Talking to Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart about the value of art and grief—and what doomscrolling is doing to our ability to make change.
NQ: In your professional life, you engage in various ways with death and dying, mourning and grief. You’re part of the Philadelphia Threshold Singers, who sing to patients in hospice; you offer workshops for caregivers; you gave a virtual talk to museum visitors entitled Grief, Anger & Action: A Path Toward Healing. What is it that draws you to this aspect of the human experience?
NWL: I think it’s the universality of loss. Loss is perhaps the only thing, other than change, that is constant and consistent in human life. In this country we don’t do a good job of acknowledging that. So many people are either emerging from a loss or anticipating loss. And yet we’re still very unsophisticated, and in some cases harmful, in the ways we talk about it. Even though loss is ubiquitous in human life, we still have to learn with each loss how to live with it. So I am interested in spaces that affirm the sacred nature of loss—in spaces that destigmatize grief, not as an expression of weakness or of drama, but as necessary for human beings to fully actualize. It’s just so fundamental. That’s what draws me to it.
NQ: Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century, the exhibition for which you served as an advisor, explores the ways artists have dealt with feelings of grief and loss or commemorated those who died tragically. What was your personal experience of seeing the works of art in that exhibition? How did they make you feel?
NWL: I felt two contradictory things. There was a resonance, because premature death is so ubiquitous in my communities of origin. Much like grief is a friend to human beings, I think premature death has unfortunately often been a friend to Black folk in this country, and so I had the familiar feeling of recognition. That was my first feeling: I know what I’m looking at. And at the same time, I felt frustrated that such an exhibition still seems to evoke a kind of shock and awe in contemporary American life. A sort of pearl-clutching. And that frustrates me because, where have you been? Did you really need a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition to take a minute and see all the premature and tragic deaths around you?
On the advisory team I joined the chorus of voices that said, this will land differently on different folks, so our goal needs to be clear. Are we trying to push everybody? Are we trying to comfort some and push others? So I feel frustration when, yet again, my grief and my tears are the catalyst for someone else’s transformation and enlightenment. Even as I looked at the pieces and said, I recognize this; this gives expression to what I have felt before. That kind of sums up how complicated my feelings are.
NQ: I think that complexity is borne out in the work that you do. On the one hand, you’re on a mission to normalize death, to make it a part of people’s lives and the conversations we’re having. On the other hand, you wrote this powerful piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “Do Black lives matter only after someone’s death?” And there’s a line in there that has stuck with me: “Systemic invisibility in life, followed by visibility at death,” which is such an eloquent way to describe what you’re saying, that your grief, the grief of Black Americans, consistently serves to enlighten people. At best, that’s what it does.
NWL: Right. We hope that it does that.
NQ: Did any particular works in the exhibition stand out to you?
NWL: The one called Black Sorrow (1946) by Charles White. The first thing I thought was that this is a woman who is holding someone in her arms and nurturing them but also grieving herself. It made me think of how I sit as a Black woman, withholding my own tears so that others can cry. The person offering comfort also has a sadness.
The painting by Juan Soriano called The Dead Girl (1938) also stood out. One of the things I’m trying to do in the undergraduate theology classes I teach at Villanova is to strip death of its magical quality, so that we can feel the finality of it, sometimes the brutality of it. We talk a lot about what the death of Jesus means, and the various religious doctrines that claim that death is temporary. That there’s this magical way that death can be transformed into life. That really feeds us—the idea that dead things don’t have to stay dead.
But that belief can obscure the horror of death. I don’t think the Christian story wants us to focus on the beauty and the magic of the resurrection only to disregard the horror of the crucifixion. And this painting captures both the beauty and the grotesque nature of death and dying. We should sit with the body, right? We should sit with the fact that fingers get gnarled and the skin seems to have a glaze of gray pallor. That happens when you die.
And the fact that she’s a girl. How uncomfortable is it for everybody, every time you have to see a small casket. That really struck me.
Another one is Reginald Gammon’s Remembering J. J. (2001). This reminds me of my Black Baptist childhood in Detroit, and home-going services that I grew up going to. It’s this notion that we are holding together the sorrow and the joy, and we are making music. You can’t play a dirge with a trombone! Black joy is mixed with Black lament. We don’t really have the luxury of only doing one at a time. So that work reminds me of the celebrations I’ve been to that were technically funerals but felt much more celebratory.
NQ: The advisory group you were part of anticipated that this may be an intense experience for people. And we have prepared for that possibility by creating an audio meditation, a Spotify playlist, a grief resource list, and even a workshop for staff on dealing with grief and loss. There’s a space in the installation for visitors to decompress. Given all that, I’m curious to hear what you think is the value of making painful art a part of our lives, to confront it even if, or because, it’s painful.
NWL: I think the value of any artistic expression is to comfort and confront. Art should soothe the troubled heart and also trouble us. It should make visible what we would rather hide. For some, the ability to lament is a comfort, as in, wow, I can cry now. I don’t have to be some strong Black woman who never sheds a tear. I can come in here and be reminded of whatever I’m reminded of when I look at these and just allow myself to weep, allow myself to rage.
At the same time, there are some people who need to come because they have been hiding their eyes. They have been looking away when they need to look right at the difficult thing, whether they’re confronted with their own mortality or with the death-dealing culture that we live in.
NQ: There’s also the way an image or a video can galvanize a social movement. There are naturally a lot of mixed feelings about this, for very legitimate reasons, like your point about Black people becoming known only in death. At the same time, if a video causes people to be tried and convicted for these crimes, because of the social pressure it creates, maybe these horrific images and videos have a sort of bitter merit to them. What do you think about that complexity, and the ubiquity of videos showing violence against Black men?
NWL: James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So we have to turn toward the thing we’ve been unwilling to see. In our contemporary society, because of social media but also lots of other reasons, we have become addicted to the seeing. You just scroll and scroll. We have a word to describe this: doomscrolling. You just can’t tear yourself away.
We need these kinds of revelations that turn our heads toward what we need to be looking at. But I think we’ve gotten too comfortable with just looking, and it’s the biggest risk we’re willing to take. I also think that we’re sort of bloodthirsty as a society. So the seeing is not in service to transformation. The seeing is titillating.
It’s a fascinating conundrum. How many times do we need to see a Black body in the street before we’ve seen enough?
NQ: And yet, we need to face grief and loss?
NWL: Yes. I want to make grief enticing. Not in a morbid way but because I know what’s available in the grief. We shouldn’t be running from good grief. It’s a pathway to self-actualization, to being the best version of myself. And grief is a portal to change, right? I’ve got to face the thing that breaks my heart, the thing I’m scared most of. And admit the losses, so that I can move toward change—both personally and collectively.
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart is a Black-queer church girl, preacher, teacher, and activist. She develops spaces of spiritual candor, disruption, reflection, transformation, and action. Rev. Naomi is an adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and is the founder of Salt | Yeast | Light. She also serves the city of Philadelphia as the Director for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs in the Mayor’s Office. She shares her life with her wife, their teenage daughter, and a hound dog girl and a black cat boy.
Salt | Yeast | Light, Inc., curates spaces of theological candor, disruption, reflection, transformation, and public action. It exists to support individuals, congregations, institutions, and groups in the work of radical inclusion, courageous spiritual practice, and faith-rooted advocacy.
Nisa Qazi is the museum’s Director of Content.
This project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.