The Canary Dies At the End

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Image from ShareAmerica

At the turn of the twentieth century, coal miners would use canaries in order to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases to humans. Miners would sometimes refer to the birds as pets, but the birds were always there as a protectant. If the bird became ill or died, the miners knew to evacuate. And, according to the Smithsonian, “[a]lthough ending the use of the birds to detect deadly gas was more humane, miners’ feelings were mixed. “They are so ingrained in the culture, miners report whistling to the birds and coaxing them as they worked, treating them as pets,” the BBC said.”

Pets. Huh? Pets that were there to die.

Pets that were there as human smoke detectors.

Pets that would die of respiratory issues: screaming, unable to breathe, and then dead.

Here’s what I know: Black and Indigenous women AND Black LGBTQ folx have always been the canary.

For decades, we have detected and identified the toxic gases.

For decades, we have been human smoke detectors.

For decades, we have died with others having mixed feelings about our status: pet or threat, pet or threat, pet or threat, pet or…dead.

For decades, we have died with no justice.

Canaries have always been us. Do you #sayhername?

Canaries like #MMIW, and Breonna Taylor. Sandra Bland. Meagan Hockaday. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Dominique Rem’mie Fells. Riah Milton. Alexia Christian. Yvette Henderson. Alberta Spruill. Shenque Proctor. Tanisha Anderson. Shareese Francis. Shelly Fray. Shantel Davis. Miriam Carey. Michelle Cusseaux. Malissa Williams. Kayla Moore. Anita Gay. Erica Collins. Gabriella Nevarez. Mackala Ross.

Said plainly: Coal mine canaries never had a chance. They were always unable to breathe. Some of them just died a slow death. Some died quicker. It was always through choking though. Always by saving someone else. Always ending up dead.

In 1986, the coal mining industry turned to automation. An ‘electric nose’ took the place of the canary. The Smithsonian reported “[t]he modern carbon dioxide detector is certainly a less romantic image than a canary in an overused saying. Remembering the canary, though, is an opportunity to remember a world of coal mining that no longer exists.”

I am freedom dreaming of a future where Black and Indigenous women’s bodies are no longer canaries.

I am freedom dreaming of a day where people won’t have mixed feelings about Black and Indigenous women dying, but clear ones fueled by righteous rage.

I am freedom dreaming of a future where I can breathe.

I am freedom dreaming of escaping the mine and those that see me as a pet.

I am freedom dreaming.

And, I am freedom dreaming.

And, I am dreaming of freedom.

Written by

Bonita Chaim is a racial justice educator (in progress) in Mennonite and interfaith communities. She is the founder of The Ebenezer Project, and a bibliophile.

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