Just like the good memories we celebrate, we can also find inspiration in loss and tragedy. Guest writer, Brittany Jones, Esq reminds us of the special role that Black funeral homes play in maintaining our dignity in death as she remembers the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 80s.
Atlanta has experienced some frigid temperatures and ice over the past two days. This time at home has allowed me to listen to the podcast Atlanta Monster, about the missing and murdered Black children in Atlanta during the early 80s, and to reflect on the passing of Edwin Hawkins as well as the dignity of Black mourning ensured by the Black church and the rapidly disappearing Black-owned funeral home.
The “end” of the Atlanta Child Murders predated my move to Atlanta by about 5 years; but I can recall the fear I felt and flashes of what I can assume was the 1985 film, The Atlanta Child Murders, and Monica Kaufman’s voice asking “Do you know where your children are?” I can’t say I recall the exact moment I realized the life of a missing Black child is not treated with the same level of importance as the life of a missing white child, but listening to Atlanta Monster touched this sore spot in my soul.
Patrick Baltazar, the first child mentioned on the podcast, was killed at age 11. When Master Baltazar’s brother recounted the battle he fought to hold a second homegoing service at a church in their Louisiana hometown, I began to weep. In 1981, a white church refused to hold Master Baltazar’s funeral service because he was Black. Even in mourning the death of a loved one, a child at that, his family had to fight, had to persist in a way that makes one weary to the bone. Master Baltazar made history in 1981 and not as a murder victim. He made history when he integrated the white church which ultimately relented and held his homegoing service.
Master Baltazar’s body was found, asphyxiated, in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County, Georgia is where I learned Black people could excel in any profession including as doctors, lawyers, teachers, college professors, principals, mayors of major cities and radio personalities. Mike Roberts and Carol Blackmon narrated my elementary school mornings on V-103. I could tell not just the time of the morning, but also the day of the week, when the first few bars of Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” crescendo-ed through my brother’s clock radio. 7 am on Friday. Black radio was still an institution in Atlanta with its pulse on the community.
When I heard Edwin Hawkins had passed, I immediately thought of those suburban Atlanta, elementary school Friday mornings and those questions Black folk carefully, respectfully pose when someone transitions. One will hear variations of “How’d s/he pass?” and “Who has the body?” Who has the body? Who has the body?
I thought back to being an expectant mother aware of the almost 300% higher maternal mortality rate for Black women in the USA putting my affairs in order prior to giving birth. When I wondered how would people answer “Who has the body” if I was on the wrong side of the statistics before, during or after giving birth. I recalled an article in The Atlantic, “The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way to Mourn,” that put into words what I experienced my entire life: the culture, practice and ritual of Black funerals. The setting up. The wake. The ride to the church from the home house of the deceased past significant locations in his/her life. The call and response of Guide Me, O Thy Great Jehovah in that distinct middle Georgia deep gutteral sound that embodies millennia of Black grief. The grave side service. The route from the graveside has to be different than the one you took to the graveside. The repast. The healing we find in food, fellowship and reflection.
The importance of the Black church and funeral traditions meant I could not leave the answer to chance. My estate plan *requires* the answer to the question “Who has the body” to be the name of a Black-owned funeral home. It’s my attempt to ensure I maintain a level of dignity in death that has been denied to Black people for far too long. Just recently Newsweek thought it wise to accompany a tweet with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his casket. People rushed to blame social media and its effects on social mores, but this particular indignity isn’t new to us.
I recall Piers Morgan’s wonderment and awe during Whitney Houston’s homegoing service. I recall the pride I felt during Michael Jackson’s homegoing service. The Jacksons may have become Jehovah’s Witnesses who customarily have a 15 or 30 minute talk, but the elements of a southern Black funeral were unmistakable.
Our African American tradition, our culture has been a salve on systemically inflicted wounds. It’s ours to protect and continue. Weeping may endure for a night…..