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Author Jesmyn Ward on Grief, Blackness, and Hope

Illustration for article titled Author Jesmyn Ward on Grief, Blackness, and Hope
Photo: Associated Press (AP)

Jesmyn Ward, novelist and winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, wrote an incredible essay for the September issue of Vanity Fair on the loss of her husband, grief, and Blackness. The September issue of VF was guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the cover story is about Breonna Taylor, told through the words of her mother (and was also written by Coates). Artist Calida Garcia Rawles created this stunning artwork to accompany Ward’s essay.

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If I’m blogging about a story or an essay, I’ll typically pull out some of my favorite quotes and sections to highlight, adding in my own thoughts here and there. But it doesn’t feel appropriate, to add in light-hearted commentary to a piece that is so personal, and individual. I cannot pretend to understand what her grief feels like.

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So instead, here is one of the most beautiful and resonant moments in the essay. Please read it, and then read the whole thing.

“I sat in my stuffy pandemic bedroom and thought I might never stop crying. The revelation that Black Americans were not alone in this, that others around the world believed that Black Lives Matter broke something in me, some immutable belief I’d carried with me my whole life. This belief beat like another heart—thump—in my chest from the moment I took my first breath as an underweight, two-pound infant after my mother, ravaged by stress, delivered me at 24 weeks. It beat from the moment the doctor told my Black mother her Black baby would die. Thump.

That belief was infused with fresh blood during the girlhood I’d spent in underfunded public school classrooms, cavities eating away at my teeth from government-issued block cheese, powdered milk, and corn flakes. Thump. Fresh blood in the moment I heard the story of how a group of white men, revenue agents, had shot and killed my great-great-grandfather, left him to bleed to death in the woods like an animal, from the second I learned no one was ever held accountable for his death. Thump. Fresh blood in the moment I found out the white drunk driver who killed my brother wouldn’t be charged for my brother’s death, only for leaving the scene of the car accident, the scene of the crime. Thump.

This is the belief that America fed fresh blood into for centuries, this belief that Black lives have the same value as a plow horse or a grizzled donkey. I knew this. My family knew this. My people knew this, and we fought it, but we were convinced we would fight this reality alone, fight until we could no more, until we were in the ground, bones moldering, headstones overgrown above in the world where our children and children’s children still fought, still yanked against the noose, the forearm, the starvation and redlining and rape and enslavement and murder and choked out: I can’t breathe. They would say: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Read the entire essay here.

Freelance writer who loves sandwiches, astrology, & fighting on the internet.

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