[Editor’s note: Rankine will be reading in Ypsilanti in April.]
A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country. We both laughed. Perhaps our black humor had to do with understanding that getting out was neither an option nor the real desire. This is it, our life. Here we work, hold citizenship, pensions, health insurance, family, friends and on and on. She couldn’t, she didn’t leave. Years after his birth, whenever her son steps out of their home, her status as the mother of a living human being remains as precarious as ever. Added to the natural fears of every parent facing the randomness of life is this other knowledge of the ways in which institutional racism works in our country. Ours was the laughter of vulnerability, fear, recognition and an absurd stuckness.
I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. “The condition of black life is one of mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living. Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.
Eleven days after I was born, on Sept. 15, 1963, four black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Now, 52 years later, six black women and three black men have been shot to death while at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. They were killed by a homegrown terrorist, self-identifed as a white supremacist, who might also be a “disturbed young man” (as various news outlets have described him). It has been reported that a black woman and her 5-year-old granddaughter survived the shooting by playing dead. They are two of the three survivors of the attack. The white family of the suspect says that for them this is a difficult time. This is indisputable. But for African-American families, this living in a state of mourning and fear remains commonplace.
The spectacle of the shooting suggests an event out of time, as if the killing of black people with white-supremacist justification interrupts anything other than regular television programming. But Dylann Storm Roof did not create himself from nothing. He has grown up with the rhetoric and orientation of racism. He has seen white men like Benjamin F. Haskell, Thomas Gleason and Michael Jacques plead guilty to, or be convicted of, burning Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Mass., just hours after President Obama was elected. Every racist statement he has made he could have heard all his life. He, along with the rest of us, has been living with slain black bodies.
We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against. When blacks become overwhelmed by our culture’s disorder and protest (ultimately to our own detriment, because protest gives the police justification to militarize, as they did in Ferguson), the wrongheaded question that is asked is, What kind of savages are we? Rather than, What kind of country do we live in?
In 1955, when Emmett Till’s mutilated and bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and placed for burial in a nailed-shut pine box, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded his body be transported from Mississippi, where Till had been visiting relatives, to his home in Chicago. Once the Chicago funeral home received the body, she made a decision that would create a new pathway for how to think about a lynched body. She requested an open coffin and allowed photographs to be taken and published of her dead son’s disfigured body.
Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence. By placing both herself and her son’s corpse in positions of refusal relative to the etiquette of grief, she “disidentified” with the tradition of the lynched figure left out in public view as a warning to the black community, thereby using the lynching tradition against itself. The spectacle of the black body, in her hands, publicized the injustice mapped onto her son’s corpse. “Let the people see what I see,” she said, adding, “I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me.”
It’s very unlikely that her belief in a national mourning was fully realized, but her desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic. In refusing to look away from the flesh of our domestic murders, by insisting we look with her upon the dead, she reframed mourning as a method of acknowledgment that helped energize the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
The decision not to release photos of the crime scene in Charleston, perhaps out of deference to the families of the dead, doesn’t forestall our mourning. But in doing so, the bodies that demonstrate all too tragically that “black skin is not a weapon” (as one protest poster read last year) are turned into an abstraction. It’s one thing to imagine nine black bodies bleeding out on a church floor, and another thing to see it. The lack of visual evidence remains in contrast to what we saw in Ferguson, where the police, in their refusal to move Michael Brown’s body, perhaps unknowingly continued where Till’s mother left off.
After Brown was shot six times, twice in the head, his body was left facedown in the street by the police officers. Whatever their reasoning, by not moving Brown’s corpse for four hours after his shooting, the police made mourning his death part of what it meant to take in the details of his story. No one could consider the facts of Michael Brown’s interaction with the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson without also thinking of the bullet-riddled body bleeding on the asphalt. It would be a mistake to presume that everyone who saw the image mourned Brown, but once exposed to it, a person had to decide whether his dead black body mattered enough to be mourned. (Another option, of course, is that it becomes a spectacle for white pornography: the dead body as an object that satisfies an illicit desire. Perhaps this is where Dylann Storm Roof stepped in.)
Black Lives Matter, the movement founded by the activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, began with the premise that the incommensurable experiences of systemic racism creates an unequal playing field. The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings. Consequently, our laws and attitudes have been straining against the devaluation of the black body. Despite good intentions, the associations of blackness with inarticulate, bestial criminality persist beneath the appearance of white civility. This assumption both frames and determines our individual interactions and experiences as citizens.
The American tendency to normalize situations by centralizing whiteness was consciously or unconsciously demonstrated again when certain whites, like the president of Smith College, sought to alter the language of “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter.” What on its surface was intended to be interpreted as a humanist move—“aren’t we all just people here?”—didn’t take into account a system inured to black corpses in our public spaces. When the judge in the Charleston bond hearing for Dylann Storm Roof called for support of Roof’s family, it was also a subtle shift away from valuing the black body in our time of deep despair.
Anti-black racism is in the culture. It’s in our laws, in our advertisements, in our friendships, in our segregated cities, in our schools, in our Congress, in our scientific experiments, in our language, on the Internet, in our bodies no matter our race, in our communities and, perhaps most devastatingly, in our justice system. The unarmed, slain black bodies in public spaces turn grief into our everyday feeling that something is wrong everywhere and all the time, even if locally things appear normal. Having coffee, walking the dog, reading the paper, taking the elevator to the office, dropping the kids off at school: All of this good life is surrounded by the ambient feeling that at any given moment, a black person is being killed in the street or in his home by the armed hatred of a fellow American.
