“If bitterness were a whetstone”: On Grief, History, and COVID-19

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941." New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941” (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

“Somedays, if bitterness were a whetstone, I could be sharp as grief.

-Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

The COVID-19 numbers are grim. We have all seen the numbers. First, there were the number of cases, the number of tests versus the number of people who have tested positive, and the number of hospitalizations versus the declining number of hospital beds. Then came the projected death count — animated by its exponentiating curves, climactic peaks, and the prospective plunge. There was that skyrocketing graph of the sharp rise of unemployment, the inverse of the market crash. While these numbers circulated without faces or names, some began to see that a disproportionate number of the people those numbers represented were Black. Though the United States fails to generate numbers with any integrity, the numbers we have reveal that Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a disproportionately high rate. Were it not for social distancing, Black people would be mourning and marching — resisting — the streets, as we have for some 500 years on behalf of our dead and for our survival.

The numeracy of COVID-19 — the reductive quantification of Black life and death — recalls the morbid mathematics of slavery and the slave trade. From the earliest days of the slave trade, Europeans recognized that trafficking humans across the Atlantic posed a public health threat that could jeopardize their fledgling settlements. When the first smallpox outbreak struck the Americas in the 1500s, Spanish friars in the Caribbean wrote back to Castile requesting enslaved Africans, warning that they would have to take precautions to ensure that the captive Africans did not foment outbreaks. For nearly 400 years thereafter, captive Africans struggled to survive both contagious diseases and Euro-American public health practices aboard slave ships and in the Americas. European and Euro-American medical interventions on slave ships and in the Americas were not for the benefit of the enslaved, rather they were designed to mitigate mortality and compel enslaved women to reproduce to maximize enslavers’ wealth and profits. The Western rationalism that engendered slavery-era ciphers to value, quantify, and commodify Black people (both living and dead) anticipated the formulae for modern medical triage that imperil Black people’s lives under the guise of objective criteria. This history is always with us.

COVID-19 is the latest chapter in the long and violent history of race and public health in the Americas. The Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies evade race and class in ways that conceal the boundaries of the “public” it purports to protect. In the era of the slave trade, colonial officials and slave trading companies collaborated to develop sanitary protocols that would protect “public health” and ensure that “contagious diseases [were] not communicated to the residents.” In this context, European definitions of the “public” and the “residents” were flexible and rarely explicit about who was included or excluded. Nonetheless, these public health policies consistently exploited enslaved and free people of African descent on the margins of the categories, sacrificing their lives first in pursuit of mitigation. This history repeated itself, with smallpox epidemics, yellow fever epidemics, the 1918 flu pandemic, the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American grammars of Black mortality conceived in the era of slavery also persist — “ditto” became the “null value,” “negro” the reductive “black body,” “Venus” and “nigger” the “N.H.I.” (“no humans involved”) — “refuse” begot the unclaimed corpse in the morgue, a freezer trucka vacant hospital room, or a “temporary mass internment” cemetery. This wholesale negation of Black life occurs on multiple registers every day; now it is exponentiating at an unfathomable rate while we are kept apart. This American grammar was designed to negate and alienate Black people. It was meant to kill us. It defines Blackness as a “scene of negation” and pervades all of American culture. So, our mourning and movements err to the extreme and bring excess to bear in plain sight — vacillating between loud and flamboyant and silent and modest, constantly contesting, taunting, and exceeding the American grammar. In the words of Audre Lorde, we “integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it” to chart a path through the dark at the crossroads of death.

The American grammar will never guide us through the dark. Thus, the emerging mainstream digital funeral culture is insufficient for our spiritual, social, and political needs, which exceed and elide dominant Western notions of “closure.” Video conferencing, with all of its potential for connection, has already been appropriated as a tool for surveillance, racism, and sexual harassment. Moreover, it does not allow us to see and touch one another, to dance, eat, and drink with the dead. It does not create the soundscape of cries, laughter, screams, and booming or somber music. It does not yield space for passionate remarks and equally passionate interruptions, for strayed kin to show up late and lurk in the eves, for forgiveness, for kisses and hugs, for fistfights, for play, for the divine, or connection at the wake, the funeral, or the repass. The digital funeral culture we are fed to us does not allow us to walk our dead through the streets while calling out their names — performing both a litany and a liturgy for survival — demanding that we are seen and heard.

