Gail Griffin

Bringing Up the Bodies:
An Advent Story

December in Michigan, but no snow yet. A cold, wet night. Five months since Eric Garner begged for breath as his face was shoved into the pavement in New York City. Four months since Mike Brown bled out on the pavement in Ferguson, Missouri, lying for four hours in the heat of an August afternoon before his body was taken into police custody, where his mother was not allowed to see him. Not even a single month since Tajai Rice was thrown, screaming, into a police car while her little brother Tamir, age twelve, died on the ground in Cleveland.

Trayvon Martin’s death seems to have broken me into a heightened comprehension of domestic terrorism as a fact of life in black and brown America. It’s taken six decades of living white to get me here, which prompts me to ponder how thick the white fog is; how much I do not yet know, will never know.

The movement that began in Ferguson is spreading across the landscape, drawing a new wave of white paranoia and fury. This moment feels charged, pivotal, a long-overdue turning. It moves me, thrills me. Frightens me. Tonight, the first Black Lives Matter march in the downtown streets of my small city.

I will be elsewhere. Tonight is also the monthly Art Hop, where various venues become galleries and performance spaces. BLM has chosen this Friday night precisely because a lot of people will be downtown. Worlds will collide. They are colliding in me. Months ago I agreed to read some poems tonight while a local composer performs pieces she’s written in response to them. The author of the poems is Conrad, my friend of over thirty years, whom I’ve picked up at the senior community where he lives. Tonight he is at the end of a long and successful poetic career, and performing his own work now demands too much, so I’m lending my voice.

Driving with him to the downtown church where the event will occur, I find my mind is in the shiny-wet streets. “Did you hear about the march tonight?” I say.

Con looks blank.

“The protest?”

“Protest?”

“About the killings of black people?”

I haven’t seen Con in a while; his memory is further eroded than I’d realized. He is lost. “Oh? Were some people killed?”

I change the subject.

In this old church, the sanctuary is upstairs. Entering on ground level you walk into a large gathering space with a kitchen and long tables. This is what is known in many Protestant churches as the Fellowship Hall. A handful of people mill about as we walk in. I see one African American man; otherwise, we’re white. Alicia, the composer, waves and rushes over to us. Close behind her comes a compact man—maybe 5’3”, with thick, carefully groomed white hair and a wide grin. He is dapperly dressed, a Christmas-red vest under his checked sport coat. There is something elfin about him. He barrels straight through Alicia’s attempt at an introduction and throws his arms around me.

I try not to step backward. I figure I must know him from somewhere; I generate the smile that hopes to cover my embarrassment. But then he moves to take Con in the same bear hug. Con is taken aback but laughs. I don’t.

“Don’t mind me!” the man chirps. “I’m just a hugger!” Alicia laughs and announces his name, which gets swallowed immediately by my annoyed discomfiture.

I dislike being touched unnecessarily by people I don’t know well, but I respond viscerally and electrically when a man is the toucher. On the spectrum of male control of women’s bodies lies a whole range of controlling gestures that get defended as friendliness. Even when we don’t experience actual physical micro- and macro-assaults on streets and buses—I have, in fact, been Trumped: I’ve had my pussy grabbed on the sidewalk—we endure the commonplace incursions:  the hand around the arm, the arm closed around the shoulder, the seizure of the elbow, all of which never fail to feel proprietary and diminishing. I remind myself that the elf-man was an equal-opportunity hugger, but it doesn’t matter. I’m shaken off-center. Part of that is my confusion about who he is, what his role at the church might be, or in this evening’s event. Is he acting as host? What kind of a host immediately renders newcomers vulnerable and confused?

I usher Con to a table where we can sit. The Hugger brings us punch and water, making sure to place a firm hand on my shoulder in the process, pressing me into my chair. Reeling in my annoyance again, I find myself thinking about the march. I feel a low-level unease, as if something lies unresolved. Perhaps it’s the question of why I’m here instead of out there. Yesterday, talking to Robin, a young friend among the organizers, I explained that this poetic obligation was longstanding. A young poet herself, she said she’d be here after the march was over. “But you might have to start a little late,” she said. “We’re coming down West Michigan and traffic might get held up.” She sounded entirely happy with that prospect.

With ten minutes before our start time, I am considering the intersection of these two events. Art and politics, poetry and protest. Duty and pleasure, need and want, church and street, personal obligation and public. Alicia comes to our table to chat, “We might have to wait a bit,” I say, and I relay Robin’s message. Even as I speak I am asking myself why I’ve brought this up. It’s not really to apprise Alicia of the potential glitch. Something else is compelling me to bring up the march. I seem to need to bring it into the church.

