Still Breathing

Kimberly Bain

I. On Mamie

The sound of Black grief—hot and sticky as pitch—is the image of Mamie Till-Mobley collapsed beside her son’s coffin. In the photograph, Till-Mobley is surrounded by a small group of people, several of whom are men in clerical garb, the others bystanders or close friends and family. They’ve all gathered at Chicago’s Illinois Central Railroad Station to await the arrival of the body of her son, her “Bobo,” her Emmett. He’d been dead several days already.

Is it possible to find oneself so tethered to things beyond your biological life that you are heaved back in time? Perhaps because of the passage of time between my initial viewing of this image of Till-Mobley nearly twenty years ago and my unrefreshed recollection of it now, the photo presses up behind my eyelids without the framing device of the world. I remember it not as a photograph in the pages of a book, but rather as a memory, my own subjectivity quietly fabulated into the scene, unable to speak but present in the moment of the then as I am present in the moment of the now. The motion between my now and the now of the photograph doesn’t feel like a projection so much as a collapsing of time. The photograph demands I remember it as memory, and so I am compelled.

What I remember: Till-Mobley wearing a sleeveless patterned dress, fastened at the waist with a thin belt. I remember the unfinished pattern of her dress, unfinished because the design disappears into the folds of fabric at her neck, her waist, her knees. The pattern is childlike in its simplicity, the occasional animal or ungendered stick figure holding a blown-up balloon, each element resembling a child’s first attempts to render the world before them in pictogram form. Despite its simplicity, the pattern is an intricate cipher in its own right, her dress no less than a sartorial representation of her exposed flesh, an articulation of all the things lost with her child’s foreclosed life.

These “hieroglyphics of the flesh” are at once the violent and violating loss of her son, as well as the ongoing logics of an anti-Black world that feeds on the impossibility of Black children blowing up bubblegum balloons, of Black boys whistling in order to speak, of Black mothers seeing their children outlive them, of Black people breathing at all.

Her dress—writing the grammars of anti-Black violence—offers a meager layer between Till-Mobley’s knees and the dust-covered ground, but does nothing for her exposed and tender flesh. The lacerations, wounds, tears, punctures that covered the body of the Black boy returned to his mother in Chicago—lacerations, wounds, tears, and punctures that remain available for casual viewing in our national memory—were simultaneously etched into Till-Mobley’s flesh. Those hieroglyphics of her flesh were inscribed below the epidermis long before she would hold an open casket funeral for her son, her “Bobo,” her Emmett.

There are moments where Till-Mobley’s dress smears as if my fingertips have played for too long with the textures of its surface, smudging the ink of the print and therefore my memory itself. In those moments, her still image becomes a body in motion. The movement is downward, buckling. Till-Mobley kneels next to her son’s casket not out of gentle supplication nor prayer; she kneels from collapse, on knees bruised from the weight of her grief. The people surrounding her clutch at her arms, either to pull her to her feet or to catch her before she crumples entirely to the floor. The phantom of her buckling knees overlays the stillness of the photograph: trapping her body in an interminable collapse. 

Till-Mobley mourning at Emmett Till's funeral.

Tina Campt describes this as a kind of still-moving-image, images that hover between stillness and movement, not because it moves in spite of its stillness, but because it also moves us: “’Still-moving-images’ is a term I use to describe the affective registers of images, as well as images that require the affective labor of feeling with or through them. It is my name for images that require us to engage the overlapping sensory realms of the visual, the sonic, the haptic, and the affective labor that constellates in, around, and in response to such images. Still-moving-images demand our affective labor through their capacity to touch or move us and through the labor they require to manage, refuse, or deny their affects.” Till-Mobley’s grief moves her body in stillness and in memory, a grief that spills beyond the margins of the image and the margins of a single body.

What has moved this picture time and again from image to memory is not only Till-Mobley’s collapse; it is the sound that erupts with each recollection. When Till-Mobley collapses beside her son, so too does her face. It’s clenched and twisted. Her head is thrown back, too heavy for her neck to support. Her devastation is ugly, her eyes shut forcefully as if to block out not only the sight of her son but also the reality of his murder. Her mouth is parted. A breathless wail emerges.

II. On Breathlessness

I have never had to wonder what Till-Mobley’s wail sounded like. Nor do, I think, most Black folk. In some way or another, we’ve heard it before. After all, “the condition,” Claudia Rankine writes, “of Black life is one of mourning.”

What has tethered me to this image-turned-memory is Till-Mobley’s persistent wail, the non-lexical articulation of her overwhelming grief. To be Black in the United States is to hear that wail and feel that wail that pierces to the core of Black being and Black breathing in an anti-Black world. I have felt its wretched energy move and move through my body. Her wail had a material presence in the moment of its utterance; that material presence persists.

