Recalled to Life: On the Meaning and Power of a Die-In

Recalled to Life: On the Meaning and Power of a Die-In

Die-in at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Photo credit: Aries Dela Cruz

I have never died before.

In the beginning of December, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., I made my way down to our hotel’s main lobby with a few of my friends, to join hundreds of my colleagues for a die-in, a powerful, symbolic protest against the continuing epidemic of extrajudicial killings of black citizens by police and vigilantes.  We gathered a few minutes before the scheduled time, as instructions for how to begin arranging our standing bodies around the rotunda were whispered from ear to ear.  “If you are planning to die, please make your way into the center of the circle, those who prefer to watch on the outside.”  People began to hold up signs hastily scribbled on poster board and plain old blank office paper: “Black Lives Matter”, “Justice for All”—while one of the main organizers—a caramel-colored sister-scholar-organizer dressed in all black stood up on the pedestal that held up the tall, dangerously pointed objet d’art which marks the exact center of the lobby.  Her muted signal came before I felt quite prepared. With a calm, direct, downward gesture of the hand we were informed that our time had come.  Ready or not, it was time to die.

At exactly 12:28 P.M. we lay down on the immaculate marble floor in unison.  Immediately, I felt my throat close and the rush of tears that I fought to hold back.  “Dead women don’t cry,” I thought to myself, as I immediately became aware of my breath.  Almost against my will, it felt—for dead women don’t breathe either—my lungs insisted on continuing to fill with air.  As my lungs expanded so forcefully, I shed more tears as I thought of the violence and brutality with which Daniel Pantaleo literally squeezed the life out of Eric Garner.  Garner, an asthmatic, was placed in an illegal chokehold and gradually robbed of air while he screamed repeatedly—over and over and over again—“I can’t breathe.”

I wondered about the placement of my limbs—whether they were arranged convincingly enough for me to stand-in for a corpse.  I lamented the fact that I hadn’t had time to shove my phone out of sight before I died.  Always the fieldworker in every single moment, I had taken it out to snap some quick shots of the assembly—and now it lay limp in my hand as the rest of my body lay in a not-so-random sprawl on the floor.  My regret about the phone quickly faded, for as it lay across my palm it reminded me powerfully of Amadou Diallo–shot 41 times by NYPD officers as he clutched a wallet in his hand.  In spite of my best efforts, both the tears and the breath were relentless—the harder I fought the more determined they each seemed to become.  With each exhale there was a release—a bizarre mix of carbon dioxide and toxic emotion leaving my nostrils and dangerously swirling up into the surrounding air.  We lay there for four and a half minutes, symbolizing the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s corpse lay on that Ferguson street in a morbid display of state power deployed with lethal force against black bodies.  State power backed by centuries of similar displays of strange fruit swinging in the breeze; state power which attacked our very senses–assaulting our vision with a powerful and intimate reminder that the past is not prologue, for it is in fact not even past.

As an African American, the precariousness and overwhelming vulnerability of black life are all too familiar to me.  It would not be an exaggeration to state that every single black person I know has at least one story of police brutality—whether they are victims or witnesses.  There are too many names that as a collective–we can recite painfully and accurately from traumatized memory: Eleanor Bumpurs, Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Johnny Gammage, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Leon Ford, Jr., Mike Brown, John Crawford, Vonderrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, and way too many more.   We know that whether we are young or old, rich or poor, male, or female, tall, fat, thin, handsome, educated, saintly, slightly unladylike or rough-around-the-edges, whether we are petty criminals or church-going grannies—that we are always, in every single moment—deeply vulnerable and profoundly unsafe.

Ever since the most recent wave of police killings of unarmed black civilians, beginning with the murder of Michael Brown on August 9 I have been struggling with the dead weight of silence.  A few status updates and some tweets, but even though I make words for a living, none seemed to be adequate.  I have monitored social media feverishly for updates and documentation of the initial act of violence and then, in horror, I watched the outsized and brutal repression unfold:  right in Middle America there was tear gas, rubber bullets, tanks, assault rifles—trained and deployed on protesters, journalists, and bystanders alike.  I was both caught off guard and completely unsurprised, for as Freud would say, there is knowing and then there is Knowing;1 no matter how painfully ordinary such brutality has become there is no escaping the paralysis that results from such a profound state of dread when you actually watch it unfold in real time before your very eyes.  Nothing in your life could have prepared you to witness what they are now seeing.  Carol Kidron reminds us of the tremendous potency of silence as a conduit for trauma, emotion, and memory.2  I was now helpless before that power.  Silence covered all—even as the outside world continued to rage and burn.

