Celebration and Loss: The Power of Juneteenth
Adult ISH host Nyge Turner is in conversation with “Grief Is Love” author Marisa Renee Lee and “The Stacks” podcast host Traci Thomas about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go as the country celebrates Juneteenth.
It’s summer, and the Juneteenth federal holiday is right around the corner. In this episode, Adult ISH host Nyge Turner is in conversation with “Grief Is Love” author Marisa Renee Lee and “The Stacks” podcast host Traci Thomas about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go as the country celebrates Juneteenth.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Welcome to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm your host, Nyge Turner.
On this episode, we wanted to do something for Juneteenth. Many people just started recognizing it last year when it became a federal holiday. But for some of us, Juneteenth always was a day of reflection. All the new stuff to consume and purchase like Juneteenth party hats and Juneteenth themed ice cream aren't really how we wanted to celebrate the time period many slaves found out about their freedom.
We wanted to use this episode to unpack some of the complex emotions around Juneteenth, as well as highlight Black creators that aren't getting the recognition they deserve.
First we wanted to speak with the author of "Grief Is Love," Marisa Renee Lee in hopes that we could apply some of the book's lessons on love, loss and suffering to this holiday that encompasses all three of these things and so much more.
Marisa: When I was writing “Grief is Love,” my husband, one day, bless his heart, said to me, “What makes you a grief expert? Like, why should anybody buy your book? It's just, it's just your story.” And I thought about that for a minute, and I said to him, "You know what? I don't think of myself as a grief expert, because everything that I've learned from the experiences of losing a parent, losing a pregnancy, losing a cousin to COVID, all of the research that went into 'Grief Is Love,' like it would all disappear in an instant if you were to drop dead tomorrow." And so I don't think I can call myself a grief expert. And instead, I want to consider myself a grief advocate and do everything that I can to help people understand what grief really is and how it shows up and how to move through it in a way that still enables them to live a full and joyful life.
Nyge: Definitely. Could you tell us about your book, "Grief Is Love" and what it’s about?
Marisa: Yeah. So “Grief Is Love” for me started about 14 years ago. My mom died in February of 2008 and I knew she was going to die. She had stage four breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. And I did everything that I could to prepare myself, my family, my mother for her death. You know, I did the research. I had the hard conversations with her. I knew what she wanted to do with her things. I knew what she wanted for her funeral. I knew what she was worried about. And, you know, any regrets that she had about her life, like, I did everything I could to prepare for that moment.
And then when it came, I was just completely undone. You know, I was a mess. It was horrible. I didn't know pain that devastating. And I tried to, I tried to gaslight myself, honestly, you know, like I judged myself. I felt like I was being too emotional. What happened to me is quite ordinary. Parents die every day. It's sort of the expected order of things. And yet I was so lost and devastated by it.
And about six months or so after she died, I decided I wasn't going to hate myself for having so many feelings and, you know, for not getting over it and not having moved on and not moving through these five stages of grief the way I thought I was supposed to. And instead, I decided that there wasn't anything particularly wrong with me. And instead, where the problem lies is in how we talk about and describe and define grief.
And so the book, you know, everything in the book is supported by the leading research in grief and loss. And in doing that research, I learned a lot of things that I think are really important to share. You know, first of all, the whole five stages of grief that people get so attached to. It wasn't written for you or me. Like those stages are actually for people who are currently dying themselves. Like that research was all about the terminally ill, not about the bereaved who are left behind when someone dies. So, like lifting up those types of facts and statistics and stories, I hope will help people know that, you know, there's nothing wrong with them. They don't need to feel any shame for having a lot of feelings over the loss of a loved one and that they just need to, you know, sort of carve out their own pathway in healing.
Nyge: That's amazing. Yeah, that's, uh, it's a ton of amazing work, and kudos to you for. For even, you know, like, doing the work and really even diving into it. (Marisa: Thank you.) I think, you know, it's like, really difficult. When I was like when I was around 18 years old, my mom had a, like, pretty tragic accident where she went braindead.
Marisa: Oh my god.
