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Because We Breathe

Dr Thoko Kamwendo
A sign at a George Floyd protest in Ottawa.

Image credit: Bluescruiser1949CCBY-NC 2.0

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.

Image for post

Copyright 2019 by Rosamond S. King. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 5, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/breathe-shadow

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

have rhythm

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

Wisdom fails

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

abbreviation

We know unfettered supplication

to this our blessed condition

And if you voice the gratitude we’ve earned

We will give you

Nothing

in return

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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