Scenes From a Pandemic: 21

24 08 2020

by Aaron Talley

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

The author’s new middle school classroom (photo: Aaron Talley)

Something’s Happening Here

Chicago
Jamila had never officially been my student.

I’ll call her Jamila. In September 2017, she had marched into my classroom because she wanted to meet “the new black English teacher,” a rarity at my school, where the staff is predominately white, despite being on the South Side of Chicago in one of its “toughest” neighborhoods.

In my mind, she was ready for college. At the age of 16, she was already adept at making jokes about “toxic masculinity,” and already had a catalogue of her favorite black feminist poets. Over the course of the next three years, she and I held several discussions about family, her future, race, gender, and writing.

She was intentional about performing her existence as an act of defiance. She opted for bold short haircuts, wore oversize thrift store clothes, and was popular in school for her slam poetry. She was the type of student who gave you hope for the future. She was charming and bombastic, with a voice that you could hear long before you saw her.

And it’s beautiful to see a child grow via her relationship to art. In the 10th grade, she just wanted to share her poetry. Now in her senior year, she talked about the intention of her poems. These intentions began to bleed into her own decision making. Decisions like choosing to stay at home for college rather than going away. Or choosing whether to accept her mom’s discomfort with her gender performance. Once an angsty teenager full of complaints, she was growing into an assertive adult who made adult decisions. Like many teachers, I wanted to see her growth as a reflection of my own energy and attention as well. I felt that seeing her walk across the stage would be a culminating moment.

I didn’t imagine my last time seeing her would be as it was in June of 2020—she, riding alongside her mom in a small, bare brown car; me, masked, distant on the sidewalk alongside other teachers cheering at the car-parade graduation. Covid had led to Chicago Public Schools officially closing in mid-March, so it had been approximately three months since I had last heard from her, and in a rush of excitement I ran toward the car, thinking to myself that an “air high five” would be the best I could offer at that moment.

As I got midway to the car, her mother’s smiling face dissolved into a frown, and sense swarmed back into my brain. Why would you run toward the car during Covid? Of course, Mom doesn’t know you were just gonna give an air high five. I halted and threw my palms in the air, in a gesture that was now equal parts high five and surrender. Jamila threw hers up as well and smiled. I retreated to the sidewalk to continue cheering on the other graduating students. The brown car moved on.


This is what dystopia looks like. Nothing is clear-cut. No one has the answers. There are no real endings or beginnings, just a procession of limbos… It’s back-to-school, and remote learning.


It was gorgeous outside. It was the type of sunny that makes you aware of the silhouettes of the trees against the concrete. Despite being prepared to be sad, I found the car graduation to be a beautiful moment of innovation. Cars in procession, most accented with maroon and gold balloons and paint, or Class of 2020, or my students’ names spiraling along the windows. Amid the noise of celebration, my students looked out from the car windows, popped up through sunroofs, rode on the back of pickup trucks. What I had thought would be a bland substitute was a rather regal event. My students had turned their cars into chariots. Some soaked the moment in fully, with their shoulders erect, their hair flapping in the wind.

I left the graduation early. My car was parked on a crowded street, and I didn’t want to be trapped when the procession finished. Inwardly I was embarrassed for my earlier impulse, since there’s no room to be impulsive during a pandemic. When everything stops rather than finishes, you have no choice but to be intentional.

This month, Chicago Public Schools rolled back its idea of a “hybrid” model of schooling, a concept that had been initially announced with a tone of certainty that anyone actually working within CPS knew not to trust. In that model, students would’ve spent part of their time in remote learning and part of their time at school, with parents able to opt out of in-person learning altogether. I wonder about what exactly would have been hybridized, since this model would’ve had my time split between a computer screen and an ill-ventilated building, with students split six feet apart, with split resources, and split investment. And despite CPS’s deciding to go fully remote beginning September 8, because of the lack of clear direction I still feel split, like I’m still alone midway in that street between a frowning face and cheering.

