This story of mine was first published last year by The Notre Dame Review. I am posting it here temporarily because I am beset my grief. I am posting it here to honor the black men and women who have had their lives unjustly taken because people did not think their lives mattered. This small posting is my small small way of trying to turn my anger into art and make something lasting that will record these times.

Breathe by Amina Gautier
She died earlier that day. Not a real death. With other faculty members
and graduate students gathered in Vancouver for the Modern Language
Association convention, she laid her body down in the convention center,
closed her eyes—and died. At first she wasn’t sure which position was best
for the assumption of death. Should she lie faced down, or repose on her
back? Initially, she’d pressed her face to the floor, where the carpet abraded
her cheek and scraped it near raw; she assumed that position to be the most
realistic—too often had she seen black bodies cuffed and floored, cheek to
ground. No, she realized, this was not the position of death, but of arrest. So
she turned face up and lay rigid as a corpse.

It felt good to die, though she did not convince herself that her actions
equaled those of the youth protesters out in Ferguson, who had taken the
lead and returned to protest day in and out, and who used their bodies to
obstruct traffic, collapse economies and disrupt normalcy. Nor did she liken
herself to the great civil rights activists long gone and revered. She did not
have to douse her eyes with milk to soothe the sting of tear gas. Nor did
she have to walk through a row of hatred as racists yelled slurs and hurled
bottles and eggs her way. She did not have to sit peaceably while waitresses
ignored her and refused to serve her at a lunch counter. She shielded herself
from no hoses, ran from no dogs, and dodged no gunfire. She died in relative
safety. Dead off in Canada, a country with no experience of slavery.
Dead at a conference rife with academics in a building full of registered attendants.
Safe, unlike so many others. Still, when other conference attendees
were filling this hour with late lunches, she was doing her part; she was
at least doing something useful. She told herself that her dying counted.
As she lay dying, she wasn’t sure with what to occupy her thoughts,
didn’t know if dying in was like a public moment of silence where you were
meant to concentrate and think solely on one thing. But thinking of all of
the black men and women whom the police had wrongfully killed in just
the past few months would ruin her silence, and corrupt her death. She
would surely cry if left alone with her thoughts of the slain. So instead,
she mentally recited bits of Hamlet’s soliloquy. To die, to sleep, perchance to
dream. She lifted her hand to her cheek and felt the scraped skin where the
carpet left its rub.

When pins and needles riddled her feet, the bodies around her rose
from the ground. She followed suit, relieved to be alive once more.