Nyge: It was like, really a sudden thing for me. And so just like I know for me for a long time, probably until I was like 23, I didn't do any of, any, any type of work around it. I just like, was like, let me just pretend that that like didn't happen. And for a while that's like, okay, but then, you know, after a couple of years, like, your body will find a way for those things to catch up to you.
Marisa: Yeah, it doesn't work. (Nyge: Yeah.) Well, to be clear, it took me 14 years, so it was not. It was not an instant, "Okay, like, I'm totally fine. The rest of the world is fucked and I need to write this book." It was like, "I know I need to write this book, but I also need to figure out, like, what my grief even looks like before I can start to distill it into something that's useful for someone else."
Nyge: In your book, you discuss the inseparable link between grief and love that reminded us personally of Juneteenth’s complex relationship between celebration and suffering. On one hand, we celebrate how far we've come, and then on the other hand, it brings up the conversations about how far we still have to go. What's your relationship with Juneteenth like?
Marisa: I really like and am grateful for the fact that we're now elevating Juneteenth, and it is a national federal holiday. But I worry about things like making Juneteenth a holiday or, you know, putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill that they will take away from, or distract us from, the deeper work that still needs to be done in this country around racism and white supremacy. I do not think this country has done enough to really acknowledge the stain of slavery and racism and the impact not only on our history, but on our lived experiences today as Black people. And, you know, one of the things that I talk about a lot in the grief space is like there can be no healing without acknowledgment. And because we haven't fully acknowledged and reckoned with our past, we continue to have these horrible racist events and we continue to even just live in a space where, you know, most white people don't understand what it is actually like to be a Black person in America and how much work and stress and grief and pain come with that existence.
Nyge: How can our listeners apply the lessons in your book to the loss of loved ones, rights, or a sense of safety that they may have experienced in the Black community?
Marisa: I think the most important takeaway from the book, and this is, this is tricky because it's deeply personal and it's different for everyone. But I really think that love is the solution to all of this. And I don't mean – I mean that in a lot of ways, actually. I mean, like a deep sense of self love. Like, I think it's really important for Black people and other people who've been marginalized by society because of their differences, to deeply and intentionally love themselves and do what they can to act on that love because there's no guarantee that you're going to experience that love in the outside world. I think for people who are grieving, you know, finding your path to continuing to access the love of the person you lost is really important. The flip side of the coin is, for me, the pain of grief is simply the pain of unrequited, unconditional love.
Like I can feel the love that I know my mother still has for me, but I don't get to experience it through, you know, the actions that she used to take to show me that she loved me. And there's pain in that. You know, when good things happen and she's not there to celebrate us, when I'm sick and I still want her to be the person to take care of it if she's not able to do that. So, so I think that I think that focusing on the love is important. And even from a broader policy perspective, you know, like as a former member of the Obama administration and someone who's worked in and around politics for over a decade, I think that policy making and like really intentional policy making, like love is a component of that. You know, justice is what love looks like in public. Like, I really do think that love is the big takeaway and figuring out what that means for you and how to apply it both personally and, you know, globally, politically, etc. is really important.
Nyge: In your book, you talk about the transformation that we all undergo after loss. As people of color, do you think that we're born trying to understand a level of that transformation from years of generational trauma?
Marisa: I didn't really think about generational trauma much until the last 5 to 7 years, and then I thought about it a lot in the writing and research around “Grief Is Love” because, you know, it is something that shows up in our bodies too. Like, it's not it's not something that you can escape from by simply, you know, moving away from family or trying to, trying to deny the things that have happened in our history. Like, that's, that's not a fix.
And so I think that, I think that understanding the impact of grief and generational trauma on who you are as a person and why you maybe do or don't do certain things is a really important part of transformation and development. And I think, I think, unfortunately, our Black kids have to learn skills for coping with that generational trauma at a really young age because things start to come up around race, even from, frankly, well-intentioned people when they're really young. And so I think acknowledging that there is some transformation that has to take place is a really important part of the process.
Nyge: How do you remember to find the love in the hard times?
