Coughin’/Coffin Air

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Rummaging through the early remnants of a society that is facing climatic transformations, a single microbe forced America to pause, ponder and grasp the meaning of mortality in the early spring of 2020. Such a characterization is much more poetic than necessary, yet it is a frail attempt to capture the grand scale of the psychological and economic disorientation that has assailed the world and continues to make suffocation a pervasive and global experience. Unfortunately, against a backdrop of pandemic savagery, a new spectacle of suffocation emerged to rival COVID-19’s viral chokehold on humanity. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, went down the streets of Minneapolis to buy a pack of cigarettes at his local grocery store. Shortly afterward, a new barbarism was broadcast for millions to partake in primetime consumption. The world witnessed a white police officer place his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed, face on the pavement. The medical stat line reads “suffocation to death” but, in reality, Floyd cried out for his mother while a white man murdered him in broad daylight, had his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes: nine minutes that feels like nine hours to see it unfold. Floyd’s final moments consisted of cries for his mother, the woman who breathed him into being. She had already passed but his last breaths before he died was for his mother, and with that, the world was reminded that America was birthed out of violence.

America, where petty settler concerns were repackaged as God’s imperative to morally justify the eradication of the indigenous population and cultural molestation resulted in annual holidays of thanks for bounties stolen and scalps delivered. Despite this, for far too many Americans, the true “gung-ho” spirit of rugged American individualism and notions of exceptionalism is not in declarations of accomplishment but found in the radical real-estate politics of manifest destiny and a torture economy, commonly referred to as American enslavement. This system of wealth extraction enshrined the public ruin of Black bodies with public beatings to compel compliance, and later public lynchings to intimidate and psychologically terrorize Black folk into a forever state of political timidity. Public lynching was the booby prized bait-and-switch from a Reconstruction paradise to an extra-legal purgatory of terroristic intimidation: a spiffed-up spectacle of human degradation inspired by the old American barbarism of Indian removal and witch burning.

When it comes to American lynching, not only was it a morbid spectacle but, for some, a depraved keepsake for posterity. If one missed Black corpses dangling from sturdy tree limbs, and the grapevine could only deliver soured tidbits and not juicy details of the slaying, a picture was worth a thousand obscene words. The alchemy of flash powder mixed with white smoke created eerie postcards to purchase by the time you got to town. This was some of that ole time religion. How could it not get worse than that? But when it concerns the destruction of Black bodies, like a morbid merry-go-round, something wicked this way comes. New incarnations of public death practices are guaranteed to return with extreme prejudice, laying waste to Black bodies, minds, dreams, and futures. Live births are not shown on television, but when it concerns Black folk, live deaths are shown ad nauseam. And there will be reruns, brothers and sisters. This was the traumatic reality of the digital documentation of George Floyd’s savage public execution. The reruns of his tortured asphyxiation.

Although political injustices, massacres, and wars have ebbed and flowed, waxed, and waned over decades, Black folk have lived in a constant state of vulnerability of negation; for Black folk, there is no place for us to catch our breath, to grab a brief respite from race in America. This is a cornerstone of the Black Experience in America. The cost of being the wrong color can leave you breathless: at the park playing, in group homes, police detention cells, making a sojourn back to the crib after a quick Skittles run, jogging around town, traipsing through Walmart, arriving at the gas station, getting out of the car, getting in the car, sitting in the car, radio on, radio off, at the subway station, leaving a convenience store, turning the key in front of your own apartment door, chilling in your own residence and even laying in your own bed in your favorite pajama set. Death stalks unarmed Black folk in America like night follows day, a lesson for some is learned, some are taught, while others get schooled. Such rhetorical confessions are, at best, a necessary mental ploy to make oneself feel more secure and dimly self-aware of America’s political past.

No matter what mental hocus-pocus is deployed or even self-congratulatory pats on the back invoked for not seeing color, only people, America is not just a social experiment of generic personhood in a democracy that delivers the goods to your stoop. For Black folk in America, life is a capricious game of chance wagered against folly and fortune, that demands Black folk dodge bullets and their bodies able to tolerate neck-cracking pressure while pleading for one breath or two breaths more when you are already three breaths short. Until recently, such human tragedies have been perceived as abstract historical events or solely as a date or name to be remembered, as a reference dropped at the right moment: the right moment to convince ourselves that this is the last senseless death that will call forth our collective shame as a society. Respect and the sanctity of Black life remains a fact chronically pondered out of existence. The memory of the senseless martyrdom of too many Black folk is simply erased from any second-chance contentions. Too many Black males never get the benefit of the doubt, do-overs, or Mulligans to resolve tense confrontations when wrong place meets wrong time. Instead, it is shoot first, second, third, and so on. They will call into question the humanity of the unarmed later. But fret not because my peoples, they be eulogized back into being by Baptist preachers and syncopated soul claps and staccato shout prayers of remembrance all resting on top of a cold backbeat where the keepers of the faith scat God’s vengeance like the lightest of high hat brush strokes on the most bittersweet of whispered ballads.

Against this background of anxiety, denial, and bouts of panicked redemption the American body politic has had to take a long stare into the deep abyss of its own creation and peel off the garish blue-spangled wallpaper used to cover over the hideous cracks and deep fissures of beatdown truths and backshot lies. If we do not short circuit the seemingly perpetual design of American white supremacy, then we as humans are no greater than the very microbe we abhor and fear for its mindless replication just to steal our breath. This specter of death is the invisible spirit of a nation that chronically showcases its racism with abominable deeds that undulate and jostle for blue-ribbon status, and at the center this carnival of the grotesque: the system, a revolving machine of destructive energies. Beet/Beat-red rusted with unwieldy crooked parts, clacking and clicking, churning out a guttural wheezing whirr as it spins, looping around, twirling and twisting in neverending rotations through racially segregated neighborhoods, spewing invisible dust clouds drenched in the toxic stench of environmental racism. There is no sheltered space where breath is not conditional for Black folk, and even water can surreptitiously smother our lives when putrid lead matter is disguised as city sanctioned H₂O. The racial destruction of Black lives can no longer be allowed to disappear and return to bring paralysis to the soul, suffocate the human spirit, and smother the divine gift of breath. No more coughing up air. We must begin to breathe for one another and cherish each inhale and exhale with reciprocity and respect for the other and one another.

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