Letters

We opened our exchange at the beginning of May–almost two months after New York has issued a shelter in place order. We end just before the 4th of July (or “the 4th you lie” as it’s known in some Black communities). Times are moving quickly; we are still living through COVID and in an era of protest, so we decided to shy away from making any grand proclamations, name what this moment means, or give directives as to how we should be responding to our global predicament. Instead, our communication came from a need to connect. Here are some extracts.

 

May 2

Dear Aimee—

So glad we are keeping in touch. Though this may be a strange way to put it, since right now with every touch I envision intubation. Ventilators. Each day is a negotiation, just what level of social distancing am I committed to? The air feels contaminated. But I can’t stay inside anymore. I go on early morning walks.

I can only watch the news for a short time, as it has escalated into fearmongering and panic. But health workers having to make their own masks? People dying in the hallways of hospitals? Before COVID hit, I read and wrote about dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and especially Clay’s Ark, in which an alien virus spreads itself by making touch irresistible for the infected. Now I wonder, did reading these accounts help prepare me, or hinder me?

 

May 4

Jayna,

Yes. Staying in touch is an electric phrase now. But, however we think of it outside of actual physical contact, I am still so happy to be connected with you in this way.

This might sound odd but I have an insatiable desire to gulp air–the last thing we should be doing–and touch everything. You are reading and I am dreaming some other Black feminist sci-fi. Last night I dreamt I was running through the streets of Bed-Stuy naked. In this dream the streets were as lonely as they were on those grey chilly days in mid-March when we were first told to shelter in place. I was the monster in my own nightmare. Chasing people around corners and up the stairs of brownstones. It wasn’t clear what I wanted. To wrap my arms around my neighbors in a big bear hug? For someone to turn around in mid chase and call out my name? To keep running and running and running just to feel the rush of air on my skin?

When I woke up the first thought that came to me was the word tender. 

Tender is what we always are just by nature of being alive. We are more tender than ever now. Tender is not the bruise or wound but the anticipation of that bruise or wound being touched by someone or something and what we might feel when that happens. The anticipation is often more sensational than the actual touch.

 

May 11

Dear Aimee—

I share your desire for air–and touch. But for me not tender, more like exposed.  I have the urge to take cover, from something there is no cover from. Tenderness, as in being kind and gentle, seems a luxury right now. I was trained that feelings are weak–my reflex is to stifle my fear/anger/sadness so they don’t overtake me. I feel suffocated, the urge to run. I had the chance to get away from the city, so I ran and ran and ran.

I’m now in Lexington, Kentucky, after maniacally driving twelve hours to get here. I’m with some friends who have been kind enough to let me stay with them. Newly minted assistant professors, they’ve rented a lovely small house tucked away on a horse farm for a third of what I pay in the city for a tiny apartment. It is like a dream here. I wake up to garrulous bird song. There are so many–cardinals, doves and many I don’t know, all with brightly colored wings. Cheeky, fat, and happy. They will come right up to me in defense of their nests; one is building hers in the beams right next to the deck where I sit in the mornings. Sun-dappled trees overhang the creek which runs 50 feet away; river otters and their babies splash merrily about. The horses in the field, retired race horses without the burden of riders, move slowly and gracefully as they eat their fill of bluegrass and buttercups. Ten minutes away from shops. God, privilege is glorious. My friend words it perfectly: it is all about privilege to be nestled in such curated nature.

 

May 15 

Jayna,

You are in Kentucky? Bordering Ohio. I desperately want to visit my parents in Cincinnati. My mom says I never desperately want anything until I can’t have it. I had a plan to fly out and then quarantine before coming to their house. But, the silence on the other end of the line was my answer—”Keep your ground zero Corona ass in New York.” I had to laugh. My parents are survivors. They didn’t come this far or live this long to get taken out by my restlessness.

