The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang during the memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang during the memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. (The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang during the memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. (Constantine Manos / Magnum))

Anthem

For Susannah Mushatt Jones, 1899–2016

By Saeed Jones
Photograph by Constantine Manos

The end of the world was a song most of us found
too painful to sing. The chorus cut through us
every time we tried. But—just a few breaths before
she died—the oldest woman in America decided
her body could carry the highest note, one last time,
for the rest of us. Something about the nature of Black
lungs breathing through 116 years and 311 days.
Something about what being born in Alabama in 1899
and making it to 2016 in Brooklyn does to the throat.
It was a spring evening and the stars refused to sit still,
blinking as they burned above her in the dark. Only dead
light can understand what she did for us that night.
Know that the sky has been grieving her ever since.
Know that the fire falling on us now began as grateful tears.