What Death Teaches the Living

On July 17, 2014 my father and I found my aunt, his older sister, deceased in her apartment. She had passed days prior to our visit, much to our oblivion.

We drove to My Aunt’s apartment after her nurse called my father and informed him that she missed treatment. My aunt went to dialysis a few times a week to treat her kidney disease. The illness had seized most of her leisure time, she was noticeably darker and withered unhealthily to a thin frame from her once healthy plus-sized figure. She tried hard to be the person she always was— outspoken, unbothered and funny. She never stopped being those things but in hindsight I think she new her fate was approaching. I think most of us get to a point where we know, some sooner then others. Perhaps all members of the human race can feel the hot breath of death at the brink of their transition. However, blacks can anticipate that like their lives, their transition will be unfair, and most likely traumatic to them and those that they love.

My aunt’s death was sudden and violent. I say violent because to die is one thing, but the burden of feeling like she was neglected or alone hangs heavily in my mind.

The last text she sent me read:

Baby I'm home.

If the coroner is right, shortly after this message she transitioned. She was home, but not in her second floor apartment in a Brooklyn complex, but her home in the sky.

I find peace knowing that my late grandmother is reunited with her beloved daughter, her only girl. My peace is disturbed in remembering how itemized my aunt became in her death.

In On Blackness and Being, Dr. Christina Sharpe revisits the Zorgue tragedy where hundreds of Abducted Africans were tossed from a slave ship ship to obtain an insurance allocation. To the European kidnappers, black bodies were merely capital. My aunt's transition evoked a similar reality. Once her body fell over the ship of white supremacy, she became cause for collection.

Death proves a dual blow to those of the black collective forced to deal with personal healing with regard to loss of a loved one, and the collective tragedy of understanding the devalued black body.

The Unsightly black body

Sullied by a posthumous deterioration accelerated in the summer heat, the coroner admonished my father and I with regard to seeing my aunt’s face after death.
“I can show it to you, but it’s very disturbing to look at,” said the coroner. Instead my dad would identify parts of her in a plastic bag via picture at the morgue—where she lay dismembered like her ancestors reduced to limbs and organs in both life and death. Frozen in time—neither of us would see her face again. Instead, the casket, like the chapter in life that included her humor and style, would be closed due to “her condition.”

Prior to the service, we’d call the morgue just before they shipped her off to potter’s field. I suppose the condition of a decomposing sickly body had signaled to the officials that she was unloved and destined to perish in a shared whole in the ground like the abducted Africans tossed into what is now the African burial grounds.

Packing Up a Life Lived

While the physical burial grounds of the deceased are a source of despondency, so is the residence of the deceased abandoned in their departure. Notably, one of the most heartbreaking and tedious components of death is clearing out the belongings of the deceased from their place of residence. During this process, an unemployed neighbor of my aunts who did not attend the funeral, informed my father and I that she and my aunt had discussed her obtaining her fridge.

While my father struggled to accept that his sister was gone, this woman saw my aunt as a means to get something for virtually nothing. While we knew they lived in a similar complex, we had no idea whether this woman was even an acquaintance of my aunt, let alone a friend. I remember watching in horror and rage as she dug through the garbage can to examine the items tossed from aunt’s apartment.  This moment sank my stomach in a disgust unfamiliar to me before this incident. This comment and behavior, while to most an ignorant yet innocuous act of an opportunist, symbolizes a black female who will eventually succumb to a similar posthumous objectification, itemize another black woman as an act of oppressive hypnosis.

This oppressive hypnosis distorts our collective ability to identify with one another outside of survival. Thus, white supremacy renders blacks into an animalistic state casting blacks as vultures that latch onto the flesh of our deceased to nurture a systemic deprivation.

A Financial Burden

With regard to deprivation, it is imperative to note that the black body becomes an object of contention when seen to deprive the western world of its destiny, or simply put: money. .

To tie up all loose financial ends, I called the credit union to close my aunt's account. In her sudden death the account was inactive–the proper funds not allocated to cover monthly fees. The representative yelled at me that it was my responsibility to pay my aunt's deficit.

There was no discussion of options given my aunt's transition. No condolences. Just a callous demand by a genetically melanated individual embarrassingly dedicated to itemizing the black body to obtain underserving funds for his master.

Similarly, when my grandfather passed, the hospice called my mother repeatedly to “identify the body.” My grandfather no longer had a name or purpose, as the employees of he hospice were most interested in casting my grandfather overboard an illusive ship. To us my grandfather was a man, father, husband, grandfather. To the western gaze, my grandfather was merely taking up space.

The cavalier disregard afforded to the black body is a systemic truth which bears a testament to our inhumane status in American culture. Black desire to transition into personhood is a consistent struggle. Aspiring to live in a world that cannot seemingly wait to cast the black body overboard dead or alive, is a consistent battle for those afforded the stagnancy of systemic oppression.

The Morgue

One of the most troubling moments of the whole ordeal was the scent of the morgue to which my father and I visited to identify my Aunt's body. The morgue stunk of death and decay, proving that cyclical disenfranchisement, while possessing many looks, bore a singular smell of rotten flesh. In life, this scent is often veiled by perfumes, or the aroma of wealth and material gluttony. In death, the cyclical imbalance and disregard extended to black bodies bears an unmasked, and pervasive scent. The scent —vulgar and pungent—sears through the nostrils and embeds itself into the brain. If there were any doubt that your loved one was not to return to the place they held in your life, the scent reminded you of what had become of them.

But to the black body, this decay starts long before death, and far before birth. The black body began its decaying process in its voyage over the Trans-Atlantic, a decaying process that continued in the fields and houses of the plantation, in the Jim Crow South, during integrative efforts and throughout the contemporary colorblind initiatives. The black body decays in the poisonous food placed in our communities, in the vile pollution ingrained into our minds via school, television, and popular culture. To be black is to be in a constant state of deterioration, a state reversed solely in becoming awakened by a spiritual consciousness. Without this consciousness we remain coerced passengers on a ship whose ultimate destination is our destruction.

In Closing

It was a ship that carried us over to the stolen terrain of North America, and still holds us captive. A spiritual consciousness allows the black Diaspora to steer this ship out of oblivion, assimilation, and self- destruction into a collective determination to which our drowned ancestors from the Zorgue and those worked, burned and beaten to death, hold hands with descendants mentally scarred by their demise and upraised to our rightful place as kings and queens.

In remembering my aunt and her departure from this world, I remember all the nameless bodies of the black diaspora handed a similar fate. But whether cast off a ship, scattered into the earth’s flesh, or placed into the ground, the dead are hardly gone. While we may not be able to walk alongside the ancestors, elders, and peers who have left us, they are the ground we walk on and the wind that nestles behind our ears letting us know they are resting in a power we still have time to cultivate in life.

Black Power. ❤