Marisa: It's really. It's really hard. You know, after my pregnancy loss, I really struggled with both love and hope because I was really angry, you know? Like, I felt like I'd already lost so much. Like, were we not entitled to this one healthy child? Like, what the fuck? And it just. It took, it took time. And I stayed committed to finding ways to love on myself, to finding ways to accept love from others who were trying to support my husband and I through that loss, you know, family, friends, neighbors, etc. And also to committing to finding a way to access the love that I know that my mother has for me. But like it, it's just something that takes time.
I think when the really hard things happen, it's not, it's not something that's instantaneous. Like I really want people to refuse to accept this culture of toxic positivity. That tells us that the second that we feel sad or angry or disappointed or, you know, dealing with grief, etc., it is our job to immediately, you know, pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps and make lemonade out of lemons and be okay and just be grateful and be fine. Because I don't think that that – I don't think that honors the fullness of the human experience.
Like we are all born with a set of innate emotional responses, and half of them are emotions that we categorize as bad when really it's a part of being human to be sad or to be angry or to feel fear or disgust or disappointment, like, they're all normal. And from both my own experiences, my experiences in therapy over the last 15 or so years, and the research that I did for this book, you know, the only thing that makes the really hard and challenging emotions easier is acknowledging them. I hope that this book gives people the space and the permission to be honest about the more challenging emotions and, you know, the harder things that come up in life because they're all just a normal part of life.
Nyge: How can people take that and then also replicate that on Juneteenth?
Marisa: I think you replicate that on Juneteenth by being honest about whatever your feelings are concerning the holiday. Like you may be someone that just feels joyful and that's okay. You may be someone more like me who feels joy and also some anger and frustration and grief. You know, like, like honor your emotions, whatever they are, they are okay. You know, in "Grief Is love," I redefine grief as the repeated experience of learning to live in the midst of a significant loss. And racism is a significant loss. You know, being Black in America is something that I find to be incredibly joyful and at times incredibly burdensome and scary. And I think it's really important to be honest about that. And if you are feeling some form of grief or sadness or frustration, you know, that's okay. That doesn't mean that you can't also celebrate and experience joy, but be honest about your grief.
Nyge: You can find "Grief Is love" at Target, bookshop.org or your local independent bookstore. You can also follow Marisa Renee Lee on social media @marisareneelee.
Nyge: Juneteenth is just one of many lesser known aspects of Black history in this country. We spoke with the host of "The Stacks" podcast, Traci Thomas, to talk about books that can teach us more about the Black experience.
Traci: In 2016, I had gotten away from reading, which is something that I love, and I was like, "This is my New Year's resolution. I'm going to read a book a month. I did it." I read 12 whole books that year, and I was like, “Gosh, I love reading again. I don't know why I stopped.” So I said, “In 2017, I'm going to read 13 books!” I read 24 books that year because I just, like, hit my stride. And then in 2018, I was like, “I want to start a podcast about books because there's not enough people talking about the kind of books that I'm interested in, in the way that I'm interested in them.” And so in April 2018, “The Stacks” was born. And now here we are four and a little change years later, still running strong.
Nyge: How is “The Stacks” different from other shows? Because you said there were shows out there like yours.
Traci: I mean, I'm a Black woman. I'm a millennial. (Nyge: Right.) That is going to always influence what I think about, how I think about the world, how I look at the world. I'm really interested in nonfiction books personally, so we do a lot more nonfiction on this show than a lot of other shows. I'm not reading the same books as like Reese Witherspoon or, you know, "Good Morning America." I mean, quite frankly, I'm not even reading the same books as Oprah for you know, I just, I think that my taste in books is different. And also, I like to shoot the shit with people. I like to make jokes. I like sports. I like food. So that's all kind of folded into the show. And one of the things that's been really cool is I've been able to have some really serious decorated authors and then also some like really funny, cool, famous people.