The look that crosses Alicia’s face like a fast-moving cloud is mostly confusion, but it is laced with disgust. “They’re not going to beat down the door, are they?” She’s kidding but also contemptuous: the barbarians are at the gates of the Palace of Art.

“Why? What are they marching for?” It’s the Hugger, come up behind Alicia, and his Christmas spirit has evaporated. He is sizzling with resentment.

I keep my voice calm. “Because of the black people who’ve been killed by police.”

Alicia, sensing conflict, drops away, and he comes right up and drops to a squat beside my chair, so that our eyes are level, our faces a foot apart. He leans in closer, face contorted, and his voice, modulated so as not to be overheard, becomes a ferocious hiss.

“And they deserved it!”

I jerk backward slightly, as if he’s spit on me. In the instant it takes him to stand again, I go into a kind of mental slow motion. Do not become paralyzed. I remind myself that my best tactic is a calm voice in interrogatory mode. I look up at him. “They deserved to die?”

“Yes!” He is standing over me now.

“For shoplifting? For selling cigarettes?” This is what Michael Brown and Eric Garner are accused of having done.  “They deserved to die?”

Now he wants out; he begins to move away, turning from me. “No, no!” he says, shaking his head, waving his hand to dismiss me. “I’ve seen too much of this!”

Quick, another question. “Would your own kids deserve to die if they stole cigarettes?”

“If they were guilty!” he affirms, still moving away.

“Of stealing cigarettes? They would deserve to die?”

“No, I’ve seen too much of this.” Waving me and my questions away behind him.

“Of what?” But he’s gone now, merged into another conversation. One doubtless more in keeping with the season, the music, the red vest.

I feel like I’m asphyxiating in my chair. The need to flee this place comes over me like a wave. I’m thirsty for the cold air. But I recall that I have charge of an octogenarian with an unreliable memory. I check Con; he looks confused by the exchange, but not upset. I sip my water and continue breathing, willing myself to smile and chat, waiting for the roiling shock and fury to subside.

When it’s time to join Alicia up front, I push myself into another room in my head, where there are no bodies on the ground, no murdered children, and no hissing jack-in-the-box of white rage. There are only smiles and music and poetry. I am doing this for Con, I remind myself.

Now it becomes apparent that the Hugger is also—by assignment or self-appointment—the event photographer. Of course he is. He is everywhere. I read, Alicia follows each poem with music and then some words about her process, and he is all over the place, in front of me, beside me, behind Alicia shooting me, pointing one of the big lenses hung around his neck, darting around through the crowd, moving out in front and back, clickclickclick flashflash. Not the least bit surreptitious, he becomes the third actor in the show, stealing focus every time he focuses. Two women perform for the roving male eye that captures us. Images collide in my memory—professional men with cameras placing me and rearranging me, ordering me to smile, telling me to think about my boyfriend. In one blazing cross-thought between poems, it occurs to me that the man who tells the woman to smile and the man who inflicts a bear-hug on her are brethren, both assuming that she is available, amenable, receptive—theirs for the taking, even when what’s taken is only a picture.

When we finish, I talk with Robin, who arrived from the march just after we started. Her blood is charged with the night and the movement. She describes the impact happily, testifies that the police were disciplined and polite. She introduces a fellow marcher, a young African-American man. He and the other, older man are the only people of color in the hall. I’m considering this when my arm is seized. It’s the Hugger, who wants more pictures. He maneuvers me across the floor. Alicia interrupts briefly to speak to him and I break away, but he’s back. Now he puts an arm at my back. “Come on, come on!” he says brightly but authoritatively. As if we’d not broken sparks from each other. As if the hissing thing crouching too close to me had nothing whatever to do with him, or the performance, or the season of light.

“I will if you will stop touching me!” I snap, jerking away, but my words are swallowed up in ambient conversations. Either that or he chooses not to hear or to notice that I pull away. He will not harken to me, but he also will not stop laying hands on me. Intimate aggression, aggressive intimacy.

Many pictures are taken. Far more than necessary. I stare into his camera’s eye, my arm around Con’s waist, Alicia on his other side. I grin like a skeleton, like one of the costumed Mexican calacas at a Christmas fiesta.

Con is tired. He has enjoyed the evening, relished Alicia’s music, admired my reading of his words. He’s so grateful to me for chauffeuring him, he says for the fourth time, as I drop him off. I wait to see him safely inside the building, and I drive home through the quiet little city.

“And they deserved it!”

It resounds, it stings like the ghost of a hard slap to the face. I keep feeling the jolt of fear when he dropped into a crouch and hissed at me. The transformation was so violent and sudden that for an instant I thought he was kidding, mocking the racism that would believe the slain deserved their fate. He turned like a cornered animal, an annoying but seemingly innocuous dog, suddenly all fangs and froth.