One of the ways I entertain myself on these endless Zoom meetings is by checking out people’s backgrounds. That is, if they’re real and in real time not the photo of the trip to Greece last summer or fake bookshelves and beaches. You can tell when someone isn’t in their primary home. Maybe it’s their other place upstate or the guest room at a friend’s place somewhere else, but certainly not here. You can sense the escape from the city. Mobility is a privilege but so is staying put…depending. I wish I had the option to leave the city even though I am compelled to stay. I can feel Bed-Stuy vibrating outside my window. Although there are only a few passersby on any given day, the bodiless streets still hum. What is it like in Crown Heights?

 

May 18

Aimee–

I live in an area of Crown Heights which is a mix of people from Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, and a few from Panama. In the next block over are homes owned by Black families who have been on the street a long time. Many have lived on this block their entire lives. I know you have lived on a similar street for years, right? Families—first second and third generations–live together in my apartment building. A lot of “essential” workers also live in my building. (What a term. People have no choice but to go to work, those who still have jobs. Delivery guys, garbagemen…essential actually means expendable). I see tired nurses and caretakers coming home in the evening. My neighbor down the hall is an exterminator. He also sells really good weed. The scent wafts into my kitchen in the mornings and in the evenings when he gets home. He loves conspiracy theories. I once listened for half an hour to some version that was so complicated I can’t remember anything about it. I’ve only been in this building three years, part of the wave of salaried people moving into the renovated apartments priced much higher than the others. You remember when I was looking for a place. There was nowhere free of these gentrification politics. Since I’ve been here white people have been moving in droves. I swear really White white; they scuttle down the streets. Anyway, the white people on my floor have all left, gone to wherever they came from.

I miss my usual routine—saying hello to the super across the street. He says the same thing every morning: “Hello, my sister, have a good day.” The mechanic who works on cars, the older lady with deep smile lines who likes my dogs.

Riding in the elevator I exchanged some words with an older woman in my building.

The woman and I commiserated with each other through our masks. “This summer’s going to be crazy,” she said. “Nobody wearing their masks, or washing their hands,” she hesitates checking me out before saying any more. So I say it.

“And nobody is gonna have a job.”

“Yes, more trouble is coming,” she replies, as the door to the supposedly new elevator, which took two months to put in, threatens not to open, stuck and out of alignment already.

 

May 23

Jayna,

“Yes, more trouble is coming.” Your neighbor is a seer. More trouble is in fact coming and some of it has already arrived.

I live in the heart of Bed-Stuy. The five-block radius I walk just about every day now is a landscape of unfamiliar familiars. The first few weeks of the official sheltering in place made being in public feel not just awkward but criminal. My neighbors and I dropped gazes and scurried to the edges of the sidewalk to avoid even the perception of possible contact. We pretended we weren’t trying to peer into shopping bags to see if the goods inside were essential. This particular part of Bed-Stuy has seen a rapid influx of young white families over the past decade since I first moved here. The Black homeowners on my block–most of them older women–have told me that they were cautiously hopeful at first thinking that perhaps the renovation of some of the more rundown brownstones would mean property values would increase. But, this was when there were only one or two homes shifted out of the ownership of Black families, not nearly the entire block. The problem with these shifts, from what my neighbors say, is not necessarily about race (although it is) as much as a sense of community that is lost when folks don’t speak, take up too much space on the sidewalk, don’t contribute to block parties with money or participation, and generally treat their homes like isolated white oases in a sea of Blackness. The distancing that was already there before COVID is heightened now with face masks and six feet and only some of my neighbors choose to practice smiling with their eyes.

I wonder how the composition of Bed-Stuy, the neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn and all of New York really will change over the next few years. Now that we are back on the block in this Phase I re-emergence who I see on the block has almost returned to what this block looked like in 2009. The elders lean on the gates in front of their homes as they talk to young folks standing on the curb. Shirtless teenage Black boys ride bikes down the middle of the street. I had forgotten what this aliveness felt like and how much of it is experienced in the spaces we hold between one another on sidewalks and front stoops, extended conversations at the entrance to the bodega, and gatherings at the corner.

