The Fire This Time “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” by Claudia Rankine
by Jesmyn Ward

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“The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” by Claudia Rankine

A friend of Rankine’s recently gave birth to a son and joked that before naming him, she thought to herself that she needed to take him out of the United States. Rankine and her friend shared a laugh, mainly because of the impossibility of simply moving away from their lives in the US, but also because of the mordant understanding they shared about the “precarious” status of contemporary Black motherhood. While every parent fears for their child’s safety, for Black parents there is the added reality of America’s violent institutional racism.

Another friend of Rankine’s, when asked what it was like to be raising a Black son, told Rankine, “The condition of black life is one of mourning”—a perpetual awareness that her son, like so many others, could be “killed for simply being black.” It is this concept of “no living while black” that white liberals can’t fully empathize with, as it is so far beyond their own lived experience. The recent murders of parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, provides further evidence of the “commonplace” of “fear and mourning” in African American emotional life. The white supremacist ideology that fueled the killer’s hatred and motivated his rampage was learned, passed down through generations of influences and rejuvenated by the anti-Obama surge in racist domestic terror. Like all Americans, Dylann Storm Roof was raised against a backdrop of “slain black bodies,” a given reality from the confines of slave ships to lynching sites to prisons to houses of worship. Yet, when Black people organize and protest, the focus invariably shifts from the nation’s flaws and the authorities’ lack of accountability to racist critiques of the demonstrators’ behavior.

One person who wanted all Americans to confront the horrific truth about the nation’s murderous racial hatred was Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, a teenage boy from Chicago who was kidnapped, killed, and mutilated by the Ku Klux Klan while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Mamie held an open casket funeral and allowed photographs to be published of Emmett’s corpse so that everyone could see what had been done to her blameless young son in the name of white American supremacy, so that the whole country could mourn with her. In refusing to look away from the horror of Till’s murder and not allowing the rest of the country to remain blind to the reality of American racism, Mobley “reframed mourning” as a way to recognize the lives and identities of the victims of racist killings, which became an important aspect of the civil rights movement.

The absence of photos from the Charleston crime scene doesn’t prevent the ability to mourn the victims, but the resulting “abstract” quality contrasts with the spectacle of Michael Brown’s body left facedown on the street for hours by the Ferguson police. The endlessly republished image of Brown’s body had an impact on the national consciousness just as Emmet Till’s had, with the police unwittingly continuing Mobley’s work for her. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded on the premise that Black people live their lives on an “unequal playing field,” a consequence of the lingering effects of America’s racist origins. Despite some well-intended legislation, the lived experiences of American citizens continue to be governed by assumptions about Black criminality. The function of Black Lives Matter can be understood as a continuing effort to “keep mourning an open dynamic” in American society, where Black people exist in inherently precarious conditions, facing uncertain futures.

Unlike Mamie Till Mobley, Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, did not have access to her son’s body, because it was kept as evidence for two weeks before she was allowed to see it. Her right to authority over her son’s body and memory was further diminished when vendors started...

(The entire section is 1,251 words.)