Today’s guest post is the final part of the short series curated by the editors of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Jih-Fei Cheng, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Alexandra Juhasz, Alexandra Juhasz Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Nishant Shahani Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Department of English at Washington State University. The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. Last week’s post can be viewed here.
Silence doesn’t Rhyme, But it Repeats: AIDS, BLM, COVID-19, and the Sound of What is Missing, a conversation in 4 parts
Ted Kerr and Alexandra Juhasz
Mural in SoHo, part of a larger installation in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. (photo: Theodore Kerr, June 2020).
Ted: Before we dig-in, let’s check-in. I will start. I’m beginning this conversation with you in mid-June, and I’m in Prospect Park after a run. I have felt reasonably okay these last few months, all considering. But last week, I hit a wall. I was sad and defeated everyday. This morning, after a run, now sweaty, I am feeling my resilience a bit. Yesterday I checked in with friends, journalled, and got some air. All together, I feel witnessed and able to to be part of the world again.
Alex: I’m writing myself into this conversation at the end of June. Since you started this document, a lot has happened, including the murder of George Floyd, and a global response of Black Lives Matter activism, honoring him, as well as so many other people killed by police: Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. It is a good thing you hit a wall when you did, and recovered. As we enter the summer, we will need to marshall all our energy … again.
In terms of recovery, as I’ve been saying for awhile now, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the folly of Trump and his cronies, particularly as experienced by those of us in NYC, has left me feeling weird: like I can’t access, trust, or understand my own responses or feelings. There’s too much that is big, everything is too uncertain, nothing happens, everything happens. Less sure of myself, I have consistently fallen back on my writing, my friends, and my various collectives of trustworthy comrades. I have fallen back on you, Ted, and you have been there. Thank you.
Ted: I have been thinking a lot lately about shift work, and how in moments like the one we are in now, we need to be taking shifts between activism, its related administrative labor, and the emotional work this demands. Another word for falling behind, or feeling different, could be reprioritizing or “taking a break.” I am happy to be consistent in your life as you respond to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the political freefall we are in.
With that in mind, the reason I thought we should get on the page together is because I wanted to revisit some thinking we did when we were writing our book together, We Are Having this Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production (forthcoming, Duke University Press). I think some of our ideas realized then could be helpful now.
Alex: Concerning silence?
Ted: Yes. Right now, a lot of people are trying to think productively about the relationship between HIV and COVID, us included! And for the most part I think this is helpful. But, I actually think there is room for more, specifically around mourning.
Alex: We’ve been talking about these changing connections, disconnections, parallels, intersections with HIV/AIDS ever since COVID-19 arrived. And, whenever AIDS is part of a conversation, or the culture, mourning is present.
Ted: It has been helpful to me when you name the absence of mourning, be it from political leaders, or from our culture or friends. You have been talking about this with me on our walks in the neighborhood—after you stopped self-quaranting when you were sick with COVID-19 in March—and this is something you were bringing up in our group calls with our activist collective, What Would an HIV Doula Do, even when you were taking care of yourself at home with the virus.
Alex: I am glad you were listening.
Ted: Of course. And to sum up what I have heard you say: in the earlier days of COVID-19 you desired for us to consider a kind of networked relationship between the absence of public mourning and a lack of robust discourse led by and about people suffering with COVID-19 and those who recovered. This is an absence that seems familiar to you, to us, because of HIV.
Alex: Yes, given all my work, and that of so many peers, over decades and across continents and communities, to create a lively, honest, diverse representational culture around HIV/AIDS, I do find absence—be it of mourning or information—to be particularly confusing and upsetting. As someone struggling with COVID without medical attention, where I have found some solace and help has been reading about other people’s experiences. Early on, this was on Facebook posts of friends and peers, each alone in her respective apartment and living with COVID. That impulse quickly developed into important fora led by people-wth-COVID who together discussed our symptoms, remedies, fears, and unanswered questions. Here’s a key connection to AIDS activism, and feminist self-health before that. Communities of impacted people engage in people-led medicine and care when Western patriarchal big pharma fails us. Our friend and fellow-Doula JD’s DOCUMENT is a great example of this (link to come).
Ted: I think what you are saying is so important. In the absence of an allopathic response to your health concerns, you wisely turned to the community for information.
Alex: I will say this: alongside the personal frustration of needing basic information to better my physical experiences with the virus was another ache, around how to understand the huge amount of loss within me, around me, around us. Sure, I would make noise at 7pm, and eventually join the Black Lives Matter protests. I would witness the long line of patients waiting to be seen at the hospital next to my boyfriend’s house. I would hear the sirens at night as people were rushed to hospitals where there might not be enough beds or respirators. I would flinch at the sound of fireworks that went off wondering what role police and community tension played in setting them off. I would pay tribute to the people I knew who died and to friends who were losing loved ones. But all of this seemed so piecemeal, so inadequate.
The huge wave of COVID-19 suffering, illness, and death was not being met with any sort of meaningful response from the US government. But I felt that this was matched by our own lack of engagement around the suffering and death that this was causing. Even though the proof of our piecemeal engagements and efforts were everywhere, I was—and am—still struggling with a Novel Coronavirus Silence.
Next, Part 2: What is Silence?
Alex: In our first post, we came up with a new term to describe our feelings in the ongoing emergence of COVID-19: Novel Coronavirus Silence.
Ted: But is it silence? Or rather, what do we mean when we say silence? In our book, we have two major sections that create a structure to understand the history of the cultural response to AIDS, one of them dedicated to silence. We look at the role silence plays in understanding the history of AIDS culture, and the ongoing crisis. We begin by talking about the silence that defined the early period of AIDS. But we have come to understand how silence continues to function after the introduction of HAART. And today, even as we see significant attention to AIDS in cultural discourse, there are other silences when it comes to the stories we tell and don’t tell.