I start every year teaching a unit on dystopia, where the joy is meant to be found in realizing how dystopic our society really is. The irony is palpable in this moment. In fictional dystopias, however, clarity is abundant. There is a clear social ill that plagues society, a clear sense of past and present, a clear enemy; and it’s clear when the revolution needs to happen. There is a beginning and an end. In a real-life dystopia, no one really has the answers, so there are no real endings or beginnings. Just a procession of limbos. In a real-life dystopia, apocalypse still hits, and sometimes it comes in a familiar form: an explosion, a natural disaster, or a revolution. Sometimes, the apocalypse is just an air high five instead of a hug. Nevertheless, you have to keep going.

I set up my new makeshift workspace in the corner of my living room. It consists of a small circular table sitting by the largest windows in the house. I prepare for the year. I think of my students. I reflect on what I want to do differently. I flirt with the idea of starting a YouTube channel. I brainstorm how to teach a novel over the computer. I groan at work e-mails. I worry, and then I don’t. And when I remember, I take a deep breath.

Aaron Talley, a writer, activist, facilitator, and educator, teaches middle school on Chicago’s South Side. His writing has been featured in various news outlets, including Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, The Advocate, Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. An alumni of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship (VONA), he is currently pitching a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked and read more of his work on his blog Newer Negroes. Aaron was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 19, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembering Andy & His Birthday

Andy and John Scagliotti, his life partner and the administrator of Kopkind (photo: Gregg DeChirico)

Andy Kopkind would have been 85 today, August 24. Andy contained multitudes: an extraordinary writer and thinker, with a radical politics, a gay sensibility, a perfect style, a seemingly boundless store of knowledge (and curiosity about what wasn’t known), he was also a consummate cook and gardener, a source of puns and fun. To anyone who experienced the joy of Andy’s birthday at Tree Frog Farm, the occasion is unforgettable—the convergence of people who came to celebrate, stayed for days, cooked great food (or just ate it), swam and danced, and talked about all things under the sun and stars.

So, a treat! A memento of Andy from a long-ago summer in Guilford, Vermont, when he played the Duchess in a community performance of Alice in Wonderland. Also featured in clips from this rough vintage home movie are John as the Brown Mouse, Verandah Porche (our neighbor and a Kopkind advisor) as the Caterpillar, our longtime friend Will Wilkins, and other members of the Monteverdi Players. (With thanks to our friend and Kopkind alum Christopher Dawes for editing this little montage.)

Please click on image above to watch video.

The convergences that marked Andy’s birthday inspired the Kopkind Colony. Covid-19 has prevented us from holding what would have been our 21st year of seminar/retreats, weeklong sessions in which political journalists and activists or documentary filmmakers share ideas and insights, eat well, revel in nature—think and breathe and recharge for the work ahead. For 21 weeks now, members of the extended Kopkind family have, instead, been sharing stories of this long suspended season. Scroll down through the Scenes and the Bonuses. Share this site with your friends. And, brother, sister, if you can spare a dime, please click on DONATE at the top of the page or click here. Thank you!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 15

14 07 2020

by Makani Themba

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

(photo: Gilbert Thompson)

Something’s Happening Here

Jackson, Mississippi

Before Covid-19, I would travel around the country, listening to people’s stories as we walked their block, or plotted the “beautiful next” in some center or meeting room. Now we are all in little boxes, trying to connect, trying to make it more human. People with wild virtual backgrounds or cute hats. It reminds me of freshman year moving into the dorms. There you are with your teddy bears and your posters to make your room feel a little less like the drab, institutional rectangle it is.  

The truth is, it’s crazy hard out here for so many of us. Covid has shifted racism and inequity into hyperdrive. Shuttered hospitals and limited testing in communities hardest hit. The intentional delay in distributing “stimulus” checks to indigenous nations while slashing funds for health services. A young black woman tells me a story – from her box to mine – about how the white children in her trailer park, not far from Chicago, come by her family’s home to spit and chant, “Covid is a n***a killer!” These children were taught that our disproportionate death related to Covid is an opportunity for ethnic cleansing.

This is a season of wild contrasts. The joyful exuberance of seeing our movements on the precipice of so many significant victories. It’s beautiful. I am breathless and giddy to live to see this moment that I had every confidence would come. And I am also anxious that, as the nation is riveted by global protests to address black lives taken by police violence, we have normalized the deaths of the many others who are also victims of state violence but in a different form.  


Police shootings are a gun to the head of Black America. Covid is the bomb. As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe”.


