“We have to make them feel us”: Open Letters and Black Mothers’ Grief

In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, and amidst this long moment of national black mourning, I want to pause with one voice (or, set of voices). That is the voice of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, whose open letter to Michael Brown’s parents, Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., calls out to an historical community of black women who have lost their children at the hands of white America’s racism. Fulton refuses to offer platitudes, denies easy answers, writing “I don’t” have words of comfort, “I can’t” say it will be alright, “I won’t” be able to ease the pain. She offers connection to a woman whose son “barely had a chance to live” and tells us that this new future is inconceivable, “unlike anything I could have imagined.” She bravely names the facts, writing that “no one will ever convince me that my son deserved to be stalked and murdered” and “No one will ever convince you that Michael deserved to be executed”: putting it this way doesn’t just obliterate the euphemisms that seem to be in ready supply, but also unveils the depravity of those who would suggest that these boys deserved the brutal deaths they faced.

Most importantly, she tells us, “if they will not hear us, we have to make them feel us.” Fulton holds space for what is personal but also what is intentionally collective about an open letter: we know that this is not only a moral disaster for this country, but also an acute emotional disaster for her, personally. She requires us to deal with the fact that there is no reconciling her personal grief, just as there is no reconciling with that of Leslie McSpadden’s, nor with the fear that is reflected in the parents and communities of living black children, knowing those children could be Trayvon, could be Michael.

She writes in the language of black women who have honored feeling and asked everyone else to do the same. And so, she reminds us of Audre Lorde, who also asked us—and “them,” those who have refused, for centuries, to acknowledge that black mothers get to be mothers, and black children get to be kids—to feel. Fulton’s letter echoes with the affect of Audre Lorde’s “A Dirge for Wasted Children,” dedicated to Clifford Glover who, at age 10, was shot and killed by a white police officer who was later exonerated. Through the image of the dying child, Lorde steps into the position of the black maternal and becomes a guardian “anoint[ed]” by “wasted children.” Lorde demands accountability for the horrific murder through the intense visuality of the last stanza as she recalls “a small dark shape rolls down/ a hilly slope/ dragging its trail of wasted blood.” She challenges us to live in the scene of the most intimate loss, parsing no words as she rages against the white police officer who has Clifford’s blood on his hands:

I am bent

forever

wiping up blood

that should be

you.

In these final lines, the image of the woman cleaning up the blood of a dead child evokes the intimacy, longevity, and madness of a mother’s pain for her lost child. But here, she signals the rage of both the mother and of “A Woman,” anonymous: the community of people charged with mothering, nurturing, raising up black children who, Lorde would say elsewhere, “were never meant to survive.” She shows us the grieving rage of the other-mothers, too, whose relationship with the child nonetheless bears resemblance—in care, and in this case, in grief—to that of the biological mother.

In these two formations of open letter, we see both the continuity of violence, and also a legacy of black women grieving publicly for the loss of their children—allowing their grief to be public, asserting that if their lives don’t get to be private, then the world doesn’t get to ask them to privatize their emotions. As Ta-nehesi Coates has written, “All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people.” And in response to this relentless, combative, old culture of violence, Fulton says, “we have to make them feel us.” We will make them feel us. Fulton’s letter belongs to a long legacy of black women expressing mourning in ways that require that we feel something , that express bravery and anger, that ask us to learn what it feels like to lose a child to racism. To internalize how very high the stakes of racism are.

That outcry, too, is old. That expression of solidarity, too, is old.  It is as old as Mamie Till, who opened up her murdered son’s casket and her own grief to force the world to feel and witness the work of lynching; it is as old as Harriet Jacobs, who wrote about the 7 years she spent in a crawl space to defy a world that forced her to give her children up to slavery; it is older still, as old as the women whose names history has lost, who leaped off of slave ships in expressions of grief at the enslavement and murder of their children.

With the inertia of this old violence, and the power of this old grief, Fulton asks us to slow down enough to feel: she asks us to feel the impact of a country obsessed with guns, to feel the impact of racism backed up by the state, to feel the impact of a boy’s execution in broad daylight by those sworn to protect, to feel the impact of every black boy who has ever been called dangerous. She asks us to feel, to mourn, and to yearn for a world in which black and brown children get to grow up.

 

[[Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.]]

A Woman/Dirge for Wasted Children (for Clifford)

 Awakening

rumours of the necessity for your death

are spread by persistent screaming flickers

in the morning light

I lie

knowing it is past time for sacrifice

and I burn

like the hungry tongue of an ochre fire

like a benediction of fury

pushed before the heel of the hand

of the thunder goddess

parting earth’s folds with a searching finger

I yield

one drop of blood

which I know instantly

is lost.

 

A man has had himself

appointed

legal guardian of fetuses.

Centuries of wasted children

warred and whored and slaughtered

anoint me guardian

for life.

 

But in the early light

another sacrifice is taken

unchallenged

a small dark shape rolls down

a hilly slope

dragging its trail of wasted blood

upon the ground

I am broken

into clefts of screaming

that sound like the drilling flickers

in treacherous morning air

on murderous sidewalks

I am bent

forever

wiping up blood

that should be

you.

 

Comments

  1. Chris Cameron says:

    This is a beautifully written and powerful piece Emily. Thank you!

  2. Robert Greene II (@robgreeneII) says:

    This was absolutely fantastic. I can’t think of much more I’ve read anywhere that speaks more to what a lot of people are feeling right now than this.

  3. Renee Belcher says:

    So eloquently spoken. The lives lost, the pain endured. Black motherhood. We must not be silent.

  4. Emily Owens says:

    Thanks Chris, Robert, and Lauren for these kind words. For those looking for more resources on thinking, writing, and teaching about Ferguson, check out this recent list (following in the footsteps of #fergusonsyllabus): http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-about-whats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/
    I’m happy to say that this post is on the list, and honored to be in such good company. I hope this serves as a useful resource for us, and for others.

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  1. […] note: I wrote the following post before Emily Owens’ excellent post “‘We have to Make them Feel Us’: Open Letters and Black Mothers’ Grief&#8221… two days ago from the perspective of “black mothers who have lost their children at the hands […]

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