Black mourning has always been political. Our mortuary practices, both public and private, fuse Vincent Brown’s “mortuary politics” and Christina Sharpe’s “wake work.” Writing about slavery, Brown explains, “People have derived profound social meaning from the beliefs and practices associated with death, and they have employed those meanings — charged with cosmic importance — in struggles towards particular ends. I call such activity mortuary politics, employing a capacious general definition of politics as concerted action toward specific goals.” Historically, when colonial, imperial, or state officials permitted epidemics of disease and violence to besiege and alienate enslaved people, the enslaved “engaged the dead” to commemorate them, to avenge them, to galvanize their communities to political protest, revolt, and revolution; harness spiritual and ancestral power; affirm social ties; assert geopolitical claims; and “recover a sense of their common humanity.” The dead continue to occupy the foreground in Black praxes of survival, healing, resistance, and prophetic discourses about redress. Thus, Sharpe ushers us to “the wake.” She theorizes “the wake,” in all its connotations, to understand “how slavery’s violences emerge within the contemporary conditions of spatial, legal, psychic, material, and other dimensions of Black non/being as well as in Black modes of resistance.” She offers “wake work” as a way to “attend to physical, social, and figurative death and also to the largeness that is Black life” in the face of pervasive precariousness — “to imagine new ways to live […] in slavery’s afterlives, to survive,” and to “imagine otherwise from what we know now.”

To survive and heal, our new methods of mourning will have to match our political needs. Perhaps a song played during a car caravan becomes recessional for the departed, and the caravan the demonstration for the survivors, and the prophetic procession towards the future we desire. Perhaps, the chalk drawings and graffiti become the prayer, the eulogy, the battle cry, the incantation, or the echo. Perhaps the strike becomes the speech to heed and moves the crowd to boycott in place of applause. Perhaps our doctors attend to the people the state refuses. Perhaps our digital tools require new uses, mediums, methods, and political ends to strengthen emerging coalitions and avoid obsolesce under the pressure of increased economic disparities, physical distance, and state and corporate surveillance. Perhaps the end of the pandemic is yoked to incarceration’s demise. Perhaps mutual aid is the pivot away from the cruelest capitalism and the prophetic pilot program for a world we can’t imagine yet. Perhaps the archive is what we make it when we convene to createcurate, and circulate information about how the pandemic and state responses impact Black communities. Perhaps, history repeats.

In the belly of a world that devours Black lives, Black people have rallied time and again, to commemorate the dead, to heal one another, to seek reprieve and redress, to bend the world or die trying, or just survive in it. History repeats. The work has already begun.

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Elise A. Mitchell

Elise A. Mitchell is a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at New York University, specializing in Atlantic World and Caribbean and Latin American History. Her current project, "Smallpox and Slavery," reconstructs the histories of enslaved Africans who endured smallpox epidemics, quarantines, and other public health interventions in the early modern Caribbean and Atlantic World. Her writing has appeared in Black Perspectives, The Atlantic, and the forthcoming volume, Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery. Follow her on Twitter @byeliseam.

Comments on ““If bitterness were a whetstone”: On Grief, History, and COVID-19

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    Elise, this is absolutely awesome. Thank you for the journey through time in fact, family and soul and spirit filling prose as art.

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    Dope and well written.

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    This was a powerful expose that enlightens and empowers. I will surely introduce this writing to my listening audience on my radio podcast this evening 4/28/20 on http://www.tmeforanawakening.com at 7 pm central time.

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    This was a stimulating and earnest read. Thank you for your research and your spiritual prowess.

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    I’m not even sure what I just read. Peotic, sad, beautiful.

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