I’m writing this knowing that I cannot consecrate lost life with words. Acknowledging the pain and grief with mere words is something that Baldwin argued bordered on sentimentality, that “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel,” he wrote in “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Sentimentalism “betrays an aversion to experience,” a “fear of life” and is “always a the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” A life lost in Missouri, Michael Brown; another in LA—his name was Ezell Ford. We remember Trayvon Martin. And we cannot separate the racial composition of these losses; nor can we forget how these lives were often taken: Through the lens of security and the barrel of a gun. Security, it would seem, is the ultimate mask of violent inhumanity.
I do not want to be a sentimentalist. To say that the loss of life, feelings of personhood, and safety that the black community in Ferguson, MO, has experienced is perfectly horrible—doesn’t do justice. Going to Union Square, or Times Square, and standing in solidarity with other people in protest of police brutality—using these same words, or demanding justice itself, still does not do justice. It perhaps gives many of us the collective feeling of relief, a sense that we are contributing to the abeyance of pain to those who are in despair—and perhaps we, too, are in despair. But the grief and rage we have seen splayed over newsfeeds on social media cannot be consecrated by our words—or even our actions from a distance.
I can only think that historicizing these events, putting them in the constellation of race, poverty, police militarization, state carcerality would be a place to start a general dialogue—which is happening. That while we see occupation of an entire territory overseas, and here I stand in solidarity with Gaza, we forget about the building occupations happening right here, in small towns whose names no one knows. Or in large cities, filled with a sea of disinterest. Not until someone is executed through the summary judgment of someone or group someones whose jobs are consecrated with the words “protect and serve.”
I will not shed sentimental tears for the lives lost. But I owe it to them to see, as far as possible, through their eyes; feel as much as possible without appropriating their grief; and reject a theology that, as Baldwin ends his essay, “denies life, that admits the possibility of [someone being] sub-human and constrained.” This theology is a framework, a grid that makes some life intelligible and other lives disposable—and it is altogether unlivable.