Alex: One of the fundamental claims of our book is that we can’t overestimate the role that silence plays when it comes to AIDS. Silence = Death, yes, and then so much more. The title of our book’s second section is “Silence+,” a phrase I crafted to help capture the capricious, multiple, evolving, and defining role we see silence playing throughout the cultural history of AIDS. As per the ideas of my book with Jih-Fei and Nishant: a kind of scattering, a distribution of silence across place, time, community.
Ted: In the Introduction of our forthcoming book we write: “Here is the thing about silence: it is not absence, it is not lack. Silence is full, powerful.”
Alex: Then, throughout the book we continue exploring and evolving what we mean by silence. Here is a brief sampling:
- Silence can be judgement free
- Silence can obscure good as much as it protects bad.
- Silence itself has a presence.
- Silence is layered, contradictory, and not just a negative.
- Silence is the absence of exchange, of network, of connection; silence twinned with isolation.
Ted: And it is point number 5 that I want us to discuss here. It is not true to say that there is no public mourning occurring regarding COVID-19. Not only is there a plethora of voices bemoaning the lack of memorial (which itself begins to act as a form of memorial), but we do see public mourning projects. Take, for example, The New York Times cover from May 24th, 2020. The names of 1000 people who died in the US of COVID-19 were printed as a grim statistical gesture to the 100,000 people who had died in the US to that point. There is also the #NamingTheLost vigil. It took place over 24 hours, starting on May 20th. The names of many of those who have died were read. There are also the Naming the Lost walls that have sprung up in neighborhoods across New York, on which people add their names to a participatory physical list of the dead.
May 24th, 2020 front cover of The New York Times (photo: Theodore Kerr, May 2020)
Alex: While those examples point to what I am hoping for, as such, they can not fully capture the enormity of our loss. They are not yet adding up. Let me state my claim clearly: I am looking for, and not finding, robust and moving cultural moments in which I can feel, share, mourn, and witness with others.
Ted: I am with you. That is why our #5 definition of silence stays useful:
Silence is the absence of exchange, of network, of connection; silence twinned with isolation.
When it comes to COVID-19 we are in the Silence of mourning. Which is not to say that there is an absence of mourning, rather, the abundance of cultural production of mourning feels separate, siloed, non-networked, unconnected, absent of exchange, and mostly in isolation. The outpouring of mourning projects, even when considered together, are not making enough noise to break through the silence.
Alex: Well, we are still isolating in place.
Ted: But that alone can’t be the answer.
Next, Part 3: Black Lives Matter and a Protest Culture of Mourning
Ted: We ended our last post thinking about sheltering in place, or as artist Frederick Westin Call’s it, Sheltering in Grace. But, in fact, in NYC we are in Phase 2, and for a month or more, many of us have been out protesting, Black Lives Matter, even when we were still in Phase 1.
Alex: As I was still regaining my strength after having been sick in March, it was so healing for me to leave the apartment and to attend the protests. In the face of so much death and suffering, and the absolute callousness and cruelty coming from the highest offices of this country, I needed people, I needed release, I needed hope and collectivity. And this comes down to witness. I need to be witnessed, and I need to witness others. This virus has impacted the whole world, and I need to know that we are all able to witness that much loss and devastation, and still growing, in the varied ways that each one of us might need.
Ted:I think this brings us to what is happening with Black Lives Matter. Mid-June I walked around the SoHo area of Manhattan. Boards that were put up to protect shop windows by companies scared their stores would be targeted during protests have now become canvases for amazing and inspiring murals and memorials in honor of the Black lives that have been lost to police and state violence. On some of the scaffolding there are strips of paper that share the names of the dead, along with a few lines about their lives.
Murals in SoHo, including a mural honoring Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco who died June 2019 at Rikers Island after staff failed to provide her with medical care that could have saved her life. (Theodore Kerr, June 2020)
Alex: This is a quiet compliment to the noise of protest.
Ted: Totally, or maybe these are disruptions to the commercial and capitalist visuals that until recently, marked this area
Alex: In thinking about these murals and memorials, one can’t help but think of the many cycles art has played in that neighborhood. It is inspiring to think about how street art has taken over the commercial space that was once alive with artists lofts and galleries.
Ted: I love that you used the word cycle. Because I think that too is related to the activism of this time. Black Lives Matter is not new. But, as friends have pointed out to me, more white people are participating than ever before. And this in part is because one of the major calls of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has been around silence. White people are being called in to not hide behind silence: another reminder, as we suggest, that silence has a presence.
Alex: And a pressure. The absence of silence can be quiet, empty, meaningful; it has impact and power.
Ted: Right, and silence works on various registers. The streets of SoHo were pretty empty of people as I walked around and took photos. The silence, if you will, was anything but quiet. It provided me with some of what I think you are looking for. I felt enveloped by shared grief, by an outpouring of networked and connected anger, mourning, and determination. I was feeling this in proximity to other people, and felt witnessed in the act.
Next, Part 4: Protest = Mourning
Ted: Building off the SoHo murals we discussed, I just want to name that the Black Lives Matter marches have memorial aspects to them as well. We name the dead as we occupy the streets, pledging to work for justice in their name. This is a spiritual declaration we make together in public, which we’ve done before in times of health and political crisis. I think about the fierce pussy broadside for Visual AIDS, and the way it keeps the spirits of the dead alive without forgetting about the politics.
Alex: It is a version of SAY HIS NAME / SAY HER NAME / SAY THEIR NAME, a very common chant in the current Black Lives Matter protests here in NY. When we do this, we always admit that there are too many names to say but saying each name matters.
Left: Activists in Brooklyn repurpose a lightbox sign on Breonna Taylor’s birthday to honor her life. (Theodore Kerr, May 2020). Right: For the Record, fierce pussy for Visual AIDS curated by Risa Puleo, 2015
Ted: Maybe one of the barriers to COVID-19 memorialization is where and when we choose for the story to start. Black Lives Matter was actually a movement born in a phrase within shared mourning. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi came together online to share their grief. Their words, Black Lives Matter, emerged. Here we are, seven years later in a fierce justice movement that was rooted in mourning, so there was never a need to braid grief into the process.
Left: A memorial in Fort Greene Park organized by young Black women in Brooklyn for Oluwatoyin Salau, a Black Lives Matter activist who was murdered by a man who offered her a ride. Right: a pop-up memorial set up in Fort Greene park for people who have died due to police violence. (photo: Theodore Kerr, 2020)
Alex: I was going to say earlier that the foundation of mourning of the movement is not just in the chants or the art installations throughout SoHo. Along with the demonstrations, there have been public memorials, public funerals, and other installations for public mourning in places like Fort Greene park. Memorials permeate every space of this movement.
Ted: Black Lives Matter, at least as I hear it, is an example of the phrase Honor the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the living.
Alex: I think the same could be said for AIDS. The earliest AIDS activism was rooted in hope for sure, but also the looming presence of death. And anger. Always anger. That’s the full mix, Ted.
Ted: I want to say 2 things: I think the best AIDS memorials are still activism, and i would suggest America’s cult of exceptionalism, and Trump’s bravado have robbed us of the depth of a response rooted in grief+. The foundational story of COVID-19 in this country has been one of dismissal, denial, and underplay. There was also an acceptance of death in the name of financial stability, and attempts at quick fixes, and then more denial. It’s no wonder we are still in the Silence of mourning; we not only have to wrestle with our grief, but we have to push back against a very real wall of distracting sound that is trying to drown out our experiences and feelings. All of this while new cases are being diagnosed, deaths are resurging, and less people are taking precautions because cities and states are opening back up in the name of “progress.”
Alex: AIDS is also rooted in hope and death, political and public neglect, and denial.
Ted: True. So what is the difference? What is it about COVID-19 and this moment that finds us, even after more than 100,000 dead, unable to mourn?
Alex: Is that the question?
Ted: Okay, what was it about AIDS that allowed grief to be shared in public beyond the neglect, or in spite of the neglect, or because of the neglect? Was it the candle light vigils that started before the virus had a name? Was it the Names Project’s creation of the Quilt that took something folksy, relatable, and familiar, and turned it into something radical while still being comforting? Was it all the AIDS related gardens that sprung up providing a metaphor and a practice for our human relationship to the land? What is it about Black Lives Matter, which is also about hope and death, political and public neglect, and denial that allows mourning to go unsilenced?
Alex: I think these questions are closer to what we can be asking, and gathering all the information is a good start. But if you are looking for a unifying answer, there is not one. And that is really important. What we have learned about silence is that no single thing has the power to break through on it’s own. Yes, important and moving things happen—like the candle light vigils—and then those prepare us for something bigger—like the Quilt—but change is an assemblage over time.
Left: AIDS quilt in front of the Washington Monument. (YEAR? permissions). Right: Artist’s rendering the faces of people who have died of Police and state violence outside of NYC City Hall as part of Occupy City Hall. (Theodore Kerr, June 2020)
I can say as someone who saw the quilt many times, I know that while we AIDS activists in the earliest moments of this history were uncertain if we wanted to lead with mourning (see Crimp: Mourning and Militancy), you couldn’t help but be moved by that display.
Ted: When some of the quilt panels came to Edmonton when I was a teenager in the 90s, on display in a busy theater atrium, I went. It felt monumental to me. I can still sense the powerful silence of our viewing. A nearby indoor waterfall was the only sound, aside from the slow shuffle of our feet, and the sobbing of some of the people around us.
Alex: One of the things we develop in our book is how silence can be restorative. It is a place where we can cry, be despondent, and also gather our power, much like what you described at the start of this conversation when you say you hit the wall and then repaired yourself. You needed that moment of isolation to recharge and renew your commitment.
Ted: True. So maybe we can focus less on the Silence of mourning, and consider how we can ensure everyone is getting what they need within the silence.
Alex: Preparing ourselves and each other is often a good start before we mobilize.
Catherine Yuk-ping Lo
COVID-19 is like a demon-detector or monster-revealing mirror unraveling the omnipresent structural racism in our society. I write this piece as a Chinese woman, working as a professor and living in the Netherlands. Countries in Europe were mainly having a wait-and-see approach even though the Chinese government decided to lockdown Wuhan and its neighboring cities on the 23rd of January. In mid-February, from China and Asia, the virus reached the European continent (although we have much to glean via critiques of first occurences from AIDS and the Distribution of Crises). On Valentine’s Day, a Chinese tourist who tested positive for the virus passed away in France, becoming presumably the first person to die due to COVID-19 in Europe. On the 21st of February, the region of Lombardy in Italy reported the first local transmission of the virus. Initially, two regions near Milan and Venice were the hotspots for cases; therefore, the Italian government locked down 12 towns in the northern part of Italy on the 23rd of February, exactly one month after the lockdown of Wuhan. The Italian government expanded the coronavirus restriction zone to include the entire nation on the 9th of March, placing all 60 million residents on lockdown.
The first cases of COVID-19 in the Netherlands were all related people with a travel history of Italy, reported on the 27th of February—the week of the Carnival Holiday in the Limburg region I talked about the initial outbreak in the Netherlands with two other lovely ladies on our way to church. Since we all experienced the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, we did not take the disease lightly. We all had a nagging presage that something terrible is going to happen in the Netherlands and the region.
When the cases kept increasing, we discussed whether we should wear masks on the street, because we understood the different mentality between people in Hong Kong and those in the Netherlands. In Hong Kong, learning from the SARS experience, locals believe wearing a mask is a civic duty and a gesture of mutual empathy. Wearing a mask is not only about self-protection but also protecting others from infections. In contrast, Dutch people once believe that masks are solely for sick people and even caretakers of sick people. The logic of not wearing a mask is that: if you are sick, then you should not go out. If you go out, then you are not ill. If you are not ill, then you do not need to wear a mask. Wearing masks is, therefore, unacceptable in society; the act would generate fear and panic. We eventually decided not to wear masks (even though we firmly believe the efficacy of this protective measure) based on straightforward logical reasoning: as ethnically Chinese, we are people of color; and people of color wearing masks in public are often placed at a higher risk for racial profiling.
While living in the Netherlands for almost two years, I have thus far never experienced any sort of verbal or physical harassment because of my gender or race. However, on that day I was on my way home from church on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, while not wearing a mask due to my anxiety of being a marked body. A local white man on the street yelled at me, “RUBBISH!” Whether I wear a face mask or not, given the color of my skin, I am already marked, especially when people relate the color of my skin to the origin of the virus. Both AIDS and COVID-19 are tangled in genealogies that mark their origins in certain georgraphies or communities. With AIDS, what started as GRID was soon identified among populations irrespective of social, economic, or sexual markers. In the case of COVID-19, the virus was initially called “Wuhan Pneumonia” (wuhan feiyan) by the Chinese authorities when the first cases were reported in Wuhan in China in December 2019. Beijing, later on, replaced the name “Wuhan Pneumonia” with “New Coronavirus” (xin guangzhuang bingdu) to avoid essentializing the name of the virus to China across the globe. The WHO eventually named the virus COVID-19 to delink the correlation between the disease, the country, and the people.
The name of the new coronavirus has become one source of diplomatic tensions between China and the US recently. To divert the anger of both domestic and international audiences regarding the initial slow response to the outbreak, China has attempted to alter the well-accepted understanding of the origin of the disease. A respected epidemiologist and SARS-fighter Zhong Nanshan, changed the narrative on the 27th of February by suggesting that the virus that supposedly first appeared in China may not have originated in China after all. In mid-March, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, promoted a conspiracy theory that the virus had originated in the US and was brought to Wuhan by a US delegate who attended the Military World Games. The state-run media continued to report the conspiracy theory in late March, the time when the total confirmed cases in the US surpassed the number of cases in China and Italy, and the US has became the country having the highest number of reported infections.
In responding to the Chinese accusation of the spread of “American coronavirus” to Wuhan, Trump has engaged in a war of words by framing the disease as “Chinese virus” and more recently, the racist moniker “Kung-flu.” The announcement of terminating relations with the WHO is another move the US has taken to show dissatisfaction with the supposedly growing Chinese influence on the international organization. Trump alleged that the Chinese government covered up the COVID-19 outbreak that has cost more than 100,000 American lives and over 1 million lives worldwide, and that the WHO has been effectively controlled by Beijing.
It is not a coincidence that cases of verbal and physical abuse towards Chinese, East Asian, and the Black community have surged in the U.S amid the global COVID-19 outbreak. There have been cases of physical attacks against East Asians in the UK and Canada as well. But COVID-19 also becomes the backdrop against which there is a rise of anti-black sentiment in China. In April 2020, news images circulated of African people sleeping under bridges, families with children being evicted from their rented accommodation, as well as businesses denying entrance and service to Black individuals in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province of China. These incidents occured after over a 100 residents from African countries tested positive for COVID-19 in Guangzhou. These incidents expose the prevailing racism against Black people in China, despite the supposed multicultural color-blindness propped up by authorities.
In my book entitled HIV/AIDS in China and India: Governing health security published in 2015, I suggested that one way to counter AIDS stigma was government accountability, but also to insist on community forms of knowledge dissemination through alternative media, discussion groups, and forums that interrogated discrimination and stigma towards the illness, infected individuals, and “high risk” groups. Since COVID-19 does not simply supplant these forms of political work in the arena of HIV/AIDS, It is imperative that we continue these forms of activism with renewed energy.
Thinking about Small, Needful Facts
I have been teaching Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact” for several semesters over the last few years in Queer Literature and WGSS classes at my university. And yet, it’s one of those texts that is difficult to “teach”—its understated beauty and aching tenderness carries its own profound weight, not really requiring lengthy explication or extensive pedagogical rumination. So what does one “teach”? What can I really say? Sometimes pedagogy doesn’t require too many words. Foucault usefully reminds us that there are no binary divisions between speech and silence. Silence can labor in the same performative vicinity as speech.
In early June, I attend a rally in Berkeley in solidarity with black lives organized by a group of black and women of color students training to be physicians. Their demands include: understanding racism in conjunction with police violence as overlapping public health emergencies; comprehensive antiracist training for medical students, practicing physicians, and associated healthcare providers; and more urgently, an immediate end to militaristic use of tear gas by the police on protestors in the midst of pandemic that causes severe respiratory health outcomes and problems with breathing. A young black woman who identifies herself as a physician in training comes to the mike to address some of these issues. Overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment, she discontinues her prepared speech addressing some of the above talking points, and instead chooses to read out Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact.”
Pedagogies of silence. Struggles to speak. Both seem to encapsulate the difficulty of how to bear witness to these moments in vocabularies that sometimes seem to exceed or escape us. Our own words do not always do what we need them to do. But these very failures can still be instructive. Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” simultaneously animates and salvages these scenes of silence and incomplete speech. Its own tentative hesitations and tender qualifiers—“perhaps,” “in all likelihood,” “some of them” capture a quality of thoughtful hesitation and considerate caution. For Gay, the realm of the factual seems to be provisional, bathed in the “maybes” of the subjunctive. Their “smallness” pushes against the confident grandeur and assertive certitudes of definitiveness.