Its persistence is not an imagined overlaying of a wail onto Blackness; it is her wail, the way its vibrations moved through her body—from spirit to flesh to lungs to throat to mouth—following the path of her breath. And hers was the breath of Black grief. While Till-Mobley begged the nation to look at what white supremacy had done to her son, this photograph demands we reckon with what it had done to her, to the figure of the Black maternal, to Black grief and mourning in violent atmospheres thick enough to suffocate.

Despite the fact that we remain in the midst of a pandemic that pitilessly attacks the respiratory apparatus, it is not the case that “physical and psychological breathlessness” is everywhere for everyone. Such a narrative of universal breathlessness masks the quotidian, the quiet, the subtle and slow forms of breathlessness endured by racialized populations. The death of George Floyd—his final words reiterating those of Eric Garner—names this truth. Both Floyd’s and Garner’s deaths (and so many others, named and unnamed) were particularly cruel not merely for the fact that breathlessness defined their death but precisely because it defined their lives: Garner, struggling with asthma; Floyd, required to work in the midst of a pandemic, under threat of contracting a virus that would slowly suffocate him. “I can’t breathe” was not merely proof but prophecy.

Breath and breathing stand as both a metaphor and a material manifestation of life; they are of course necessary for life and living. Breathing not only invokes the qualities of vitality, liveliness, aliveness, and animacy, but in many ways also marks our entry into life and death: the cry at the moment of our birth; the final gasp of our last. As the rest of our existence is quietly bookmarked by breath, grief, too, is held in the respiratory apparatus. Grief has a way of quietly suffocating a person to death. The symptoms of grief find their expression as somatic distress—tightness in the throat, the feeling of choking, a shortness of breath, the breathless sobbing until your chin shivers when you attempt to self-soothe. These symptoms leave the body feeling weak, unable to support itself. It’s a slow suffocation in a senseless world.

For Black people in the United States, the condition of breathlessness has informed the condition of Black life and Black death for centuries; what we call the contemporary moment comes into formation predicated upon Black breathlessness. To understand why and how breathlessness emerges as not only a phenomenon but also as a structuring ontology of Blackness, as a reality that traverses the singular and the collective, Black breathlessness must be read within the histories and conditions that make such breathlessness possible—especially when different forms of Black breathlessness are unevenly shared across bodies, despite the way they saturate Black life and Black knowledge in ways both explicit and subtle. 

If the condition of Black life is one of mourning, twinned with a sour anticipation of Black death, then to speak of Black death is to speak of the breathlessness of Black grief. To speak of Black death and Black grief is to speak of why the breathlessness of the Black maternal sits doubly at the margins and the center of histories of breathlessness.

The figure of the Black maternal is a limit case for the grammars of the world. Yet, time and again it has been called to bear the burden of mourning both Black life and Black death; moreover, it bears the weight of saving the whole world from itself. The Black maternal is not necessarily a mother, nor a figure bound by Western gender distinctions; rather it is, as Zakiyyah Jackson names it, “a web of entangled signifiers such as black(ened) femininity, womanhood, maternity, natality, materiality, and relation to the mother (again),” and less a subjectivity or identity that sits fixed in place. Yet its traffic in an anti-Black world calcifies this mode of relationality, demanding that the Black maternal operate as an archetype of an almost supernaturally resilient body, a “strong Black woman,” often to the exclusion of Black maternal identities that are trans, disabled, and so forth. 

We’ve seen some of the outcomes of such calcification: in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (and with it the realization that Black women as a political grouping vote overwhelmingly, almost as a monolith, for the lesser-evil Democratic candidate), there was a resurgence in the belief that Black women were going to save us all. With the ongoing monumentalizing of and capitalizing on Black death, we’ve seen the figure of the Black maternal represented by collectives like Mothers for the Movement, or Erica Garner-Snipes, daughter of Eric Garner and leader of twice weekly die-ins at the site of her father’s murder, who passed due to cardiac arrest. The Black maternal figure is deployed on all sides as a fertile sociopolitical ground that can give and give and give and give until, like Garner-Snipes, the body gives out.

Black maternal grief, in this way, has become the ill-fated grounds for propelling collective Black mourning toward national and global movements. And the ur-text for Black maternal alchemization of individual grief into collective mobilizing is Mamie Till-Mobley. Mamie Till-Mobley and her breathless wail.

III. On Emmett

Roy Bryant, in an interview almost forty years after he lynched Till, would bemoan his “ruined” life in the wake of his murder of a fourteen-year-old child: “Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he just can’t stay dead.” While Bryant’s sentiment welled up from a deep gully of desperation for the comforts, safety, and anonymity of whiteness, the truth is that it feels like Till died only this year. In ways that matter, he has.

