By Karsonya Whitehead
Black folks, as my Nana used to say, have to find a way to carve out their lives in the stitches. She would always talk about the system when she was knitting. Nana preferred circular needles to double-pointed ones. She said that they were easier to hang onto whenever her hands moved faster than her mind could think. We are not allowed to mourn. We are not allowed to grieve. The system will do everything it can to make us believe that the death of Black people at the hands of other Black people is normal. She would sometimes stop in the middle of a sentence and look past me, but her hands, brown, beautiful, wrinkled, and strong, would never stop moving. Sometimes she would laugh or raise her voice or cry and drop her head, but her hands, they just kept moving. She was knitting and teaching and carving out her life in the stitches.
We do that right here in Baltimore City, where we carve out our lives in the stitches, the small cracks of light between the ever-present darkness. It is in the stitches, the little places within ourselves, where we hold fast to both our love for this city and our hatred of the violence in this city. We know how it feels to grieve, to be doubled over in pain, gasping for air, unable to quelch either our tears or our moans. We know how to build makeshift memorials, how to burn sage, and how to keep going even when everything in us calls for us to stop.
We know how it feels to be knocked down, to be written off, to feel the boot—of persistent unemployment and systemic inequality, of redlining and lead poisoning, of broken promises and abandoned dreams—resting comfortably on our necks, holding us down. We have spent a lot of time on our knees, hands folded, heads bowed. We know how it feels to acknowledge that there are moments, in this city, where neither your voice nor your vote matters. (That Baltimore is top-heavy with Black faces only makes the sting even more significant.)
December 2019 has been a horrifically violent month in a horrifically violent year coming at the end of a horrifically violent decade.
For the past five years, Baltimore City has had over 300 homicides and has seen a rise in non-fatal shootings. This information, disturbing though it is, no longer shocks us or moves us or even stops us in our tracks. It now feels normal for this type of pain and trauma to exist in our city. My Nana, who was one of the first Black nurses in South Carolina, used to say that Black people did not have the luxury to mourn because our ability to be resilient was assumed. So, we burn candles. We say their names. We pray. This is our reality.
It is mourning time again in Baltimore, and we are once again standing at the edge between who we are and who we want to be. We take stock because there have been too many bullets and too many bodies. There have been too many broken campaign promises and too many scandals. We have had far too much pain, and we have become adept at burying our fear that our sons and daughters will not make it home at night. We want to but are unable to disconnect, so we find ways to bury our feelings. We hide the emptiness that is inside of us when we are called upon to bear witness to another mother’s pain. We bury our anger and our fear when our leaders betray us, when they lie to us, and when they ignore us. We swallow our frustrations as we watch them care more about the few who have the most than the most who have the least.
In this city, we learned to follow the rules, to submit, to lower our chins, to shield our eyes, and to be still. We learned how to be invisible. We know what police brutality feels like, and we learned how to fight back. But, who do we fight when the person at the other end of the barrel looks like us? Who do we fight when our brothers are killing our babies and killing our sons and daughters? In so many ways, it is not Baltimore City at war that scares me, but Baltimore City residents as war that keeps me up at night. As the mourning comes again into this city, bringing darkness into spaces where light once existed, I am no longer confident that we are going to survive what is happening here without being transmogrified, changed, scathed.
We stand face to face with ourselves, ending a decade that was once so full of promise and hope, where we choose to stand and hold our ground. We must find a way to knit ourselves together and share and shoulder our collective pain. We must find a way to be fully present for each other, to greet the dawn, exhale and dry our tears. We must find a way to bring the morning back to Baltimore, without our tears, without our blood, and without our mourning.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. *This essay builds upon Whitehead’s poem “Mourning in America: A Black Mother’s Blues Song.”
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