And yet, despite caution, these facts are needful. Or, to use, Alexandra Juhasz’s words, “we need gentle truths for now.” In the preface to our book AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Cindy Patton usefully reminds us that “stable objects of analysis are hard to come by…(when) the careful work designed to document the fragile construction of ‘the real’ has also been hijacked from the other side: the neoliberal claim that postmodernists do not believe in any truth.” Such co-options of poststructuralism have transformed postmodernist challenges to singularity and universalism “into a cynical assault on any notion of facticity.” (Patton, i).
“Facts” and “truth” are categories that have undergone significant forms of hermeneutic pressure by projects of decolonial, feminist, queer, disability, and critical race theory. How might these very projects allow us to reclaim the categories of “truth” and “fact” in this moment? How are these reclamations enabled when we consider truths to be gentle, or facts to be needful?
“Need” can be an imperative or framed as an imperious command. But need can also be an expression of affective and material longing. It can be a desire for that which is vital, especially under conditions of precarity, austerity, and the uneven distribution of life chances.
But I would add, the qualifications of “needful” and “gentle” are also epistemological in their importance. They allow us to think about not only the content of truth and facts, but also its form. How do we write in ways both gentle and needful in moments that are marked by the distribution of multiple crises and pandemics?
I am drawn to the subjunctive mood of the poem—its provisional “perhaps.” The “in all likelihood” creates a through line to the rich archive of black feminist and black queer thinking (which, not surprisingly, does not get enough credit as an epistemology or as a hermeneutic of thinking and writing). Gay’s subjunctive mood is reminiscent, for example, of Saidiya Hartman’s mobilization of critical fabulation in her archival meditations on Venus in Two Acts. For Hartman, the very encounter with the archive is ridden with risks of replicating its violence: “How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?”; “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” Like the “perhaps” and “in all likelihood” of Gay’s poem, Hartman suggests that speculative arguments “exploit the capacities of the subjunctive”—“a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities.”
What-might-have-beens offer us roadmaps to what could be. In the conclusion to Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton writes the story of Phillip DeVine, the disabled black man who was murdered by white supremacists along with Brandon Teena. DeVine’s life and death is left out of much of the queer Brandon Teena archive, including the film Boys Don’t Cry. Snorton’s conclusion insists that DeVine’s story “requires nothing short of invention,” and offers an analysis that combines small, needful facts and fiction. Snorton writes: “How does one access a language outside of and in contradistinction to the governing codes that currently determine human definition such that it gives rise to new meanings, forms of life, and genres of being?”
When I teach Snorton’s essay and students refer to this conclusion, they often misspell DeVine as “Divine.” Perhaps it is simply auto correct that unintentionally creates a new spelling of his name.
“Things I never did with Genevieve: Let our bodies touch and tell the passions that we felt. Go to a Village Gay Bar….” — Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. Biomythography accounts for the subjunctive—the could-have-beens of history.
“Sometimes you have to create your own History.” — End credits of The Watermelon Woman.
For one of my students, the fact that the watermelon woman is not an “actual” historical figure but a work of fiction creates a sense of bathos. Perhaps they are let down by the idea that verisimilitude is always already ventriloquized. But when we push through this initial disappointment, we arrive at the power of the flim’s function as biomythography, of recognizing that what passes as “fact” can be fiction, but also that fictions can be gentle and needful facts. Biomythographies, as Snorton reminds us, are “invitations to create different discursive structures for human identification, ones that contravene colonial modes of cataloging difference in favor of the possibility of engendering ways of life and genres of being based on the specificities of lived experience.”
Perhaps, or, in all likelihood, Eric Garner put plants very gently into the Earth. And these plants perhaps, or in all likelihood continue to grow. There is much to mine here in thinking about the relation between blackness and ecology; on environmental redlining; on the whiteness of green critiques.
“In what I am calling the weather, antiblackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates cheangeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.”
We could (perhaps?) think of abolition as a kind of “new ecology” that “might continue to grow” in contradistinction to the weather that produces and sustains the climate of anti-blackness.
Sharpe’s turn to ecology and the environment offers a through line back to Gay’s small and needful fact—of the role that horticulture might have played in Eric Garner’s life.
In the last few weeks, I have been drawn to our book cover of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, with a reproduction of Zoe Leonard’s powerful installation “Strange Fruit.” Perhaps I am attracted to its contemplative meditation on loss and repair in the midst of global pandemics in which we are still stumbling our way through new rituals of mourning, militancy, and melancholia.
But perhaps the cover can speak to us in yet another way—if anti-blackness is as pervasive as the weather, it permeates entire ecologies of rotting fruit. Rather than singular bad apples, it is the entire orchard of fruit that is rotten to its core.
Abolition, as Ruth Gilmore Wilson often reminds us, is not simply a negation, but a productive practice.
It is perhaps converting sunlight into food—making it easier for us to breathe.
Following A Small Needful Fact
“And just as each plant takes up a certain quantum of light for its own purpose and produces its own singular disjunctive pattern of branch and leaf, so every object contracts and dilates time” (102).
–Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life
Just as a camera lens might capture light to visually record and make history, so do plants and other organisms photosynthesize and absorb memory about events that lead to changes in climate, ecosystems, and global health. The way plants bend, move, or are manipulated in response to stimuli, including human interventions, tells us a lot about the histories of racism and public health.
