album, talking about, you know, all the drugs and all the alcohol they consumed take the pain away. At 16 or 17 or however old they were when they produced, you know, The Infamous, and created The Infamous. And so just him dealing with Sickle Cell and having this lifetime of pain, but bringing me joy with the music he made about his pain. Right. And just thinking about that and, you know, him finally succumbing to it, and it just yeah, just thinking about it still now fucks with me.
Hanif: Yeah. I mean, you know, first off, Mobb Deep is also one of my favorite groups of all time. And I think Hell on Earth is one of the great…
Damon: It is the saddest.
Hanif: Album, psychological journey
Damon: It is dark.
Hanif: Yeah. It’s a dark album.
Hanif: And I think one thing, one thing I’m coming to terms with is the amount of rappers that we’re losing, which I think hit me, there’s not one, but like collectively it hit me. It’s been hitting me through the past, I would say two and a half years. The amount of rappers that are just not living to, not living to a relative old age. You know, that is a tough thing because I would love it if the rappers I loved had robust and long lives after their careers wound down, or if the rappers I loved could continue to have wonderful and effective legacy tours the way that, like the Rolling Stones do and all this. But, you know, losing Biz Markie was hard and you know, Gift of Gab. I mean, a lot of folks that we’ve lost and continue to lose, like, really, it worries me and it makes me a little sad.
Cole Arthur Riley: He said they used to steal cars like they were taking the bus. On the weekends, my dad and Corey would jump one and drive it a minute up the way from the roller rink and walk the rest. If they needed a ride home, they’d just jump another and head back.
One night, Mario gets a Trans Am and picks my dad and Corey up to go party in Homewood. They go to get ready first, find a little buzz before leaving. But then two bright Black angels show up, who my father and Corey would rather get drunk with, so they decide to stay behind. Mario dips without them and goes to pick up a few others, and they’re speeding down East Carson. I mean fast, my father tells me, hugging himself. Too damn fast. And before Mario’s body can hear his mind screaming, he collides with another car, an elderly couple, and as soon as their noses touch, the cars become one and explode. Everyone died in the fire except Roger, who caught an air underneath him and went soaring from the car and into a coma for years after that night. We were just with him, my father says. I should be dead, he says.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, when my father watched the Challenger space shuttle explode seventy seconds after takeoff, that he finally let the tears fall. In that moment, when the whole world inhaled sharply and fell silent, my father bowed his head and screamed. There, sitting alone on the edge of his bed, while the world grieved seven mighty space heroes, my father wept for his own. For Mario, and for the night chariot that in the end belonged to him. You might think the sadness of the world eclipsed my father’s cries, but in mystery, it amplified them.
I don’t know what that did to me, he says. It was like someone poured heat all over me and I was burning too. My father didn’t know how to grieve for his friend until the whole world stopped and grieved. It is not always instinctual.
We are born knowing how to cry, but sometimes it takes another to teach us how to cry well and with purpose. As we watch our elders cry, we are learning. Sister June taught me how to grieve with my body. My father taught me how to feel the tears on my face and not wipe them away.
I’m Cole Arthur Riley, this is from a chapter on lament from my book This Here Flesh.
Imani Perry: I sort of halfway live in another world anyway, like I’m always sort of connected to whatever, the other side. So I have to really manage it because I can get really overwhelmed.
Damon: So that’s the brilliant and generous Imani Perry, author of the New York Times bestseller South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. And I wanted to talk to her about how grief impacts our life and our work.
Imani: I mean, I think for me, you know, it was interesting. Right before COVID hopped on the scene I came, I was coming out of a period of years of very serious grief where I sort of, I lived in a grief, a grieving state for like a decade. I mean, not, I wasn’t depressed. I was grieving. I mean, there were moments where I was depressed, but I want to draw that distinction because…
Damon: Can you make that distinction between grief and depression?
