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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
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Pandemic Poetics: An Eulogy and Manifesto in an AntiBlack World

COVID-19 further unmasked the AntiBlackness of our world.1 Not only are Black people disportionately experiencing the health harms of COVID-19,2,3 but we also disportionately experience other structural, state-sanctioned pandemics as if we are “nobody”: police murder, spirit-murdering in schools, lacking affordable housing, healthcare, and living wages.4,5 To be Black is to be constantly aware of literal and metaphorical death lingering at your doorstep during these multiple pandemics.

We both turn to poetry for refuge and reflection during these multiple pandemics. When Blackness means possible execution, poetry becomes both eulogy and manifesto: we put our pens to pads as a means to not only mourn and give tribute to Black life lost, but also declare and celebrate the audacity and fearlessness of Black life (and Black afterlives) even in the face of violence. For us, Pandemic Poetics is a form of catharsis and resistance against current and potential killings by the State. In our stanzas, we (re)claim our pulse and breath. By seeking healing and protest through our art, we stand on the poetic shoulders of elders like Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton who have historically used Black art, such as poetry, to call out this AntiBlack world, “dig into this thing that tugs at our souls,” and to imagine new worlds and personhood(s).6 This legacy of resistance as expressed through poetry is part of a broader Black radical tradition: the collection of customs, beliefs, and values through which Black people call out and disrupt systems of oppression that deny us humanity, through this medium, we proclaim our worth and dignity.7

In “American Dreams” and “Miss Rona,” we strive to continue the tradition of our elders. Yolanda captures how the American Dream is ironically an American Nightmare for Black people. Yet still, we persist as we’ve always done and uplift those who are now in the afterlife. Gwendolyn pens a letter to the deadly COVID-19 virus, yet another reminder of the inequitable treatment Black people navigate. In the tradition of our elders, she marks this moment in history, contextualizing the brutality of a virus that hits the most vulnerable, yet even in the face of extreme vulnerability, we see Black people resist and rise. Artists are so important to the movement, they are the pulse of the people in moments of crisis and jubilee—those moments that matter most.

  1. kihana miraya ross, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness,” The New York Times (The New York Times, June 4, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/george-floyd-anti-blackness.html.
  2. “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020), http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html.
  3. Ibram X. Kendi, “What the Racial Data Show: The Pandemic Seems to Be Hitting People of Color the Hardest,” The Atlantic, April 6, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-exposing-our-racial-divides/609526/.
  4. Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2016).
  5. Bettina L. Love, “Anti-Black State Violence, Classroom Edition: The Spirit Murdering of Black Children,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 13, no. 1 (February 2016): pp. 22-25, https://doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2016.1138258.
  6. Larry Neal, “Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation,” Ebony, 1969, pp. 54-58, 62.
  7. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000).


Miss Rona
by Gwen Baxley

Dear Miss Rona,

YOU GOT ME FUCKED UP

Thought you just gonna kill me
Have me bleeding
On the floor
Like a dog

Have my lungs
Heavy as Sandbags
Filled with your petty and poison

Take the wind from my skin?

You got me all the way fucked up,
Thought I was just gonna lie down here
and die

don’t you know I’ve died so many times before
I’ve lost count?
Don’t know you are merely De Ja Vu
I’ve been choked
Been whipped
Been shot
Been got swine from your crooked cousin named cop
We’ve been here before, boo

And I’ve alway been Birthed back anew
Because that’s what Black do

Don’t you know
I am lit
I am live
I am life
Even when you strip me of my last breath

I am spirit
I am sky
I am the fly cat with more than nine lives
I am the pulse of my people
I am the fist and the fight
I am the protest before protest before the protest
I am still here
standing
How dare you
Try me.



American Dreams
by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

As America talks about humanity,
Theirs, but not quite ours—
Let's remember Breonna & Ahmaud
Trayvon & Sandra
Kayla & Tamir
Mother Eleanor & Brother Amadou—
All shot down
like rabid dogs.
Angelic and Black,
mistaken
for red and blue demons
    in White dreams.

I will lift my pen & my voice to
resist & persist in resistance,
& remember their innocence.
Going about their daily lives—
sitting, jogging, walking, driving,
resting, working, and playing while Black
& blue & White reigned in terror
snatching breaths and quiet lives
when no one & everyone
looked on in silent amazement.

Jersey City, NJ & Bronx, NY

Contributors

Gwendolyn Baxley

Dr. Gwendolyn Baxley is an Assistant Professor in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She investigates how school and community leaders cultivate nurturing, affirming spaces for Black youth as well as the structures, practices, ideologies that facilitate or hinder the development of such spaces, including the roles of AntiBlackness and race.

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz is an award-winning associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her first full-length collection of poetry is Love from the Vortex & Other Poems (Kaleidoscope Vibrations, 2020) which can be found at yolandasealeyruiz.com.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues