By Felicia Murrell | ONEING Vol. 8 No. 1 | Liminal Space
Eight days after each of our boys turned thirteen, my husband and I held a rites of passage ceremony for them. Though we are an African-American family— several generations beyond the atrocities of enslavement our ancestors suffered—when I crafted the details of these ceremonies, I did not reach back to Short Journey Plantation in rural Johnston County, North Carolina where my Nigerian/Cameroonian descendants rooted in this land, nor did I look to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina where my husband’s Ethiopian descendants were enslaved. I developed a rites of passage ceremony filled with Jewish symbolism ripped from bar mitzvahs because my colonized Pentecostal Christianity taught me to see everything African as demonic (of dark origin), and everything Jewish as chosen. So, I offered our sons what I knew, and what I believed to be true at the time, because it was important to me that we usher them into the new stage of their lives with a significant demarcation between the frolicking innocence of boyhood and the perils and responsibilities of growing into their identities as Black men in America.
Leading up to each ceremony, we invited a young Black man to serve as a mentor for our sons, ensuring they had a few hours together each week. (We wanted our sons to have other voices in their lives and a safe place to ask questions and share thoughts and feelings they might not have felt comfortable sharing with us.) This young adult, along with my husband and chosen elder statesmen in our community, was asked to participate in the rites of passage. There were readings by our son and blessings offered by the elder statesmen. At the end of the ceremony, all the men formed a line and ceremoniously passed a newly engraved leather Bible from one to another until it reached my husband, who then presented it to our son as the men huddled around him. All I knew to offer my sons was what had been passed down to me—a Christian faith rooted in Jewish customs and traditions.
As a Black person in America, the past few years have felt a lot like a passage from sleeping to awakening, from burial to rebirth. There’s been a resurgence in public readings of Black literature, a renaissance of pride as Black citizens, young and old, are discovering or rediscovering authors like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Howard Thurman, James Cone, and others. Intelligent, witty, and wise mentors and thought leaders like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram Kendi, Andre Henry, Brittney Cooper, Christena Cleveland, and Layla Saad have emerged. There’s been a solemn and reverent sharing of information. Where we once only had a colonized version of our history to hand down—a sanitized remembering that kept our Black bodies safe and our necks unhung—there is now an avalanche of retelling that’s a lot less tidy.
What do we do with what we know now when what we’ve known before stands in stark contrast to the truths we’ve recently uncovered? How do we marvel with awe at the transcendent staring into the bowels of hell? How do we resolve the tension?
This, I believe, is the invitation of liminality. Like the solemn pause between the barren winter and spring’s first buds, the threshold offers room for recognition and acknowledgment while making space for what is not yet known. In the stark emptiness of winter, all that has been gussied up to be palatable and presentable is shown for what it is. The truth of our checkered past stares at us boldly, nakedly, unhidden. And yet, underneath the surface of this harsh, blistery reality, another truth is incubating, waiting to yield its fruit. Can we trust what’s there to offer us something we have not yet seen?
In liminal space…the place of mystery,
the unknown…we offer ourselves
what we’ve longed to have
given to us.
Our history of atrocity, lived experiences, and hope converge, rising collectively as an easily identifiable internal pain that begs for acknowledgment by someone outside of ourselves—even though our hearts know it’s not quite spring. It might feel good, after years of being shackled to scarcity, victimhood, poverty, suspicion, and inferiority, to project onto a scapegoat (holding the system complicit by association) the burden of hundreds of years of pain. We feel righteous. We long for someone else to feel what we feel or, at the very least, to validate that it’s okay for us to feel what we feel. Heavily laden with years and years of collective racial anger, misuse, and abuse, we lumber into liminality with all these feelings, these shackles of oppression.
And there, in liminal space—the space of sitting with our truths; the place of mystery, the unknown; the place where we let go of our injured expectations to be seen, to be known, to be welcomed—we offer ourselves what we’ve longed to have given to us. We acknowledge our feelings—the power and depth of each one—giving them space to roll through us, to breathe and take on life.
Instead of projecting outward or looking for resolution, we sit with them, breathe through them —allowing them to be as they are within us. We cry the tears our ancestors could not. We feel the fatigue they were not allowed to feel. We give in to the vulnerability that would have cost them their lives—not blaming, not finger-pointing, but honest truth-telling of our dehumanizing, painful history. On the threshold between what was and what will be, we unburden ourselves of our fierce, dogged determination to control the outcome of other people’s opinions of us, and there the alchemy happens.