Imani: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, depression doesn’t have to be causal, right? It can be chemical. And it’s, you know, has multiple forms, but I feel like, you know, with grief, you really I think once it’s out of the most acute stage, you can really function the way you do normally. But it’s just you’re sort of, part of you isn’t there because you are missing the self, the person or people you’re grieving, but also missing the self that was, right. So for me, part of my grief was I stopped looking forward to things because I saw moving forward in time associated with more death for me. And I also, there’s this gap where things that were important in my life could no longer exist because the people who I shared them with were gone, like…so I was coming out of grief when COVID started. And then in many ways, it kicked me back into it, although a different kind of grief, because it was sort of the grief of sort of the life I lived in community with other people, but I think it impacted my work in this way. One, in some ways it deepened my particular voice, which is grief soaked as a writer, right? I mean, you know, also and I know, you know, I know this is part of the voice, part of your literary voice as well, where you’re both joyful, there’s there’s joy, there’s play there, but there’s also that dimension of it, which is acknowledging sort of the presence of loss. In some ways, it sort of, I feel like it, my voice in that respect coalesced in a way, right? Where now it’s part of my writing permanently. And then I also wanted to record much more, everything, right? You don’t know if you’re going to live, you’re so conscientious about it. Part of that is having autoimmune disease anyway, but you want to leave things to the world and the people you love very deliberately. So I felt that.
Damon: You know, and just getting back to the grief and also the writing, I’m wondering if the mechanics of writing like actual physical writing process, if that is a is a way of alleviating grief and also too, if writing about grief has an impact on alleviating it for you, or of it, or if it is retraumatizing when you when you do that.
Imani: It is body work. I had, I don’t think about it that way, but like when you’re writing, there is something physical happening is partially, that’s probably part of why I write and I write every day, most of which is never to see the light of day. But it is, it’s a way of working through feelings, not just ideas, but like working through emotions. And it is, it’s sort of like, I also jump on a trampoline, and I think those two actions do something that is a physical part of it, that…
Damon: A literal trampoline?
Imani: Yeah, I have a little mini trampoline in my room that I jump on.
Damon: I wasn’t sure if it was a metaphor. But this is an actual trampoline, ok.
Imani: I jump on that little trampoline and it helps my mood and it helps me feel like I worked things out, worked things through. So I don’t know if, I don’t think it is, like writing isn’t healing or something for me, but it is a way of managing emotions and confusion and being overwhelmed. So it doesn’t like I don’t get through stuff on the page, but I can live through it with writing.
Damon: OK, OK, I see that. I think I’ve had a similar experience with writing, although, OK, so my mom passed in 2013. It’s been nine years this October and I’ve had these mechanisms of grief where I’ve grieved her publicly. I’ve had, you know, Facebook statuses. I’ve written things. There’s a whole chapter in my book about her and about her death, and I wrote a thing for Esquire in 2020, about her health and about Pittsburgh and about Black women and and whatever. And after I wrote that piece, I decided that I’m not going to do that anymore, that it wasn’t assisting my grieving process anymore. That in fact, that writing about my mom and writing about her death was retraumatizing. And then I asked myself, am I trying to monetize this, this experience of me retraumatizing myself, which I was, which I definitely was. And it just got to a point where I was like, yeah, I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not. I’m not doing this anymore. And I think I’ve even maybe overcorrected where, you know, before I when an anniversary would pass, an anniversary of her death would pass, I would acknowledge it, you know, publicly or whatever. I don’t do that anymore, either. And I guess this gets, a question I’m curious about, with you is like the ritualization of grief and how much of the realization of grief is, is at least partially connected to how, I guess we’ve been socialized in grief. I’m wondering if you ever felt that with your grieving process and also how it connects to your work?
Imani: Yeah. What I’ve done is not done the socially acceptable forms of grief and then felt bad about it. So I decided at a certain point I didn’t want to go to funerals and I didn’t go to funerals for several of my aunts, who I loved dearly. I grieved them. You know, I had my private rituals, which I always, but I’m always engaged in those, prayer and candles and an altar. But I didn’t, it was just too much. And then afterwards, I felt badly because you don’t, you don’t just go to a funeral for yourself, but you go for other people, you know, and that is, I think, is a tricky balance. Like sometimes it’s like it’s it’s not just like what people will think, but also what is my responsibility to other people who love the same person I loved? Right.
