In my native village of Kendu Bay, Kenya, funerals are meant to canonize the dead. The first rite of many is performed by women. Early at dawn, they arrive at the homestead of the deceased to wail, pacing about and lamenting death — the sound gives one goosebumps, and it seems to last forever. We call it “giyo.” The literal meaning of this word is to howl — like a wolf or dog. A grief so deep all you can do is open your mouth and groan.
Six months ago, a Black woman was shot by law enforcement officers in her home. She died next to a man that she loved, a man that was trying to protect her. Last week, the law denied her any chance to die with dignity. My instinct is to weep loudly. So is my mother’s. Together, we pause to pace the floor and yell about it.
Inside ourselves, however, we sit in an empty room and weep.
I am weeping now.
A more cynical area of my mind isn’t surprised. When have Black women ever been allowed anything except servility? Every day we must add more burdens to our shoulders, including our own. Those of us who have families must keep their daughters safe, their sons and fathers alive. Those of us that are young must dream each dream with several grains of salt. All of us second-guess every second of our lives.
Every year of my life since I gained consciousness of my Blackness, I have constantly had to ask myself — does my goal accommodate me? I find myself trying to preempt the bullets, like a fly trying to find shelter in the rain. I want to write. Is writing a career for me? Are the things I want things that accommodate Black women? A career, a future, joy, love — were these things that happened to girls with darker skin?
And then Breonna Taylor was shot in her home, and my fears were confirmed.
Breonna was everything that I have ever wanted to be. A Black woman who was not just successful in her job, but loving her job. A Black woman with a lover who took care of her. A Black woman with a family that was proud of her. A Black woman who allowed herself to dream, to set goals and to excel at them.
When she died, all I could think about was how her lover could not save her. Her family could not save her. And now, the only people who could give her dignity — the three judges who could have spoken the truth — have turned their backs on her. All I could think about was myself, and other Black women, seeing ourselves in her, seeing our deaths over and over and over again. The end of dreams.
Because I am a Black woman, I have allowed Breonna’s death to eat me. Because I am a Black woman, Breonna’s death equals mine. Her treatment equals mine. Her glory equals mine. I cannot not let her die this way.
I am trying to honor Breonna the way I know best: “giyo.” I have allowed myself to be consumed with the thought that someone like me could be asleep one moment and dead the next. I have allowed myself to spend my nights weeping, almost wailing, at the fact that my sister died and has been treated like an animal.
Have we taken time to grieve Breonna? Have we taken time to be sad about her, not as a political metaphor, but as a person? As a Black woman who shouldn’t have died? Our activism, although altruistic in every form, has taken away the humanity of this woman. By allowing her to enter the metaphysical world, we have forgotten what is most important — the loss of human life.
Black women, in particular, have historically been denied this ability to grieve. On the outside, we are talking smack, being angry, being violent. On the inside, however, we are expressing a deep and heartfelt loss. This grief is always used against us, to show that we are too emotional, too volatile, for our thoughts and feelings to hold water.
Stifled, we take this emotion to the streets, to social media — we turn it into public dissent. We are angry, but not too angry. We reign ourselves in to not make anyone too uncomfortable. Bypassing this important stage, however, actively denies the deceased any humanity. Instead of accessing our emotions, we choose to use Breonna as a poster for our ideological battles.
One of the more radical forms of resistance for Black women, therefore, is expressing that grief. Allowing ourselves to recognize our pain and not hide it from the world could be the strongest weapon in this fight for our lives. When the world is forced to confront us, people are reminded of the person who died, not just the political martyr or the meme.
During “giyo,” the women pace around the compound and beat their chests. Sometimes they sing for hours, of everything that the deceased was and everything they have left behind. They sing of their glory, of their legacy and of the promise that the community will carry on their vision.
Breonna, like every Black woman, deserves this.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.