Earlier this year, I sojourned with members from the Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR) to storied Savannah, GA for our annual meeting. Savannah is known for its romantic vistas, colonial architecture, and lush gardens. It rained for half our trip and so we caught glimpses of the scenery, while turning our attention toward African American’s negotiation of its turbulent civil rights past and present – evidence of which resurfaced not too long ago in the allegations of racial insensitivity against television personality and Savannah resident Paula Deen.
During our meeting, we did a research tour of historical sites in the town. On the tour, we visited the First African Baptist Church, which is an Underground Railroad site where enslaved Africans found harbor as they fled the South for freedom in the North. The architecture in the church was beautiful. The stained glass with black figures represented deep historical roots. There were pews in the balcony with African etchings in various languages. We looked up and saw that above our heads were the ornamented wooden grids that were carved into the ceiling to signify the church was an Underground Railroad safe haven.
Before we departed, we were directed to the lower level and gathered in the belly of the house of worship. As we stood still there, our tour guide explained that there are designs carved into the floorboards.
The designs were outlined with holes. They were breathing holes. In other words, it is believed that beneath our feet were spaces where our ancestors hid from captors and they used those holes to get oxygen. We moved about that basement, slowly recognizing that Americans of African descent have been trying to find spaces to freely breathe for centuries.
I am also reminded that it was the church leadership who supported enslaved African’s insubordination and escape, while living under unjust chattel slavery laws. They answered to a Higher Power whose requirements are to act with justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
We are in a charged era in which our society is trying to address our misguided self-righteousness and fixation on getting everybody else around the world together, while ignoring the unfinished business at home. Our ancestors, equal citizens in the great cloud of witnesses, groan with yearnings that their righteous prayers will avail much, that their petitions to overcome someday will be answered. We must get our house in order.
Among the cloud of witnesses is freeman Eric Garner who pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” with police officers, who were to serve and protect him, regardless of whether he was a suspect of a crime. His senseless strangulation at the hands of the NYPD last year symbolizes the institutionalization of this country’s persistent willful obliviousness and enforcement of black suffering. Freddie Gray was unable to request and receive medical attention while in police custody. Further, there should be righteous indignation that black women are disproportionately sexually assaulted while in police custody. How can we be asked to trust a system of protection and service that is capable of doing that?
But I ask the question, what does our freedom truly mean if after 400 years, we cannot count on the unalienable right to breathe, to be seen, to be heard, to defend our honor, or to know the luxury of being given the benefit of the doubt.
I have been thinking aloud on social media about my personal response to many spectators in the United States questioning indignant citizens who choose to revolt and to protest injustice. As I consider the grounds for revolt, I am reminded of the words of philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, “We revolt simply because for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Indeed, not much has changed since Fanon uttered those words or since those breathing holes were carved in floorboards to conceal the enslaved people seeking freedom.
We still cannot breathe.
I, too, am disappointed that Baltimore tensions have come to this but Jesus knows blacks folks are acquainted with grief... Black folks with backbones are endangered. So much so that the hegemony and white supremacist logic fetishizes our suffering, our dismemberment, our suffocation.
As of now, the U.S. is not interested in systemic reconciliation with its darker sisters and brothers. I've never seen that type of mass culture shift and policy change to convince me it is interested. In fact, Mother Lorraine Hansberry observed in 1962 that we are blamed for our suffering, “In the twentieth century men everywhere like to breathe; and the Negro citizen still cannot, you see, breathe. And, thus far, the intensity of our resentment has not permeated white society which remains, in spite of the headlines, convinced it is our problem.”
Our society can no longer aspire to be color/class/gender blind. We need to know explicitly where we stand. We need to be heard. We need to be seen. We need EQUAL rights. We need EQUAL protection. Police and residents need due process.
As we, Americans of African descent, protest white supremacist logics that manifest in our neighbors’ misguided vigilantism and police brutality, let us model the reflexive work and ask ourselves the question:
Who do we confine by our acts of omission and commission?
Who do we brutalize with our words and deeds?
Let’s start with challenging inhospitable legislation in Indiana and inequitable compensation for women in the workplace. We must tear every stronghold that reinforces inequality.
I want to challenge my brothers and sisters to breathe, regardless. Provide space for your siblings to breathe too. Yes, breathing is essential to human life. We cannot live without the air we breathe… But more than the involuntary activity of inhalation and exhalation, breathing is connected to generating the imagination it will take to develop new strategies for achieving equal justice, hospitality, and neighborliness in the United States. It is the ritual of exorcising the U.S.’s fetish with black suffering. And when we stop breathing, we stop thinking. It is true. Every inhalation and exhalation has the potential to help others, including unwitting adversaries, to perceive the presence of God in enclosures.
We cannot stop thinking. We cannot stop generating ideas and being creative in our unlaying of grievances and intolerance of sundry socio-political confinements. It is in that creativity that we transcend and become most like God.
We know the vitality of a community by the art and cultural products that its people produce.
And so my charge to you is to keep breathing. Imagine and make your hands do what you simulate in your visions and dreams. Inspire others to influence and speak truth to power.
Be creative. God requires it.
And with every bit of inspiration that you produce, know that you are the air we breathe.
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