Six years ago, on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, Eric Garner suffocated under the chokehold of police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Although Pantaleo was not initially indicted, the person who witnessed and video recorded Garner’s murder, Ramsey Orta, was terrorized by police and eventually arrested and convicted for possession of a weapon and drug charges by police officers. Orta served his jail sentence until May 2020. For allegedly selling loose cigarettes without tax stamps, Garner paid with his life.
Less than a month later, on August 9, 2014, officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, MO pursued Michael Brown on suspicion of stealing from a convenience store. Wilson shot Brown six times, leaving his lifeless body in the street for four hours. Protestors contend that Brown stated beforehand, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” As the 2017 documentary film, Stranger Fruit, depicts, the accusation levied against Brown was taking cigarillos.
When George Floyd exited a Minneapolis, MN convenience store on May 25, 2020, he was accosted by police officers responding to an allegation that Floyd made a transaction using a counterfeit $20 bill. The video recorded by Darnella Frazier shows officer Derick Chauvin, whom Floyd once worked with at a local nightclub as security, use his knee to pin the back of Floyd’s neck onto the ground for around 8 minutes until Floyd asphyxiated and died. Floyd’s purchase was cigarettes.
On June 23, 2020, shortly after midnight, Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker were awoken to the sounds of someone forcing their way into their Louisville, KY apartment. Fearing for their lives, Walker used his licensed handgun to shoot at the intruders. Police serving a “no-knock” warrant used a battering ram to breakdown the couple’s door. The officers fired a barrage of ammunition into the apartment, eight of which struck and killed Taylor. Although police had already detained their main suspect earlier at a different home, they decided to investigate Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night and without their body cameras turned on. To this date, none of the officers involved have been arrested for Taylor’s murder despite public outcry. The police never found what they were supposedly looking for in Taylor’s apartment: drugs, or a link to selling drugs.
Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, widely publicized the horrors and labor abuses of U.S. industrial meatpacking. That same year, to protect consumers, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to “prohibit interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs.” This led to the establishment of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Although tobacco is plant that is cultivated as a lucrative drug, its commercial distribution never came under the regulation of the FDA until 2009. By 2016, the tobacco industry totaled $117 billion in revenue. The lobbying of government, skewing of science, and racially targeted marketing have ensured that the U.S.-based company Altria—formerly Philip Morris International), and the world’s leading tobacco company—has operated since the mid-nineteenth-century with very little government interference.
As the general name for a plant that is indigenous to the Americas in many varieties, tobacco and its harvest became crucial to the survival of the first successful colony of Europeans in Roanoke, VA. Their displacement of Native Americans, enslavement of African descended peoples, and exploitation of tobacco became part of the architecture for settler colonialism. During the mid-nineteenth-century, tobacco was one of the earliest crops that supported the new republic of Colombia to gain its economic independence for a short while. After the abolition of slavery across the Americas, dispossessed Indigenous, formerly enslaved Black, and Asian “coolie” laborers were forced through various vagrancy laws, citizenship exclusion laws, and/or “Alien land laws” to work on white-owned plantations and businesses. Armed guards patrolled the fields to prevent direct sale of tobacco by workers. Slave patrols became the foundation for the modern U.S. police.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, drug laws across the United States targeted marijuana and “laid a foundation for the bifurcation of the drug market and the origins of the war on drugs.” The U.S.-sponsored global “War on Drugs” ramped up throughout the twentieth-century. Under this cover, U.S. military operations undermined the sovereignty of nations in Latin America and Asia. Meanwhile, the domestic militarization of law enforcement in U.S. urban centers dovetailed with the conversion of former agricultural lands into prisons. The use of racial profiling measures, such as “stop-and-frisk,” and elevated penalties for drug offenses, which further targeted racialized urban communities, led to the massive incarceration of Black and Brown people. Although some states have legalized marijuana, its increasingly lucrative industry has been dominated by white male CEOs while those who were previously convicted under marijuana and other drug-related charges remain imprisoned.
Today, we turn to the FDA to take advantage of the speedy clinical drug trials made possible by impassioned AIDS activists. However, we rarely pause to consider the racist roots of food and drug industries—that is, the history of mass agriculture involving Indigenous dispossession, African enslavement and incarceration, and immigrant laborers who are denied rights and can be detained indefinitely. During the late nineteenth-century industrialization of agriculture, the first virus, the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), was “discovered” by western scientists in the tobacco plant. All viruses, including HIV and COVID-19, are based upon TMV as the foundational and experimental model. A majority of the world’s laboratory experiments on diseases, including HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are conducted using the “immortal” HeLa cell line developed using the cancerous cervical cells taken from patient Henrietta Lacks by her doctor, George Gey, without her knowledge and prior to her death from the illness. Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA and initially grew-up in the former slave quarters of her grandmother. She spent her early years as a tobacco farmer. Our privatized agriculture, food, and drug industries are enabled by the history and persistence of race, gender, and class disparities.
As U.S. pharmaceutical corporations continue to source taxpayer funds to develop lucrative drugs during the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 global pandemics, we must ask ourselves: How do we ensure public health amidst an increasingly, globally privatized environment?
Vox.com reports, “Even during the market calamity the coronavirus pandemic has caused, [CEO Jeff] Bezos has consistently been one of the few exceptions in the billionaire class who has been in the green. Amazon is more essential than ever, and its stock is up 25 percent this year, as is Bezos’s net worth. That success, while the economy craters…” Simultaneously, in Peru, Graciela Meza, executive director of the regional health office in Loreto, bemoaned the lack of access to public health interventions and medical care that she and her constituents face amidst the pandemic. “‘There’s no oxygen in the lungs of the world,’ Meza remarked bitterly, referring to the city’s Amazon location. ‘That should be the headline for your story,’ she added.” Fascist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is persecuting Indigenous peoples and razing the Amazon rainforest in order to intensify extractive practices, such as mining. Meanwhile, we as consumers delight over the easy access we gain to manufactured products that rely on such extractive practices.