Like I had Desus and Mero on the show and I just don't know a lot of book podcasts that are talking to Desus and Mero and like Pulitzer Prize winners, like, it's just yeah. And I think, like, it's just mostly my personality and, like, what I'm interested in. But so I think that's what makes it different is just like what — my curiosity about the world. And also, we are not scared of being political. I know people are like, “Oh, reading is an escape for me.” But for me I'm like, reading is political from day one. Like, there was a time in this country where certain people weren't even allowed to read. So the fact that I can read as a Black American, you know, that's an act of political rebellion in some context, you know, so all of that is sort of folded into the show.
Nyge: So, in this episode, we're exploring Juneteenth through the lens presented in the book “Grief Is Love” by Marisa Renee Lee. The book dives into the uses of love, community, and celebration of togetherness as a form of grieving. We're applying these lessons to generational trauma in Black history also. So what was, what was your take on, on this book?
Traci: I mean, I think that it's a really beautiful approach to grief. It's something that I've been really meditating on in the last year or so, given everything with the pandemic and now, you know, with the recent, though not unique shootings that we've seen in Buffalo and Uvalde, I've been thinking a lot about communal grief and having the time to grieve. And I think that, you know, in the book, “Grief Is Love,” we're given an opportunity to think about grief as something that isn't just about one of us and what we're going through, but that it's a bigger process and that it is more than what we're allowed to think that it is, or more than what we're taught to think that it is.
Nyge: Right. There's a lot of books out there about Black history and about, I mean, even even about Juneteenth or anything like that. How do you feel like those books always end up kind of like slipping through the radar for people?
Traci: So this is a complicated question, but I will do my best. I think a large part of it, and this is going to sound really cynical and unfortunately, that's just who I am. But the publishing industry is an industry just like every other industry in entertainment. And the people in charge there are predominantly white women who come from affluent backgrounds. Because the pay is so bad in publishing that only rich kids whose parents can support them, or people who are independently wealthy, can afford to start at an entry level job for $36,000 and live in Manhattan.
Nyge: Right. (laughter)
Traci: And so those people don't value Black stories in the same way that Black people do. So when it comes to a marketing budget or when it comes to a publicity push, they don't have the scope, vision, understanding. And so instead of being like, “This book about Black history is really great, I know there's an audience for it.” They say, “This book about Black history is good, but no one's going to be interested in this. It's very niche." Like they call every book by a Black author niche. And so that that reflects what the budget looks like. That reflects if they approach a big book club about it, that affects what kind of media the authors booked on. And all of that has major effects on sales.
And so, if you're not involved in the publishing industry and you're a person who likes books, maybe you think that the New York Times bestseller lists are the best books, but they're not. They're the books that have sold the most. And if you have a bigger marketing budget, you're going to sell more. There's, of course, occasional books that become super buzzy organically for whatever reason. And those books, you know, may, may do well. And I'm certain that they're probably great books, but every book isn't going to be a viral sensation without the support of the publisher and the industry around it. So that's my take.
Nyge: How do you find these, like good books by Black authors that just are slipping under the radar?
Traci: I find them because I — this is my job. So I get, I reach out to, to the publishers and say, "Send me the list of all the books for publishing next season." So like, I already know what's coming out in January 2023. Like, I'm already looking at books ahead. So I look through the books, I try to find them on social media, like the authors, and see if they're — that they seem interesting to me. Also, publishers will reach out to me and be like, “Oh, this might be a good book.” And then I also have a lot of friends in the book space, other readers who I trust, people who I trust their tastes, just like I'm sure listeners have friends and family where they're like, “Oh, this person's got great taste in books. What are they reading?” So it's sort of a combination of me looking ahead and seeing what's coming. And then also because of the work that I do, I've built relationships with authors and they usually know what's good and what's coming. And so they'll tell me, they'll be like, “Oh, so-and-so's book is coming out in September. Are you up on it?” And then my job is to try to tell everybody in the world about what I think is a great book. So I have an Instagram page where people can follow me and I review every single book that I read, and I also post about a ton of books that I never have time to get to because I don't read that fast. So, you know, there are people who read like 500 books a year. Not me. I'm not one of those people.
