Editor’s Note: Rev. Sarah Swandell is the winner of the RCWMS 2020 Essay contest.
They said the mothers were lullabying, Hands up please don’t shoot me, hands up please don’t shoot me, all of them in shirts the color of caution signs, a line of gold against a line of police. A wall of women, a shield of breasts, they were there to protect Black Lives Matter protesters. Facemasks lightly muffled their song.
I have been lullabying to my daughter nightly for the past five months of her short life. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. Her plump hands bat at the air like she’s breaking through cobwebs. Her feet kick at her sleep sack. Allelu, alleluia. It is 2020, and though the country is splintering, there are still crib sheets to strip and bedtimes to keep.
Five months of nights have taught me what it means to lullaby: Behind every lullaby is adoration, and a plea that the child will rest in peace.
They said the mothers were lullabying—but just because it’s a mother who’s singing does not make a song a lullaby. What came from the mouths of that wall of women wasn’t a song for sleeping. It was singsong teasing, to the tune of nana-nana-boo-boo, Hands up please don’t shoot me, hands up please don’t shoot me, the note held longest on the word shoot. Not a lullaby, not a hushing, but what you sing too close to your brother’s ear in the backseat on the drive to Florida, breath hot and unavoidable. It’s what you sing because you’re stuck with your brother, and you have to say something. You have to provoke.
I first lullabied to a baby in my first pregnancy, the one I pictured as a boy. While his tiny cells were splitting I flitted around the house singing, I get to be the one to hold your hand. I get to be the one. Everything glowed golden. The future was full and light.
But soon I was bleeding and sitting on the bathroom floor, asking was I a mother, did this count, can this be happening—and though when you are suffering, everything narrows to a prism that ends in your suffering, somehow there on the bathroom floor I thought of others’ suffering too: the infinitely greater suffering of black mothers whose black sons were lost long after their tiny cells had gathered into limbs and lungs and fragile necks.
Where were all the white women who had lost children, I wondered, and why didn’t we band together with black women to stop the losing of children (or at least try)? Why aren’t all the bereaved banding together? What couldn’t we do, what couldn’t we stop? This is what I asked as the cool of the tile seeped through my jeans and my face buzzed and my sobs slowed. I imagined a mass of grieving moms, picturing us as one body, long before I saw the line of women in shirts like caution signs. I longed to see that power unleashed. Because in loss, you aren’t just sad. There is a fury. And it can overtake the world.
Eleven months later our second child became our firstborn. She entered a world of pandemic and protests and panic, and the same questions that came to me while miscarrying came to me while nursing, while soothing her to sleep.
I kept thinking of black mothers.
When I would lift our daughter from her crib in the darkened bedroom, my mind would suddenly flash to the mother of George Floyd, four and a half decades back, lifting him from his crib and letting his little mouth find her breast by feel, by scent, in the dark.
She had done these things too. She, too, had sung. And when the knee was on his neck it was her name on his lips.
Losing a baby, then birthing a baby, crystallized my place in the wall of women singing their provocations. I know now that even singsong teasing has its origin in lullaby. Its origin is in adoration of sacred human life, life that matters, but does more than matter—life that means the world.
We named our baby Olympia and decided her name was the smallest, sweetest song. O·lym·pi·a. Would we ever tire of saying it? And so I joined the line of mothers crooning to their babes, each sure their child’s name was a song, a line that would be heard. The question was never whether I would tire of the lilting lullaby of my own child’s name. The question was whether I would ever tire of saying the names of other mothers’ children. The question was how to sing not to sleep, but to rouse a nation from slumber.
Well. I am part of that wall of moms now, and we have no choice but to chant till our voice grows hoarse, then sing each other’s children home. Our only choice is to sing and sing and sing. Phi·lan·do. Bre·on·na. George, George, George.