With transformation comes power. As much as the rites of passage is about letting go of life as we once knew it, it is also about the recognition of power. What will we do with our power? What will we call forth? There at the threshold, we decide. Do I wield my power to force control, to shape the narrative and determine what will be and how it will be? Do I allow myself to be honest about humanity’s failings and the abuse of power, seeing the ways in which I too could become like that which I oppose? Can I acknowledge the monster side of my humanity: lament it, forgive it, and let it go, realizing that it may cycle around again?
In the sitting, in the feeling …in acknowledging our pain and our truth, we surrender control. We surrender ourselves to mystery, trusting that Divine Love is for us. Love is with us. We trust in the image from Julian of Norwich (1342–1416), that we are oned in love. In that oneing, we fall into the seamless sense of ourselves as one with the larger flow of humanity.
We are a people diverse and beautiful, a people of colorful hues and brilliant, intelligent minds. We are a people as radical as Stokely Carmichael and as nonviolently peaceful as Martin Luther King, Jr. We are a people distinct and unique, from the shape of our lips and the curve of our hips to the curl of our hair. We are a people of form, bound by our beginning, by our history, with varied lived experiences spread across vast and numerous terrains. There is no one opinion or voice that speaks for the totality of who we are. Isn’t that true of all people?
In liminal space, I discover a formlessness that blurs the intersection of diversity and unity. The ambitious cry of, “’til all are one!” somehow morphs in liminal space and I realize we all are already one. We are and have always been one, held together in the oneing of Love.
This does not deny the pain that our collective blindness to this truth has wrought on humanity, nor does it mitigate the complexities of the issues that our communities continue to face. But it does free us to say yes to what we already are. I am the monster and the hero. I am the slayer and the healer. This is the beauty of liminality. I stare so long that what once seemed so black and white, so certain and separate, melds together into a kaleidoscope of muted colors. There in the oneing of love, I hold the paradox of these opposites.
Is there a place for kindness amongst resistance? If anything clenched can dam its flow, can love flow freely through a posture of resistance? If “what you resist, persists,” what does it look like to move through transformation without resistance? How can I be aware, awake, vocal, fully participating in life and social justice issues from a place of love—a posture of awareness, receptivity, and openness—instead of resistance? How do I show up without being mean or condescending? Does my disagreement with particular policies, politics, and perspectives mean I lose my empathy for humankind? How can I expect change, expect to be seen, if I join in the same hate and disregard for human dignity? Are my needs being weaponized to control outcomes, pitting me against my fellow humans because of what I think is best? This is the threshold, the precipice upon which I believe we stand. This is our rites of passage. Gone are the days of imaginary innocence, sanitized by half-truths and whitewashed versions of history.
Eckhart Tolle writes, “Whatever action you take in a state of inner resistance [or hostility] will create more outer resistance and life will not be helpful. If the shutters are closed, the sunlight cannot come in.” Pain happens when suffering goes unacknowledged, which is why my husband and I felt that mentors and elder statesmen were crucial to the rites of passage. We wanted our sons to know there were men who had been where they were going, men who had similar questions and experiences, men they could trust with their questions and whose wisdom they could heed. Even more importantly, we wanted them to know men who could validate and hold their pain because of their own experience of suffering.
Apart from the metanarrative, we fail to understand that all suffer. Although suffering is inevitable in the rhythm of life, torment arises when others fail to honor the severity of our suffering and the generational trauma it has caused.
Liminality is the space where we
experience both affirmation and
denial, but remain uncertain about
how to reconcile the two.
Liminality is the space where we experience both affirmation and denial, but remain uncertain about how to reconcile the two. It is the place of mystery that we embrace or embark upon after letting go of attachments, validations, securities, illusions, prejudices, and the desire for revenge and retributive justice. Perhaps it is the simple beckoning from within that invites us to journey where we haven’t ventured before. Like myself all those years ago, wanting to give my sons an experience to mark the significance of their transition from boyhood to manhood, the only wisdom I had was what I had known up until the very moment that I knew something different. The tension can create angst and animosity, stirring up a desire to lash out and respond ruthlessly—or it can create opportunity.
In the quiet, staring into the vast unknown, I stand on the threshold, no longer attached to what was and unsure of what is to come. Solemnly I acknowledge. I feel. I breathe. I trust. I allow life to be. I choose not to seek resolution. Like the Bible that was passed from person to person at our sons’ rites of passage, I honor the moments, allowing what was, with all of its complexities, together with the truth of our oneness that has always existed. I open my hand. I open my heart. I allow them both to exist within me, to pass through me, to morph and meld. I am my past. I am my now. I am my history. I am my lived experience. This is the life I have been given. This is the ever-unfolding mystery of liminality. I am.