Dying, it turns out, changed everything.  I died in that hotel so that we might be able to live.  As I lay on that polished floor feigning death I heard off in the distance the voice of a Dickens character recalling me to life.  Dying in that lobby staunched the bleeding in my heart, patched it hastily and returned it to me.  Dying put me back in touch with the sheer physicality of my body, and enabled me to reach both hands through the numbness and feel my emotions as they moved between my fingers. Empowered by my renewed sensuality,for the first time in I don’t know how long, I just felt. Instead of attempting to stop the intake of air I inhaled slowly, deeply, and dedicated every single breath to Eric Garner.  I relished in the heat of the tears that now welled up behind my still-closed eyelids and offered each of them to Mamie Till and Lesley McSpadden. In death, I rediscovered life—and emerged with a renewed sense of the urgency to resist.  And upon my resurrection, still at a loss for words, I sought expression in physical contact.  I found the eyes of my sister-friend in the still awakening crowd, and instinctively—compulsively even—sought the only release that seemed powerful enough to carry the sheer enormity of my emotional state in that moment.  In silence, we picked our way toward one another and embraced.

Some people have questioned the utility of our action.  “What’s the point of a bunch of elite academics laying down on the floor of the bourgeois hotel where they are gathering, with pretenses to ‘disrupting’ their own conference?”  After all, there were “real” protests just a short distance away out on the streets of D.C.   Leaving aside for the moment the fact that many of us, especially anthropologists who are adjuncts or graduate students could hardly lay claim to being elite, or that many of us have been engaged in direct action in our home communities (this was, I think, my third protest in a week)—this space was, in fact, the perfect place to die.  For me at least, a black anthropologist who grapples every single day with her discipline’s sordid racial past and often, at best—ambivalent racial present—dying there, in that space enabled me to think and feel with renewed energy about the reasons why I’m even bothering to be there.  There I died, and there I was recalled to life because there is still plenty of work that I have to do.

I died that day because I am determined to live.

 

References

Sigmund Freud. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton. (Translated by W.J.H. Sprott)

Carol A. Kidron. “Toward and Ethnograpy of Silence: The Lived Presence of the Past in the Everyday Life of Holocaust Trauma Survivors and their Descendants in Israel.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 50, No.1 (February 2009).

When Silence Says it All: Reflections on American Muslim Leadership and the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

I love my community, deeply. And my definition of love always requires complete honesty to the best of my ability: this is how I approach the full range of my intimate relationships with everyone—my children, my family, and my friends. So it is with a heavy heart that I write the following, hoping for dialogue, engagement, and ultimately, a better set of answers.

Like many Americans, I have been keeping a close eye on the developments in the Trayvon Martin case ever since the news broke a little more than a year ago. From the moment I heard about his tragic death, and the unconventional manner in which it was handled by law enforcement authorities, I have been unable to look away. The case is compelling: an innocent child is dead as a result of a senseless and unnecessary chain of events fueled by individual and societal paranoia around black bodies. A young man lay lifeless on the ground in the rain, armed with candy and a bottle of tea, while his family waited in vain for him to return home. I was actually in Florida when I first heard the news. It was just a week or two since it had happened. On my way to enjoy a much-needed day of sun and relaxation at the beach, I listened in horror to the car radio. What I heard connected me immediately to a long and tragic past of utter disregard for black life in the country we call home. As an African American, that past is both distant and all too near—as a post civil-rights era baby, I am not quite old enough to remember the barbaric murders of Emmitt Till and the countless other lynchings that took place throughout the U.S. I am, however, just one short generation removed from those events, and at the age of 12 I had my own tragic introduction to the ease with which black life could be taken. Anthony Agurs, a childhood friend, was struck dead by Pittsburgh police at the tender age of 13. No one was held accountable for his death.  And so Trayvon’s death opened up a deep and painful can of worms for me–it was a reminder of how vulnerable and unsafe being black in America always is. In the era of proclaimed post-raciality and color-blindness, the putrid stench of racial violence was once again discernible in the air, reminding all of us that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva had it right: the claim that race no longer plays a role in shaping our social world is just the same old perfume in new bottles.

