Black Death and Black Resistance / by Edna Bonhomme

In Mahler’s symphony Das Lied Von Der Erde, the first stanza reads “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” [Dark is life, and so too death]. When it is subtle, death travels like sand in an hour-glass, dawdling through the orifice—but later the velocity of the sand appears to accelerate eventually marking the end of time.


For many, racism is a slow of death encompassing agony and paralysis—that deep wound trickles unto one’s neck, one’s back, and one’s heart. It is a pain that reverberates whenever one hears about another eviction, deportation, or death. Our humanity and dignity is often pushed aside and we are told to take heed and to be patient. Unfortunately, the lives of Black American women pass like the sand through an hourglass—at first, slow and steady but with time, structural racism and sexism escalates their execution. To be young, impecunious, and Black means that one is subject to the reins of premature death. Yet, it does happen alone but transforms into various forms of terror, be it the Klu Klux Klan or the New York Police Department--state and vigilante terror are that--a major agent of Black death.


Black women in the American south, Midwest, and Northeast have been subject to death—and over and over again, these accounts and images conveyed to the viewer—and especially the Black public—that Black bodies can be subject to murder without retribution. Nevertheless, atonement for Black people does occur, and it often bears a political dimension. Even when Black Americans have been subject to chattel slavery, lynching, and segregation, they have collectively organized to challenge systems of oppression.[1] Yet, the national attention to the procession of Black women women’s death in the United States is summoning everyday people to think about these victims and the precariousness of their lives.


On 17 June 2015 during a bible study meeting nine Black church members were killed from racial terror in Charleston, South Carolina.[2] They were Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, DePayne Doctor, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons Sr., Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, and Myra Thompson. They were pious members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Six of them were women and most of them had leadership positions within the congregation as reverends and musicians. Their church was and continues to be a historic site that has consistently challenged institutional racism, such as, the antebellum legislation preventing Black slaves from worshipping in their own church. This was an act of violence that has stirred debates about gun control, white terrorism, and the confederate flag.[3] While these debates are important and they assist in challenging these individual acts of violence, one must also acknowledge the ways that state and police violence terminates Black life.


Upon being escorted by police officers to a mental health facility, thirty-seven year old Tanisha Anderson died under the custody of two officers in Cleveland, Ohio in November 2014.[4] Nineteen-year old Renisha McBride was murdered by a white man after she sought help in a Detroit suburb when she was experiencing car trouble.[5] The growing number of women of color that are killed at the hands of U.S. law enforcement officials is still being counted by activists and new agencies.[6] The numbers are striking; as of 22 June 2015 five hundred and twenty-five individuals were murdered by the police in the United States of America.[7] Various community based groups have been documenting these killings and reporting through social media.[8]


The U.S. media has shown, over the course of the past decade something that most Black Americans already knew—the police are not here to protect its Black citizens.[9] In 2015, protests emerged after the video circulated of a Texan police officer physically assaulting a fifteen-year old black girl.[10] The adolescent Black female body is met directly with the brutal force of a white male officer. She is pinned down and made to feel miniscule. Her body is a punching bag. Ancillary to this, the emotional toll and trauma that Black women endure when they witness their brothers and kin impetuous death to law enforcement reinforces precarity. Whether it is Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Kalief Browder, death haunts Black folks.[11] For the mentally ill, Black death is especially quick and insidious causing such things as morbidity from stress, health mental health issues, and suicide—as was the case with Kalief Browder.[12]


        Death is a tragedy, however, Black death is a laceration that divulges the fault lines of structural racism. There are multitudinous studies that show how environmental racism, poor health care, and housing discrimination shortens Black life. For example, structural racism in Harlem has meant that many black residents are more prone to asthma.[13] Racism and sexism—when linked—are particularly egregious in their ability to defile the mind, body, and spirit thus leading to increased rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.[14] Black women, of course, are not the only ones to suffer unintended health consequences or structural violence. At the same time, their position in society propels one to ask: how can the United States proclaim to espouse democracy and freedom when the state terrorizes its racial and ethnic minorities?


The interminable power of Black women’s struggle began from the moment they were forced to migrate across the Atlantic as slaves until today. Black women who resisted knew that living required coordinated action and strength. This meant that women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth worked with a multiracial network of abolitionists who could transport slaves freely outside of the South. The Jamaican born Communist Claudia Jones worked with her fellow comrades in Harlem and London to challenge racial segregation. The astute Civil Rights leader Ella Baker organized sit-ins with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would lead voting campaigns in the American.[16] By the late 1970s, the Black lesbian organization Combahee River collective exclaimed in their infamous statement: “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as Patriarchy”—the structural elements of racial oppression.[17] In the last line of his seminal poem, “Dream Deferred,” the African American poet Langston Hughes wrote: “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” The escalation of social movements in the United States against police brutality is because people are fed up with their lives and dreams being deferred.


Black women do not always die on their knees—facing the consternation of their executioners, but on their feet with fists raised. Whether it is Black women activists in Ferguson who led the Black Lives Matter movement or the mother of Trayvon Martin who demanded justice for the murder of her son, these social justice movements have called into question a police system that is built on discrimination and oppression. Through nascent coalitions and collective action, groups such as “We are the Protesters” and #SayHerName are taking to the streets to show that they are lives matter. #Metoo and #sayhername are intersectional. Women involved in the #SayHerName movement have also.[18]


Black people been taught to find themselves inherently defective, to the point where they literally are subject to live in under apartheid and state violence.  This is exactly what those in power want - they want Black people to hate themselves, to look at in the mirror with disdain, to feel shame about their lives, to be rendered immobile. In between and in the midst of politically struggling, Black resistance has shown that Black death is not inevitable, that Black life is possible, and that Black lives are not defective.











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