The Black Lives Matter movement can be read as an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness. Mourning then bears both the vulnerability inherent in black lives and the instability regarding a future for those lives. Unlike earlier black-power movements that tried to fight or segregate for self-preservation, Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning and refuses the forgetting in front of all of us. If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement made demands that altered the course of American lives and backed up those demands with the willingness to give up your life in service of your civil rights, with Black Lives Matter, a more internalized change is being asked for: recognition.
The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us. Our deaths inside a system of racism existed before we were born. The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination. To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” And, as my friend the critic and poet Fred Moten has written: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” This other world, that world, would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here.
Dylann Storm Roof’s unmediated hatred of black people; Black Lives Matter; citizens’ videotaping the killings of blacks; the Ferguson Police Department leaving Brown’s body in the street—all these actions support Mamie Till Mobley’s belief that we need to see or hear the truth. We need the truth of how the bodies died to interrupt the course of normal life. But if keeping the dead at the forefront of our consciousness is crucial for our body politic, what of the families of the dead? How must it feel to a family member for the deceased to be more important as evidence than as an individual to be buried and laid to rest?
Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was kept away from her son’s body because it was evidence. She was denied the rights of a mother, a sad fact reminiscent of pre-Civil War times, when as a slave she would have had no legal claim to her offspring. McSpadden learned of her new identity as a mother of a dead son from bystanders: “There were some girls down there had recorded the whole thing,” she told reporters. One girl, she said, “showed me a picture on her phone. She said, ‘Isn’t that your son?’ I just bawled even harder. Just to see that, my son lying there lifeless, for no apparent reason.” Circling the perimeter around her son’s body, McSpadden tried to disperse the crowd: “All I want them to do is pick up my baby.”
McSpadden, unlike Mamie Till Mobley, seemed to have little desire to expose her son’s corpse to the media. Her son was not an orphan body for everyone to look upon. She wanted him covered and removed from sight. He belonged to her, her baby. After Brown’s corpse was finally taken away, two weeks passed before his family was able to see him. This loss of control and authority might explain why after Brown’s death, McSpadden was supposedly in the precarious position of accosting vendors selling T-shirts that demanded justice for Michael Brown that used her son’s name. Not only were the procedures around her son’s corpse out of her hands; his name had been commoditized and assimilated into our modes of capitalism.
Some of McSpadden’s neighbors in Ferguson also wanted to create distance between themselves and the public life of Brown’s death. They did not need a constant reminder of the ways black bodies don’t matter to law-enforcement officers in their neighborhood. By the request of the community, the original makeshift memorial—with flowers, pictures, notes and teddy bears—was finally removed by Brown’s father on what would have been his birthday and replaced by an official plaque installed on the sidewalk next to where Brown died. The permanent reminder can be engaged or stepped over, depending on the pedestrian’s desires.
In order to be away from the site of the murder of her son, Tamir Rice, Samaria moved out of her Cleveland home and into a homeless shelter. (Her family eventually relocated her.) “The whole world has seen the same video like I’ve seen,” she said about Tamir’s being shot by a police officer. The video, which was played and replayed in the media, documented the two seconds it took the police to arrive and shoot; the two seconds that marked the end of her son’s life and that became a document to be examined by everyone. It’s possible this shared scrutiny explains why the police held his 12-year-old body for six months after his death. Everyone could see what the police would have to explain away. The justice system wasn’t able to do it, and a judge found probable cause to charge the officer who shot Rice with murder. Meanwhile, for Samaria Rice, her unburied son’s memory made her neighborhood unbearable.
Regardless of the wishes of these mothers—mothers of men like Brown, John Crawford III or Eric Garner, and also mothers of women and girls like Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, each of whom was killed by the police—their children’s deaths will remain within the public discourse. For those who believe the same behavior that got them killed if exhibited by a white man or boy would not have ended his life, the subsequent failure to indict or convict the police officers involved in these various cases requires that public mourning continue and remain present indefinitely. “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back,” Toni Morrison said in April. She went on to say: “I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’ I will say yes.” Morrison is right to suggest that this action would signal change, but the real change needs to be a rerouting of interior belief. It’s an individual challenge that needs to happen before any action by a political justice system would signify true societal change.
The Charleston murders alerted us to the reality that a system so steeped in anti-black racism means that on any given day it can be open season on any black person—old or young, man, woman or child. There exists no equivalent reality for white Americans. The Confederate battle flag continues to fly at South Carolina’s statehouse as a reminder of a history marked by lynched black bodies. We can distance ourselves from this fact until the next horrific killing, but we won’t be able to outrun it. History’s authority over us is not broken by maintaining a silence about its continued effects.
A sustained state of national mourning for black lives is called for in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation. The hope is that recognition will break a momentum that laws haven’t altered. Susie Jackson; Sharonda ColemanSingleton; DePayne Middleton-Doctor; Ethel Lee Lance; the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr.; the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Tywanza Sanders and Myra Thompson were murdered because they were black. It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. Our mourning, this mourning, is in time with our lives. There is no life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children? This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.