Nyge: Yeah, I know that for sure. Like someone who I used to work with too, when we, when we would bring, like, authors on the show would get like the book like a day before and read the whole book right before they come on the show. And, you know, I.
Nyge: Shout out, shout out to him because I. I can't read them.
Traci: Couldn't be me.
Nyge: That can’t be me. But I only ask because I feel like there are so many people in my life, they're all Black who are always, you know, like, "Hit me up like bro, like, what are you reading?" And I'm hitting them up like, "Bro, what are you reading? What's good that's out right now?" And I think that's been like a real like journey for me where I was going through a process of just like looking for Black book clubs. And I finally found one at a Barnes and Noble that was like close to my house. But then right when I found one, the pandemic happened.
Traci: Well, wait, here's a really good resource I didn't mention: Black-owned bookstores. A lot of Black-owned bookstores do a lot of work to make sure that Black authors' books are featured, that they have Black authors coming to their stores or doing virtual events. So that's a great way. I mean, it shouldn't just be Black-owned bookstores, but I found that the strongest relationships that I have with booksellers are Black booksellers and Black-owned bookstores and the people who work there. But they'll have community events and ways for you to find books.
And also, I think it also depends on what you like. Like, for example, if you're into like sports things and you like are like an ESPN person. Probably like everyone who works at Andscape, formerly The Undefeated, a lot of them have books and they know books. And if you follow them on Twitter, they'll talk about the books because it's like their coworkers book is coming out, or like a book about an athlete or something like a new Ricky Henderson book just came out yesterday that I'm super excited about — shout out to Oakland! So I feel like those are good resources too. If like there's a writer that, you know, who's maybe a journalist who writes for the New York Times or whatever, if you follow them on Twitter, that's a really good resource too, to find books.
I would just tell people to like stay away from the New York Times bestseller list, like, because that is not necessarily — that doesn't feature Black authors. Like an author that I love, Ashley C. Ford, tweeted the other day about how there have only ever been 11 memoirs by Black women to ever make the New York Times bestseller list. 11 total. That includes celebrities. She said if you take celebrities out, it's five, and Ashley is one of them and Tarana Burke is another, and those two both came out last year. So if you're looking to find Black books, you can't just look at the New York Times bestseller list because you're not going to find them there. You know, like it's just that's not the way the industry works, unfortunately. And, you know, you could say the same thing about, like, the Oscars. Like, if you're looking for a Black movie, you can't go to the Oscars. Maybe you'll see the “Get Out”'s there or something. But like, "Green Book," which is not a Black movie, but it has a Black person in it. But you know what I mean? Like, it's just like slim pickings.
Nyge: Right. You also so you made the point that for many people, especially non-Black folks, Juneteenth may seem new, but that's far, far, far from the truth. What other books can our readers dive into this summer to enrich our understanding of lesser known Black history?
Traci: Okay. Yes. So really quickly on Juneteenth, I just want to throw this out to people that Juneteenth, for people who don't know, it started in Galveston, Texas. But many other places across the country had their own celebrations. So depending on where you are, you should look into the history of your own local independence, freedom from slavery celebrations. Because you might have something in Missouri or something in Louisiana that's not Juneteenth, but is like local to where you are. So that's, that's one thing. I came up with a lot of different, sort of, hidden histories for Black history books for people to check out because there's so much.
One of the books I want to start with is a really famous book. It's one of the books that really changed my perspective as a reader. It's called “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. And it's about the Black migration from 1917 to about the 1970s. And it was when millions of Black people left the South during Jim Crow after World War I, during World War II, to find jobs in the North and in the West. That's how my family ended up in California. It talks about Chicago, New York, and it just sort of explains that even though, you know, for me personally, like I'm a West Coast Black person, that my family's roots in Louisiana, and all of that, is part of a much bigger story and that there's like a community and a sense of purpose and direction into our moving West, as opposed to it just being something that my family did on their own. I just assumed like, “Oh, my family moved at this time to California.” I had no idea that it was part of like this huge movement.