Damon: Well, what are, I guess, our responsibility to the living?
Imani: You know, I mean, I come from a large southern family, right? And so there’s a sense in which that whole, you know, grieving traditions, right, is a moment of love, right? Where you’re together and you are expressing love and you’re also expressing all kinds of complicated and painful, conflicted emotions and people fight. But, you know, I think it’s like, I have a family where we’re close, even if we don’t see each other more than a couple of days a year. And so that I think that’s part of it, like those moments and become really important. But I think the thing for kids, it’s really interesting that you raised because I actually felt kind of bad about my kids lost so many people who loved him at a young age, I didn’t have that happen until adulthood. Right. And so also like creating for me, the most important rituals were conversations with them about the people, sharing the photograph, like as opposed to… because funerals and various other kinds of events are intense, it is a lot for kids to take. And in our communities, we have kids up in those places and those events can be traumatizing, actually.
Damon: And my daughter, six now and she is starting to ask questions about death. Death is like a thing that she now recognizes is a part of life. And she, you know, asked me a lot of questions about my mom, who she never met and my grandparents and other people. And, you know, asked if I will die, if she will die.
Imani: Do you tell the truth?
Damon: I do. I do. And I also tell her, you know, not not for a very long time. You don’t have to think about that. You don’t have to. You don’t have to worry about that right now. You know, you’re going to live a long life. You’re going to have kids like how we have kids or if you don’t, you’re going to be an adult, you’re going to be grown up, you’re going to live a long life. But still, you know, I did, I do have ambivalence about honesty in that in that sense, because it gets back to whether or not you feel like your child can handle it because it’s not, honestly is, yeah, of course, that that seems like it’s always the right thing but sometimes being honest can be cruel. And I just, you know, I feel like she’s at a place now at six where she could, you know, she could take it and she can understand it. And you know, it’s going to scare her a bit and has scared her a bit. But I don’t think that that’s a bad thing right now. As long as it doesn’t overcome her.
Imani: No, no. I think I think it’s actually good. I was asking because I was honest with my children when they were small, although I was always like, but I’m always going to be around like over your shoulder looking out for you wherever I am on the other side. But my mother wasn’t honest with me. My mother, I was like, are you going to die? She was like, nope, never can you? Will you live forever? Yes. And that was right for me. And I don’t know. You know, because I think maybe this is a question of knowing your child, are they someone prone to nightmares, really like intense imagination. When she said that, and I knew it wasn’t true. But it just made me feel I was like, OK, cool. Sort of like the way other children believed in Santa Claus, I didn’t. I think kids sort of know Santa Claus isn’t real, but it’s like willing suspension of disbelief to like, navigate this world. That’s what death was for me as a kid.
Damon: Oh, I want to ask about you about South to America. I consider grief to be just like, I don’t think that you could be a Black American and travel in the South without grief being heavy on your mind everywhere that you go. I feel like the American tradition of grief in terms of performance of public grief leans a lot on like this Waspy button up notion of not, you know, not feeling things. And it’s funny. It’s not even like a white thing, it’s a very Waspy white thing because there are pockets of ethnic whiteness that have their own grieving, you know, Italians, Greeks, you know, Polish, you know, they have their own rituals too.
Imani: Expressive rituals.
Damon: Very expressive rituals of food, and community, and all of that. And so, you know, I just I don’t know when I think about my own anxiety about grieving publicly and how maybe sometimes that might look and how that might feel and my feelings about how that looks and feels, I know that is connected to just this indoctrination of, well, this is how you’re supposed to grieve. So we were talking about like white people. I particularly like this Waspy white tradition, northeastern tradition to be buttoned up and not allow yourself to show grief. And you know that just comes back to them, not allowing themselves to be fully human, to experience the full spectrum of humanity like we do.
