For Black people in the face of all this death, sadness is the work
I can’t cure my mother’s cancer, but I can try to care for her as much as she cares for me.
Recounting sad shit depleted me, so I stopped writing publicly for a long time. I stopped towards the beginning of this absurdity of a year, but I’m still as exhausted as ever. I got tired of feeling like for Black people in the face of all this death, there’s only so much we can do.
It’s like when you finally catch the arsonist who’s been lighting little fires all over the place, but nobody takes any effort to put out the blaze he leaves swirling in his wake. There must be some scientific law named after a dead white man that determines the conditions under which stopping the cause of something doesn’t lead to stopping the effect. White men, dead and alive, are experts at ignoring the fires they leave behind, after all.
I’m still tired of talking about COVID, that narcissistic ass nigga. I don’t know why he needs all of the attention on him—always—as if other deadly things don’t matter. And he’s definitely a “he,” and I’m certain that’s the pronoun he was assigned at birth, too. I’m not a gender essentialist, but sometimes the stereotype fits, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this is one of those examples of a cis man being unable to accept anything other than being at the center of everything.
And you can’t even say much because this man really does deserve mad props. COVID is the Drake of mortality; he takes up way too much of our collective consciousness but is steady dropping bangers on bangers on bangers, so what can you do.
Everything happens all at once. After my mother’s cancer was confirmed to be untreatable, my mother-in-law relapsed. I tried but couldn’t really avoid Black people being murdered and fighting back and being murdered again all over the news and social media. My dog suffered a severe allergy attack, then another bloodier attack from an unleashed dog in the neighborhood. And my baby brother announced he had a secret baby himself—all within the span of a few months.
I tried more therapy sessions and psilocybin and ball games and running in the rain to keep my mind off what this world is for Black people, but I don’t have the energy for none of that shit today. Today, my little cousin Isa asks me to play him in basketball for real—meaning with my shoes on this time—so that we can see who is actually better without any excuses. He won’t take my word for it that I got him on defense and driving to the hole, and his admittedly nice shot ain’t enough to overcome those strengths. He won’t take other words either, won’t take “I’m tired” as an answer, gently prodding me to play all day long.
“Make sure you take care of your health before it’s too late,” my mother warned me yesterday, her spidery hand trembling a little under the stress of her advancing cancer as she scooped some season-less grits into her mouth.
“I get it,” I told her, “and I’m trying.” I didn’t tell her that it’s difficult to take care of my health when my siblings and I are trying so hard to take care of hers. That when I have to sacrifice mine for hers, I always will. Her eyes say, “no excuses,” and I think maybe they are seeing flashes of that one time she cheated on her diet and ate fast food or didn’t go on that walk she “should have” gone on, searching for some small, logical reason for her affliction, some strategy to steer me away from her strange, terrifying fate. Even though she’s never even held a cigarette and maybe has had two or three alcoholic drinks and hardly eaten any meat and only consumed organic food almost her whole life.
I’m tired of the political conversations my family constantly has. They hardly get too intense by most people’s standards, I’d assume, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t draining. We like to think through difficult things out loud and together, and it’s a beautiful, Black thing. But beauty is often exhausting, as I repeated when trying to convince someone–I don’t know who—that I haven’t just been claiming to be too tired to write to get out of my obligations or to indulge in laziness. And Isa is beautiful as he argues that people need to take more personal responsibility for their health, that he’s scared of the messaging around COVID because it doesn’t emphasize personal responsibility enough. I get it, I say. Health is important. But my mother is right there—right there—and there is only so much that those without certain powers that are impossible to have in this world can do.
Black people are getting killed and kidnapped by police with impunity in that city right there—and there and there and there—and there’s only so much any of us can do in a country built on chattel slavery.
The conversation somehow turns to our other cousin, D. He’s been locked up for 4 years, and he’s 22 now. I been trying to keep in touch with him these last few months, talking to him every other day and sending him money and love and all the things I have that he could use to try and stay safe and healthy. All the things he didn’t have enough of before.
Isa and I theorize on all the choices D made to get to where he is, but it’s really a conversation about all the choices D had—or didn’t. It’s really about all the things, all the trauma, about which there was only so much for him to do before being thrown in a cage as a teenager living with Blackness in his veins.
