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Op-Ed: Black Death Is Political

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By Karla FC Holloway

When a gold star family is centered in our media attention, and one of the questions pitifully asked is “How was he left for two days?” readers know the question is about race. Its subtext is: “How was the black soldier the only one left behind?” Frankly, I anticipate that the actual reasons are absolutely related to the incidents of the battle.

I’m the wife of a retired officer. I remember our Viet Nam era discussions and training about how to support families who received the visit and to anticipate that unanswerable questions might overwhelm those that have answers. I mourn these four soldiers most recently in the news with a heartache grievously meted out to each. But I recognize as well there is a frame for the question about the black soldier that our history and our contemporary conduct make readily available because we are a nation that color-codes dying.

And if we are at all unsure about that conduct, just consider the vicious and disrespectful pushback directed at the widow and the congresswoman who represent the public bodies of the recent tragedy in Niger.  The question is as culturally conditioned and color-coded as the ugly vitriol they’ve received in return. It has a history. African American “war mothers” of World War I, denied membership to the white association of American Gold Star Mothers, were forced to choose between protesting their segregated treatment or mourning their killed sons and visiting their European burial sites within Jim Crowed restrictions extended by the War Department.

Karla FC Holloway

Twenty-first century police shootings shielded by laws that disallow even the most reasonable questions to law enforcement are direct descendants of 19th century legally encouraged, courthouse-yard sited, sheriff-involved lynchings. Those who interrogate the conduct of the dead and their kin, those who practice pushback as their morbidly rehearsed ritual-of-choice were as familiar then as they are today.  We see you.

This is why #BlackLivesMatters is necessary, correct, and clarion. It emerges from a history and a present of denial and shaming that would consider its victims the perpetrators.  It renders the coherent, color-coded narrative of black deaths and dying that a clear-eyed look at the history produces as chaotic rather than explanatory.

I’ve been writing, speaking, testifying, sharing stories of black death and dying since the publication of my 2002 Passed On: African American Mourning Stories. And I’ve been living the stories of black death and dying all my days. That’s the shared cultural experience of African Americans. We come to know death and anticipate its cradle to grave company. We recognize its patterns. Where some would say “not in my neighborhood” others of us have funeral wear ready from our toddler years through our adulthood. We grow up planning or thinking about our own funerals. It’s the rule rather than the exception.

Therein lies the politics of black bodies—alive or dead.  When the mortality tables for childhood asthma are remarkable for racial disparities, when deaths from gun violence are notable for racial demarcations, when police shootings disproportionately affect black communities then these origins announce the politic—health disparities, gun regulation, police training and bias. It seems we’d rather clear a moment for grief (“this is not the time…”) than consider and address the place of its origin.

I’ve urged medical ethics communities to dig beneath the seemingly altruistic conference of “vulnerable persons” and do the work that excavates how we “make” persons vulnerable by public policies that reinforce disparity and neglect. Before we blame lifestyle for coronary artery disease, examine housing policies and school allocations that restrict and confine healthy alternatives. With regard to the military, let’s understand that their ranks come from our schools where, in the perspective of a former U.S. president, the corruptions of our contemporary political landscape have compromised the moral education of our children.

It is absolutely reasonable to question every institution when black lives are, by pattern and practice, history and habit, subjected to bias. Whether it is members of the NFL or the AMA or the U.S. Military, asking the question is not the harm. Failing to engage the fact of the question—its production, its formation, and its resonance—will continue to make black bodies political, and black death our American politic.

Karla FC Holloway is the James B. Duke Professor of English and professor of African and African American Studies and law, Emerita at Duke University.