by Valerie Morales
The profound death of Erica Garner burdened two communities. The contrast was in the sobs. One community had their weeping in public. The other cried in the dark. If the elegance of time is that it insists on not going backward, then black women who survived a beating by a boyfriend, as Erica Garner did eleven months ago, know the ritual. Keep quiet. The pain has to be silent. Ukuthula. Your body doesn’t matter. Ukuthula. Quiet.
When Erica Garner took her father’s place, when he couldn’t breathe and reflexively she did the inhaling and exhaling in absentia, she became a heroine. Now in death, she is a beautiful martyr. Etched into granite is her public demand for accountability, justice, equality, attention, and reform. She pushed the agenda forward, even in her unholy grief. For that reason alone she was an enduring light for a quilted community. She was what many of us just cannot be: selfless.
It made sense then that her death triggered an outpouring of glistening emotion. Activists, marchers, community workers, legislators, students, teachers, everyone participating in pushing forward awareness, and strategic policy around police brutality and police murders in black communities were eloquently lyrical in their Erica Garner tributes. The words flowed. On social media. In publications. Over the airwaves. We miss her. We loved her. She fought for us.
But nowhere in the tributes, not in the voluminous articles, not in the television testimonies, not in any of the Erica Garner herstory, was their mention that she was beaten in February of last year. No one talked about her being choked. No one retold the tale of lighter fluid tossed on a computer and television, a chilling threat. No one said she has punched in the stomach over and over and over again because she was pregnant and her attacker was enraged, repetitiously violent, unhinged, desperate, and wanted abortion on her living room floor. No one dared examine her blinding panic and fear when his gripping hands forced her jaws open so he could pour what he said was bleach down her throat. No one talked about the gun. No one wept for her willful courage. She was a human shield, a mother doing what mothers do, throwing themselves in front of danger to protect their children. She protected her child from the violence that night of wounds.
Here is the paradox though and it has everything to do with that February night of terror and cruelty, and who was responsible, and what uniform they were not wearing, and what street marches will never be had in the name of domestic violence, and the thousands of men who will never create an organization about the death of us.
Of that cruelty record, upon her death, it was scrubbed clean. Disappeared. Sanitized. Revisionist, like it never happened. As if Erica Garner was never beaten.
The soul fights the fight. But the heart is true. It remembers the crises. It has the last word.
Racism in the world creates paralysis. Violence at home creates injuries. One is neither better nor worse on a binary scale of tragic. One may be more consistent, depending upon the situation. One may be easier to hide, depending on the explosion. Regardless. It is exhausting to endure being devalued as if we have no moral worth. It is tiring. Weary. Eventually, there is a breaking point. The heart just stops.
Calling it a heart attack mangles the understanding of why. When women are beaten and have to remember it, there is a deception in the details as we search for kindness to explain the unthinkable, as we are the good women we were raised to be and re-evaluate the truth. It is literally like walking barefoot in the snow for 25 miles. Eventually, you freeze and things just stop working, and then they fall off. The alchemy of a perfect human is now the detritus of a damaged human. What was once a thick and fleshy heart is now a shattered heart, thin over time. It is messy and flailing.
Rev. Al Sharpton, at Erica’s funeral, said “her heart was attacked.”
In the beating aftermath, blood in the heart’s chambers becomes incoherent, as if it has been saddled with dementia and cannot remember what it is supposed to do anymore. So, yes. Her heart was attacked. By her boyfriend.
Celia was a Missouri slave in 1850 and she fought off her rapist slave master with a stick. Erica Garner was a Brooklyn activist in 2017 and she fought off her attacker with her will. Both women were proud in their intersection. White men’s depravity and black men’s anger are consequentially similar. Both are responsible, equally and separately, for killing us. We are cut up into the sum of our parts.
Ask anyone who has lost a father.
You ostensibly disappear after they disappear. You became smaller. Their memory assaults every cell of your bone. You are still a daughter but quietly you become a shimmering ghost. You weep. But you work. You pace. But you dress the kids for school. You cry in the tub. But you sit in the meeting around the conference table and coherently talk about the day’s agenda.
When a daughter loses a father, she loses the first man she looked at with diamonds in her eyes; she fell in love with his shadow and his hands. She loses daddy. She loses Saturdays in the park and Thursday nights playing Scrabble and Wednesdays in the kitchen eating gumbo. She loses the drive to college and him walking in her dorm room to make sure everything is alright. She loses her priest and her counselor and her banker and her judge at the door when the prom date nervously comes in. She loses that brilliant star in the sky who is temporarily on earth. He is back in the sky. When that happens, she loses her mind in the darkness of the lonely midnight hour. It is a stunning defeat. She is lost without him.
Ask anyone who has had a parent murdered. You bleed long after their soul has migrated north. You bleed over and over and over again.
The end of Erica’s story was not the beauty of her story. The beauty of her story was not aesthetics. It was, simply, completely, loving her father and her son, protecting them from the world’s spectral disasters. And yet, the sad, stinging irony is omnipresent.
Eric Garner shouted in triplicate “I Can’t Breathe”. Some three winters later, his daughter Erica could not breathe. Eric Garner was choked on the street. Erica Garner was choked in her house. In the aftermath, both had heart scars.
Erica survived because it wasn’t the police choking her. But she died too, in the quiet secretive place black women die, in the ventricles where our heart stores memory and dreams, optimism and mercy, tribal innocence and truth. We are frail there. We are ukuthula. Silent. Quiet. We are kutoweka. Disappearing.
Until we disappear for the final goodbye and return to the sky.
We want so much to believe in the litany of Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. It is an exquisite piece of prose. But, history reveals its gross exaggerations. In modern times weighed down by racial and gender violent absurdity, the moral universe is short. Abbreviated. In fragments. Justice bends away from black women’s trauma. Everyone stays quiet.