MY mother was a Fisk Jubilee Singer while a student at Fisk University. I have vivid memories of her singing along to the In Bright Mansions album as she would drive us to and from choir rehearsal. My favorite song was “In Bright Mansions,” and it still is the foundation of my own hopes for Black liberation.
“Lord I want to live up yonder, in bright mansions above.”
As a child, I imagined that these were real mansions. With big backyards. And a treehouse. A place where my friends and I could be free from homework and chores. The musical (and theological) climax of the song comes at the end when the sopranos show out. They hold their note, “abooooooooveeee,” for several measures, creating an ethereal sonic canopy while, at the very same time, the rest of the choir repeats Jesus’ words underneath.
“In my Father’s house, there are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you.”
As a Christian socialist, this passage in John is my home base. It features a community organizer, educator and spiritual leader who promises his friends that there is a universe in which everyone has a home. I choose to believe that this speech is about the actual housing of his people, not just heavenly housing somewhere over the rainbow.
It’s unbelievable. A place for me? Prepared for me? Today?
If it were not so, I would have told you.
Breonna Taylor should have had a safe place to lay her head. Each of us does.
She happened to be a young Black woman with dreams. She was the kind of Black woman who left inspirational sticky notes around the house to affirm herself. She was an essential worker and a goal-oriented thinker.
I don’t say these things about Breonna to suggest that she would somehow deserve this fate if she were not a dreaming Black woman with sticky notes. I say these things because as we remember her, we must remember her humanity. We must resist, however, the temptation to individualize stories like hers as aberrations or blips on a radar. We must notice the patterns of state-sanctioned violence. Writer and organizer Erica Caines warns us in Hood Communist:
“Instead of centering the forces responsible for these deaths by directly addressing over-policing, militarized policing and the politicians who love them, the public discourse has been squeezed into the narrow and individual analysis of cops who kill and subsequently their victims, but not the system of policing that allows for it to happen nor the root of that system.”
In other words, it is useless to repeat empty slogans like “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” I’m disgusted—but not surprised—that of all the people for this to happen to, Breonna has become a meme. A young, Black, fat woman has become the punchline of so many offbeat jokes masquerading as Social Justice Content for the ‘Gram. Film critic Cate Young wondered in an interview with NPR, that “the rest of us on social media don’t have the power to make that [arrest] happen. We can’t actually do the arresting. So who specifically are you talking to?”
What can people do with Breonna-branded tee shirts and conference gear now? If we do not have arrested individual cops, is there a way to get justice to Breonna Taylor?
In an attempt to bring “justice”, Breonna’s face has gone on magazine covers and tee-shirts. She’s been on the cover of Vanity Fair and O Magazine. In fact, this was the first time Oprah surrendered the front cover to someone else. Though the covers have been visually stunning, something feels hollow about it all. Many people who use the slogan cannot tell you the facts of her specific story.
We should know better, though. We can put Black faces on college brochures, event flyers and even in donation appeals for non-profits, and we will still have a racist world. Just because someone knows your name does not mean they know your story. Just because someone puts your face on a magazine cover does not mean they love you. They may, perhaps, just know that performing care publicly can be a profitable endeavor. And to that end, I wonder what Vanity Fair and O Magazine can tangibly do to end state violence. I don’t mean, “how can we honor it?” I mean, “How can we end it?”
We too frequently worry about the wrong things. Breonna Taylor isn’t dead because Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron married a White woman or has razor bumps, although that might feel good to meme. She is dead because this world conspires against us. AG Daniel Cameron is only doing what the system encourages him to do.
Systems. Powers. Principalities. It is no accident that Breonna died on a block that was prime real estate for a renewal plan. As Brenden Beck writes in The Appeal, elected officials “trumpet their use of police to “clean up” neighborhoods and accelerate economic growth.” Louisville is like so many other cities and towns that try to “arrest its way toward economic redevelopment.”
Gentrification is deeper than craft breweries and doggy grooming services across the street from public housing. By the time you see Starbucks where the storefront Pentecostal church was, it is too late. I am sure that on every block in Brooklyn, Chicago, Oakland and Atlanta where there is a trendy bar now, there were once Black people on that very block. In this world, wherever there are Black people, there is also police presence. Where there is police presence, there is police brutality.
Gentrification is aided by prison and police collaboration with multiple institutions and entities, including housing, banks and developers. It’s happening across the country. In my own city, we talk about the empty apartments as “the sixth borough.” There is no housing crisis; there are enough homes. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we should only expect things to get worse in this regard. While there are eviction moratoriums in various cities, landlords are still finding ways to push people out or fail to renew leases. It’s easy to bend the law when you have the police on your side.
Justice for Breonna Taylor means “no more names.” We must support (and engage the blueprints of) people who are doing the work of housing justice across the country. We must learn from the Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and tenant organizers in Philly who both reclaimed houses. We can take care of each other. No memes, virtue signaling or sloganeering necessary.
Abolitionists are not just concerned with the ending of carceral institutions. We want an end to the things that put people in danger before the police are even called. We start at the beginnings of harm. We attend to the root issues which include racialized disparities in housing, education, healthcare, affordable food, and other elements of a dignified life.
We want to see the day when everyone has a safe place to lay their heads at night. What would happen if everyone had a truly safe place to be?
In bright mansions above. And here, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
It’s our right.
Candace Simpson is an educator, minister and writer. She believes that Heaven is a Revolution that can happen right here on Earth. She invites others into that philosophy at fishsandwichheaven.com.