Imani: Yeah, yeah. I want to be precise about this because I think I think you’re right to describe it is not fully human, not that that’s a natural thing, but rather that they are often socialized out of the full expression of emotion and of all sorts. And that that is very much tied to the history of of empire and patriarchy and dominating people and the Enlightenment, and the idea of being rational and dispassionate and all of those things. And I think it has a cost to people who feel confined in that way. And it also, of course, has a cost to those of us who become, who are blamed for not subscribing to that way of being right. Like this is the, why are Black people so loud question, right? Like, it’s, you know, because it’s not just because it’s it’s it’s the wailing and moaning and sadness, but it’s also the way we run when we laugh. And you know that that gets treated, it gets policed, actually. It’s treated as a violation of the script when in fact, the reason that the whole world is so captivated by us is because there is something that is resonating, right? There is something resonating deeply. Arna Bontemps has this, he tells a story, you know, Harlem Renaissance writer. He tells the story of when his, he gets sent off to boarding school and his father says, you know, don’t go up there to a white boarding school, don’t go up there and act colored. And he’s basically like, well, the whole world tries to act colored when they get on the dance floor. So why should I not act colored? Right? And so but I think it’s a really profound moment, right? Because, given that, you know, it’s like we have to be very careful not to damn the very things inside us that actually allow other human beings to experience a deeper humanity. So I think we should grieve and shout and holler and all that good stuff.
Damon: Yeah, I’m so I feel like, OK, so there are these like established templates that exist for grieving the loss of a person’s life or or even grieving the loss of a romantic relationship. I am grieving the loss of a friendship.
Damon: There aren’t as many. In fact, there aren’t any like rubrics in place for doing that right. Or if they are, I haven’t been able to find them and I’ve written about it. I wrote a thing about it, and it’s one of those things where sometimes when I write I, I hope that once I am done writing, then the question I had and then the theory or the, you know, whatever I had at the beginning of the writing process, I will have found an answer to it because the writing sometimes helps me think and helps me just streamline my thoughts. But it didn’t happen this time, too. I’m just as lost this time, and it’s something that, you know, I guess. Have you had experience with that, with grieving the loss of a friendship?
Imani: Absolutely. And those have been some of the hardest. More often than not, those have been harder than the ends of romantic relationships. For me, also part of the ending of romantic relationships, either we actually, either were so pissed at each other that you don’t feel or we’re still friends. And so we don’t. You actually haven’t lost the person, like you, you know you, there’s the pain of the transformation of the relationship, but you’re still friends. You still, you don’t, you haven’t lost that. But with the loss of a friendship, especially when you love that person, but you definitely don’t want to be friends again, is so hard when you’re like, I can’t be friends with that person or that person is like, I can’t be friends with you. I’ve been in both situations.
Damon: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. And even with a romantic relationship. I think there is also, you know, most of our romantic relationships here exist, at least under the veneer of monogamy. So you could end the relationship because you just want to be single and you or you want to be with somebody else, right? Whereas a friendship you can have as many friends you want. So, you know, obviously different friendships are going to hold different spaces and different points of your life. But there’s no, you could have a thousands. I mean, you’re not going to have a thousand friends, but you could theoretically have a thousand friends and so sort of friendship. So when friendship ends like that, it’s like, Oh no, this is about you or this relationship.
Imani: That’s really insightful. That’s true. And also, I don’t know if you experience, but there’s also the awkwardness of that with friend groups because, you know, when friendships break up and then there’s a whole ecosystem around most of your friendships and that becomes complicated. And there are people, sometimes people. It’s also sometimes like a divorce, like you wind up being, one partner gets you, one friend gets you and the other, like it’s and that’s going to be funky and hard.
