by Claire Sadar
Although I arrived right on time, the ceremony was already in full swing as I crossed the street to the tiny triangle of a park in the center of Boston’s Nubian Square. It was July 4th, and normally Boston would be packed with locals and tourists celebrating Independence Day and watching the massive fireworks display over the Charles river. This year, however, the pandemic forced the city to cancel all large public celebrations. Even so, like every weekend since the murder of George Floyd over a month prior, there was a significant protest planned.
On a day normally dominated by the celebration of the great white men of America’s past, more than a thousand people gathered to “center and uplift the lives of ALL Black womxn.” I went to the starting point of the Say Her Name March and Rally expecting something akin to the half a dozen or so other marches and rallies I had attended since George Floyd’s horrifying death: speeches and chants to fire up the crowd, followed by more chants as we walked through the closed city streets to our destination point, where more speeches might follow. What I found when I arrived at the sliver of green in the heart of Black Boston was an ongoing Afro-indigenous ceremony.
My encounter with and participation in this hybrid of ritual and protest led me to reflect on how often I had seen the sacred manifested in the protests I had attended in the weeks prior, and to actively look for its appearance in actions I have attended since. Protest organizers and participants during the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the summer of 2020 were not just on the streets to bring attention to the daily violence faced by Black Americans, but to actively reclaim space—physically, aurally, historically, and psychologically. They did this in part by utilizing symbols and ceremonies to designate space as sacred, literally as something “set apart.”
Making space sacred through the senses
The first, and most fundamental way that the protests sacralized space was by physically occupying it, not just with their bodies, but with images, sounds, and scents. Pop-up memorials were a common sight in the areas in and around the protests. Participants and leaders brought photographs and artwork depicting those killed by police, bringing the victims symbolically into the space. The protests were in reaction to their lives being unjustly taken away, so it was crucial to conjure their presence during marches and rallies with icons of them in life.
In one case, the May 30 afternoon rally of clergy, which took place before the large protest downtown, the dead were represented by an actual neo-icon, Our Lady of Ferguson Missouri and All Those Killed by Gun Violence. Carrying the icon was Reverend Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
Rev. Everett told me that she brought the icon because “it was important to me to bring this image of the Holy Mother because we heard George Floyd cry for his mother, and so many people respond to Mary’s cry for her son. My hope is that every mother can understand the worry of black mothers for their sons.” The icon not only brought the spirit of the Mother of God to the protest, but of every mother whose son is unjustly executed.
One of the most striking of these examples of visual occupation of space was the large altar that was created for the July 4 protest in Boston. The cloth spread directly on the ground was strewn with flowers and herbs and guarded by a row of unlit candles. Instead of images of victims of police violence, the altar contained framed pictures of great black women like Harriet Tubman and signs with affirming and defiant messages such as “Black Radical Love.”
The altar was literally and figuratively the center of the protest, a reminder that we were here to honor black womxn. It was brought with us as we slowly made our way to the Boston Common, and was reconstituted several times along the way at symbolic stops: at the Harriet Tubman House, which was slated for demolition at the time and has since been torn down; at a statue honoring Harriet Tubman in the South End neighborhood; and at our final destination in front of the bandstand at the Boston Common.
Surrounding the altar and those gathered for the protest were two other phenomena that dominated our senses: scent and sound. Multiple members of the Sistahs of the Calabash, the Afro-Indigenous healing and spiritual collective that led the actions that day, burned large bundles of sage, which dominated the scent-scape. The flowers and other potent herbs on the altar added to the mix, and roses were strewn on the large Black Lives Matter banner directly in front of the altar. The Sistahs also used spray bottles of scents at various points.
Dominating the entire space, and reaching further than the sights or scents of the gathering was the sound. The music was the first indication I had that this was not an ordinary protest. A row of drummers pounded out a seemingly infinite beat, over which a saxophonist spit out an improvised melody. Later, as we walked toward the Common, dance music would be played over the chanting crowds, and at our stop in front of the Harriet Tubman statue a member of the Sistahs of the Calabash would sing “Wade in the Water” as a moving tribute to Tubman’s life and heroism.
Sound has been an important way to sacralize time and space during the Black Lives Matter protests in general. The protests I attended almost always had some sort of musical element— whether pop music pumped from speakers on a truck leading the protest, live rap and hip hop performances, or hymns and African-American spirituals. Just as important, and more powerful, than the music were the silences.
