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“A Grievable Death”

The phrase is not mine. University of California, Berkeley, literature professor Judith Butler explains the precariousness of life – its ontological vulnerability. Some lives are known well enough and valued highly enough to be grievable. And others are only accidentally noticeable. These differential values are familiar terrain to cultural studies and bioethics scholars where the idea of excess mortality – deaths that exceed the predictive statistics for certain populations – are as familiar as a funeral refrain, “soon one morning death will come a calling.”

For 7-year-old Aiyana Stephens-Jones of Detroit, it was an evening death call when the launch of a flash grenade burned her delicate body just before a policeman’s fatal bullet entered her neck. The circumstances were violent and fleetingly public. A television crew was filming this police raid, as they had been filming others, for “public” programming. Some bodies are more public than others. It is a bit more difficult to imagine that film crew following a police raid into Bloomfield Hills rather than into urban Detroit.

The circumstances of this child’s death are, not surprisingly, under dispute. Was the gunshot intentional, accidental, or careless? Ironically, it will be helpful to the resolution of this question that a film crew was onsite. It does not, however, mitigate against the public invasion of private lives that vulnerable bodies – citizens who are poor or who are minorities or who are children – experience.

It does not change the familiar procession before the open casket of a child, where other little girls and boys will peer into its recesses and see a body that looks like their own and perhaps even marvel at the pretty pink dress she wore, the carefully placed rosary, and the spray of flowers and loving notes and prayers that surrounded her tiny body. It may be one of the loveliest if not most tragic images of their young lives. It may well be the one they romanticize and recall and even imagine for themselves instead of a prom or wedding dress, or a graduation gown or a carefully chosen tuxedo with matching vest and tie.

They will look down at Aiyana and wonder if they will be as pretty and as loved as she was on this day of her obsequies. They will not remember her life. This was not the value displayed at the moment and circumstances, and that made her vulnerable to a killing. Instead, they will recall her funeralizing and imagine the words spoken about them will be as passionate and emotive as those pronounced over the stilled body of this child, whose pitiful death brought her to our notice, albeit briefly.

The ritual and testimony at death are evidence of an attention that too many of our children miss during their lives. The array of dignitaries and weeping family members, the attention paid to grief for this one brief moment settles over and over again into our children’s imaginaries because these have become the most frequent and familiar rituals of their young lives.

What are the ethics, the values of a grievable death? One would want to believe that these are people whose lives were known and respected. But if we watch the news stories, or the cable channels that chronicle those gone missing and disappeared, even years after the event – the preference of our attentions are demonstrable. Black and brown children are not noticed as the lovely little girls and handsome young men whose lives were valued and whose deaths are subsequently mourned. Little wonder that urban youth have taken to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with memorials to lost friends and families. How else to bring public notice to our mourning stories? How else to testify, to bear evidence to the value of the lives we have lost?

Sometimes, as in the death of Aiyana Stephens-Jones, there is the accident of a television camera to capture enough of the story to exceed the ordinary boundaries of these losses.

Structural violence and social inequities obscure the beauty of our children and diminish the gifts of their accomplishments. We are left instead with visual evidence of frequent and fine funeral ceremonies that memorialize rather than celebrate. Where there is violence, there is a complex web of inattention, carelessness, and failure. And despite its shared terrain, the power of the state to intervene depends mightily on the value the state attaches to these lives. Whether it is school systems, or health care, or community care, our rituals need not begin with a grievable death. They must instead attach to a valued life.

Karla F.C. Holloway is the James B. Duke Professor of English and a professor of law at Duke University, as well as a Hastings Center fellow.

Published on: June 1, 2010
Published in: Humans and Nature

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