Speaking Back to Death in Black Breath
“To be a Negro in this country is really… never to be looked at… What they do see when they do look at you is what they have invested you with… all the agony, and pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment—you know, sin, death, and hell—of which everyone in this country is terrified.”
– James Baldwin
“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel… He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months… He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.”
– John Eligon, The New York Times
I recall vividly the night that Michael Brown’s killer walked free. It was a Monday and I was behind on reading for class. My head was full of faces and quotes and autopsy drawings. I watched the decision delivered to the world live, that no charges would be filed against the cop, that again no harm would come to the man that took another Black life, again. Again, I bowed my head, unsure of who or what I was mourning. Again, I had few words to compose myself or hold anyone else with. I went to bed late, having helped plaster the campus with flyers of Michael Brown’s brown face, his eyes demanding answers. I had none.
I woke up to a text from my oldest baby brother, Manny—the same 15 year old teddy-bear who had until this morning never texted me out of concern that he would be “bothering me” or have nothing important to say. I rolled over in bed, crusty-eyed and half-conscious, to read his words: “I love you, Jon Jon.” I thought about my Facebook statuses from the night before and my spilt sorrow that must have looked to him like remnants of his big brother. I felt like the remnants of his big brother. I felt so small. I thought about his youth and his smile and how he—nearly 5’10”—could lift my 5’4” body into the air and give me piggyback rides into the kitchen when dinner was ready. I thought about Michael Brown’s body, an uncovered specimen, made martyr man-child in the hellish heat of August… how he would never eat, give a piggyback ride, never smile again. I heard my brother’s words, again. “I love you, Jon Jon.” I cried in bed for 10 minutes that morning.
Rest assured, my tears are not headline-worthy, nor is my brother’s fear. Or my mother’s fear. Or my father’s fear. The New York Times is not invested in any articulation of fear that assaults the status quo. The status quo is Black bodies on pavement, in morgues, in the ground, in cells, in peril. The myth of a mass media that engages in radical truth-telling isn’t just pretend, it’s propagandist. Black children sitting in front of TV sets, soaking in mug shots and pseudo-mug shots and dash cam videos, have attended more family funerals than they have relatives. The tears of Black children are not made visible for the masses until they are profitable—say, a hurricane in New Orleans kills thousands or a shootout in Chicago takes parents away in the night. These are the certainties I will not argue. This is where I begin.
Much of what I say here has been said, again and again, elsewhere, online, in press, in poetry, in art, in conversations between families in their living rooms. I offer this as a tribute to Black people whose humanity, character, and personality are assaulted in the public imagination as swiftly as their bodies, immediately after they take their last breath, close their eyes for the last time. The legacy of this quotidian terror is multifarious, sometimes manic, always menacing. Bearing intimate witness to Black death in a Black body does not imply a desire or ability to always, or ever, articulate that witness in an intelligible or audible tongue. But it is this truth, one replete with tears and shouts and silences hugs and shaky hands that I reflect on here—what the media’s reimagining, moral rectification, and reproduction of the murder of Black people, and the language employed in this process, has taught me about my own life and deaths.
The marquee said Black man
and I read
Says no weapon found yet
and the case is still open
and the casket is not
a manila folder in a
after the commercial
“Stay tuned for more from our sponsors.”
Last November—less than four months after Michael Brown was slain in Ferguson, Missouri—Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old Black boy was shot to death by a White cop in Cleveland, Ohio while playing with a pellet gun. Tamir was initially referred to as a “young man” or “Black male” in news reports. Much emphasis would be put on his height: 5’7”. The responding cop shot Tamir within two seconds of arriving on the scene, later telling a colleague he had “no choice.” Reporters questioned what Tamir’s home life was like, eager to paint the child’s broken body as product of a broken home, not a bullet. I would read few articles that detailed the autopsy, showing a single gunshot into the left side of Tamir’s 12 year-old abdomen that moved through his intestines, lodging itself into the right side of his pelvis. A boy hemorrhaged to death on the Cleveland sidewalk with a cop’s bullet in him and the press ran articles that reported Tamir’s parents were against violence towards the police, as if their son had been hugged to death by the cop.
In the minds of those crafting these narratives around his death, those with the power to control what images and words would be used in recounting how his body would fall in broad daylight, Tamir was far from a child or anything loosely comparable. His death, it would be said, was unfortunate but inevitable. The officer “had no choice.” He shouldn’t have been playing with a pellet gun. He shouldn’t have been playing around, period. He was tall. He “looked grown.” He shouldn’t have been a child. He shouldn’t have been Black. He shouldn’t have been. And now, he wasn’t. The media made him out to be what he now never would: a grown man.
