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“weathering”: on the constant state of black pain

July 25, 2019
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Last week, the Department of Justice made the decision to not pursue criminal charges against New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo is infamously remembered for using an illegal choke hold to subdue Eric Garner, who was “illegally” selling cigarettes in front of a bodega, exactly five years to the day that the DoJ announced its decision. Pantaleo choked the air out of Garner, as he lay on the street saying, “I can’t breathe.” This case has been extremely tough to witness for Black community, as we continue to watch a family grieve publicly, crying out for any form of justice at the expense of all of our lives.

When the decision came down, Eric’s daughter, Emerald Snipes, shouted out in anger and frustration at the police and the media for not holding anyone accountable in her father’s death. “This man choked my father outside on the street. Choked him with no remorse,” she shouted. “The federal government does not want to prosecute Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner…Nobody wants to hold nobody accountable?” Emerald’s most powerful words, though, came through tears: “My sister died fighting for justice. You won’t kill me.” 

Her sister, Erica Garner became an activist following the death of her father. Erica fought against the injustice that happened to her father, and many believe her rage around the circumstances under which he died, and the institutional racism which caused it, played a major role in her death. Following complications she had after childbirth (an issue that continues to plague Black women at extreme rates), Erica lost her life after suffering from a heart attack she had when she was merely 27 years of age. However, the real cause of death is likely tied to stress induced from racism. Weathering is the term often used to describe this. 

In an article I co-wrote entitled When Racism Anchors your Health, I describe the term. “Weathering,” a term coined by race disparities scholar Arline Geronimus, is the deterioration of health as a result of the chronic stress of being exposed to systemic racism for your whole life — the product of an accumulation of “lifelong physiological stress-mediated wear and tear.” Black people can’t escape racism and our ability to cope with it leads to poorer health conditions. 

As someone who lives it, I can say it’s like a thousand paper cuts to the body and mind, a slow and sometimes subtle degradation. You take the Garner family for instance. Eric’s death took place five years ago, but the antagonizing, the stress, the state of grieving, of rewatching the video…this leaves one in a perpetual state of living the death over and over and over again. For those of us on the outside, we continue to feel the pain of watching another Black life become a hashtag, and each time we see injustice occurs, it chips away at our mentality. 

Connecting these dots, you can say that Black Americans have literally been in a constant state of pain. From enslavement to Jim Crow to systems of oppression, there is no way for us to escape the anti-Blackness we have known for over 400 years now in America. The photos of bodies hanging from trees with white folks smiling in the background, have now become the police killing us on camera and then walking out the courtroom, smiles on their faces as they aren’t held accountable. 

Our pain doesn’t ever go away. It just keeps getting passed down from generation to generation. Watching Emerald cry out from the courtroom steps last week sent a visceral reaction through my body. I felt ill to my stomach. Watching her pain and feeling my own at the same time. Watching the unimaginable amount of hell her family has gone through these past five years, and feeling like, as a community, there is nothing we can do to help. 

We have been here many times before. Seeing cops who kill unarmed Black men is unfortunately nothing new for us. Watching these same officers not be disciplined, stay on the force and even get a raise (as Pantaleo has) is a slap in the face to all of us who have to continue watching one family fight for some form of justice. There has never been a moment where our healing was ever given space. 

The Garners may have buried Eric over five years ago, but the funeral seems to never end. And even if it does, history tells us there will be a new atrocity to replace it, to keep our pain going, a pain that is life-long and never-ending.