 

May 28

Dear Aimee–

Events move so quickly right now, it’s hard to catch up. Amy Cooper. Minneapolis. George Floyd. Brutal, bloody, and so banal. So everyday. So “American.” The protests keep spreading, even after news of this officer, who crushed George Floyd’s neck with his knee, is arrested and charged with third degree murder. I think about Ida B. Wells, in her pamphlet A Red Record, listing “The Reasons Why” black people were being lynched. I remember “for no reason at all.” So the suspicion of a counterfeit twenty? And the murder video runs on repeat, as so many others have, everywhere. Of course, this is only the most recent case to receive attention. So many others are not recorded, or acknowledged by anyone in power. So I just feel exhausted, and glad to let the white kids do it.

The brother Christian Cooper’s agile response to this Karen/Becky in Central Park cheered me up considerably. Fuck you Amy Cooper. I’m glad she was forced to give up the dog she was obviously mistreating. Maybe not lose her job, better retribution would be to hold her responsible by cleaning up dog shit in Central Park. Wearing orange and cleaning the streets in the Bronx. Carrying Christian Cooper’s birding equipment. Giving up half her salary to a source of Mr. Cooper’s choosing. Watching nothing but AfAm content and reading from our syllabi. Chris Cooper soft-shoes it the next day by euphemizing that Karen’s racism. Snuff videos of police killing people continue on every screen everywhere.

 

June 5

Jayna,

I am enraged and hopeful. Grieving and conjuring. What makes this time different? It is different, right? There are many variables at play. The overarching environment of the pandemic and the time and reflective space the quarantine allows; the need to be in some body-to-body contact and the visceral charge of righteous indignation that happens when we gather; the timing of the Amy Cooper incident and George Floyd’s murder; the fact that it is past time for insurrection as response to the insidiousness of global anti-Blackness. A childhood friend, a white woman, told me that she was more shaken by the Amy Cooper video than the video of George Cooper being killed. For this white woman, the shame of seeing herself, or her former self, or her possible future-self acting so abhorrently landed with more resonance for her than witnessing a Black man’s last breath and spirit leave his body through a protracted, ego-driven, and cowardly murder. She couldn’t not only help but see herself in Amy Cooper but could not fathom herself as the murderous cop or the murdered Black man begging for air and his mother. Since Amy Cooper’s encounter with Christian Cooper occurred on the same day as George Floyd’s murder, it is impossible to create dissonance between her everyday violence and violence enacted by the police. Cooper’s distressed white woman theatrics and her brash confidence in its performative power (even as she was tongue-in-cheek performing it as a lie to the recording camera) is made possible because she knows the outcome is likely to bring a Derek Chauvin to the scene in her defense. Chauvin’s murderous act is made possible, in part, because of the fabrication of precarious whiteness Cooper performed. I think many well-meaning progressive-leaning white folks are finding it difficult to deny their culpability in this moment. Amy Cooper held up a mirror.

 

June 10

Aimee–

Well put! The performative quality of racialized oppression has a long history. But so does the practice and performance of dissent.

I’ve never seen protests like this. Global. I saw a picture of a mural of George Floyd on a bullet-pocked wall in Syria. What kind of connections are being made to local situations throughout the Global South?

But the protests feel drastically different from the protests I cut my teeth on in the 1980s. These are so clean, so polite, so young, so white. I feel cynical. Are these people in the streets just to get out of the house? Is Black a trend once again? Has COVID ended? What is the end game? Symbolic gesture? Financial remuneration? Why do I have to worry yet again about white guilt? If they are doing work for and on themselves that is wonderful. But why so solemn? Where is the playful, yet deadly serious, defiance?

 

June 14

Jayna,

The missing play in defiance. I know what you mean. I think, though, about the way Black folks in my neighborhood, especially young people, move through the world with what is best described as playful defiance. Righteous defiance has its place in small doses but anything more than that usually kills us slowly. The rigidity of it calcifies the tendons and makes the joints brittle. We need the fluidity, humor, and spontaneity of play for the long game, to stay agile and ready. I think, as Black people, we’ve always known that and been able to witness it in our families and communities. Play is an undercurrent and subtlety that maybe doesn’t register with some of these newcomers to protest. Play is serious. Play is strategy. Play is art. Play keeps us alive.

