During the time in my life when my grandmother was still living and wholly present, I rarely recall her smelling of anything other than smoke. She smoked More cigarettes, a brand that currently can only be purchased online (And, I’m told, at a few corner stores in the Florida panhandle). More cigarettes were mostly notable because they used brown paper to wrap the tobacco instead of the traditional white paper that most cigarettes use. My grandmother seemed to always have her thin brown fingers wrapped around a stick of thin brown paper, so often that on some days it seemed like the smoke was rising from her hands all on its own. If she needed to get into her purse for any reason, she often had to sift through a graveyard of emptied red and green packs of cigarettes, cursing under her breath the whole time. The smell of them, though, was distinct. I had no language for it as a child, sitting outside of her room and breathing it in while watching her watch Supermarket Sweep in the evening, or watching her watch some soap opera during the summer days when school was out. I found myself not even having language for it as it lingered on my clothing after a good hug. It wasn’t until years later, while taking a road trip through the South in my early 20s, that I could name it. In South Carolina, after a hard rain, I walked through an old plantation. And it was the smell descending from the trees after they made room for the storm. A humble attempt at forgiveness

  Almost every Black grandmother I know smokes. I once hugged a friend’s grandmother while she was holding a cigarette, and it burned a mark onto my t-shirt. After which she took a long drag, looked me up and down and said "You gotta watch that, honey." I have known some who put out their cigarettes, look down at them with disgust and say "I swear, I’m gonna quit one of these days," which we understand to mean "I swear, I’m gonna die one of these days." My particular Black generation is the one who, if they are lucky, have two (or more, in some cases) generations of living women that survived despite being pressed up against all manner of relentless war. It’s why we laugh at the stories of the grandmother who takes no shit, but we know not to laugh too long. It is the unspoken fear, the unspoken knowledge of what many of these women gave. We know that if the officer’s gun didn’t kill them, and poverty’s hunger didn’t kill them, and the violence of marginalized and silenced Black men didn’t kill them, there is no measure of swallowed smoke that will shake them free of the earth quickly and easily

  There is pretty much no violence in this country that can be divorced from this country’s history. It is an uneasy conversation to approach, especially now, as we are asked to “behave” in the midst of another set of Black bodies left hollow. The southern Black church has always been a battleground in this history of violence. Most notably, of course, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, but even beyond. The church, if we are to believe that it still exists for this purpose, is a space of ultimate humbling and vulnerability. In the South, the Black church is also a place of fear. To attack the innocent where they feel most secure is cowardly, of course, but it is also a reminder. There is no safety from this. There will be no reprieve from the sickness that spreads and calls people to take up this level of violence. There will be no calm before the storm. There will only be the storm, and then another, louder storm. It will follow you to your homes, press itself between your sleeping children, hang over your shoulders at work, and yes, it will walk into your church, pray to the same God as you do, and then stand up and open fire. There is no way to talk about this without talking about the history of instilling fear in Black people in this country. Without closing our eyes and feeling the warmth from a flaming cross. Or smelling a wet body, limp and descending from a southern plantation tree

  The weight of this tragedy hung over me last night. I slept two restless hours in an Ohio hotel, spending most of my time rolling over to scroll through news feeds and news stories. I mostly thought of grandmothers. I thought of the grandmother who told her 5-year-old granddaughter to play dead so that the killer would pass her over. So that she might live long enough to see her name grow fresh in the mouth of someone she loves. It is impossible for me to imagine that this is the world we live in. One where Black girls must learn to play dead before they learn to play the dozens. But it is not impossible for me to imagine what her grandmother has lived through. What she knew that we did not. Survival is truly a language in which the Black matriarch is fluent. Much like this country’s violence, there is no survival in this country that can be divorced from this country’s history. A grandmother who has maybe stared down death more than once, passing that burden on to the child of her child. I don’t know if there is a name for what it is when you are moved to praise something as impossibly sad as this. I don’t know if it can be found in a church, even as a little girl is not among the dead inside of it. I imagine that I am writing this because I don’t know these answers. I think of this child growing up and knowing what it is to escape death. Wrapping herself in the trauma of that. Knowing at such a young age that to be a Black woman in America is, in a way, to feel like you will survive until you decide to stop surviving

  But, the Black people who pray still must pray. In a good Black church, all manner of sweat, holler and joy lives in the walls. I’m not sure what it is to set foot in a place of worship where you saw members of your community fighting against an inevitable death. I imagine that to be impossible. I prayed last night in a hotel bathroom. Like many of us, nothing draws me to prayer quicker than desperation. Not knowing what to do with my hands, my heart or my mind. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m praying for. Last night, I think I prayed for a southern Black church that didn’t also smell of smoke, of cooked flesh. Where the memories weren’t of burial. Where Black children could fall asleep in the front row, their small bodies still, but breathing

  My grandmother began to smoke more as she got older. When she moved to her own apartment, down the street from my childhood house, I’d visit and see empty packs of More cigarettes littering the table. Occasionally, when she’d tell me that she was thinking of quitting, I never knew if she meant the cigarettes. I’m not sure that she ever stopped, though I don’t imagine she did. She died in the South, in Alabama. I don’t know what smell rises off of the trees there after a storm, but I like to imagine that it’s the same smell that is rising in South Carolina today. The way I’d like to imagine it, our grandmothers are with us, even when they’re not with us. Teaching us how to pray. Teaching us survival

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