Police shootings are literally a gun to the head of Black America, while the government’s use of the pandemic to facilitate black and indigenous death is a full-on carpet bombing. And although they don’t exhibit the glee of those children in the trailer park, much of government appears to be on the same team.

I’ve watched testimony in city councils around the country against local ordinances to require protective masks in public. I’m struck by how often progressive frames are appropriated for conservative use: phrases like “crime against humanity” or “human rights violation,” along with the old tropes opposing public health protection as a matter of “freedom.” 

On May 19, the birthday of Malcolm X ironically, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves gave churches explicit permission to reopen. They were never officially closed in Mississippi, but this bit of grandstanding was part of the governor’s pandering to support Trump in solidifying his right-wing faith base. The governor insisted on lifting restrictions for businesses, too. There were 535 new Covid cases and 42 deaths that day. On June 22 there were 1,646 new cases and 40 deaths. Progressive mayors had instituted public protection rules in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” but as Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a recent interview about the “reopening” of the state: “It was clear that we [Jackson] are becoming an island. And if you’re on an island, it’s hard not to get wet.” On June 30, with new cases spiking, the mayor announced that wearing face masks would be mandatory in the city.

Covid is revealing all of the cracks and fissures in our systems – of care, of connection, in our economy.  As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe.”  

In my South Jackson neighborhood, masked volunteers sweat under the Mississippi sun as they hand out food and toilet paper. Many of the folk in line brave the heat hoping to be among the lucky ones to get a mobile Covid test before kits run out. The volunteers are friends and neighbors who have stepped up as part of the Jackson Covid Response. It’s a local coalition that includes Jackson State and Tougaloo College students; organizing groups like Poor People’s Campaign, Mississippi One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute, Mississippi Immigrant Coalition, Democratic Socialists of America, and Black Youth Project 100; neighborhood groups and businesses like Operation Good, Strong Arms of Jackson, MOVE Church, and Bad Boy Tree Services; social service projects like Clean Slate Behavioral Health Collective; and multimedia outlets like the local branch of Black With No Chaser, which has a popular podcast in the community. This coalition is one of the hundreds of mutual aid networks springing up across the country to fill the gaps that the state refuses to address.   

The work is hard but it’s also adaptive, innovative, and generous. There’s deep grief in the face of rising Covid-related death as young and old die needlessly in prisons and detention centers. There is also vision as organizers move progressive District Attorneys to release “nonviolent offenders” by the thousands. In Jackson, Mayor Lumumba enacted an agreement to end arrests for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses that activists believe will keep hundreds out of jail. Yet, hundreds more languish in detention centers and jails throughout the state. Activist Rukia Lumumba told me about a man bailed out by the Mississippi Bail Out Collective. He had spent two months in a DeSoto jail because he didn’t have $150. Thanks to the collective’s efforts, he is out now.

These are a just a few examples of the silo-busting work on the ground that makes the connections between culture, policing, health, immigration rights, and so much more. It’s a politic for our whole lives.

This work, these victories, are sunbursts in the midst of storms. We breathe. We listen. We plot. We dream. And we remember that it takes both the sunburst and the storm to make rainbows.

Makani Themba is an organizer, writer and strategist based in Jackson. Currently she serves as chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. Makani is a long-time adviser to Kopkind and was a mentor in our first camp, in 1999, and then again in 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 8, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Moonlight in Vermont

On Lake Champlain (photo: Jon Flanders)

Jon Flanders, a steadfast supporter of Kopkind, sent us this picture from the northern reaches of Vermont, where he’s visiting family. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jon has been sending messages about the importance of Vitamin D, the latest good news from Cuba, the latest hair-raiser from New York, the latest protest in Troy, where he lives, the latest bulletin on global solidarity (here a wonderful talk by our friend Vijay Prashad on Che and a socialism of love), an upcoming concert for Cuba and so on. Jon is a retired railroad worker, an internationalist, an organizer of political events (here a recent discussion of labor history with JoAnn Wypijewski and others around Mike Stout’s new book about Homestead Steel, via a Zoom variant of the Connolly Forum), a photographer.

In any other July, we would be in the midst of a Kopkind camp right about now, at Tree Frog Farm in Southern Vermont. Jon’s moonlight photograph is from the opposite end of the state. It bears a message that also imbues Kopkind’s project: there is still beauty in this world; soak it in.