The Current

Amid protests, funerals offer a space for collective mourning — and fighting anti-Black oppression

For Black Americans, making space to grieve the loss of a community member has particular significance, both for celebrating lives lived and in the broader fight for equality, says Nyle Fort, a minister, activist and PhD candidate studying Black mourning traditions at Princeton University.

'Historically, it's been central to how we forge African American life,' says researcher Nyle Fort

A mourner puts his fist into the air while visiting the casket during a public visitation June 8 in Houston, for George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis police custody has sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Reuters)
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In the midst of protests over anti-Black racism and police brutality across the United States, community members in Houston will come together on Tuesday for a different gathering: the funeral of George Floyd.

For Black Americans, making space to grieve the loss of a community member has particular significance, both for celebrating lives lived and in the broader fight for equality, says Nyle Fort, a minister, activist and PhD candidate studying Black mourning traditions at Princeton University.

"Historically, it's been central to how we forge African American life," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. "You can go back to slavery and see how slave rebellions were plotted at the funerals of enslaved folks."

A public memorial for Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, was held early Monday in Houston, the city where he was raised. 

Guests gather at North Central University Thursday, June 4, before a memorial service for Floyd in Minneapolis. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

On Tuesday, a funeral will be held — the second after a service was held in Minneapolis last Thursday.

"George Floyd's story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago — the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck," said Rev. Al Sharpton in a eulogy for Floyd on Thursday.  

Throughout history, enslaved African Americans used funerals as a form of resistance by pushing back against stereotypes placed upon them by white slaveholders, says Albright College history professor Kami Fletcher.

"In that funeral, you are then tethered to your community: I'm a mother. I'm a sister. I'm an aunt," she explained. "They know we are a three-dimensional human that was part of this community, that's missed by this community; we're not just your caricature."

History of funerals as resistance

With legislation that made it more difficult to gather and grieve, however, governments have attempted to stifle African American traditions of mourning — and the ability to push back against oppression.

Fletcher points to laws enacted after the rebellion led by Nat Turner, an enslaved man in Virginia who retaliated against slave owners, which strictly limited the rights of African Americans, including around funerals.

"Some of these first laws, in the colonies and Virginia, was against black folk gathering for funerals," she said. 

Kami Fletcher is an associate professor of American and African American history at Albright College in Pennsylvania, and the co-editor of Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed. (Submitted by Kami Fletcher)

It was well-documented through the writings of slaveholders that Black people used funerals as a form of rebellion, she adds.

In modern times, that resistance has successfully enacted change.

At the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was violently killed after being falsely accused of making sexual advances toward a white woman, his mother, Mamie Till, chose to keep his casket open.

Many historians argue, says Fort, the images taken by photographers helped spark the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

"We see that go all the way through [to today], even to Black Lives Matter, where you have Bree Newsome climbing a 30-foot pole and taking down the Confederate flag the day after Barack Obama eulogised Reverend Pinckney," Fort recalled.

Nyle Fort is a minister, activist and PhD candidate at Princeton University studying Black mourning rituals. (Casey Brooks)

"She said in an interview that when she saw his casket rolled by the flag, it's a part of what agitated her to do it."

"We see the same thing today. People expressing grief out in the street," he added.

'Collective coming together ... is essential'

The sorrow that a community feels is often inseparable from the joy of the life their loved one lived, Fort says.

At Black funerals, "you're going to see folks shouting and jumping and dancing and clapping, and you're going to see a eulogist who's sweating and building up a frenzy while folks cry, but also while folks shout out and laugh," he said.

"I think that's also reflected in the protest, the chants, the dancing, the energy, the pageantry that we see at funerals sort of reflecting over in the way that we protest."

Flowers, signs and balloons are left near a makeshift memorial to Floyd May 29 near the spot where he died while in custody of the Minneapolis police, in Minneapolis, Mn. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

But amid the protests and desire to mourn as a community is the shadow of COVID-19.

The pandemic has complicated the practice of mourning, with funerals limited in size and large gatherings typically off limits.

"That collective coming together for black folks is essential," said Fletcher, adding that a friend has made the decision to postpone a funeral for a loved one until at least November. 

"There's differences as it relates to religion, as it relates to economics and region, but for the most part, you know, they're feeling really incomplete."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Julie Crysler, Joana Draghici, Alison Masemann.

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