A ‘Club’ No Black Woman Wants to Join: Confronting the Aftermath of Black Death

PHOTO: Family members comfort Diamond Reynolds at Philando Castile's funeral (Source: Eric Miller/Reuters)
PHOTO: Family members comfort Diamond Reynolds at Philando Castile’s funeral (Source: Eric Miller/Reuters)

I have found myself having to write, yet again, in the midst of racial, political, and social tumult. Recent events including the Bastille Day vehicular attack in Nice, France, the emerging conflict in South Sudan, and the death of nearly 200 people during a failed, but violent coup in Turkey are almost daily reminders of the global conflicts that frequent our newsfeeds and timelines. And yet, it is what has been happening “here at home” that has me, quite frankly (or yet again), shook. The highly publicized (and live-video captured) shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 6, 2016, and the livestreamed aftermath of Philando Castile’s death during a “routine” traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 7, 2016, has yet again left us reeling.1 The subsequent fallout from these events and seeming retaliatory shootings of police officers in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge are shocking. These events are most pressing to me as someone who teaches Africana Studies, and especially so as a black woman with a black husband, a black son, a black brother, and a black father.

The New York Times has masterfully documented the nuanced circumstances of these events, and from nearly every angle, which includes the interactive tracking of protests that emerged in at least 70 cities. There have been compelling writings by scholars, activists, and everyday citizens that capture the complexity of our times including Roxane Gay’s op-ed on the devaluing of black lives, Emilie Townes’s scathing critique of violence and human disregard, and a most powerful notice from David Dennis, Jr. entitled, “A Letter to My Son If Police Actions Leave You Fatherless.”

Relatedly, the opening remarks at the ESPY Awards by Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James and the public service announcement #23Ways have shown us how celebrities, athletes, and artists are increasingly using their platforms to bring attention to a broken American system that seems to place all lives over and against black lives. These renderings—in print, prose, and visual imagery—have reminded us (as Patrick Rael has pointed out) that these contemporary debates are sadly not new. They also prompt us to consider the stakes of #BlackLivesMatter as a rallying cry, a movement, and a mindset.

There is so much that has been said, and simultaneously not enough that has been said about the state of black life as we now know it, which, as Claudia Rankine has pointed out, is frequently a condition of mourning. And that is exactly how I feel. I am grieving yet again, and my thoughts return with greatest frequency to those who are left behind during these senseless acts of violence. This includes especially the women, who, when they are not themselves victims, are left to do the painstaking, grievous work of fighting for the legacies of their loved ones while pursuing justice and seeking some semblance of closure for their grief.

Sybrina Fulton, Travon Martin’s mother (Source: Sybrina Fulton)

The colloquial phrase “women’s work” has always had a double meaning for black women—just consider the lives of Lezley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, Lucia McBath, Nicole Paultre Bell, Gwenn Carr, Geneva Reed-Veal, Joeann Lewis, Diamond Reynolds, and Quinyetta McMillon—who are left wrestling with the aftermath of actions that permanently alter the trajectory of their lives. The highly publicized deaths of their loved ones immediately enter them into a “club” no black woman wants to join, where they enlist, for a lifetime membership, with women who have powerfully tragic legacies of their own including Mamie Till Mobley, Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, and Myrlie Evers Williams.

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, MARCH 11 **FILE**Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son's funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago (AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times)
Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago (AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times)

I return to these women often. I look at their faces and try to interpret their eyes. For the women who have passed on, I hope that the darkest moments of their lives do not continue to consume their descendants. For the women who are still alive, I pray for some semblance of solace and that they can conjure all the hope they need to wake up every morning and willingly draw breath. I cannot fully comprehend their loss, their rage, their anguish, their sorry and the gaping holes that threaten to devour them. I pray that they are not alone, and in the moments when they feel utterly desolate and abandoned by whom or what they believe in, that there is something—a memory, a moment, a call, a god, a friend, a smile, a donation—that allows them to yet keep holding on.

I read their stories and connect the dots. How, for all of them, no matter whom they lost, that loss is incurable. Within each of these women, there is an emptiness that cannot be filled, even as there are glimpses of peace, hope, and occasional laughter. As I consider the ties that bind these women, I am filled with even greater angst because of the recognition that my thoughts about these women—and my prayers for them—are also selfish.

I see them and I think of myself.

I look at their faces, acknowledge their tears, and I know that at any instant, I could take my place among them. I consider the ways I walk through my daily life on edge about how the possibilities of my husband or son—or even I—could be taken from this earth without a precursor or moment’s notice are increased, and just because of the color of our skin. This edge can certainly be interpreted as a deep-seated fear, but it is actually more than that. It is sense of sorts that I have carried with me for as long as I can remember, and which was instilled within me as a black woman from the Deep South.

And I wail. I lament. I protest—sometimes loudly, sometimes with stoic silence, and sometimes with a façade of smile. And I worry, as we should all worry. We should all carry anxiety about the implications of a world where black lives seem to be so carelessly discarded. This should not be my burden to bear alone. People are increasingly opening up about their concerns for raising black children in this world, and in this country. Kelly Rowland, Christen Smith, and others have all voiced their angst, or rather, our angst.

I share their concerns, and I hope—I pray—that I am not alone.

  1. The recent news that Philando Castile was pulled over nearly 50 times in a thirteen-year window complicates contemporary considerations of routine traffic stops.
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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.