States of Grief

States of Grief
Fall 2019 – Open Mic – States of Grief

Political theorist Heather Pool studies mourning; not the private sort, but the public kind that can spur political change. In a series of articles and a forthcoming book (Political Mourning, Temple University Press), Pool examines the political consequences of shared grief and loss.

What is political mourning?

One of the things that I try to do in the introduction to the book is make an argument for what private mourning does. One of the reasons we mourn when we lose people is because we actually lose a part of the world, right? We share experiences with people, and when they die, we no longer have access to those experiences in the same way. We mourn because we’re connected to people. We understand that in a personal sense. Then there’s public mourning. Take a public figure like Prince, for example. His death, and the deaths of other public figures like him, lead to a large outpouring of mourning, but they don’t necessarily turn us toward action. Political mourning is a public loss that leads to political action.

The question is, how does that happen?

Think back to 2015 when there was a terrorist attack in Paris—gunmen and suicide bombers were loose on the streets and killed 130 people. Everyone’s horrified, and everybody changes their Facebook page to be the French flag. We feel an obligation to the people that are like us. But, at the same time, there’s a bombing in Beirut where 75 or 100 people are killed, and it barely even makes a dent in the news. So why is it that Americans identify with the French and not with the Lebanese? And that makes me question how that “us” is constructed. The argument is that it’s actually moments of loss that are really critical times that can form or destroy collective identities.

What about political mourning interests you?

I’m really interested in moments when loss has turned us toward political action. Those moments help us understand who we are differently, and the two key concepts that I work with are identity—as in, who the “We” is in “We the People”—and responsibility.

Those two concepts are related, because we generally feel responsible only for those who are part of the “We.” We feel an obligation to people that are like us. The argument is that moments of loss are critical times when that sense of identification can be transformed.

One of the examples you cite in the book is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 people, most of them young Jewish immigrant women, in a New York City garment factory in 1911. How did that tragedy help spark the modern labor movement?

People were horrified, and they took their grief public. There was a huge march of mourning a week and a half after the fire in which 120,000 people marched, saying, “We demand fire protection.”

Then there was a trial of the factory owners: an effort to try to hold them accountable for their failures. But the problem is they weren’t doing anything illegal. So it was a political problem; the legal failure led to a recognition of political responsibility.

That’s what led to political change. The state stepped in and said, “The laws have to change. We need to regulate workplaces because that is what citizens deserve.”

All of that together helps make sense of why this event was so tremendously important for the institutionalization of the progressive movement, which laid the groundwork for the New Deal.

It also helped expand the “We” in “We the People” to include laborers, young women, and Jews. But it didn’t bring everyone into the fold.

It raised the question of whether workers were a part of the “We,” and whether young women were, and whether Jewish people were. In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants were not considered to be white. The fire helped open the boundaries of belonging to include not-quite-white laborers into the category of citizens. But it did nothing to help African-Americans.

Which brings us to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly offending a white woman. How did outrage over his murder help broaden support for the civil rights movement?

Everybody knew that black people in the South were getting killed; but we just don’t pay attention to things that do not directly affect us. This event made it impossible to ignore how violent the South was for people of color, and it broadened the base of support to include northern white liberals who hadn’t previously been moved to action.

That’s where the agency is really important, in that people work to make their loss visible for other people to see. Mamie Till didn’t have a closed casket funeral for her son; she showed people what racism looks like. And one of the things that she said was, “I know all of America is mourning with me.” She called upon people to recognize her, an African-American woman in the 1950s, as a citizen; and to recognize that her loss was the same as any mother’s loss.

And again, the trial fails: Till’s killers are not convicted. And that again leads us to think, “Okay, so it’s not just legal responsibility. We have a political responsibility to change; not just to punish people after they break the law, but to make laws that prevent things like this from happening.”

Till was murdered in August, and for the first time since the end of Reconstruction, the president mentioned civil rights in his State of the Union in January. That led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was an important symbolic step forward: The federal government was now paying attention to civil rights in a way that it simply hadn’t before. One way to think of it: These events make everyday violence visible in new ways.

So Till’s death is a case in which political mourning achieves real broad-based political change, or helps push it forward?

Right. But similar deaths don’t always elicit the same response. In fact, around the same time as Till’s death, there was a black man named George Lee who was trying to organize voting in the South, and he was a veteran. His death was officially attributed to a car accident, even though there was evidence that his car had been run off the road, and his body was found with lead slugs in it. So his family in Mississippi had an open casket and displayed his wounded and broken body with an American flag on it, but it didn’t generate the same kind of visibility as Till’s death. I’m not sure I have an answer as to why sometimes the response generates visibility and why sometimes it doesn’t.

But that’s part of what’s so interesting about studying death: It’s impossible to predict, and it doesn’t fit any kind of social science model. To fully understand it, we have to look to sociology; we have to look to history; and we have to look to psychology and think about how people process public deaths. 

Published December 2019