I became a Muslim at the age of 17, fueled largely by what I perceived to be a commitment to equality and diversity as an organizing principle, profound and deep concern for the rights of the oppressed and most importantly, the fusion of these ideals into everyday spiritual practice. My faith journey was guided and informed by an eclectic mix of conscious hip-hop and the example of the Prophet of Islam, Allah bless him and give him peace, who reminded us that whoever sees wrong should change it with her hands, and if she can’t do that then she should change it with her speech, and failing either of those two she should hate it in her heart, with the last being the weakest manifestation of faith. From his blessed lips we learned that we should want for humanity what we want for ourselves, and that one is ultimately not a true believer if she eats her fill while her neighbor goes hungry. At the end of the day, Islam is a profoundly phenomenological orientation to the world—it is about being, acting, and doing. Belief fuels this being, and provides the foundation for all action, but you cannot have one without the other. As I have been reminded in countless Friday sermons and religious lectures over the last 20 years, Allah couples these two pillars together countless times throughout the Qur’an. “Those who believe and do righteous works…” is a constant refrain.  In other words, belief in God should ultimately propel us to act in the world. Righteous deeds are not limited to fasting and prayer—we should do these things in abundance but when you get up off that prayer mat and return to the world of the profane, you had best be leaving it better than how you found it.

These ideals inspired untold numbers of African Americans like myself to convert to Islam—believing (rightfully so, I think) that we had found a powerful tool that was equally useful in the war against personal spiritual afflictions such as greed, envy, and selfishness as well as in our never-ending battle with the devastating oppression brought on by the regime of white supremacy. For many of us, Islam offered us both a critique and a set of practical solutions to transform ourselves and the society that we live in.

None of that has been obvious in the last few days. In the immediate aftermath of George Zimmerman being declared not guilty by a jury of his peers, reactions poured in from a wide range of quarters—reactions expressing the spectrum of emotions that could be found in the public: shock, sadness, grief, anger, and fear (or conversely, elation, and relief, peppered with racist epithets just for good measure). Wading through the myriad opinion pieces, blog posts, op-eds, and social media posts, I, and many other Muslims that I know kept asking, “Where are the Muslim voices?” Why aren’t American Muslim “leaders” weighing in on a major American crisis? How on earth can a faith community which has produced human rights icons such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali fail to offer any insight or comfort to its neighbors or even its own constituency when an innocent black child is dead and his killer has gone free? More to the point, when did we become so impotent?  (Yes, I know that many of us have been speaking up, using our voices and our bodies to talk about this tragedy.  Some imams have given sermons, Muslim artists have written poems and songs for Trayvon, many of us have organized and marched in peaceful demonstrations around the country and will continue to do so.  But taken as a whole, the response from Muslim leadership has been spotty and tepid at best–and in many cases the silence has been deafening.)

It certainly isn’t that we aren’t media savvy. Muslims may not control major media outlets but we have taken full advantage of the more democratic means available to us to make our voices heard. We have websites, blogs, and Facebook pages; we know how to write press releases, and so forth, and have availed ourselves of those outlets in the past to call attention to issues that mattered to us. The next time there is a random terrorist attack, you will be able to witness the truth of my assertion—Muslim “leaders” and organizations will issue direct, forceful, and immediate statements making it clear in no uncertain terms that our religious tradition does not condone violence against innocents and that we stand with the victims. We will be the loudest voices against racial profiling when (and only when, it seems) a Muslim is dragged off a plane for saying ‘Allah’ within earshot of a jittery passenger or TSA employee, or attempting to board a plane in a headscarf. So what happened here?

We have a dirty secret. Muslims have a terrible and cancerous race problem. Many Muslims will tell you with straight faces, mostly because they really do believe it, that “Islam” is even more post-racial than America is supposed to be. They will tell you that we believe in universal brotherhood and point you to Qur’anic verses that instruct us to take human diversity as a sign of the majesty of the Creator and point out to you that Bilal the Abyssinian is one of the most revered figures in the history of Islam. And for the record, this is all perfectly true (except that I don’t believe there is such a thing as post-raciality, at least not in America, but that’s a topic for another day). It is also true that “Islam” is as much a product of flawed human beings as it is lofty principles, and while analytically one can separate the two, experientially they are deeply entangled, for better or worse. Trayvon was a black male victim in a system that in Foucaultian fashion molded him into a particular type of subject from the moment of his birth—and the ugly truth is that many Muslims, even some black and brown ones, have internalized these world views and we allow them to shape our relations with other human beings, both Muslim and not. Put simply, his death does not move many of us because we only care about injustice when it occurs to someone that “matters”–and for far too many of us, black bodies, especially non-Muslim black bodies–don’t matter nearly enough.

