Scenes From a Pandemic: 13

30 06 2020

by Jewelle Gomez

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

(photo: D. Sabin)

A Lesbian Archive Sends Its Love Letter

Oakland

I am deeply urban. My shoes, clothes, eyeglasses, are all assembled with an understanding of how they relate to pavement, changeable weather, and the glare bouncing off city buildings. From Boston to New York City to San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve felt perfectly attuned to the cityscape. But with quarantine, everything went askew, as if I turned a corner into the Twilight Zone.

We’d lived in Oakland for only several months before I left in January for New York City, where my play about Alberta Hunter was enjoying a successful run—an engagement that ended just before the coronavirus landed with both feet in the US. I returned to Oakland as the city was gearing up for lockdown. I thought this would be fortuitous; I’d write endlessly, perhaps in all genres. We had masks. We had access to food. I could read books for unending hours and watch movies and television shows til dawn. The money we previously spent on eating out, going to plays and movies we’d donate to relief efforts.

I have friends who have been teetering on the edge not of armed rebellion but of despondency. I restricted myself to one broadcast news show, allowing my anxiety to be channeled through the erudite rantings of Rachel Maddow as I pondered who cut her hair. I felt a warm spark at seeing other people’s homes in Zoom interviews of political/medical/legal experts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s vast freezer of ice cream! Stacey Abrams’ bookshelf with a copy of The Night Tiger, a novel I’d been on the verge of ordering! I felt connected to them.

I couldn’t, however, reconnect with myself. Inertia settled around me like the fog I’d left behind in San Francisco—I couldn’t see the pen in my hand in front of my face. Sunny weather filled my days as camelia blossoms burst forth in the backyard. Birds trilled safely as if they knew they could mesmerize our indoor cats.

But if I read for more than three hours my eyes went blurry. My back rebelled from sitting, although I was only halfway through 10 seasons of the British detective series Vera. Even with my totally non-green thumb I was rewarded by my verdant backyard, a profusion of calla lilies, birds of paradise, and the struggling fuchsia I’d rescued from a plastic bin bag. After dutifully watering, though, I couldn’t just sit and watch them grow.

Something was missing: the ebb and flow of traffic; voices and laughter when people walked by, and any number of sounds that had underscored my life in the city. I enjoy the click of a cricket as much as the next person, but the roll of tires slowing for the STOP sign at the corner had always been the click track of my life.

So, I retreated to the little cottage office in our backyard in search of my own rhythms. I fell into them almost by accident. I’ve been a longtime fan of the British radio soap opera “The Archers,” so I tuned in and was immediately soothed by various English accents, the evocation of a world continuing on. I couldn’t write anyway, so I used listening to the radio online as a time to clear out the boxes still cluttering my office since we’d moved. And here’s where I found what was missing.  

A fragment of history tumbling out of the author’s archive

In the little cottage, once I’d disposed of the recycling that we humans tend to box up and lug from home to home, I dove into a large box of photographs. There I was aged 9 in my tap-dancing costume; there was the past tumbling out: my youthful great grandmother; my best friend and I looking unbelievably dewy at our high school graduation; a group of feminist poets after a benefit reading; my first publisher and I when we were young enough to stand up all day at the American Booksellers Association; a clipping from the fight against the New York Times over its coverage of AIDS; and a kaleidoscope of handsome women with whom I’d been lovers over the previous 40 years.

Nancy Bereano, founder of Firebrand Books, and Jewelle at the American Booksellers Association

That was what had been missing—being deeply sunk into myself and a history that had always been sweet and dangerous, creatively rebellious and persistent in the face of grief and greed. I started to feel the heartbeat emerging from within. The city sounds, my natural (or learned) soundtrack, were really only the background, like elevator music. The faces and memories were pulses reconnecting me to the well of emotion and ideas that sparked my life and my writing. They were the jumpstart I had needed. 

The author’s great grandmother, Grace, 1897

Once the engine turned over, I figured out how to divide my day into past, present, and future. Now I spend some time continuing to organize old treasures whose roots in last century’s battles against oppression keep me upright. For the future I investigate what nonprofits could use my support to defeat voter suppression—again, as we did in the 1960s; or to find safe places for those without shelter; or gather food for out-of-work parents. (I also plan what to wear when I do return to those urban sounds, and finally get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first gay liberation march on its 51st anniversary.) With the past and the future regular parts of my day, the now feels more compelling; change seems more possible. Now I’ll get back to my new play if it still wants me.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, now in its 27th year in print and recently optioned for a TV miniseries. Her plays about James Baldwin and about Alberta Hunter have been produced on both coasts. She is a member of Kopkind’s honorary board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 24, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Letter From Peter Linebaugh (Archival)

On June 29 the Supreme Court declined to hear a death penalty case, thus allowing the government to proceed with the legalized killing of four men in July, the first federal executions in 17 years. What follows is an excerpt from a letter by Peter Linebaugh, written at another crossroads of epidemic, police violence and execution. The letter originally appeared in Socialist Review No. 177, July/August 1994. With thanks to the Socialist Review Archive.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court, right before their arrest, 2017 (photo: JP Keenan/Sojourners)

When the state kills one person, it is preparing the killing of two. When it kills two, it is preparing the way to kill three. And with three, it prepares to get ready to kill many. Perhaps these changes are not arithmetic; perhaps they are geometric. Or perhaps they are without a mathematical pattern at all. But what is clear is that the death of one leads to the death of many by hook or by crook.

Those who favoured the Vietnam War argued by analogy with a line of upright dominoes. We may put forward a domino theory of the death penalty. One domino knocks over another, and then another and another in a clattering series of collapses, until none are left standing. The death penalty is the first domino. It is followed by another. This second domino might be, let us say, the more frequent informal shoot outs by the police. A third might be a public health disaster where certain populations are deliberately left to die. A fourth might be a massacre for purposes of terrorising a city or a region. A fifth might be the slow enervation of wage reductions and unemployment that inescapably leads to fatal wasting away. Life is devalued.

We might also compare the death penalty to the thin edge of a wedge. A small tap with the hammer is enough to lodge that thin edge into the thick section of the toughest tree trunk. Another blow of the hammer finds a space among the fibres, and a third blow widens it. Afterwards it is only a question of the number of blows from the sledge required to split the trunk in twain. The death of one leads to the death of many.

In Hitler’s Germany the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 imposing the death penalty led to others, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, the Law on Dangerous Habitual Criminals, or the Decree on Asocial Elements which culminated in the death camps of the 1940s. The wedge widened, from the death of one, to a genocide, all in a decade.

Looking at the US states which have reinstituted the death penalty, can we not see that subsequent to the death penalty is the growth of other forms of social morbidity – gang violence, family violence, police violence, tuberculosis, AIDS?

The US Congress is about to make a mighty turn of the screw as it begins hearings on the expansion of the Federal Death Penalty. They are considering 50 new capital offences.

. . .

The state’s brief [in a case] at the Supreme Court of Connecticut … proposed a truly loathsome sentiment. ‘When we lose the collective “nerve” to act, however unpleasant the action required, we sow the seeds of anarchy.’ This notion is profoundly foul. It is the idea that lay behind President Clinton’s personal attendance upon the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in February 1992, and which prepared so directly his victory in the New Hampshire primaries. It is the notion of blood sacrifice. The politician must prove his readiness to kill. It is revolting in every possible way. It is the law of the tyrant; it is the practice of the bully.

Peter Linebaugh is a radical historian. His books include The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra and, most recently, Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2014 and a guest speaker in 2019.


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