 

June 20 

Aimee–

Yes, play! That’s why I feel ambivalent about how the streets are blowing up every night here in Crown Heights. How’s your neighborhood sounding? These are not part of the well-behaved and well-dressed protests I see. This is some other thing that sounds like an insurrection. I read that someone got a huge shipment of expensive fireworks and distributed them through the neighborhood. These are fancy, the kind that rise in blooming rings of light. The boys line the streets for blocks with sticks of dynamite and set them off in strings. I heard these go off continuously for over five minutes the other night. But I’m also hearing what sound like M80s, the kind kids used to set off in dumpsters in the 1990s during the crack era, in defiance of the SWAT teams stationed around the housing projects. Black people are in a permanent war in the US. My revolutionary romance loves the incendiary taunt. But all night and day?

 

June 23

Jayna,

A BOOM just went off on the next block–the continuation of the month-long explosives fired off all over the city, as you know, and, apparently, many other cities across the country. Yesterday, I told my next-door neighbor, who is a woman in her mid-eighties, that these non-stop explosions are something she surely won’t miss when she leaves for the South at the beginning of August. This time she is going for good, not coming back. Or at least this is what she promises. “It is the only thing I might miss,” she tells me. “I hope I am never too old to appreciate disruption.”

 

June 27

Aimee–

Nice. I like your neighbor. Recently I am flooded with memories from earlier political flashpoints. I can’t believe it was more than thirty years ago that the verdict on the cops who beat Rodney King came down. On my way to the trans march, I was flooded with memories of the curfew and the fires. I was living in San Francisco, a true protest town then, and, as was usual, we hit the streets. “No Justice, No Peace!” is a well-worn chant. As we marched down Market Street, I remember passing a strip joint, with the dancers behind the safety gate, watching and cheering. I saw someone I knew, who I didn’t know was dancing again. We were soon kettled on a street downtown, closed in by lines of cops on all sides. As we ran to get away, a cop hit me with his club. I’m so tough I started crying. I will never forget, members of ACT-UP were quickly at my side, writing down everything, as the crowds toppled a bus and lit garbage cans on fire. I never felt so cared for as in that moment.

That night we went to get a friend who had been waiting in General Hospital’s emergency room for eight hours. She had been hit by a cop with his baton, and he had hit her leg so hard he struck bone. But while I was there I was brought up short in my romance of the revolution. As we entered, I saw a young black man on a gurney. He was balled up in pain, bleeding from somewhere. I asked him how he was and if he’d been shot. This wasn’t a jump, as General Hospital’s emergency room was always full of gunshot wounds and stabbings. He said no, that he had sickle cell anemia and was there all the time. Being in the streets was fine, but the problem was not just the murders, the most visible and performative forms of racist violence. It was also the long term, generational, systemic racism, the violence of poverty and lack of health care.

 

June 29

Jayna,

The events of the past few months, Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, the Amy in the park are resting heavier than I realized. Heavier than corona in some ways because they are such stark and immediate reminders of our disposability, the failure to recognize our humanity. The “We Are All In This Together” ethos of the pandemic is a hollow catch phrase–we know this and the past few weeks make that painfully clear–not just in the disparities in the way the virus ravages but in the snatching of life that continues to happen despite and in the midst of the subtext of pandemic death around us.

I watched the video of Rodney King’s brutal beating from the recreational room in my dorm. When the rebellion broke out I called my father. We were talking on the communal payphone. He said, “It’s a miracle Black folks aren’t burning shit down every day.” Our ability to remain dignified and stoic and even to perform sanity not only in these moments but always–because these moments are all moments–is something of a miracle. But we are not magic and I don’t feel special. I just feel sad and angry and overall tired—bone tired, spirit tired. And what do you do with that? What is the next move?

