Borders: A Tale of Humanity

When snow and bitter cold still blanketed the earth, my husband and I went to the funeral of our dear friend’s mother. The service was Catholic, the language Spanish. Our friend is a child of immigrants: a mother from Bolivia and a father from Palestine.

Building on the lessons of his first-generation blended culture home, our friend has built his life fighting for safety and justice for working people in this country and others. His sister serves as executive director for a Chicago nonprofit dedicated to providing STEM opportunities for disadvantaged girls.

The service for their mother was held in the Dubuque Church where I attended Wednesday mass with my classmates as a parochial elementary student after a KKK resurgence resulted in the burning of a cross on my public school playground in the early 90’s and my parents pulled me out in horror.

This funeral was the second celebration of Rosemary’s life, the first having been held the day before and a state away; her love and her generosity had spread so far and so wide that even her wake had to cross a border.

The first ritual had included an imam, a rabbi, a priest and five languages. “The United Nations of Funerals,” our friend called it.

Sitting in the pew, I leaned over to my husband and marveled at the Spanish language mass in a city that had been plagued by fervid racism. The image of the priest swaying incense over the altar fresh in my mind fused with the memory of burning sage smoke wafting over my head, my shoulders, my back during a native smudging ritual. I asked our friend after witnessing the ceremonies of these many men of faith, was he also struck by the similarities?

“Of course!” he laughed, this child of immigrants. Of course he saw the similarities – the details vary a bit, but there are some rituals as old as time that seem to have transcended the cultural changes that took shape as we left the shores of the Motherland, fanned out across Europe and Asia, braved the Bering Straits and the unknown wild worlds beyond.

Pouring libations to our ancestors. Cleansing through fire and smoke. The themes of heroes and sacrifice. The song- and more to the core of the song – the drum. Across the world, the drum.

I come from a people called Gullah, brought to this country in chains. When they arrived, they were forbidden from using or making drums because the drum was a means of communication that defied the fall of Babel; defied the captives’ differences in custom and language. The drum, posed a threat. Undeterred, my people maintained over time, one pervasive beat from the motherland.

They sang to that beat as they harvested the rice as they had back home, and as they were brought here to do. They pounded to that beat when they worked iron, as they had back home and as they were brought here to do. They pounded it into the floor of the praise house with wooden rods as they sang mournfully about the tragedy at Igbo landing under the pretense of singing about the Christian heaven their masters insisted upon with brutal force.

At Igbo landing, as the story goes, a slave ship arrived. When the people were brought from below, chained together in a row, they took a good look at the land that lay ahead, a good look at the boat that lay behind, and a good look at the sea that lay beyond. They saw all the future held, as the legend has it, and they turned right back, and walked into the ocean in iron. Every man woman and child. Walked onto that water, unfolded their wings, and flew right back to the motherland.

“One glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away. When I die hallelujah by and by. I’ll fly away.”

The drum is present in nearly all cultures, and at the core, the beat. Because that beat is the essence of life itself. As we sat with our grieving friend at the United Nations of Funerals in Dubuque, Iowa, I heard it there – the intoxicating and heady vibration of existence.

This was months ago now, and the icy wind that stole our breath outside the church doors is a distant memory.  We awake to fresh violations of the social and moral contract under a vicious summer sun; everything old is new again.  We are divided and derogatory.  The plight of our newest and most vulnerable refugees is fodder for skepticism and ridicule for the most callous among us.

The rest of us watch the events at our southern border unfold in horror.  This is not who we are, some say, while others offer rueful reminders that our generations are not the first to exact a brutal reality on the hungry, the tired, and the poor.  Some seek to lay blame at the feet of asylum seekers, immigrants, poverty, foreign governments, previous policymakers, drugs, criminals, and a litany of other likely culprits.  Still others allow their own deafening silence to fill the spaces between sentiment and action, and this impenetrable wall binds us to our tragic repetition of history.


I wonder how we will be regarded in the distant future, when our relics and traditions are pared down to their most basic form and incorporated into evolved rituals in a new tongue.  Will future generations recognize their own humanity in our actions today?  Will they speak our names with reverence, or in shame?

In these moments at the crossroads where history is made, the only real difference between any of us is that there are those of us who can see themselves in everyone else. And those of us who can’t.


This guest post was submitted by Sofia Mehaffey, community leader and activist who currently resides in Cedar Rapids.

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