Scenes From a Pandemic: 57

21 06 2021

by Malkia Devich-Cyril

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

(photos: Naomi Ishisaka)

Loss Runs Like a River Through My Life

Oakland

Dedicated to my mother, Janet Cyril; my wife, Alana Devich-Cyril, my aunts Sandy and Marion, my godsister Kafi, my Uncle Tony, my cousins Javana, Njuzi and BJ; my friends Margo, Sia, Art, Yulanda, Elandria, Lana, Rahwa; and all those lost but here, unnamed.

Before the bodies overflowed the morgues and required trucks to house our dead, before the ventilator shortages and the mask of vulnerable witness worn by journalists and medical professionals alike, loss ran like a river through my life. It wasn’t just my young adult experience of watching my mother die from sickle cell anemia or, thirteen years later, holding my beloved wife in my arms as she died, at 42, from cancer. It wasn’t just that the pandemic struck only one year after Alana’s death, and one month after I left my organizational role of twenty years as founder and director of the Youth Media Council and MediaJustice. It wasn’t even that in the eighteen months before the Covid-19 virus became one of the ten deadliest pandemics in history, I had somehow weathered the death of seven close friends and family members, with another five dead during 2020, not one from Covid. No, it was about so much more than my dead alone.

It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death.

In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it. One bright afternoon during quarantine, when I finally tired of my failed attempts to cut my own hair, my barber and I claimed the back porch to fade me up. As usual, we got to talking politics. We got to talking about feeling pressed and violated from every direction. As he readied to leave, the conversation turned toward grief. I asked how he felt. Many things from the past year are hazy, but I remember how he shook his head, slowly, and said, “Bottom line, there really ain’t no justice for us.”

There’s no justice in the fact that in April 2020, a month into lockdown, 70 percent of the deceased in Louisiana were black; or that, nationally, black, Native and Pacific Islander Americans have suffered the greatest per capita death tolls. Black people were up to four times more likely to die from the disease, when adjusted for age. For every death to Covid or related complications, at least nine additional people are affected. Nearly one in three black Americans knows someone who has died. Grief could jeopardize black health for years to come. Yet now, in 2021, as we attempt to stem the wave of Covid deaths, disinformation targets black communities, exploiting our long history with medical racism by comparing lifesaving vaccines to eugenics atrocities, such as forced sterilization. Despite our disproportionate deaths, we’re told to reject science, medicine and journalism and to embrace conspiracy theories.

Covid aside, black people are exceptionally acquainted with death. By the time we turn 60, we are 90 percent more likely than our white counterparts to experience at least four deaths of family members. By age 10, according to one study, black children born in the United States were three times more likely than white children to have lost their mothers and twice as likely to have lost their fathers. Debra Umberson’s research concludes that “exposure to death is a unique source of adversity for black Americans that contributes to lifelong racial inequality.”

Malkia (left) embraced at Alana’s memorial by Lateefah Simon, also widowed by cancer.

My pandemic experience has taught me that our collective grief is a morbid symptom of racial capitalism; that the mechanisms of grief’s racial disadvantage are structural, widespread and historic; that deep in our living bones we know that when it comes to grief’s unequal racial burden, there can be no comfort without connection, no relief without reparations, no healing without justice. It also pushed me to move closer to the hollowed-out loneliness of the grief that had become my familiar, to welcome the shadow I couldn’t shake instead of running from it.

In February 2020, when news of the pandemic spread across the country, my wife’s death was so fresh, one year gone; I could still smell her life in our silent apartment. I already knew how the internet could connect people. Our wedding had been livestreamed. Our renewal of vows and Alana’s last time outside were broadcast on Facebook Live. So was her funeral. I knew from the two years that we had spent fighting for her life that the internet could provide isolation’s antidote. That it could democratize care. That it had helped me survive the death of the person I loved most in the world. I turned to it again.

At first obsessively, my fingers and eyes hunted for facts, for deaths, for escape, protection, something. Then I got more intentional. Sitting in the room where Alana died, my silver laptop open and glowing, I remembered how the internet had joined us to a beloved community. To my right, atop the dresser we bought to hold Alana’s hospice supplies, was the altar that held her sparkling red slippers, her ashes, the corsage she gave me on our wedding day. To my left, a wall of family photos, mine and hers. Ours. It was there, suspended in mid-life, six feet from everything I loved, that I decided the internet would help me negotiate survival through the current of black death and resulting collective grief that seemed to shock every community Covid touched.