 

 July 1

Aimee–

As Fascism looms, some of us have been talking about starting a commune. Wanna join? We were assessing our practical skills. I knit, I have experience cutting wood, milking goats and cows, living with a compost toilet and no running water. I know I’d be a good scavenger. My mother was a hippie who brought us back to the land in the 1970s. I asked her if she wanted to join us. She said yes! That idea is still close to her heart. She can teach us how to make cheeses and jam and plant a successful vegetable garden. She is also not afraid to birth calves and kill livestock.

Does building a commune imply privilege? Is it terribly middle class? Can one do it without being settler colonialists? Cultists? Does any of that matter in the face of apocalypse?

 

July 2

Jayna,

Damn. I’d be useless. I guess I could teach the children something. My skills are excess in crisis. It’s sobering to realize you have been trained to only be useful in this world we’ve created where everything as organic as breathing has been commodified. I could teach all the things we already know but have been made to forget, like (literally) how to breath, listen to our bodies, rest, find answers in the silence. Are these skills or ways to capitalize on what capital has taken from us and then tries to hand back to us with a water bottle and yoga mat?

It is just after 8 p.m. and I am thinking about leaving, staying and building with intention. The sky is still bright blue as the street is starting to get hazy. Summer dusk. Stoop sitting in Brooklyn is the best way to stay present and take it in. The time between light and dark moves quickly. I try to mark the exact moment when night fully descends but I always miss it. This evening I am distracted by a conversation with my next-door neighbor. This is the same woman who says she’ll miss the non-stop fireworks when she moves. She is eating grapes and drinking lemonade on her stoop. She tells me her son is heading back to South Carolina to prepare the house she owns down there for her arrival. We’ve had a version of this same conversation at least twice every summer since I arrived on the block in 2009, but this time her tone suggests that she actually will be leaving Bed-Stuy. Her mask is resting on her chin–Phase 3 of sheltering at home-style–and I am happy to see her smile again. This time that is being labeled a transformative moment and the opening to a new world doesn’t move her. She is not at all excited about the possibilities she has seen come and go before.

Every summer there are fewer Black children on my block. The sidewalks used to be crowded with the bikes and jump ropes of cousins and great grandchildren coming to visit from Atlanta and Jackson, Mobile and Memphis. But fewer of the elders live here now, so no more summer sojourn to New York City. Instead of watching the elaborate games kids play in the street and yelling for cars to slow down, we watch white girls on Citi bikes and yell at the Caviar delivery guys who speed down the sidewalks on mopeds. I understand. There will be less to miss if she leaves.

 

July 3

Dear Aimee—

No one would be useless. We would discover skills we didn’t know we had. And I am sure you have many you are not counting. I think your questions are good ones though, are our skills so dependent on the capitalist system we live in? Only good there? Well at any rate when the final apocalypse comes we will have to learn quick.

It’s funny, we think of an apocalypse as a single event, or as begun by a huge catastrophe. But it is more likely to be a slow, laborious, and excruciating death. That’s what kind of space I am in today.

Your description of your neighbor and your street really moved me. Yesterday I helped an older woman home with her groceries. She told me what she would be cooking for the Fourth and invited me to come to her church. That moment felt intimate and important. With all the dangerous uncertainty, these quotidian acts of connection are the only thing keeping me sane.

Some people have started doing social distance dates. Are you up for it? I’d love to come meet your neighbor.

 

 

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Jayna Brown

Jayna Brown is a professor in the Graduate Program of Media Studies at Pratt Institute and the co-editor of Social Text. She writes about speculative fiction, mysticism, biology, performance, and music. Her book Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds is forthcoming from Duke University Press.


Aimee Meredith Cox

Aimee Meredith Cox is an associate professor of anthropology and African American studies at Yale University. Cox’s first monograph, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Duke 2015), won the 2017 book award from the Society for the Anthropology of North America. Aimee is a dancer and choreographer. She performed and toured internationally with Ailey II and the Dance Theatre of Harlem and has choreographed performances as interventions in public and private space in Newark, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. An accomplished yogi who teaches master classes internationally, Aimee has led several yoga retreats and teacher trainings. Her experience in this realm is the basis for her next ethnographic exploration. This project considers the intersection of race, what she calls, "spiritual theater," and performances of healing and recovery within the context of rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn.