I have been grieving.
As a woman of faith, I have been dissatisfied with many of the attitudes towards grief and grieving in my communities. I have had Romans 8:28 slathered on me by well-meaning peers who do not recognize that they are effectively asking me to truncate my grief. And I too am guilty of silencing my own grieving process, clinging to Romans 8:18 so violently that I forget that all of creation and the Holy Spirit groans for the restoration and healing that we don’t yet see. This has caused me to seek out stories and art where lament and grieving are modeled well. I want to mourn with those who mourn.
A friend recommended Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, to me. The music video for her single, Cranes in the Sky, entered the tender space of my grief over working with neglected and sexually abused orphans in Ukraine. Co-directed by Solange herself, it’s easy to dismiss this video for doing what we have already seen from music videos: the singer in various strange outfits in different exotic locations. But for the attentive viewer the video for Cranes in the Sky serves as a visual essay, the singer, and her companions embody the workings of grief and the reach for healing.
In an interview with Saint Heron, Solange identifies grief as one of the personal wellsprings from which she drew to create A Seat at the Table .
“I knew that I needed to create this album to get rid and work through the anguish and the grief that I was constantly digesting. Then, the ugly backdrop of the state of America constantly reconfirmed that. In a sense, I feel like the album wrote itself. When I felt afraid or when I felt like this record would be so different from my last, I would see or hear another story of a young Black person in America having their life taken away from them, having their freedom taken away. That would fuel me to go back and revisit and sometimes rewrite some of these songs to go a little further and not be afraid to have the conversation.”
Solange does not use the flight of birds in Cranes in the Sky as the image for her enduring grief. Her verses detail the many ways she tried to banish her pain, but her grief remains like the industrial cranes that hang above in an urban skyline. Her refrain of lament: “It’s like cranes in the sky/Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds.”
Her grief is an element of her environment over which she has no power. Her desire for it to be gone has no effect, and she can feel its presence looming over her. Industrial cranes interrupt the sky; they are powerful, possibly dangerous, and promise construction or destruction. Those who grieve often reproach themselves for not gaining mastery over their grief. I have felt this pressure, especially as time passes. But with her choice image, making grief akin to an industrial invasion of the skyscape that the grieving cannot master, influence, or banish, Solange frees herself and others from the responsibility of vanquishing grief. Once we step out of the ring where grief is our antagonist that we battle to overcome, and instead share the space with grief, exploring all that is present in it, we can begin to grieve well.
Spaces and camera movement show the private nature and wide scope of grief.
In the video for Cranes in the Sky, the viewer is invited into spaces in the wilderness, to the exteriors and into the interiors of modern structures with distinct architectural shapes, and into decaying or exposed rooms. In the camera shots chosen, a fascinating contrast occurs. The video feels very intimate to the viewer, but the common shot utilized in a film to evoke intimacy, the close-up, is never used. The majority of the shots in the video are wide, and the closest in are medium shots, still framing the majority of the singer’s upper torso and shoulders.
In many of the shots distance the viewer from the action, and invite them in at the same time. One recurring visual of two women dancing inside an industrial building with glass walls provokes this push-pull. This space is both visually open and paradoxically private, see-through and enclosed The two women dance for themselves, not for us, but we are invited to see them moving within their own space. These wide shots show the viewer that the physical space made for grieving must accommodate the width and breadth of that grief. And that grief is experienced in both private and public ways in the same instant.
The spaces chosen for the viewer also speak to the scope of grief. She sings from interiors and exteriors. We are invited into closed spaces with artificial settings like the house with exposed insulation or the sunroom with clear plastic strewn across the floor suggesting off-screen renovations. We are invited into wide spaces, our perspective paralleling the figures as they stand and move against the sky upon the horizon line. The spaces chosen show us that grief cannot be contained within a specific context but have the range of the whole earth.
Another camera perspective frequently used is “the God shot” where we behold the protagonist from above. Some of the few times the viewer is closer to Solange, when the camera pulls away into the God shot, and then zooms back in again. We literally are near, distanced, and drawn near again. We who grieve will recognize this disorienting, push and pull sensation. We desire to draw near to others to comfort and be comforted, but this instinctual need is countered by a spirit of caution and fear. Even with our most trusted loved ones, we don’t know if an embrace will help our pain, or hurt more.
Solange rarely stands center in the frame of any given shot. If she is close, she is consistently slightly right or left of the center. In the one shot where she is centered, she breaks the center by lying at an angle. Her decentralization signifies how grief causes our world to be askew. After trauma or tragedy, the only way we can see the story is slant. Ironically, in many of the wide shots, the empty space to the right or left of the singer actually balances the composition. She is unbalanced, we, her viewers are not. Solange herself bodily brings the balance to the space, testifying that the only way to restore order in the chaos of grief is through acceptance and presence. Balance comes when the grieving one, stands and moves within the space of her pain.
Clothing, color, and shape divulge the intimacy, discomfort, and communal features of grief.
Solange named one of her songs on this album, F.U.B.U. for the brand, “For Us By Us.” In her words, this clothing line “exhibited Blackness in any space, on a huge global level.” The track before F.U.B.U. an audio interlude of the same title ends with Master P declaring “I tell people all the time, if you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you.” With this song and the interview, even with the album content itself, Solange makes it clear that she did not make artistic choices for this album to grant all audiences ease of access to her work. Rather she chose to unapologetically feature Blackness as she and others with whom she collaborated with on the album experience it.
It is no great intuitive leap to see that she does the same with her choices of clothing in the video for Cranes in the Sky. With fourteen different outfits, some made of dry cleaning bags, some of leaves, gold paint, and tinfoil, Solange subtly offers the challenge of many artists, that if you fail to understand her choices then her art is not for you. What she wears is an extension of herself and the environment of grief she finds herself in.
Many of her outfits are form-fitting, soft and fluid, sharing a common fabric and palette with the others present in the shot with her. They embrace body shape as important in the personhood of the garment wearer and imply a shared intimacy between her and the others with her. This clothing also speaks of the intimacy of grief, its physicality and closeness to the one grieving.
Other clothing is geometric, the shapes showing a total disregard for her body, reflecting the boxing in, the obscuring, even binding of her body. When she is wound in a purple string another person has to unravel it for her. The dress made of pink squares offers no protection, fluttering in the wind, leaving Solange exposed to the elements. With the trash bags dress, she also holds a trash bag burdening her with indistinct shapes poking through the stretched plastic. The constrictive and uncomfortable physiology of grief is explored in these outfits, sometimes startling and incongruent with her or the setting. Grief is not comfortable and seizes the grieving bodily.
One of the most distinct visuals of the video is of identical purple dresses on the singer and six other women with material streaming between them. This piece was created by Solange’s mother Mrs. Tina Knowles and its visual plays with the lyrics “I ran my credit card bill up/Thought a new dress would make it better.” Solange challenges our expectations as bright beautiful clothing becomes symbol of masking and mourning. These dresses, manifestations of grief, both constrict the movement of the figures, and in the same moment connect them. When our grief immobilizes us we often perceive ourselves as alone. Yet shared grief is what binds us to one another.
The color purple signifies shared grief in other forms as well. The purple eye shadow several of the women perfectly matches the string that bound the singer in grief in a prior shot. With this shared color, Solange powerfully implies that her story of grieving that will not leave is one experienced by all Black women. She reminds us that often the grief we experience and perceive as individualized is actually communally felt.
Expressions, Body Shapes, and Movement explore and share spaces with grief.