When I think of Emmett Till, I think of that photo where he is alive and well. In it, he poses, a slight smile and eyes bright, for the camera. I imagine he’s proud of something. But it’s a lenticular thought: shift or move it too much, attempt to get closer, and it collapses into the photograph of Till in his coffin. Once was enough—never again do I need nor want to see the image of his mutilated body. My eyes, when they stumble across a reduplication of the image, hop and skip over it. I don’t need a new view because my mind is able to conjure that ugly image as surely as if I were staring at it, just as surely as I am able to conjure the faces and still bodies of so many other Black persons—named and unnamed—so viciously and gleefully murdered. My face can be turned away, but I see nonetheless. The image of Till descends, a veil behind my eyelids, inescapable.

The story goes that Emmett Till whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant’s wife. Mamie Till-Mobley and family members disputed this telling, Till-Mobley explaining that she’d taught her son, her “Bobo,” her Emmett, to whistle quietly to help with his speech impediment. Whatever the particulars, whiteness took deadly offense at Till’s breath. Breath as: his animated and bright eyes; his whistling as he struggled to speak. Breath as: the audacity of a little Black boy, daring to buy bubblegum; the audacity of a little Black boy, who might desire a stick of gum to chew and blow little puffs of air into, until the thin skin popped, releasing Black breath and Black joy into the world. Breath as: his very life.

Blackness is hunted and haunted by lynching. Lynching—mob or collective extrajudicial murder, usually by hanging, a practice inextricable from white supremacist and anti-Black logics of the nation—reached its height from the 1860s through the 1950s, but by no means has it disappeared. It has simply transformed, providing the foundation for the contemporary police murders that impede Black breathing. Not every lynching featured braided hemp and the branches of a poplar tree—some featured a fan from a cotton gin and a bullet and rope and the Tallahatchie River; others chains and a pickup truck; others an arm around a neck.

When breath and breathing stand for vitality, liveliness, aliveness, and animacy, lynching becomes a project of controlling, disciplining, and restricting Black breathing. With bodies hung at a height visible from great distances as a token of white supremacist glee, the message of lynching was clear: a warning and threat to other Black residents and passers-through who might endeavor to—aspire to—the same kinds of subjectivity as those lynched, whether those aspirations were economic, intimate, spiritual, or otherwise. Hanging signified the cutting-off of the breath, and of life and vitality—slowly. Lynching as a practice revels in violent excess, in overkill as a means to extract maximum terror from Black flesh.

The function and use of the noose was to instill maximum fear, terror, and pain while the Black person still lived. It extended death and extracted life. Hanging was a drawn-out suffocation; but so were the other tools of lynching, all of which left victims terrified and gasping for breath.

On an early Sunday morning in 1955, in the already-suffocating heat of an August Mississippi summer, the specter of social suffocation that was the post-Emancipation United States became material again. But somewhere between those two images of Till is the photograph that sat on the lid of his casket during the public viewing, the one of a boy and his mother. She smiles, with a hand on his shoulder. Till and his mother; Black death and the Black maternal.

IV. On Nina

It is not true that Black breathlessness occurs only along the axis of death. Black people have always existed under and therefore resisted these conditions of breathlessness. The violent practices that have sought to kill Black persons both socially and physically have been transmuted into Black expressive practices; as such, our traumas can be theorized, complicated, defied, healed. Black feminist writer Toni Cade Bambara reminded us that the project of art is to make the revolution irresistible; Black art makes the impossibility of living into something that can feed us all. It gives us room to breathe.

Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” was first released in 1965 on her album Pastel Blues. Her version of the song was not the first, but it’s the version of the song—over Billie Holiday’s—that I return to; it’s also the version that Black artists most often sample. It’s the rendition that has become a cruel anthem for a social landscape that still sees Black people lynched, whether by police or white mob. In part, the song’s persistence might be due to Simone’s oversized (though rightly deserved) placement in the contemporary imaginary as one of the major Black women figures who moved civil rights efforts forward. Hers is a legacy of fighting, of revolution. Perhaps I turn to her voice for this reason.

“Strange Fruit” is the penultimate track on the album, though it is listed first on the vinyl’s jacket. The song evokes the affect, praxis, and theory of what Katherine McKittrick calls “blueness” as a deliberate sonic grammar. Simone etches the social geographies upon, and circumstances under, which her music emerges into the aural and lexical geography of the album. 

The song—listed at the start, played at the end—sets not just the tone of the album but its pitch: the quality, the property, by which we measure all else. “Strange Fruit” provides pitch: pitch as tar, pitch as the means by which we orient on the scale the notes that Simone sings thereafter, and the ones she has sung before. It is the foundational measure for understanding not only the rest of the subdued album, but the moment the song became not merely proof but prophecy. 

1964 and 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and protests like the Selma to Montgomery march, where protestors were tear-gassed and beaten for demonstrating against ongoing racial violence in the nation. And 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, where protestors were tear-gassed and beaten for the same, and a Black man gasped “I can’t breathe” and “please” and “Mama.” And 1955, when a Black mother wailed. All this, again and again. 

