We Flesh: Embodied Flesh, Death and Dying, and the Earth

This is the first post by new contributor Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah. Rev. Owusu-Ansah is also a participant in the SJLP’s Seedbed Project. Stay tuned for more information about this exciting initiative!

We must re-member ourselves. We have become disembodied. We are disembodied from the community. We are disembodied from self. We are disembodied from God. We are disembodied from earth. To become whole is to remember.

Karen Baker Fletcher

Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation

In Toni Morrison’s literary masterpiece Beloved, there is a seminal moment in the clearing when Baby Suggs, beckons the people—children, men, and women—to come. She invites the children to laugh, the men to dance, and the women to cry. Expected behaviors. Normative ways of being that fit neatly into the white hegemonic system they inhabited.  What happens next is the fullness of embodiment—each laughing, dancing, and crying until they are overcome and all lay their bodies down on the soil to catch their breaths. This moment was an act of re-membering.

With their bodies laying, connected with self, God, and earth, Baby Suggs declares, “Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…”

She reminds them that they are embodied flesh in a world where they have been detained, devalued, and disembodied.


Dis/Embodied Flesh

To be disembodied is to be separated from our bodies. It is to render our being insubstantial. It is to reject the significance of flesh. In Christian theology that leans heavily into a dualistic reading of the Pauline corpus, we are taught to deny—or worse—crucify our flesh. This is dangerous for Black people in the United States. Black flesh has been denied for centuries by white supremacist ideology and theology: Denied personhood. Denied access. Denied love. The crucifixion of Black flesh is a historical and present reality: Laura Nelson. Emmett Till. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd. Eric Garner.


I believe that Black flesh matters. If Black flesh does not matter, then what of the Incarnation? Jesus, born of a woman, proved that Black flesh matters. Jesus, the Word made flesh, substantiates that Black flesh matters. Jesus, God with us, bears witness to my claim that Black flesh matters. Jesus, crucified by Empire and resurrected in flesh, calls Black people to full embodiment—laughing, dancing, crying, and breathing. Embodied Black flesh is beautiful. Embodied Black flesh resists white supremacy simply through the audacity of being. I would argue, embodied black flesh takes seriously living and dying.


Death and Embodied Flesh

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I have been struck by the relationship between disembodied flesh and the disparities in healthcare, particularly end of life care with Black patients. Less than fifteen percent of our patient population is Black, despite the large percentage of Black people living in the counties we serve. Our Black patients are generally admitted to hospice care at the very end of life, depriving patients and families of the expansive benefits of hospice services. My experience is on par with national statistics. Studies have shown that Black patients are more likely to avoid treatment, seek aggressive treatment, or revoke from hospice care to seek treatment, resulting in poor quality of life at end-of-life.

This leads me to consider the end-of-life possibilities for embodied Black flesh. Can an ethic of embodiment make space for conversations about death and dying? Can an ethic of embodiment embrace laughing, dancing, crying, and dying as part and parcel for the human experience? Can an ethic of embodiment usher Black people into remembering ourselves and also reestablishing right relationship with the earth?


Treasure in Earthen Vessels

All of these questions, ideas, and experiences led me to create “Treasure in Earthen Vessels,” my project for the Justice Seedbed Program as part of the Social Justice Leadership Project. I do not believe embodied Black flesh, flesh capable of embracing life and death, can be easily attained in the presence of White Supremacy. However, my imagination is expansive enough to believe that reconnecting with dust/earth/soil is a means for embodiment and remembering ourselves. I believe that convening the members of New Hope Baptist Church and surrounding community to play in dirt, till soil, and cultivate a garden while also having advanced care planning conversations will ultimately lead to better quality of life at end-of-life. Next month I will share the details of the project. In the coming months I look forward to sharing our experiences, our learnings, and the ways in which we experienced ourselves, each other, the earth, justice and the presence of God.

Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer. She is an ordained Baptist minister and serves as a Chaplain at Haven Hospice, Hackensack Meridian Health Homecare and Hospice in Edison, NJ. There she provides pastoral care and spiritual support at end-of-life. She has a heart for justice and works for equity and cultural sensitivity in advanced care planning and end-of-life care. She is also the Minister of Church Life at New Hope Baptist Church in Metuchen, NJ.