Whose lungs but ours? Breath and Life in Black History

26th Oct 23 by Teigist Taye

Even outside of smog city, and the riot gear, Black folk still find themselves battling for clean air.

The COVID-19 pandemic made us more aware of the air we share between us. A hushed conversation between lovers, and its sticky heat of promise; the sliver of cool wind that blows in through the cracks of a crowded tube during a muggy ride; and the frosting, oh, the frosting! slick with air-droplets and birthday wishes, smeared atop a birthday cake after the candles are all blown out. My air is never mine, but yours, and ours. And as we yelled hello and goodbye at each other from 6 feet apart, it bound us together, like marriage, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

But when Black people started dying at a disproportionately high rate compared to our white counterparts, this pandemic reminded us that, despite possessing the same windpipe, and the same weary lung tissue, some air is ours alone to endure.  

To take a breath in London, as a Black resident, is to produce life from toxic air. A report commissioned by the city of London showed that Black people are living in areas with disproportionately worse air quality. Nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, a Black child with sparkling eyes from inner London, was the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

The surfaces of our lungs have always been contested territory. Our babies’ first breaths are less likely to be heard by their mothers – black women in the UK are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth compared to white women. Throughout history, white supremacy erected oppressive structures across the world, from slavery and colonisation, to the imperial new world order, that suffocated us. Race scientists justified our asphyxiation: they ran biased tests on enslaved people to conclude that “the deficiency in the negro (lung)” was about “20 per cent” compared to that of a white person. Never mind that these test subjects likely spent months crammed into the hull of a slave ship, sucking on just centimetres of expired oxygen. The brand of a deficient lung still follows Black people around, from hospital to hospital, getting in the way of life saving diagnoses, treatment and disability benefits. It is through these systems and their justifications, that the levers of white supremacy enact Necropolitics– using political power to determine if we live or die, if we breathe or not. 

Each soul left gasping for air in a sinking dingy off the Mediterranean coast, is a political choice made by members of the European Union. Even as we bore witness to George Floyd’s murder, a live-streamed execution by suffocation, at the hands of American police, the Met Police still strangle our sons as a form of social control. When a Black woman in south London got into an argument with a non-black shop owner, he responded by throwing his hands around her neck. George Floyd’s last words to us were “I can’t breathe.” When Black people took to the streets in the US to protest police killings, they found their own throats closing up, as they choked on teargas sold to US riot police by UK manufacturers.  In this way, Black life becomes an appeal for air, if not for basic survival, then to simply have some space. Give me air! As in, let me be. Allow me pause. Let me think, and feel, and live, and love, and process; comfortably, without want; away from hardship, and violence, and scrutiny. 

Even outside of the smog city, and the riot gear, Black folk still find themselves battling for clean air. In hog country, eastern North Carolina, the pigs outnumber the mostly Black, Latine and Indigenous residents 35 to 1. Millions of pigs packed into factory farms mean billions of tonnes of pig-waste, which gets dumped, sprayed and crammed into the surrounding areas. What’s sprinkled into the air settles on people’s cars and clotheslines, into the backs of their throats, and into the swell of their lungs. In the shadow of the hog farms, breaths – and lives – become difficult to catch. The old men wheeze as they settle onto their rocking chairs. The young ones cough into the wind. 

The UK doesn’t have as many factory farms as the US, but meat producers are always angling for more. Our factory farms already emit tonnes of noxious fumes into the atmosphere. Continuing expansion becomes a question of how much more our government expects us to bear.  

But if the UK keeps building its factory farms, and rams the rooms with poultry, and swine, and  excess, what then must we think? What then of our Black Girls, and Black Boys, with their Black Lungs, and Black Fists, and Black Dreams? What then of the smog, the strangle, and the fumes that follow? What should we make of this all? What else will come after your factories if not clouds of toxic air like the ones we know from our cities? Whose lungs will they fill but ours?

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