With the light fading, I upgraded my Zoom account and created a weekly series that would later be known as Pandemic Joy. The third Sunday in March 2020 was our first meeting, just a few squares of people I trusted and loved.

I acknowledge that the internet can be indecipherable to those who haven’t committed themselves to its study; scary and unmerciful when unregulated and unrestrained. On one hand, I experience it as this amorphous place with no definite rules or rights. It is, in a particular light, a brutal place where my black activist self, my black queer self, our many black selves, are frequently doxxed, harassed and discriminated against; a place where my dignity has been violated, and all the data that comes with me exposed or exploited for profit. As an avid user, especially of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., I am, in some ways, a digital resident without citizenship in an invisible nation without democracy, owned by distant corporations and some of the richest people in the world.

And yet, less than a month after the pandemic went viral, there I was, at a kitchen table littered with unread books, my hands a poised arc above my laptop, rocking and clapping on a Sunday morning. Singing. What do you know about how a heavy song can lighten a load? My ancestors knew it: homegrown work songs torn from the diaphragm, pushed like a breath from the throat. And there it was, a song bleeding from the mic of my headphones. A red river of music refusing to clot. A melody bled out over computer speakers, across a video platform. And we were somehow together, pandemic survivors, quarantined and huddled each around our own bright screens. Despite the contradictions and dangers, in the chaos of those early days of confinement, we used an often-unaffordable internet to find ourselves and sing—defying the isolation called in by contagion and state neglect. We moved, as escapees often do, through troubled terrain to arrive at one another.

Despite a media ecosystem that drowns us in information but denies us insight, despite the fact that one in three African Americans and latinx people still doesn’t have home access to computer technology, the internet opened a channel through which hidden bereavement was transformed into a visible public health crisis. But to amplify our collective voice, we need the work of organizations: like MediaJustice, Free Press and others in the Change the Terms Coalition that confront Facebook’s failure to restrain violent white supremacists. Like Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, whose livestreamed car caravan protests helped transform our grief into grievance. Like Marked by COVID, which uses social media to lift up the faces of our dead and hold the state accountable. We need the powerful leadership of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, which create space for us to mobilize collective loss into collective action.

Quarantined, we sang together, we cried, we remembered. Using digital apps, I created a socially distant swim team, launched online grief groups, an online Freedom Cleanse. This creativity, wielding what cultural tools are on hand in simultaneous service to grief and freedom, is part of a lineage of black radical resilience. Just as enslaved Africans once went to the “meeting place” to build community and plan rebellions, we found our pandemic meeting places. The internet, the one I spent decades fighting for, helped accompany me in loss and to turn toward grief, and turn grief toward life.

Malkia Devich-Cyril is an award-winning activist, a writer, and a public speaker on the issues of digital rights, narrative power, black liberation and collective grief. Devich-Cyril, now a senior fellow at MediaJustice and the organization’s founding executive director, was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2002.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 16, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Oh, ‘Tis Love, ‘Tis Love …

Costume Ball, Berlin (detail), Jeanne Mammen, one of many depictions of the lives and loves of queer women made by the artist before she was banned by the Nazis and much of her work destroyed.

As we near the close of June and the fifty-second anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, which began June 28, 1969, we celebrate not just the pioneers and present-day activists of the modern lgbtq freedom movement but all those who for all time, in all parts of the world, followed their heart’s same-sex desire. Here, below, a few clips from John Scagliotti’s wonderful film Before Homosexuals: From Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes, a prequel to Before Stonewall. For more information about the film, to arrange educational or other screenings and to view the trailer, click here. (Because these clips are high resolution, you may have to pause for a bit after pressing play to allow for buffering.) And now, the clips!

Click here: on Astypalaia’s ancient erotic graffiti.

(photo: Helen Smith)

Click here: on lesbian love spells in ancient Rome.

Still from Before Homosexuals.

Click here: on Florence and the verb ‘to Florence’.

‘I don’t think we’re in Florence anymore’: John with fig-leafed replica of David in Reno, Nevada (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)


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