Simply, we are replacing the Amazon rainforest with its virtual mall version. Except, we are paying for it with the lives of our most vulnerable and eventually our global wellness.
We associate the positivity of the color green more with the U.S. dollar than the green of our ecosystems. We are appalled at the dramatic climate changes already underway, but do not consider it a sacrifice if we can order cannabis and hemp products online and get toilet paper delivered to our doorsteps in less than a few days. A seemingly lower price point and the need for physical distancing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic renders Amazon(dot)com’s convenient online order-and-delivery service “essential.” Yet, Amazon(dot)com’s essential workers, many of whom are Black, continue to strike for fair wages and appropriate safety measures amidst the pandemic. The profitability of Amazon(dot)com derives as much from its employees’ high risk and low wages as from the corporation’s ability to undersell mom-and-pop competitors. Under Amazon Web Services, the company copies and integrates software that is created by other tech companies across the world wide web. By expanding its software platform, Amazon(dot)com is able to collect data, form partnerships, and direct consumer traffic across an array of locales, markets, and institutions. This includes Amazon(dot)com’s selling of facial recognition software to police, which the company did not halt until this past June in response to Black Lives Matter protests, while using its Alexa technology to track and provide health data to governments. The prospect of Amazon(dot)com replacing all of our taxpayer funded social safety nets is on the horizon—and, by “horizon,” I mean our line of sight which is persistently directed at our laptop and smartphone screens.
The current movement for Black Lives is the result of earlier years, decades, and centuries of Black feminist, queer, and trans activism. Movement leaders recognize that the murders of Floyd and Taylor, as well as the murders of Black transwoman Nina Pop and Black transman Tony McDade, during the COVID-19 pandemic are no coincidence. By making resources scarce and inaccessible, privatization embeds violences in our communities, especially targeting those with the least access and institutional protections. Privatization chokes Black lives. It refuses Native sovereignty and custodianship of the environment. It dismantles our natural resources. It destroys the public and makes us globally unhealthy.
In 1920, U.S. bacteriologist C. E. Winslow described public health as the “untilled fields” (23). Winslow emphasized a shift in focus away from environmental sanitation to communicable diseases, arguing for widespread access to medical care and standardized living conditions. One hundred years later, we have not supplied the most basic, frontline measures to disease prevention: universal healthcare and universal housing. In an essay titled “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, “A bottom-up politics of recognition in the face of threatened annihilation enhance[s] a syncretic rescaling of identity…In the United States today, white people suffering from a concentration of environmental harms…have learned to call what is happening ‘environmental racism’…This stretched understanding of racism enables vulnerable people to consider the ways in which harmful forces might be disciplined and harms remedied” (45). How, then, might we understand the coincidence between the COVID-19 pandemic and state violence as environmental racism? How does this framing help us understand and remedy racism as systemically embedded in our environment?
Although people bristle at the formerly used term “social distancing” to describe our COVID-19 public health model, it is certainly more accurate than “quarantine” or even “lockdown.” An even more accurate description for our failing pandemic abatement plan, absent of universal healthcare and housing, is “socioeconomic distancing” or “environmental racism.” To bridge the socioeconomic gap and stem environmental racism, Black Lives Matter protestors occupy public space with masks and the sharing of supplies for collective care against police violence and COVID-19. They call for the abolition of police and the funding of healthcare and housing. Activists lead us in experimenting with how to plant seeds, grow roots, and nurture ecosystems together rather than rely on massive extraction, consumer algorithms, and contact tracing to keep us atomized and unjust.
“Granma, what did you do in the deadly Pandemic of 2020?” Her answer is: “My dear, that was a terrible time! Many people died, but by God, our students took their final exams.”
In a mere blink of the eye, universities in North America undertook a massive transformation whose duration – and durability – remains unclear. Students were sent packing, and faculty were shuttled into virtual training sessions about virtual teaching strategies. Some changes felt charmingly familiar: the difference between searching for appropriate “actual” classrooms and the quest for open bandwidth initially seemed to be one of scale. But the redistribution of teaching to these many web-worlds put universities in competition for bandwidth: from corporations and government bodies attempting to remain responsive to their markets or publics to the countless lonely stuck-at-homes who were variously working and looking for companionship, everyone seemed to be logging on at the same time. Connections constantly “froze” and restarted.
The implication of the difference between actually sitting in a room with someone, versus watching them appear and disappear at the whim of electrons shooting across space was mundane and apocalyptic by turn. In our new “classrooms,” students who previously zoned out before our eyes, could now mimic net-failures. But as the epidemic’s first wave expanded across the globe, we had a disconcerting realization that students could and would soon make choices about how to continue their “higher education.” As we slowly steeled ourselves to the heartbreak of young people’s diverted or crushed sense of their futurities, they faced a pragmatic question: should they stay the course with expensive degrees that, except for a brand name their diploma would bear, were now undifferentiable from “cheap ones”? Higher prestige brands argued that it was worth staying the course until the resumption of in-person classes with their superior teachers. (As a result of the media coverage of the “pay for admission” scandals, most people were newly and acutely aware that in addition to cushier environments that would make anyone’s learning easier, high prestige institutions conveyed the symbolic capital of “connections,” which meant that graduands would start life higher up on the food chain.)
For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of courageous or visionary decision-making during the spring-that-was-to-end-online. Decisions reflected the patron relation between faculty and students, and between administrators and faculty. At my own university there was an astounding lack of leadership, although perhaps not uniquely. I fantasized that in other places, Someone Was Actually In Charge. The simple issue of how to finish (or whether to finish, or what finishing “as planned” might mean) dragged on for weeks, in the apparent (and baseless) hope that things might, just might, quickly sort themselves out. A weird academic machismo seemed to infiltrate even the tiniest decisions, a fear that if we changed things much from “the old normal” (shutting down unnecessarily, changing grading standards) administrators and faculty would look silly.