Damon: Yeah, I haven’t. I haven’t had that experience yet in terms of having like the separate friends, custody. You get them on a weekend. But I mean, you get Monique on the weekends and now I’ll get her, I’ll get her in the summer and we can hang out. But it is something that is taking a bit more out of me than than I anticipated it would, and it has been two years, and it still is still very, very, very fresh.
Imani: One of the things I tell people with divorce because I experienced divorce is that if you go through a divorce and you decide you’re not going to be angry, then it is much more painful because you just have to deal with the loss. But I think it then, actually…So I think there’s something about the loss of friendship that tends not, sometimes you fall out with people because they did you dirty. But sometimes it’s, you know, and I do think there’s something about what it means to let go of someone. Even if you don’t think that they’re like you, it’s not they’re not a bad person, you’re not enraged. And so I sort of had, I feel like I had that experience, although my ex-husband and I are still friends. But to sort of be honest about, no, this person is great, but it’s hard.
Damon: Have you ever found yourself, like, desensitized to subsequent griefs?
Imani: Oh, I wish, I don’t. I mean, and I say I wish because I do think, you know, one of the things that I am learning is, as I get older, is that a lot of what it means to have a good life is figuring out how to make do. And making do, you know, we sort of, our culture kind of looks down on making do as a disposition because everything’s supposed to be healed and everything is supposed to be aspirational and you’re supposed to get everything right, you’re supposed to try to make it happy. And I think that that is not really what life is like. And there’s a lot of that, if you can make do where you’re like, OK, I’m gonna hold on, this and this is fucked up, but this is good and I’m going to hold on. I feel like that’s a big part of learning how to live well. And so when I say I wish I, I really can fall apart with new new griefs and have you know and feel sort of emotionally not in control in a way that I feel like it takes me a while to get myself together. And I and to be completely honest, you know, as a Black adult in this society, we have to make do. And it’s just a lot of grief and it’s grieving people, it’s grieving, you know, the world, it’s grieving communities. And so we have to have a way of like, OK, holding on, day by day, you’re going to fall apart. But you also have to understand, you know, as my grandmother used to say, you weren’t born to live on flowerbeds of ease.
Damon: I eventually realized that what made me feel so awkward and so unsatisfied about the Esquire essay is that I was performing grief. Of course I miss my mom, of course it hurts that she’s not here, and of course the substandard medical care that so many Black women recieve is evergreen. But as I told Imani, I was just retraumatizing myself with the memory of grief. And for what? The prestige of being featured in Esquire? That felt good, sure. But it wasn’t worth it.
So the main image for the Esquire essay is a picture of my mom from the 70s. Between her titanic afro and her oversized Barrymore collar, she looked like a blaxploitation hero. Like she could’ve been out there solving crimes and smacking jive turkeys with Pam Grier. It’s not just my favorite picture of her, it might be my single favorite picture.
In April of this year, after years of deliberating (and also combing the Earth and Western Pennsylvania to find the right artist), I got a rendering of this picture tattooed on my right forearm. It;s basically an entire sleeve, and the work took six painstaking hours to complete. Did it hurt? Yes, of course. It’s still sore a month later. But this is how I want to remember her. Vibrant. Black. Beautiful. So this time the pain was worth it.
Damon: Stuck with Damon Young is a Spotify Original Podcast from Gimlet and Crooked Media. It’s hosted and written by me, Damon Young.
Ruben Davis is our Executive Producer. Our producers are Ashley Velez, Morgan Moody, Carlton Gillespie, Priscilla Alabi, Stephen Hoffman, and Corinne Gilliard.
Mixing and Sound Design by Jesse Naus, Charlotte Landes, and Veronica Simonetti.
Theme Music and Score by Open Mike Eagle.
From Crooked Media, our Executive Producers are Tanya Somanader, Sarah Geismer, and Katie Long. From Gimlet, our Executive Producers are Rosie Guerin, Krystal Hawes-Dressler, Collin Campbell, and Lydia Polgreen.
And also special thanks to Cole Arthur Riley, whose reading you heard in this episode is adapted from her New York Times bestseller “This Here Flesh”.