Call it curiosity. She has finished her conference activities for the day—
chairing her own panel, skipping lunch to squeeze in a die-in before attending
the panels of her friends, making a foray through the exhibit room
to peruse the new releases from her favorite academic presses—when now,
intending to leave the convention center and return to her own hotel room,
she sees a small crowd of conference attendees all heading toward one room
and decides to tag along to see where everyone is going. She is exhausted
from it all, especially the dying, but too curious not to follow.
The panel chair is offering introductions when she enters and takes a
seat in the last row on the far right in the room that is quickly filling. There
are thirty-five people in the audience, a good crowd for a convention like
this. She’d counted only twelve at her own early morning panel. She flips
through the thick pages of her conference schedule and discovers that she
is at a panel on Palestine and its literature. Of the three speakers, only one
name matches those listed in the program. The panel chair apologizes for
the two panelists who were unable to attend. One sent only his regrets. The
other has sent along his paper, to be read aloud by a designated speaker. She
frowns in her back row seat at these last minute changes. How unprofessional
to cancel at such a late date. Had they not completed their papers
on time? If so, that was not a good enough reason to cancel. It was rare for
anyone to arrive at the convention with a perfectly polished paper. Many
participants drafted their papers on the flight over and she’d seen too many
attendees in the hotel business centers hastily banging out talking points on
the hotel computers and printers for her to believe this could keep someone
from making it to the convention. Perhaps there had been a funding issue.
Perhaps these absent panelists had their papers accepted but had their conference
funding denied. Every year, the money for conferences seemed to
dwindle across the colleges of arts and sciences. She had friends who’d had
their per diems cut and some who had to pay for their own meals because
their universities would now only reimburse for travel, registration and hotel
stay. Luckily, she has a new post at a well-funded university that will pay for
her to attend two to three conferences per year where she can eat as much as
she likes.
The first panelist’s paper is on a set of translated diaries kept by a village
police officer in the 1950’s that he apologetically describes as boring records
of visits the officer paid to his various neighbors. “That notwithstanding,
these diaries are nonetheless important because of their internal dialogues
and the ways in which the diaries of Palestinian villagers disrupt a western
tradition of narrative that is invested in a linear and chronological method
of storytelling,” the panelist says.
The crowd grows during the delivery of the first paper, swelling as
people filter in from other panels that have let out late or are on the other
side of the convention center. Eventually, the seats are nearly all filled and
several late-comers have to stand against the back wall by the entrance. It is
the largest audience she has ever witnessed at an academic conference for a
single panel that is not a keynote speech. How many people are here out of
genuine interest and how many are accidental wanderers like her? She is the
only black professor in the room. Her own area of interest is far removed
from anything dealing with the Arab world or Middle Eastern culture. She
is a scholar of eighteenth and nineteenth century African American literature
and she studies the literature produced by slaves like Wheatley, Equiano,
Douglass and Jacobs, by free African American authors like Brown,
Webb, Wilson, and Delaney, and later by post-reconstruction authors like
Harper, Hopkins, Chesnutt, and Dunbar. She barely dips into the early part
of the twentieth century, going no further than the Harlem Renaissance,
and contemporary literature she altogether eschews. What then is there to
interest her in papers on the life narratives—the memoirs, biographies, diaries
and autobiographies of Palestinian writers? What, if anything, does this
have to do with her?
The next paper, the one sent in by the absent panelist, is introduced.
“This panel was conceived, proposed and compiled several months before
Israel’s bombardment of Palestine this past July, but the sanctioned violence
has made our panel relevant in a new way,” the substitute speaker says. The
speaker’s voice is a whisper, her lips are too far away from the microphone,
but no one lifts a hand to an ear to signal her to raise her volume. It is like
two voices, two mouths, two tongues speaking at once in a murmur. The
absent panelist’s tongue, lying now in the speaker’s mouth is the echo of an
The room is still filling. There are now more than fifty people in the
audience. The year before, at the previous convention in Chicago, a panel
about an academic boycott of Israel drew extraordinary attention, with journalists
seeking entry in hopes of covering the proceedings. Perhaps people
have come today merely to see if sparks will fly. Perhaps she should leave
now, before anything gets out of hand. She has done her political duty for
the day. Dying earlier has freed her from guilt. She rises to exit and inches
her way behind the free-standing table at the back of the room set aside for
attendees with disabilities or limited mobility, carefully navigating a wheelchair,
a dog, and a cane.
Coming to the end of the paper, the substitute panelist reads the absent
presenter’s request for a boycott and his discussion of the recent escalation of
violence in the Gaza strip. As the absent panelist’s paper is read, a clipboard
containing a petition for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions makes
its way across the table of the three panelists, to the front left row and
quickly comes down the entire left aisle before winging back up to the front
right and snaking its way down to the end of the right row. “In our land we
are unwanted strangers,” the panelist reads. Perhaps it is because the words
coming out of the panelist’s mouth are the words of someone miles away
that the sentence echoes in the crowded room, comes to her where she is
edging along the back wall of the full room in an attempt to exit unobtrusively,
roots her to the spot, and dispels the façade. Around her the bodies
of black boys and men fall like shell casings. As easily as she sees the back of
a woman in a Navajo print blazer in the last row on the right, so too does
she see a boy in a hood gunned down without cause; another boy detained
for walking in the street, not only murdered but criminalized and defamed
after death; a man placed in a chokehold, each breath bringing him closer
to his last. It has been a red summer of bombs and bombardments, chokeholds,
and no indictments, of die-ins and cover-ups, of violence unexcused,
unjustified, and rampant. She knows nothing of the Gaza strip, but she
knows the trauma of being treated like an unwanted stranger in one’s own
country, knows too the struggle to survive in a land that has been tilled with
the unpaid labor of one’s ancestors and watered with the blood of one’s own
The woman in the Navajo blanket rises from her corner seat in the last
row and brings over the clipboard to her where she stands propped against
the back wall. Though the room is now filled with more than sixty attendees,
there are only three names on the petition. To her left, there are only
two more people waiting to receive the clipboard— not enough signatures
to make the petition count. Her cheek burns as if she has been slapped.
She’d thought dying was all she’d have to do.
She scoots down the wall, balances the clipboard on her knees and signs
her name in the waiting space. Below her signature, she forges the names of
the summer’s black dead. Other names come to her—too many names for
one to have to know—and she writes them in as well. Lining the petition
with the names of other unwanted strangers, she struggles for air, finding
that she, too, cannot breathe.

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