People of color have always known this about whiteness—how its veneer of calm, pleasance, and good fellowship can explode into violence in a heartbeat. I will tell certain white friends about this night, and they will respond with shock, as I did. But our shock, after all, is a function of our insulation. To be shocked by the Hugger’s metamorphosis is to have the privilege of entering a place where white people congregate without having to be prepared for the floor to crumble and the dragons curling beneath to unfurl their fire. If in our relations with people of color we white people hit a stratum of fundamental mistrust, it’s because they have seen nice white people transform into monsters many times. This is what makes whiteness perfect territory for a horror film. For a lot of people of color, any party at the white folks’ house can turn into Get Out.

What is it he has “seen too much” of, I wonder? He was letting me know he had expertise—sufficient knowledge to justify the death sentences he issued. What has this tidy, well dressed, well-coiffed little white man “seen” to convince him that if the cops are involved, there’s a good reason, and their black target deserves his fate, no questions asked?  Did he see something terrible? Did he live in a neighborhood where black kids scared him? Has he actually seen anything?

Or did he simply resort to the images filed in every white head, unexamined “evidence” of the violent criminality of blackness. We have shored up those images whether we want them or not. Our sensors quiver around African Americans because we have been convinced that blackness is violence waiting to happen.

A subset of that file contains images of black children that make them out not to be children at all. The white imaginary is a haunted house, a place of terrors, always ready to explode. There is no other explanation for police officer Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown as a “demon” who put him in fear for his life. And in pulling that description from the store of images in his own head, Wilson himself transformed into what he imagined, becoming demonic, shooting an unarmed 18-year-old six times and then running for cover, leaving him to bleed out. In an instant, the Hugger likewise embodied the very violence of which he imagined Mike Brown and the others to be guilty—inherently guilty, by virtue of being black and male in America.

But while the verdict he pronounced was directed at “them,” the violence in his face and voice was also aimed at me. I had violated the spirit of the evening and the season. I pointed to a crack in the foundation of the Fellowship Hall. From beneath the sanctuary of a church, in the season of advent, on an evening designated for enjoying the beautiful, I brought up the bodies. Into the sacred place I dragged the profane; hence the look of disgust on Alicia’s face. I violated the fellowship of the hall by introducing the bloodstains in the street, the man begging for air, the boy playing with a toy gun. Like Banquo’s ghost showing up at the Macbeths’ celebratory feast, I spoiled the party, and the self-appointed host transformed into a ghoul.

Now my unease early in the evening comes clear. Even as I mentioned the march, I felt uncomfortable doing so. It smacked of self-righteousness: who elected me to raise the social conscience of the group? But I needed those bodies to be present on this night. I couldn’t seem to leave them in the street. Standing at the crossroads of some painful dualities, my instinct was to make myself whole by rejoining my parts. The public felt sharply personal. The art I needed tonight must embrace the sounds of gunfire and marching feet, raised voices and grief and rage, unbearable images of slaughter. The streets demanded to be pulled inside the church, where the outraged bodies of fathers and sons and brothers could be accorded honor and respect, where they could be sanctified—that is, made holy.

I was a white woman insisting, clumsily, that attention be paid to those black bodies. But I was also a white woman facing down a white man who distinguished himself through proprietary incursions upon her own body—garden-variety impositions familiar to every woman, the kind that wear away composure and self-possession and encourage passivity and submission. The intersection of race and gender became my home address. When the Hugger told me what Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice “deserved,” he was also telling me to shut up. Would he have been so furiously bent on silencing a man? I cannot imagine him crouching at a man’s chair arm like that, pushing his face into another man’s face. His rage was aimed at me as well as all the things he’s “seen too much” of, and I took its full brunt in the face. I will smell it and taste it, along with my own fear, for months stretching into years. I will tell friends that I looked into the face of racism tonight, but it’s a more familiar face too: the face of a man exploding in rage at a woman.

Christmas is coming, fast. As I get closer to home, I think about the Advent story as I learned it in church as a kid, how it held a second, burning subtext. There is the story of a manger, a star, a pregnant girl, a motley group of visitors. The readings on Christmas Eve generally ended with Matthew’s version of the Flight into Egypt. That flight is propelled by the understory, a tale of horrendous state violence against an oppressed population.

King Herod hears from the Magi that a king has been born to the Jews. In his terror, the terror of a man whose power is illegitimate, he issues an edict: the infant sons of Israel shall be slaughtered. The birth of a child, with its infinite promise, occurs against a backdrop of parents’ wailing as tyranny stalks the streets, killing children. All of them innocent, all holy.

 

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