Isa and I talk about what happens when drugs and abuse and anti-Blackness and poverty intersect, and I see the glimmer fading from my little cuz’s eye as we go on. It’s a familiar supernova, when the hope for surviving this world with any tried and true strategy is snuffed out. When you realize there might be no logical reason for your afflictions, no way to avoid them under the current reality. When exhaustion just keeps happening and happening and happening for as long as this world spins, no matter what you do, the sun’s death that swallows you when you don’t quite yet know there is a possibility for other worlds, galaxies full of brighter stars.
I been talking to D every other day for the past few months, except for the last two weeks. Two weeks ago, he got jumped in his cell by someone he told me was his friend. I know that crowds grow with telling tales, but if I were to use the scientific principles of dead white men to interpret the story we were told by another of his friends, I can calculate that at least five or six niggas attacked him with padlocks in socks for some (in my opinion) minor dispute. D has been in a coma ever since, and that’s with all the love and the money that I gave him to stay safe and healthy. So, I get why not too many people still call him, but I’ma keep doing it anyway.
I promise you this isn’t just sad shit. I have to say that, because I know you might think it is. I thought it was just sad shit for a while, this life, which is why I didn’t want to write about it.
Because when there is this much sadness in a thing, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the sadness from the thing itself. And there is so much sadness in me, in this family, that COVID couldn’t possibly make up even half of it. So much sadness that, sometimes, I don’t give a fuck about COVID. Like, I’ll admit to Drake’s bangers, but that don’t mean I have to listen to him all day long. And I know Isa knows this too, because he drove up here to see his auntie when maybe it wasn’t the safest thing to do if the virus is the only thing being considered. Because he knows that the health and safety provided by being with family at a difficult time is sometimes health and safety enough, knows that only some people have the luxury of only considering the virus. Knows that, for Black people, the life we can scrape together in the midst of dying has to be enough.
I can promise you this isn’t just sad shit, because I can see now that there are things that matter at least as much as the sadness and the death. Like how my mother still tells the best stories and loves me more than she ever did. Like how I’m blessed to be able to stay here in North Carolina with her for as long as I need to. How my family always seems to come up with ways to do what we need to do, even when we are tired. For the same reason there have been many days I’ve actually played basketball and tripped a little on shrooms and had breakthroughs in therapy and ran in the rain while I’ve been here in North Carolina awaiting my mother’s inevitable, and for the same reason that I’ve experienced more joy than I’ve ever felt here too. That is the magic and gift of Black people.
Some god has granted me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. And that god is not white and dead. She is my ancestors, she lives through me, and she will live afterwards.
She reminds me that I cannot change what happened to D, but I can put my energy into his recovery. That he might never get out safe and healthy, but the love and the calls still matter. That some of my baby brother’s opportunities might be limited by having her, but his daughter is a gift, not an accident. That my other sister having her baby two weeks ago too shows that god is not stingy with her gifts. That I can’t cure my mother’s cancer, but I can try to care for her as much as she cares for me. I can’t stop COVID, but I can identify and fight against the real culprit—this anti-Black world, not individuals with unhealthy habits surviving it—using all of these last dying breaths stuck in the too familiar lumps that visit my throat.
This god reminds me that although there might be nothing that individual Black people can do to fix this anti-Black world that dead white men (and women) have created, this anti-Black world isn’t all there is, isn’t the one she spoke into being. There is still work for us to do in order to get back to a life she made for us—a life in which death is just an accepted part, not all that there is. But it isn’t the work of blaming and punishing ourselves and each other for not always being able to stay in those other worlds just yet.
Some god tells me to give up on petty hopes for this world, on ableist ideas about how it can be survived and whose fault it is when it isn’t, and I am trying to listen. I am trying to accept that there will be inevitable deaths, that there are many other types of death than the one that might frighten me the most—than the one that is most popularly cited—and trying to refuse to judge which of the paths toward it that other Black people choose (although I may critique those choices when they force others to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make).
I am trying to always remember the reason all of these deaths exist in such devastating abundance in the first place is because of a powerful, anti-Black system that must be dismantled. Completely. I am trying to live my life in all its fullness, trying not to fall into the trap of hoping against hope for happiness to make up my whole life—as much as I’m trying not to let the sadness, the nihilism, become the whole either.
Some god tells me to love myself in all my fullness, and my family, my community, in all theirs too. And I believe her. Because, even as tired as I’ve ever been, she has never stopped offering me strength.