There is no weeping in this video. One of the characteristics of grieving that Solange explores is that pervasive grief manifests not only violently (as we might expect), but also in understatement. This can be seen in the expressions of the women in the establishing group shot in the video. Seated on the floor, these women’s bodies suggest self-protection as every person’s torso is blocked or crossed either by their own limb or hand or part of another person’s body. They suggest openness and resolve, all of them are facing us and sit upright even if they are angled. Three of them are leaning on each other for support, and two of them direct their gaze away from us, one even closing her eyes in a confirmation of weariness. These women form a tableau of communal grief.
They are not standing in the room together, they are seated close to one another, each one touching one another even though their gaze is directed at us. Dressed similarly but differently, each body and face are diverse in position and expression. From their arrangement, we recognize that grief is worn differently on every person’s face and body. These women are embodying their grief individually, and communally at the same time.
The still shot above fails to capture what is expressed the next time this scene occurs in the video. One minute and thirty seconds in this communal grieving shot transforms as the women, who remain seated begin to move in and out of the space around each other. Their swaying torsos and gestures go in different directions but move with the same rhythm, visually suggesting the movement of the wind among wheat stalks, or seaweed in the same swell of an ocean wave. Their gestures are gentle, fluid, they arch and curve around the others and selves, a symphony of soothing strokes, and asking stretches. They touch legs, and shoulders, hair, hands, and heads. With their bodies, they ask for comfort, give comfort, and receive comfort within the community. This is grieving with those who grieve.
Solange’s personal exploration of grief also sings through her individual movements. Many of her gestures are slow and intentional. Grieving cannot be rushed. Rather the space where our pain exists must be explored gently and with strength. She shows us the stillness that is needed. Stillness also occurs because grief is immobilizing. At times a single gesture is all the grieving can manage. Solange models this,s again and again, repeating gestures so simple as raising a hand, to raising her whole body from a bow. She does not let grief either drive nor limit her range of motion. Large or minuscule her movements are fluid and strong. Her body moves into the edges of the space, and in different settings, and in formation with another woman.
These repeated movements and gestures in different spaces speak of the repetitions that occur within grieving. If we walk through our day in grief, we may grieve in a classroom, the waiting room at a hospital, on a friend’s house, at the post office in line, or in our beds at night, too wrecked to sleep. Solange reminds us that much of this grieving in different spaces, many of its movements, thoughts, and feelings are the same. She doesn’t offer us a depiction of grieving that is progressive or sequenced. We want to progress through our grieving and arrive at healing. But as these repetitive movements imply, perhaps healing is not a destination we reach but dwells in the act of grieving itself.
Grieving Well to Heal
With this video’s visual compositions, Solange seats her personal grief and healing both in solitude and in her community. She generously invites the viewer into these spaces, colors and bodily movements of grief, but she is not there for us. Solange and her sisters are living out their pain and this narrative is not concluded. One of the mercies extended to viewers is that even though the video concludes with a bow and an upward crescendo, we are not given a definitive resolution. We are not exhorted to best grief to transcend it. Rather the video echoes the lyrics of the song, Solange disclosing every step she took to send her grief away, yet finding it remains with her like cranes in the sky.
How does Solange’s grieving resemble Christ? Look at the public and private grief Jesus expressed at the death of his friend Lazarus. In chapter eleven of John’s gospel we see how Christ grieves, even knowing better than us that He would restore Lazarus to life both in this first and in the final resurrection. Jesus does not rush to the tomb, jumping instantly to the restorative action, though he has the sovereignty to do so. Jesus goes to the grieving first, Martha, and Mary, and the Jews who are grieving with them. He joins the community of grief and both feels and acts with them (John 11:33–35):
When Jesus saw the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord come and see.” Jesus wept.
Christ did not deny or exclude his pain, he chose it. He accepted his own grief and offered his presence to those who were grieving. Solange does the same. She allows grief to be present and dances within it, stretches her body within the space of lament, bowing to it and standing again. Neither does she diminish herself in its presence. She shares the space with grief, moves freely within her own hurt and invites us to join her there. The beauty of her acceptance heals and invites us to grieve and heal with her.