Roses for the living.
I was thinking of this saying when I first heard that Erica Garner had a heart attack and we were all hopeful for recovery. I was surrounded by my family, and my sweet nephew led us in prayer for her, and my thoughts were consumed with her and her family, what they had been through and the burden black women are asked to constantly carry.
When I was first starting my newspaper career, I wrote for a time almost exclusively about black death and black pain, whether it was killing in Oakland or incarcerated mothers with families trying to sort through how to live without their needed matriarchs. I didn’t fully appreciate then, because no one had ever told me to, the notion of taking care of myself. I did not think that I was sensitive in any particular way to the harrowing and depressing work of being a witness, of being an advocate and especially of straddling the worlds between corporate journalism, where I had to translate the working class and middle class black experience, and the worlds of black folk.
I’m sure it was someone during this time who first used this phrase, to remind me and to remind others that we should give roses and praises to the ones that we love, the ones that are doing the work, while they are still here.
I was also thinking of another ProPublica piece, this one about black-serving hospitals where black mothers have been dying because of substandard care, a reality that could easily be corrected by improving care for them and making it equal to that which white women receive.
My answer to grief and fear and rage, to emotions I can’t name and want to understand or run away from at the same time, is always the same: I pray. I meditate. I read. Then, I try to write.
I looked to Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and The Gloria Anzaldua Reader and Evelyn C. White’s The Black Women’s Health Book and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and even bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. I wanted to lean on the words of someone wiser than myself, someone who has lived this harrowing closeness to death and daily destruction, who understands the weariness of spirit that emerges when you just feel like you don’t know how else to ask the world to stop being willfully reckless with black women’s lives and hearts.
I found some passages that were connected. Some statistics, though we are more than numbers and metrics. Maybe I didn’t find the right words because I am supposed to write them, because they were stuck in my throat.
The only housewarming gift I gave to myself in 2017 was a Molly Crabapple print which is a painting of Audre Lorde with a quote, “Your silence will not protect you.” I put it up in a prominent place in my apartment so that I always have to consider it, so that I never forget. What I most respect and love and admire about women who step forward to fight the battles of their lives as Erica Garner did is that they understand this in a visceral, frontline way. It is not theoretical.
It is easy to feel that if we say nothing, that we are protected. That the suffering of the world, the tyrannies that obstruct justice will forget us. But reading from the full lecture that the quote is derived from, delivered a little more than exactly 40 years ago from a paper published as “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” helped me to remember why it is important to remember to continue to resist the temptation to clam up:
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”
I had forgotten that this quote talked about how breaking silence gave Audre community, how it gives me, gives us, gave Erica, community even if community is not always enough to save us. Audre wrote this, too:
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight, and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness. For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you to dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”
That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength.
This resonates, and feels true, but also we know from the death of Kalief Browder’s mother, Venida, and now Erica, that the vulnerabilities that come with being visible while fighting the good fight often don’t make us feel strong at all. People praise us with their mouths, but outside of public view is where the real war is – with keeping a life together, with staying healthy, remembering to rest, remembering to grieve, remembering that if there are no roses given to you that you can seek your own — but that too comes at a cost.
As Erica’s mother, Esaw Snipes said, “The only thing I can say is that she was a warrior. She fought the good fight. This is just the first fight in 27 years she lost.”
I tried to not write this at all. I had some down time. I was doing other work and I made myself stop being productive to take care of myself, so that I wasn’t spending an entire day during the last hours of the longest year in modern memory thinking of how many broken hearted black women have died while a complicit nation apologized and watched and then proceeded to kill another one.
I took a friend’s beautiful book of poetry with me to the great continent of Brooklyn for a birthday party, had a couple of drinks, met some great folks, had a good meal and came home, haunted, exhausted, near tears in the wee hours of the last day of 2017. I will not be defeated, not while I’m living, not by racism, not by sexism, not by silences or complicity. Or, at least, I can say I will keep trying not to be.
I do not know how to give myself the luxury of looking away when the world is too much, though, and it is often too much. Zora said there are years that ask questions and years that answer. I hope that 2018 has answers for us.