this is the speech I gave at the St. Olaf Gospel Choir’s Fall Concert today, as well as at a beautiful little church in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. thankful for the oppertunity to speak on racial justice and grieving, and for the incredible family I’m proud to sing with. 

I left the first man who loved me like I could save him from the flood. He grieved so, he wept an ocean, and I drowned.

The first man who loved me deep as darkness left me. I could not look at the light. He led me deeper into the night. I stole matches and lit myself aflame, tried to incinerate us both. He was already smoke.

I never yearned to scorch the earth. I yearned for shore, for day, for justice for my broken heart.

In search of it, I have ripped paper just to hear the sound, snapped rubber bands until they broke, twisted my hands together until they were raw. In the grief of a betrayal, of such loss as a love or a life, the choice to chase justice can sweep us far from shore, extinguish every star. As we mourn the deaths of our brothers and sisters of color, killed for nothing more than the color of their skin, the answers we receive are not easy ones. The water-logged ashes of grief carry a quiet truth: justice, be it for the broken or the dead, does not come easy.

Justice must be chosen in the midst of grief for grief to become justice.

I have stared at walls and bitten my tongue till it bleeds for my own grief.

But my own, private, grief whispers, despite my own pain: you must choose to listen to the grief of others.

My own, private, grief whispers to the grief of those who grieve: and once you have listened, you must choose to act.

We forget that there are wings hidden within us, to fly above the flood and flame; they must only be unfurled, to lift both ourselves and the ones we love.

Last year, in the dismal damp spring on the rocky hill of St. Olaf, three geese clamored at the doors of the commons in the early dawn, insistent, stubborn, sure. I don’t know what they wanted, but they had lost something. Every so often they would pause, look at each other bead-eyed, preen their feathers, and begin again. We must be as geese in our pursuit of justice.

The only justice I have had has been my choice. To quote Lin-Manuel Miranda quoting George Washington quoting the book of Micah {and Candide}: I have found my own vine and fig tree, and have learned to cultivate my garden. I have filled my room with the flowers I have grown. I know there will be no apologies, no proffered hands. But there is a justice in the high tide receding, in the dawn breaking. Perhaps some forms of justice are merely a matter of time, the strength to wait out the night. But in matters of life and death, I believe in the choice to swim despite the tides, to challenge current legislation, to hold government bodies accountable, to believe, empathize with, and attempt to understand the racial animosity and hatred that becomes physical violence in this country and elsewhere.

The choice to love in the face of hate, to sing amidst silence, is no instinct. It must be chosen. There is no promise in the flood or the fire that justice will come for ourselves or for the ones we love. It must be chosen. We must choose, in the flight beyond ourselves and our own, quieter griefs, to engage in the grief of others, to salve the burn, to turn back the tide.

In the flight for justice, we must be insistent as the geese.

© 2016 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved

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