Heather Heyer and the white “allies” who have “done more” than us for our own liberation
On Saturday, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered while protesting a white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a man plowed his car through a crowd. Heyer was white, and in her death she was predictably and quickly turned into a paragon of “allies” “doing the work.”
Her’s was a spectacular kind of death, the death we are told we need more white people to be willing to face. In the posthumous praise, Heyer was martyred in Black-face—she did more than many Black people are willing to do themselves, as someone reminded me when I reaffirmed my belief that white allies don’t exist.
Reading touching memories of Heyer in The New York Times brought to mind the last significant death I experienced, that of my grandmother, who was also killed by white supremacy. This immediate connection got me thinking: What Black person didn’t know someone intimately who died at the hands of white supremacy? What Black person is not dying at its hands? What Black person doesn’t come from an unbroken lineage of martyrs? How could you possibly do more than carry that legacy in your blood, unless you are able to raise the dead?
My grandmother’s was a slow murder. It did not come under a car or by one person’s hand, but it was a murder nonetheless. By the time I was born, when she was 60-years-old, she was a different woman than the person from the stories my mother would tell us grandchildren—stories of her valiantly taking on the world, often by herself, with eight kids in tow and a yearning to be free—a yearning that so often gets Black women killed by the state.
That state would eventually succeed, but not before attempting to slowly syphon my grandmother’s spirit away from her, death alone never quite being enough to satisfy its hunger for Black suffering.
My earliest memories of Mother Bhumi (what we called her) are of her struggling with an at the time undiagnosed bipolar disorder. At first I could not imagine that the revolutionary my mother described her to be could have ever lived inside the body of the frail, violent, demented person who haunted my nightmares for much of my childhood.
As I got older and my grandmother started treatment, I came to know the parts of her that she was able to hold onto. Those parts were miraculously vibrant despite the extent of her disease. My grandmother had fought the police—physically—more times than you could imagine. A few of those times were in front of me. The same state that employed her abusers did not care that her trauma led to her illness, offering inadequate solutions such as committing her to prison-like facilities that made it impossible to trust the side-effect ridden pills they prescribed as remedy.
Christina Sharpe posits that “the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black,” and my grandmother had undergone its most turbulent, ceaseless storms. She had physically lived through what seemed like unending brutalization at the hands of police and men and religion, an experience that so many other Black women live too, and this was an extraordinary fact enough on its own. And though she was dying, a formidable will to survive was the only reason so much of her remained behind, much of that within me.
Mother Bhumi lived with my family for the last four years of her life. At her most lucid, she would ask me to accompany her around the block, railing about cops and god until it was five or six blocks and a half-day later. I never stopped her after the one block she promised. As challenging as those four years were, especially for us youngest grandchildren who weren’t quite equipped to deal with her illness, I would happily experience all of it again just to spend one more walk with my grandmother. But the state that she’d struggled against for so long, that had systematically destroyed her mental health and then ended her life for good, would ensure this never happened, and I will never forgive it for that.
And how is telling me that the death of this white woman “does more for us” than my grandmother’s kind of death not asking for my forgiveness? How is comparing the worth of Heyer’s death to the death of any Black person, who is dying like my grandmother whether we fight back or not, not the absolution of the thing doing the murdering?
My grandmother did not get her life immortalized in The New York Times. My grandmother’s final battlefield wasn’t one fateful day on a road in Virginia, but 81 fateful years in Alabama, Texas, Ohio—ain’t that the most spectacular death? Ain’t that a death that is unimaginable? Even when we do not want to give our lives for this, we still do. Even when we aren’t willing to die for freedom, we are already dying, and we have been dying and dying for centuries. What white woman can say she sacrificed the will to fight against the reality that she never had the opportunity to sacrifice anything else? How could anyone possibly do “more” than that in one lifetime alone?
And yet, Black people find a way to do more. Yet still, amidst our death, atop our very own graveyards, Black folks have created whole systems to care for and sustain one another—from the aunties who watched us when our mothers had to work or were locked up or institutionalized or killed by police, to the neighbors who let us borrow sugar when we had no more left, to the makeshift day-care centers in every hood, to the elders who spend their lives teaching and protecting the children in their communities for free. This we do only despite the people operating within a system of whiteness reliant upon the destruction of these efforts–enemy and ally alike.
In a perfect world, Heather Heyer wouldn’t have to die. But this isn’t a perfect world. This is a world in which Heyer’s death has meaning because my grandmother’s death does not. Heyer protested neo-Nazi’s because my grandmother was beaten by them, and because her grandson still has to fight them every day to survive.
White people and those who love them and their promised-but-never-fulfilled hope for solidarity are telling you that you should know that there are Heather Heyers in the world. They are telling you to #SayHerName, appropriating the work of the Black feminists who created this call to action in response to Black women’s deaths at the hands of the state routinely going ignored. They are saying that you must appreciate Heyer. That you must hold space for her. That she does more than some of y’all, as if this isn’t just again erasing the deaths all Black women are withstanding at the hands of the state at every moment.
They are saying that the state did not kill my grandmother. And they would say so even if the state was caught on camera, because the 81 years since her murder began again—the 500 years since her murder began the first time—is well beyond the statute of limitations for being held responsible for the murder of Black people. But fuck their limitations.
During my last few walks with my grandmother, the revolutionary my mother described became much more visible to me. It was clear that Mother Bhumi was a woman who loved so much, despite being afforded so little. And sometimes what she lacked were the tools to express that love in a healthy way. But she loved nonetheless. And she lived nonetheless. And if being Black and living under the weight of this anti-Black world isn’t a revolutionary act, then neither is being white and dying under it.