Kneeling or staging a “die in” for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time George Floyd’s killer spent kneeling on Floyd’s neck, became an almost required feature of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Floyd’s death. At one protest, church bells rang as we kneeled, adding to the obvious sacralization of the moment. Most of the time however, the nearly nine minutes was spent in eerie silence. More than just a “moment” of silence, the silence in these protests seems to go on for an uncomfortably long time, which adds to its poignancy.
The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 were triggered because a Black man’s life was treated with contempt, and ultimately unjustly taken. In addition to sacralizing the space of the protests with images, scents, and sounds, the protestors drew attention to themselves as sacred beings by asserting their right to life and health.
At the June 2 protest in Franklin Park, which sits between the Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston, some protestors carried signs reading “Our Breath is Sacred.” The signs were designed by interdisciplinary artist Dey Hernández for the AgitArte collective based in Lynn, Massachusetts. Hernández also designed signs reading “Our Rage is Sacred.” These messages imply that by taking away the breath of a Black American, you are committing a sacrilegious act, and that protesting Black death is in itself a sacred act.
Protest and sacred healing
Tied to the sacredness of life, was the emphasis on the sacredness of BIPOC health and healing, unsurprising given the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the disproportionate toll it took on the Black community. The Sistahs of the Calabash, which led the July 4 march and ceremonies, are a healing as well as spiritual collective based in Afro-Indigenous folk medicine. Every element of the ritual that day was wrapped up in healing. Describing the event on their Instagram account, the group recounts:
Yesterday we gathering with Black Lives Matter Boston to center and uplift the lives of ALL Black womxn in a march from Nubian Square to Boston Common, followed by a celebratory rally in the Common where we offended 5 sacred rituals and held the calabash of cool water and ago [sic] indigenous healing throughout. We called in THE SPIRIT OF MAMA MOSES Iya Harriet Tubman for omi tutu (cool water). We used sacred movement to call in the ancestors lead by @isaura_dourada We used the radical healing movement of bomba! Lead by @queen_atabex to close the evening in love + healing vibrations !!!
Sistahs of the Calabash were not the only healers present at protests. Luana Morales and her Afro-Indigenous healing collective, Seeds of Our Ancestors, set up altars at several protests in Franklin Park. Morales and others offered plant medicine at protests: herbs and other plants, often indigenous to the region, that they believe to have medicinal properties.
A group offering plant medicine at the protest on July 4 told me about the beneficial properties of the white pine needle tea they were offering, and how the healing elements of humble, common plants had been forgotten. To these healers, health was not only deeply connected to nature and the sacredness of the natural world, but also with reclaiming the healing properties of nature that had been sidelined in the wake of settler colonialism in North America.
One of the most powerful features of these protests incorporated multiple methods of claiming and sacralizing space: saying, writing, and wearing the names of those killed by police. Saying the names of victims, particularly female victims, of police violence has been a long standing method of memorialization and protest in the Black Lives Matter movement.
On July 4, the Sistahs of the Calabash took the standard chanting of names or displaying them on protest signs a step further. A dancer wore a white dress with strips of cloth hanging like fringe from bust to hem. On each strip was written the name of a woman killed by the police. As the dancer performed an improvised, ecstatic routine, the name fringes swirled around her. The pulsing music, the movement, the scents, the reminder of lives taken, all converged in this performance. The dancer was a sacred object, and her movement sacralized the space. She conveyed her power by occasionally coming to the edge of the crowd and waving her hands and fan over us. She was a memorial, a celebration, and a protest all at once.
While the involvement of clergy in the Black Lives Matter protests has been widely publicized, the sacredness of the acts of protest in and of themselves, and the ways the sacred is used to create and claim space for BIPOC, is a topic that deserves deeper exploration. Far from being anti-religious, or even a-religious, the movement for Black Lives is deeply grounded in the sacred and spiritual. Because this spirituality does not map on to the mainstream American concept of what constitutes religion—patriarchal, scriptural, institutional—the importance of the sacred in Black Lives Matter gets sidestepped, ignored, or grossly misinterpreted.
This account only scratches the surface of all the ways the sacred was manifested in the protests in Boston during the summer of 2020, let alone in the hundreds of protests that took place across the country. My hope is that it will encourage other scholars and journalists to be more mindful of, and sensitive to, the sacred elements surrounding them when studying or reporting on protests.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist in Boston covering Turkey, religion, politics, social justice, and their intersections. She holds a BA in History from Dickinson College and an MA in Religion and Society from Boston University. You can follow her work at ClaireSadar.com.