On the Body

Seems like one of the things that separates us from most animals is that we grieve our dead, and treat the bodies of those who pass with care and respect. Our religions tell us exactly how to treat the bodies of the dead; our legends and beliefs try to explain what happens to their bodies in the afterlife.

Whether “we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Amen” or the great corpse hall at Valhalla, or reincarnation, or that we should be washed, enshrouded, and buried facing Mecca, we are united as humans in that this mortal vessel should be treated with ritual and reverence.

The disturbing images — the ones from war and epidemic and evil — are the ones that show the bodies of our dead who haven’t had that final work of corporal mercy extended to them. It’s the pictures of the bloated corpses shot and lying in the street in a civil war, loved ones to far gone or too endangered to bury them. It’s the mass graves in the jungles where the protesters knelt before being executed. It’s the scenes of the morgues in an epidemic where even the burial teams cannot keep up. It’s the earthquake or flood or typhoon so deadly that homes and shops transform to sepulchers.

Bodies in the street means that there’s a war. Bodies in the street means that civil society is not in charge. Bodies in the street mean that disease and disaster are greater than thousands of years of human ritual and tradition. Bodies in the street scream holocaust and famine.

Did anyone attempt to revive or administer aid to Michael Brown as he lay in the street?


Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. For four hours, in August.  

Did anyone attempt to revive or administer aid to Walter Scott as he lay in the street?

No. Walter Scott was handcuffed after he was shot down. According to The New York Times,

Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Mr. Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Mr. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Mr. Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer later arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but is also not seen performing CPR.

Today we mark 150 years of freedom for Americans of African descent. We are decades from our Gettysburg, our Antietam. We have the great good fortune that the era of our own civil war stretches so far back as to be two lifetimes ago.

And yet, there are sometimes bodies in the street.

We are still not that perfected union.

To my white brothers and sisters: we may not feel the long shadow of our national racial legacy. We may feel free to ignore it, or be silent.  We can hide behind our respect for law enforcement and point out the reasons that deadly force was needed.

But our silence is merely an equivocation. We can respect and thank law enforcement that truly protects and defends all Americans.  We can continue to demand that justice be attended to swiftly, thoroughly, and without prejudice. That in the people’s democracy, that city on a hill, we don’t believe in bodies in the streets.

What we as white Americans need to get is this: our nation has a brutal history with the black body. Fulani and Igbo bodies sent overboard deep into the Atlantic in chains. Black bodies worked and whipped to death to enrich a plantation owner. Strange fruit borne upon the boughs of Southern trees as Jim Crow-era lynchings kept Americans intimidated and oppressed.  How that brutality is underscored and echoed whenever black men are shot by police using excessive force.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette spoke to us in Alabama about intimidation. He spoke about the only way to be well and truly sure in the Jim Crow era that a man wouldn’t protest was to hang him from the neck until dead.  That the most effective way to silence was to kill.

The end of his speech shocked me back into the present:  “I can’t breathe. I can’t BREATHE. I. CAN’T. BREATHE!! I CAN’T BREATHE.


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