And the book is so well-written. It is a big, clunky book, and I will say if you're a little bored at the beginning, I was too, and then all of a sudden it hit its stride. And I call it one of the books of my life — it changed how I see the world and how I move in spaces all across this country. So that's one. It's not hidden history. People know about the, The Great Migration, but it's not talked about nearly enough. So that's one.
This one is a little bit more recent history, but it felt really topical. So I picked it. It's called “The Second” by Carol Anderson, and it's about the Second Amendment and how everything that we know about gun rights in America is actually connected to Black people in America and white fear and their relationship to Black bodies being armed. That history is really obfuscated in America. It's really not talked about. So she talks about the Black Panthers in the seventies, but she also talks about just the way that gun laws were written. You know, she connects it to someone like Philando Castile who was killed, even though he was a, you know, legal gun owner. And so that I found to be really interesting because, again, it's sort of — we all know about the Second Amendment, but no one's really talking about the racial implications therein and how the law has changed. And like the idea that self-defense was never part of the Second Amendment until the 1960s or 70s, I believe, like. And it's a very short book, but it is sort of — she's an academic, so it is a little dense, but I think it's only like 170 pages. It's really, really good.
Okay: Fannie Lou Hamer. She is a civil rights activist who some people know and some people don't. And there's a book about her called “Until I Am Free” by Keisha Blain, who is a professor. And it's a biography of her, also a very slim book. She's a super, super, super, super important figure in Black history. She was a huge activist in Mississippi. Her story is incredible. She was born into sharecropping and like, I think one of 13. I don't want to give things away, but like, her story is incredible. She is an incredible leader. She experienced incredible amounts of strife, but also she's been sort of erased from the bigger conversation around civil rights. People talk about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. There's so few women civil rights leaders that we talk about besides Rosa Parks. And so I think this book is a great book to check out for that reason.
And then the last one I have, which is one of my favorite books that I read this year by one of my favorite authors, who – any of her books are fantastic. And you should all read all of them because she is a frickin’ genius! Is a book called “South to America” by Imani Perry, and it's all about how the South — American South — is the center or the heart of American culture. And she travels through different states and different regions and connects them to the past and the present. And there is a little memoir in there. It really, again, changed the way that I think about the South, because I think so often as a person who's lived in California and New York, it's like, “Oh, the South, they're dumb, they're backwards, they're conservative, they love their guns.” But I think all of that erases the Black people in the South, which is, of course, where the most Black people in America live. The states with the highest Black populations are Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, you know. And so I found this book to be really, really, first well-written and beautiful, but also just like really important for the way that I think about politics, culture, food, music, and how it's all sort of for Black folks, birthed in the American South. So, yeah, those are my recs. They're all by Black women. I didn't do it on purpose, but as I was saying it —
Nyge: Aye, I feel like I feel like that works, that that's even better. So where can our listeners find you, first off?
Traci: Yeah. So you can find me on Instagram @TheStacksPod. You can find the podcast, which is every Wednesday, wherever you listen to your podcast, it's called "The Stacks." It's a book show. If you love what you hear and you want to support my work, you can go to Patreon.com/thestacks. I'm a completely independent podcast - support Black creatives, you know the vibes. I'm also on Twitter @thestackspod_ My website's thestackspodcast.com. I don't know — you can find me. Just Google “The Stacks” - you're, young people! You know how to find things. (laughs)
Nyge: After talking to Tracy and Marisa, I understand that Juneteenth is a very complicated day for all of us. On this Juneteenth. I'm choosing to focus on love and appreciation for everyone around me and all who came before me to make my dreams possible. Like Marisa said, I truly do believe that love is the way through.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media....a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and by me, ya boy Nyge Turner.
Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.
YR’s director of podcasting is Ray Archie.
Original music for this episode was created in part by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, and Jacob Armenta. Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Art for this episode created by Jordan Ferguson, a young artist at YR. And art direction from Brigido Bautista and Marjerrie Masicat. Creative direction by Pedro Vega, Jr.
Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
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You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and on that note, thank you for listening to the final episode of the season! We’ll see ya on the flip side.