Far too many pieces discussing the life of Erica Garner will forget to foreground an important point. That before being an activist, she was a Black Woman, a mother, a daughter, a friend, and, most important, a person. One who was thrust into the national political discourse due to the most unfortunate, but all too common for Black Americans, of circumstances; the death of a family member at the hands of the police.
Despite the fact that it was her father’s, Eric Garner’s, murder that brought Erica Garner into the public consciousness, her life should not be reduced to that. Moreover, her life should not be reduced to her part in any movement, and her death should be recognized as a tragedy, irrespective of the work she did to seek justice for others after experiencing the injustice of her father’s murderer being put through a broken and familiar shallow, performative grand jury system. Though seemingly simple, in truth, one of the most radical acts we can engage in is to demand the recognition of the complete, and complex, humanity of Erica Garner.
Similarly, far too many pieces discussing the death of Erica Garner will fail to cite the underlying cause. Erica Garner was a victim of the same disease that killed her father. The same disease that not only kills Black people, especially Women, outright, but also delivers so many a slow death by a thousand cuts and small injustices. It should never go unsaid that racism killed Erica Garner and what followed her death should serve as further proof of that fact.
A Simple Request
In the wake of Erica Garner’s death, her loved ones made a request. One so infinitely practical and understandable that, if not for racism, one could be forgiven for wondering why it had to be made at all. They asked that, out of respect for Erica, only Black journalists contact them for comment, in an appeal that should have made sense to all for multiple reasons.
After all, Erica was a Black Woman who lived in the Black community. Additionally, she fought tirelessly, and without apology, for the general recognition that Black Lives Matter. Furthermore, better than most, Erica understood the pervasive nature of racism, and the ways in which it distorts coverage of black life and death.
Racism colored the coverage of her father and the many others who fell victim to White Supremacy. It caused the devaluation of their lives, the questioning of their morality, and the debating over whether their deaths truly constituted a tragedy. This does not even mention the incident where an “investigator” working for the noted fraud James O’Keefe contacted her under false pretenses to catch her in a sting. So, after watching racism define the lives and deaths of so many other Black people, it made sense that her family would want to take steps to mitigate that when it came to Erica’s death.
In truth, it is sad that they even had to actively make the request. Still sadder were the ways in which some people, both those in and outside of the media, responded to it. However, while the responses vary in their complexity, offensiveness, and idiocy, there is a lesson to be learned from them. The lesson that racism is so much more pervasive than police shootings.
Black Death, White Gaze
Some used this opportunity to demonstrate their ignorance on how Race is constructed socially. Either half-jokingly, or entirely earnestly, questioning what constituted being Black enough to receive a comment. A surprising amount asked if simply identifying as “Black,” while not being Black, was enough. Others chose to ask whether being biracial was enough, presumably stopping just short of referencing the one-drop rule and bringing up haplogroups.
Many, unsurprisingly, decided that this request was, in fact, “racist” and “divisive” in a time when we should all be coming together. At this point, the accusation by White people that Black people are “being divisive” or “the real/reverse racists” when they express concern over the role that racism, specifically White people’s internalized racism, plays in their lives should be a familiar rejoinder to most.
Others, including a reporter for the Atlantic, used the opportunity to reveal their unconscious White Savior Complex and questioned the logic behind the request. Arguing that politely requesting White people not cover a Black tragedy, which can accurately be perceived as profiting off of Black tragedy, could have “hugely perverse consequences.” Though left ambiguous, one assumes that the consequences are that White reporters will stop gracing the Black community with their attention, therefore depriving them of any chance of seeing justice or having their stories told.
Though varied, at the root of all these reactions is racism and anti-blackness. More specifically, it is the feeling of entitlement to Black stories and bodies, whether alive or dead. The idea that Black people (a Black woman no less!) might not want, or need, the attention of White people is treated as nonsensical, bordering on blasphemous, in the context of White Supremacy.
Furthermore, that they might doubt the competency, good intentions, and objectivity of a White person is further sacrilege in a world that teaches White people that their gaze is not only desirable, but the objectively correct way to see the world. A world that also tells them that their voice always lends greater legitimacy and value to any story. It truly paints a stark picture of the way in which some White people view their relationship to Black tragedy when, upon being rebuffed, they immediately center themselves. Erica Garner’s death became about their access to it, their ownership of it, and their right to use it to barter for prestige.
In reality, one can view the tweet as a litmus test. Any publication that does not have a Black staff writer (a Black woman staff writer) reporting on the very issues that Erica Garner fought for, and died because of, who could cover this story, is not a suitable outlet to report on Erica Garner. Furthermore, any reporter that throws a tantrum in response to the assertion that they, as a non-Black person, are prone to internalized racism and therefore are not the right person to tell Erica Garner’s story, is definitely not the right person to tell Erica Garner’s story.
While sad, it is perhaps fitting that, even in death, Erica is still revealing the true depth and ubiquity of racism. It is striking that in a year replete with chants urging that we should all trust and listen to Black Women, how quickly that is revealed as a farce. Amazing how soon the calls for trust are replaced with questions about their competency when a Black Woman does not allow her story to be told to the benefit of White people. How quickly allies are shown to be more interested in the social and material capital that can be gained as result of their ally-ship, and less with the humanity and boundaries of those people with whom they are ostensibly allied.
In the end, I never had the pleasure of meeting or knowing Erica Garner. I only knew of Erica. Like many, I retweeted her posts, listened to her speeches, and gazed in awe of her irrepressible courage from afar. Even as a Black person, I do not feel entitled to Erica Garner’s story. Her story was her own and she told it in a voice and passion unlike any other. It is truly unfortunate that so many people do not seem to have taken it to heart.