Because We Breathe
In my recent conversations with Anglican Bishops I asked them about the connection between the pandemic and prevailing injustices like racism, sexism, ageism and poverty. Taken seriously, this question requires deep analysis of complex intertwined political and societal issues. It is a thorny issue, and that’s why I wanted to raise it.
The theme here is interdependence — interdependence both between humans in terms of our shared humanity and between the challenges that we face. It was especially interesting to me to hear what kind of metaphors the Bishops used to illustrate this interdependence.
One of the more evocative metaphors was offered by Bishop David Walker of Manchester. In our conversation he related the unearthing of prevailing injustices to an increase in awareness of shared humanity using the metaphor of breathing, to elaborate on the resonance between the pandemic and black lives matter. Breathing connects us all bodily. Breathing and lack of breath during the current pandemic in particular, whether because of a COVID infection which manifests primarily as a respiratory disease or because of racial violence manifested as a knee to the throat, serves as a visceral reminder of the humanity we share and the fragility of human life. Bishop David ended his reflection with a question: “What does a world look like where everybody is allowed to breathe?” — What indeed?
Bishop Guli Francis-Dehqani of Leicester also implicitly used the metaphor of breathing when talking about human connectivity taking expression in the consequences of human behaviour in one part of the world on another. She made the point that through lockdown “We’ve seen nature […] take a kind of sigh of relief”. Breathing is such a basic function, that when applied metaphorically to Earth, it serves as a reminder not only of what connects humans to each other, but to the planet that we rely on for our survival.
I recently watched an episode of the documentary series “Home”, all about extraordinary homes built across the globe. One episode features Susana Almanza, environmentalist and director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) talking about how recently humans understand “land” as real estate investment more than a place to live. She continued: “The earth is a living organism. So, when you are constantly paving over everything, how does that earth breathe, how does it function?”
The power of the metaphor of breathing lies in its ability to evoke a sense of what it means to be human, of autonomous life with dignity, that can otherwise be quite allusive. In her text The Age of Breath multidisciplinary thinker Luce Irigaray writes, “breathing, in fact, corresponds to the first autonomous gesture of a human being.” Poet Rosamond S. King picked up on this theme of the relationship between breathing and the human subject in her beautiful poem Breathe. As in. (shadow), a response to the murder of Eric Garner in 2014.
The poem evocatively captures the humanness of breathing. It also carries within it the foundational aspects of breathing, and in turn the incredible lack of dignity experienced collectively every time a person of colour is prevented from breathing. Oppression is stifling. Injustice keeps a stranglehold on our shared humanity.
Breathing also features in my own poetry. The poem They say — black women was written in resistance to stereotypes about women of colour, and to emphasise the undermining of both our wisdom and our forward momentum that follows in the wake of those stereotypes when they are maintained and perpetuated (poem in full below). I recently sent the poem to a friend who said reading it “felt like a gut punch”, ironically implying that the words took the air out of her for a moment. Reading it again, reflecting on the metaphor of breathing in conjunction with humanness and injustice, I realise how much of what I was trying to say with the poem was that breathing is not just the first autonomous act of human beings, but a symbol of the need to be recognised as an autonomous human being and as having a place in the world. The last line of the poem is an imperative and a prayer that seems particularly apt at times like the one we are currently experiencing: Now breathe again, Now breathe the Amen (Amen).
They say — black women
They say black women
Rhythm, swagger and sway — they say
But in my humbly lived experience
what black women have
is unrecognised ingenuity
We are the stuff of history
The unfailing push to your wavering stay
When we move
The world moves with us
And in our silence
Life grows stale
And in our silence
And History falls like hail
In potentially lethal bits and pieces
The rhythm of our revelry
Is night to your day
And light to your trajectory
We do not stagger
We Never sway
Never breathe to your decay
The world moves with us
In tangible ripples
As we pray
The constant hum
disturbed and […] hitched
Like yet another tidal wave
What black women have is knowledge
We know unfettered supplication
to this our blessed condition
And if you voice the gratitude we’ve earned
We will give you
Because We breathe the Amen
And with our breath
The truth inhales
as the lie exhausts
another load of oxygen
Now breathe again
Now breathe the Amen (Amen)
Copyright 2020 by Zara Thokozani Kamwendo.
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