To add insult to injury, in spite of the fact that millions of Muslims call America home, and at least half of that number have never known any other home, the U.S. is not considered—even by many Muslims—to be a part of “the Muslim world.” And sad to say, in spite of our Prophet’s heavy emphasis on caring for one’s neighbors—many of us routinely turn a blind eye to the plight of non-Muslims. Don’t get me wrong, wherever we are on the earth, injustice and suffering in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, etc. etc. all should be on our radar. But racial injustice in America needs to be front and center on our agenda as well. I am Muslim, I am black, I am a woman, and I am American, all at once. I am a part of the ummah and what hurts me should hurt my brothers and sisters in faith too, but most often, it simply does not even register. I don’t mean to suggest that this is about me. As I am processing my own pain, I am listening to the voices of other Muslims, especially the African American ones. I listened as a brother told me yesterday about his own harrowing experiences (and those of his father) with racial violence and profiling. I’ve watched my newsfeed and witnessed the expressions of powerful emotions in status updates. I’ve listened as many of us continued to wonder where the majority of our leaders are. What are they thinking? What advice are they offering us?  How can I use Islam to help me process the pain and trauma that so many of us are feeling? What are we supposed to do?  How do we make this better?

There are earnest conversations in Muslim communities across the nation and a number of very valiant efforts afoot to “make Islam more at home” here and to bring together those two unreconciled strivings, to invoke the mighty DuBois—to make Islam “relevant” in this particular cultural context. Many of us, our “leaders,” included, have spoken at length about the need to move American Muslims out of the liminal, in-between spaces in which we tend to live—simultaneously not quite Muslim enough because of our Americanness and not quite American because of our Muslimness. That is all well and good, but it’s going to take more than wearing blue jeans with a kufi or celebrating the culinary virtues of bean pie in order to do so. If our leadership cannot or will not offer comfort and guidance on issues of paramount and critical concern to those of us living here, then our search for a truly “American Islam” will continue to be elusive. We might have better luck finding a unicorn.

The Ground on Which I Stand: Foundations for a Righteous Masculinity

The foundation for a righteous masculinity cannot be built upon the domination of women.

Reflecting upon my experiences as a Muslim woman for the last twenty something years, who for much of that time has muddled through the enormity of trying to guide three daughters into Black Muslim womanhood in a world that rarely values any of those things.

Much of that process has been characterized by the push and pull of unreconciled strivings. On the one hand, there has been the overwhelming sense of general frustration with a world that seems to have very little conceptual space for fathoming models of dynamic (Black) Muslim womanhood, therefore fighting for the simple right to breathe, and to be is an everyday struggle with tooth and nail. Surely there is refuge at home to be had, or so the rhetoric goes. Muslim women are a beloved treasure in the ummah, honored with a unique status in life and the cosmic order. Except when we are not.

What life has demonstrated as often as not is that there is an inherent tension that arises when heavenly mandates meet earthly limitations. Scripture and divine lessons are necessarily filtered through human shortcomings, and we struggle mightily with the predilection to interpreting revelation through lenses obscured by unjust power relations and a compulsion to replicate the status quo. As a result, we have the unfortunate tendency to place words in the mouth of the Most Just—words that validate misogyny, reinforce racism, erect uneven power relations between human beings and reinforce them with corrupted pretentions to godliness. As a result, we have become a community that has essentialized male domination as natural and necessary—idealized it as a requisite condition for being properly and righteously masculine, and in the process encoded and infused injustice into so many of our collective endeavors.

We see the results in our approaches to sexuality, physical and emotional intimacy, we see it in our families, it shows up in our mosques (even our architecture betrays us). When male domination is a foundational, fundamental organizing principle in our individual and collective identities, the fruits of this poisoned tree subsequently taint our other, would-be noble struggles for social justice.

For how can we rightly decry racism, Islamophobia, or economic oppression from the outside while upholding internal models of gender-based domination as divinely inspired, and therefore right? How can we not understand the pathological need for aspirations to domination as rooted most immediately in the trauma of colonialism and slavery, and more fundamentally in the unfortunate but persistent tendency of human beings to enact oppression on one another that is as old as we are. If we are serious about social justice, our efforts must begin at home. There is too much at stake.

My ancestors were the very definition of unfree; bought and sold alongside cattle and sugar, exploited and violated every day of their lives. Subsequent generations until the present have struggled and strived for the Promised Land for as long as any of us can remember.

And among our sages were men like Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, co-editors of the nineteenth century abolitionist publication entitled the North Star, whose masthead declared, “Right has no sex, truth has no color.” These men understood the power of intersectional thinking, knew that race and gender oppression were co-constituted, and that a masculinity fashioned from the materials of male domination would always be of the most shoddy construction.