“That is,” Simone once declared in an interview, “about the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly because it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people. I mean it really opens up the wound completely when you think of a man hanging from a tree and call him ‘strange fruit.’” “Strange Fruit” needs to be an ugly song because it is a song about an ugly mourning. 

Simone’s “Strange Fruit” didn’t arrive until about a decade after Till’s death and Till-Mobley’s wail, but I have always thought of Simone’s version as a song for Emmett and about Mamie. The instrumentation is pared back, simply a piano and Simone’s voice. There are no recorded versions of her performing it live, and that’s just as well. It’s a rage-filled song. It’s an exhausting song. There’s a guttural energy, baptized in anger and disgust, that passes through it. Yet, the part of the song that has always lingered with me is strangely not one of the parts more commonly sampled; rather, it’s a suspended moment two minutes and twenty-five seconds in.

At this point in the track, the quality of Simone’s performance shifts, her voice becoming throatier, more emphatic, and the piano more insistent. The song builds and builds toward a climax, which only appears at the end of the track when the piano—forceful and powerful just moments before—falls suddenly and swiftly away, leaving an extended rest, a near-silence. Here, we hear only Simone’s voice.

In that moment, Simone sings: “for the leaves to drop.” Her “for the leaves to drop” extends “leaves” for a full seven seconds, a siren of grief. “Leaves” takes the entirety of the lungs—takes the whole body—to sing. Not for its particularly long phrasing, but because this form of breathing—the breath of grief and mourning—demands the collapsing of the body. The sonic character, the phonic substance, of “leaves” is nothing less than a wail. “Leaves” isn’t “leaves” when Simone sings it: it’s a deep, non-lexical sound of grief. It’s the breath of the Black maternal.

V. On Grief

The wail—the breathing of grief—emerges precisely when the Black maternal body can no longer cohere. The frame we call the body collapses, weak; the calcified figure of the Black maternal shatters too. In its shattering, it shatters the singular being of grief and mourning; instead, the sonic frequencies of this grieving breath resonate throughout other bodies in other places, in other times. It’s this sonic form of breathing where shared Black grief emerges.

Simone’s “leaves” is what Black grief sounds like. It is what Mamie Till-Mobley sounded like then, collapsed and wailing next to her son’s coffin, and sounds like now. It is this wail, chilling and piercing, that demands a response from all of us. When Simone wails, her breath evokes that flashpoint of Mamie Till-Mobley’s wail, conjuring the sight of Till-Mobley collapsed on her knees next to her son, her “Bobo,” her Emmett’s casket.

I have wondered, time and again, when we march against spectacular moments of breathlessness, why it is so easy to forget to mourn quiet, quotidian breathlessness, often contained within the Black maternal. As Black breathlessness reveals the uneven geographies of Blackness, so too does it reveal the unbalanced ground of mourning. It’s why we need a #SayHerName slogan in dire times like these; it’s why Garner-Snipes could not rest, not even in her final moments. 

Perhaps it’s because, in these moments and movements, language fails us. The language we have to describe and enter into mourning is ever-inadequate for the recounting of or accounting for the weight of shared Black grief, how it operates, its timeless duration, and through whom it passes, let alone the figures it depends upon to be legible.

The Till-Mobley in the photograph is tinted shades of black and white and stillness. But there’s a slippage of form, where the still-moving image is not just still-moving, as a film reel might be. It’s a stillness that still breathes. And maybe that’s it, after all: it is not the still-moving-image of Till-Mobley that moves me—moves us—but the fact that, after all this time, Till-Mobley is still breathing. The Till-Mobley of 1955 breathes through us in the now; hers is a breath still living, still alive, and still shared. Her image metabolizes from photograph to memory to social movement precisely because she is still breathing, still poised to take a breath at the end of her wail. So was Simone, and so are we. 

Black grief cannot be borne by a single body and so instead must disperse among many, never losing intensity as it does. The figure that makes this possible is the Black maternal, on which the burdens of Black mourning fall—and with them, different but no less significant forms of breathlessness. These other forms of breathlessness—the breathlessness of living and not death—move us. The breathlessness of the wail. Perhaps that wail, traveling from photograph to song to embodied memory, is the only language we have.

As Till-Mobley collapsed, other arms extended and held her up; as Till-Mobley wailed, thousands might have walked past the casket that held her son, her “Bobo,” her Emmett, but millions heard and have carried that wail. The wail emerges at the moment of self-shattering grief, into a force that moves people and collectives. We revolt because we can no longer breathe. Breathing is impossible, but we do it anyway. We do. ♦

Kimberly Bain is the John Holmes Assistant Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English at Tufts University. Her book project, entitled On Black Breath, is a genealogy of Black breathing in the United States.


Illustrations: Karen J. Revis.

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