The Great Shutdown happened when most universities and colleges had 4 or 5 weeks remaining in their semester, and among the many issues to be managed was “assessment.” Many other universities more prestigious than my own made timely decisions about how grading would work, thus enabling their (overall more priviledged) students who needed to go home to make decisions about their lives without worrying about their grades. Perhaps the familiarity of this long-contentious aspect of our work meant that everyone had something to say, making grading seem like a logical focal point with the power to bring all other questions into a rational discussion of “what to do.”
At my university, the question about grading dragged on and on. At my mid-tier, R-1 institution, there was reluctance to go the P-F route, perhaps because of the longstanding jockeying attempt to demonstrate that our grades “mean” something. Many, many faculty were also fighting behind the scenes: we were not of one mind, but we tried to provide advice about a rational grading-system that would correspond to the type of class and their previous forms of assessment. Finally, students took matters into their own hands and demanded a decision (they were allowed to petition for P-F; or drop courses late without penalty).
The question of simply stopping the semester early – discussed covertly by some, maybe many, faculty – never seems to have been taken seriously by our administrators, and the moral bankruptcy of their decision-making became very clear: those of us who directly challenged upper level administrators got two types of answer. First, “we owe it to students to allow them to finish the term” underscores the patronizing attitude of administrators and many faculty – we know better than students what they need to do in order to survive in this pandemic. Second, the claim that “we need to make sure that no one is cheating,” which launched a thousand needs for invigilation technologies, just seemed like the dying preoccupation of a dying profession.
To my surprise, this animating rationale for “going on as usual” only amplified. After the semester ended, collections of anecdotes and various research initiatives emerged to document the rise of cheating during the semester’s untimely end. The question seemed to almost entirely center on “did they cheat or not?” and if so, how could the gaps invigilation gaps be remedied now that virtual classrooms are our lives for some time to come?
The discussion of cheating overlooked purpose of the “assessment tools” that form the platform from which cheating and non-cheating occurs. Are there forms of teaching in which something called “cheating” would not occur at all? Is it possible to teach without regard for ranking students (almost exclusively through the assignment of grades), an activity that is the precondition for the motive to cheat?
In my first year or so of teaching, my grades were deemed “too high,” and I was remanded to a “resource” in which I would learn how to curve my grades. My fellow group members and I delicately raised questions about the tension or even contradiction between “grading” students and supporting their growth as persons and as scholars. I started referring to this group as “high graders anonymous,” a place where participants admitted to their addiction, but had little motive or means to give it up. As a proud lifelong member of high graders anonymous, I have almost semesterly been required to justify my grades to my department chairs. Eventually, I realized that there is nothing “they” can do; they can’t fire me for giving grades that “do not match the predictive curve.” I consider the alignment of my teaching and my grading to be a matter of academic freedom, and I have tried in my very small way, to model a form of learning that does not articulate to grades. This requires me to build up a system of trust between myself and my students.
Those of us with many years’ experience of teaching through trust probably have some sense of how we have accomplished that task (or, sometimes this time, had not), but mostly, trust-building has become part of our modus operandi. This trust is a little difficult to characterize. There is something about asking students to trust me to help them achieve their scholarly goals, but to measure that by standards that they develop outside the usual competitive framework of grades. I ask them – I trust them — not to “get outside help” (whose pedagogical utility I could not assess) for the mere purpose of improving their grade. I ask them not to “cheat” and I ask them to trust me not to use grades as a form of punishment. I agree with Foucault that “normation” – in this case, through ranking with grades – is inextricably bound up with punishment.
We will be in for a rough few years, as this pandemic pulls the carpet out from under our teaching. Few of us have much experience “teaching online.” that would soon become the stock in trade of teaching. The issue is not so much that we cannot adapt to the technologies non-face to face teaching, but that in the “virtual classroom” we do not yet know how to instill “virtue.” Indeed, I am not at all sure that the University system is a virtue producing machine.
I think back to the early years of the AIDS pandemic: it is a truism now that “patients” and activists usually knew more than their doctors. That as in part because there was an insurgent demand across disease categories to “listen to the patients’ experience,” but much more, we crafted a new form of knowledge that was in dialogue with researchers and doctors with highly specialized ways of producing information, but we also spent a huge amount of time building capacity in ourselves and our community to understand science and change ill-informed views – among our doctors and among ourselves.
I probably over-estimate the success of my generation of AIDS activists work to build on the ethos and strategies of the “science for the people” movement of the 1970s, where ordinary citizens worked together to develop the capacity to understand science. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, learning was active and the knowledge we produced improved individual lives and built a community.
We are not at that place today in the current epidemic. I probably should not have been surprised to discover that the majority of my non-science colleagues, let alone “ordinary people” are not only shockingly innumerate, but also disinterested in systematically acquiring an understanding of the scientific foundations that would make them able to participate meaningfully (rather than mean-spiritedly) in local debates. In the early years of doing safe sex education, I noticed that people were happy to give up activities that they liked least, but reluctant to do the things that would actually make a difference. Eventually, the solution to the AIDS epidemic was pharmaceutical, an outcome that I continue to believe was not a necessary end and not the best end. At this very early stage of coming to terms with a new class of viruses, it is critical that we make decisions at a point when we are still unable to measure the impact of the not-yet-known, and many people scoff at the reality there much remains unknowable, because biomedical research designs don’t do a very good job at modelling human activity. Not least among these human activities is the capacity to undertake moral questions about who deserves our attention and care.