I have two brothers that were near Tamir’s age when he was stolen, one the exact same age. I cried when I saw his smiling face fly across my Facebook timeline. I am sitting in Dewick and my appetite for ice cream has subsided. In my skin, in this place, at this time, I have come to terms with seeing things where they should not be—the faces of young Black boys in obituary pages, for example. I have come to terms with the moral rectification that takes place in the airwaves and online when Black children are slain by White hands when the whole world is watching. I have come to disbelieve the mantra, “Seeing is believing.” I have a rage that I am convinced breaks my skin out, makes it harder to get out of bed and go to class, sometimes, too. I text my brothers more often, now. There is no place for a Black child to be; I try to carve out space with my pen and these text messages.
to our regularly scheduled
burn cop cars and cops
Bullet is the first burn
On April 7th, 2015, Walter Scott, a 50 year-old Black man, was pulled over in North Charleston, South Carolina by a police officer for a broken taillight. Scott, who was aware of a warrant for his arrest due to his owing child support payments, fled on foot. The police officer involved then proceeded to tase Scott and fire eight bullets into his back, killing him. As luck would have it, an uninvolved bystander recorded the shooting on a cell phone camera, also capturing the cop plant his stun gun on the body of the slain Scott, whom he later claimed gained control of the stun gun and threatened him, forcing him to fire off the rounds. The video was watched millions of times online and shown across cable news networks worldwide.
While this video led to the arrest of the officer, his arrest did not prevent the media from reimagining the events leading up to what was, according to the video, a brutal murder fueled by adrenaline and a compulsion to demonstrate mortal authority. On Fox News’ Fox & Friends, host Geraldo Rivera responded to the video of Scott’s murder by praising the release of the officer’s dashboard camera footage, which he said gave “context to the event… however horrific and tragic and outrageous the shooting in the back is, it shows that it started as a righteous traffic stop.” He went on to describe Scott’s understandably nervous behavior as “hinky and edgy” and stressed that there was, in fact, a broken taillight on Scott’s car, as if to justify the slaying by grounding the initial contact in the fact that this began as a “routine” traffic stop. I learn that “routine” is Amerikan News Media for “White Supremacist.” In this same report, he calls Scott, at different points in the video, a “victim” and a “perpetrator”—the same man shot eight times in the back while he fled, posing no physical threat to the officer. For Geraldo, seeing was not believing. The reimagining of reality is not a media conspiracy—it is its one and only function. Everything is subjective under subjugation. I am learning that the fungible frames of Black people will have weapons planted on their bodies before their tombstones, their first graveside bouquet. I am learning that I commit sin by breathing and I am guilty as all hell. The proximity to it scares me but I am gleefully guilty of my breath.
What can be said of the
before it is
Is it a lynching
or liquidation of assets?
The humanization of White murderers takes place alongside the vilification of the slain. On April 12th, 2015, The New York Times published an article entitled, “After 8 Shots in North Charleston, Michael Slager Becomes an Officer Scorned.” The piece begins with the following sentence about Walter Scott’s killer: “Michael T. Slager played cops and robbers as a boy in the Virginia woods, volunteered as an emergency medical technician after high school, and earned an associate degree in criminal justice while working full time as a patrolman.” The headline photo from this article is one of Slager’s mother, hands clasped as in prayer. The article describes Slager as both a “shy loner who struggled to adjust to his broken home” and a “child of divorce.” In the months after Scott’s murder, I come to understand the quote from James Baldwin with which I opened. I come to comprehend that sight is the worst metaphor for a people whose lives have been built on looking directly into the sun. I learn that dash cam videos are not solutions to the destruction of Black bodies—a tradition this nation has yet to learn to live without. I learn this in English, in headline, in panel question, in caption, but not in vain. I will not forget this time.
Close your eyes and
count to ten.
Black child, don’t you look like him?
Raise your hands
I raise up
the white-silver cells of my
It got to the point where I would eulogize my breakfast and non-existent pets—the omnipresence of death cultivating in me a grim poetic practice. I do not apologize to myself for this. Today, I find inspiration in the bending of language to belittle already broken spines, seeking vengeance on every headline and pulled quote that tells stories of shadows that got what they deserved for lurking, for breathing, for being, Black. I am being taught new ways to tell the story of my body without falsely confessing to my own murder, without admitting culpability for its condition. But sometimes I am guilty. The ironic price of “being woke” to the constant thievery of bodies like mine is a nagging restlessness—I unearth comfort by reflecting on the immortality of poetry, a relationship with words not hell-bent on destroying me without my permission. I am sometimes betrayed and I am okay with that. I sometimes find myself floating face down in a pool of my own uncertainty and I am okay with that. I am sitting in Eaton Lab staring at the screen and I want to end this with some grand observation of language and the scars its has left on my throat.
Instead, I find a shaky peace of my own when I speak on death in my Black breath like I know it but it doesn’t know me yet. It’s 1 a.m. and I know that I will trust myself more in the morning than I do now. I rest my tongue…tuck it tightly inside my still conscious cranium. I see Black children writing their futures into existence with crayons and toothy grins. This is my tradition.
Raise the dead to wish them well
on their way.
Don Lemon juice in the cut
sweet songs of cyclicality
the White boy that got Burger King for killing them
Speak on it.