Letter from the Editor
It’s the week before Thanksgiving and naturally I was working on an appropriate letter on gratitude, when I came across a Twitter thread in which a woman made it abundantly clear to another woman that she saw nothing wrong with appropriating a phrase that originated in Black circles: rest in power. At first I ignored the matter, but the more I thought about how the woman doubled down on her position and assumed privilege, the more it got under my skin. The reasons her actions drove me to my keyboard are manifold, but I’ll focus on just a few. Here we go. Besides, I think I can squeeze in that gratitude letter before next Thursday. Enjoy.
First, know that I try not to “should” on people. I like to believe that people have, along with their inherent agency, inherent common sense, and an understanding that intentions rarely outweight impact. But it never fails to amaze me when people prove this is not the case.
But I digress.
On its face, the phrase “rest in power” is an obvious modification — a twist, a cultural upgrade if not personalization — of the standard “rest in peace.” I’m no etymologist, but my guess is these three words probably originated with clerics (priests, rabbis, imams, ministers, pastors, and the like) as a blessing, a final prayer or appeal that the deceased would receive in full measure from the Divine that which was sought after and unattainable to them during their time on Earth.
With me so far?
It is reasonable to assume that “rest in power” originated with Black people given the common practice of American social structures to place all that is white at the top of the social caste and all people and things Black at the bottom . . . because you can’t have a best without a worst; white without black; supremacy without inferiority. That’s the nature of dichotomies, polarizations, and racism.
I mean, think about it. Well, you don’t have to think about it all that long if you’ve lived in America for any substantial period of time. Throughout the past 400 years, the top commodity Black people have been robbed of in this country is autonomy. You know, the power to independently choose our own fates, the freedom to chart our own futures . . . much like the colonists and founders of this great nation, but without all the murder, treachery, theft, and enslavement.
Black people have had to make do with the scraps of whatever we had been given. But through our ingenuity and drive, we have always been able to transform remnants into things full of meaning and substance, even in the face of abject racism. And dear heart slip into full-blown apologist mode, know I am well aware that the white folks of today aren’t responsible for what their forefathers perpetrated against Black people’s forefathers. But note, today’s white folks do bear culpability for upholding the systems that afford them succor and comfort while denying Black folks those same benefits, and at our expense.
It’s only natural that Black people would personalize “rest in peace,” by ascribing a more intimate meaning to it rooted in the pain and struggles of our lived experience. I may be ascribing too much spirituality to too many people, but hear me out. My guess is that with every “rest in power” uttered or typed by a good portion of my Black brothers and sisters they call on the Divine to bestow upon their beloveds the power they were denied during their life on Earth.
So it strikes me as disingenuous, downright spiteful, and lacking an iota of self-awareness for the descendants of our ancestors’ enslavers, the recipients of benefits of a system that essentially denies them nothing and doesn’t penalize them for the color of their skin, to feel the right (or need, your call) to commandeer, co-opt, and appropriate a lowly funereal blessing.
“I want that.”
“I’m gonna use that.”
“It doesn’t matter that I have no context or understanding of how or why thatcame to be.”
“Why can’t I use that?”
“It doesn’t matter that the circumstances that was borne of pain and suffering that was not my own.”
“It doesn’t matter that that does not apply to me and never could.”
“That’s mine for the taking.”
That, beloveds, is the height of white supremacy. And that matters a great deal.
So to all who are not of the African diaspora who would invoke “rest in power,” here’s a protip: don’t be surprised if you receive a powerful side-eye from the nearest Black brother/sister or anyone in the know within seconds of the words falling off your lips.
“This is why we can’t have nothing.”
Love one another.
OHF Weekly Editor-in-Chief
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OHF Magazine, Issue 3
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