By Torraine Walker
There’s a tradition in Black families when someone passes away. Once everyone has filed into the church and passed by the coffin to view the body of the loved one, and the reverend has finished the sermon, friends and family members close to the deceased stand up to say goodbye. These testimonies usually include personality traits of the departed that everyone present recognizes and laughs about, reminiscences of situations navigated and hardships shared, or confessions of how much the person will be missed.
Sometimes, this tradition has an unexpected element. Someone stands to speak that had a rocky relationship with the family or the deceased, at best. It could be a wealthy relative who never returned the calls of the dead person when they asked for help, or someone who betrayed them in some way and never thought twice about it. Usually these people make a great show of mourning, shedding crocodile tears or stretching what should be an apology or 30 seconds of remarks into a 10 minute long performance that serves nothing other than their guilty conscience and narcissism.
Last weekend, I felt like I was watching similar performances in the wake of the death of Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, the man whose dying words at the hands of NYPD officers became the slogan of a movement. Her father’s death ignited Erica’s activism and forced her into a spotlight that brought her into conflict with many of the very people who praised her in death after doing everything they could to marginalize her work and her voice while she was alive.
America hates to acknowledge Black pain. We prefer expressions of Black suffering to be academic, and Erica was an uncompromising reminder of the human cost of that pain. She was determined to call out American racism and anyone she felt was hindering her mission to get justice. She didn’t care if they were media organizations, other organizers, politicians or presidents, and she paid dearly for it.
Articles she submitted to news orgs went unpublished. Requests for interviews were denied. When she was heard, her frustration and the way she expressed it was labeled, by so-called allies, as an example of the unruly, angry, lower class Black woman; too unsophisticated to be allowed a say in policies that directly affect her, too emotional to be admitted into establishment movements, too loud, too direct, and too invisible, until it was time to collect her vote.
Even in death, she wasn’t seen. Her movement work became the focus of an online tug of war between centrists who feel she was too confrontational, far leftists using her words to attack centrists, and other activists who felt she was too focused on one aspect of the collective struggle. Yet again, a Black woman was being used by “allies” as a political tool with no regard for the actual person.
Clintonites who trashed Erica on here & politicians who willfully ignored her demands are memorializing her. Way too damn soon for this level of fuckery. Alive revolutionaries are dangerous to them, but dead revolutionaries are occasionally useful. Man. Let her loved ones grieve.
— TayGo (@taygogo) December 30, 2017
America loves silent martyrs. A photograph of a dead hero coupled with a quote is easier to deal with than the complex reality of their work. Martin Luther King is the most famous example of this, but every Black person who sacrificed to move America towards justice has had their messages sanitized or ignored. My fear for Erica’s memory is that she’ll become another cypher in the Black history pantheon, a face and a name that politicians and opportunists use when convenient, without addressing the conditions that created her.
None of this is to say that Erica was perfect, and no one is above criticism. But critique is easy to do from the safety of a coffee house or college campus when you’re not faced with daily decisions that determine your survival.
History will judge Erica’s place in the movement. But I’m judging everyone who suddenly has time to critique her contributions yet never offered to help her, who see her as a symbol to project onto without recognizing her as a human being, a mother, a daughter who lost a father, as a Black woman let down by the people and organizations who claimed to be fighting for her.
To me, her work, and her life, was far more important than any criticism of it.
“Erica Garner: ‘I’m in This Fight Forver’” Kirsten West Savali, The Root (December 31, 2017)
“What to Say When ‘Wypipo’ Bring Up MLK” Michael Harriot, The Root (January 16, 2017)
“Prayer is Love, but Erica Garner Deserve Black People’s Collective Fight” Arielle Iniko Newton, Cassius Life (December 26, 2017)
“Only white men are heroes” Arielle Iniko Newton, RaceBaitR (June 2, 2017)
Torraine Walker is a writer, journalist and digital media creative based in Atlanta. @TorraineWalker