Dedicated to my mother, Janet Cyril; my wife, Alana Devich-Cyril, my aunts Sandy and Marion, my godsister Kafi, my Uncle Tony, my cousins Javana, Njuzi, and BJ; my friends Margo, Sia, Art, Yulanda, Elandria, Lana, Rahwa; and all those lost but here, unnamed.
It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as Black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence, and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth Black folks have been living with for generations: Grief is endemic to the Black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death.
In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it. One bright afternoon during quarantine, when I finally tired of my failed attempts to cut my own hair, my barber and I claimed the back porch to fade me up. As usual, we got to talking politics. We got to talking about feeling pressed and violated from every direction. As he readied to leave, the conversation turned toward grief. I asked how he felt. Many things from the past year are hazy, but I remember how he shook his head, slowly, and said, “Bottom line, there really ain’t no justice for us.”
There’s no justice in the fact that in April 2020, a month into lockdown, 70 percent of the deceased in Louisiana were Black; or that, nationally, Black, Native, and Pacific Islander Americans have suffered the greatest per capita death tolls. Black people were up to four times more likely to die from the disease, when adjusted for age. For every death to Covid or related complications, at least nine additional people are affected. Nearly one in three Black Americans knows someone who has died. Grief could jeopardize Black health for years to come. Yet now, in 2021, as we attempt to stem the wave of Covid deaths, disinformation targets Black communities, exploiting our long history with medical racism by comparing lifesaving vaccines to eugenics atrocities, such as forced sterilization. Despite our disproportionate deaths, we’re told to reject science, medicine, and journalism and embrace conspiracy theories.
Covid aside, Black people are exceptionally acquainted with death. By the time we turn 60, we are 90 percent more likely than our white counterparts to experience at least four deaths of family members. By age 10, according to one study, Black children born in the United States were three times more likely than white children to have lost their mothers and twice as likely to have lost their fathers. Debra Umberson’s research concludes that “exposure to death is a unique source of adversity for black Americans that contributes to lifelong racial inequality.”
My pandemic experience has taught me that our collective grief is a morbid symptom of racial capitalism; that the mechanisms of grief’s racial disadvantage are structural, widespread, and historic; that deep in our living bones we know that when it comes to grief’s unequal racial burden, there can be no comfort without connection, no relief without reparations, no healing without justice. It also pushed me to move closer to the hollowed-out loneliness of the grief that had become my familiar, to welcome the shadow I couldn’t shake instead of running from it.
In February 2020, when news of the pandemic spread across the country, my wife’s death was so fresh, one year gone; I could still smell her life in our silent apartment. I already knew how the Internet could connect people. Our wedding had been livestreamed. Our renewal of vows and Alana’s last time outside were broadcast on Facebook Live. So was her funeral. I knew from the two years that we had spent fighting for her life that the Internet could provide isolation’s antidote. That it could democratize care. That it had helped me survive the death of the person I loved most in the world. I turned to it again.
At first obsessively, my fingers and eyes hunted for facts, for deaths, for escape, protection, something. Then I got more intentional. Sitting in the room where Alana died, my silver laptop open and glowing, I remembered how the Internet joined us to a beloved community. To my right, atop the dresser we bought to hold Alana’s hospice supplies, was the altar that held her sparkling red slippers, her ashes, the corsage she gave me on our wedding day. To my left, a wall of family photos, mine and hers. Ours. It was there, suspended in mid-life, six feet from everything I loved, that I decided the Internet would help me negotiate survival through the current of Black death and resulting collective grief that seemed to shock every community Covid touched.
With the light fading, I upgraded my Zoom account and created a weekly series that would later be known as Pandemic Joy. The third Sunday in March 2020 was our first meeting, just a few squares of people I trusted and loved.
I acknowledge that the Internet can be indecipherable to those who haven’t committed themselves to its study; scary and unmerciful when unregulated and unrestrained. On one hand, I experience it as this amorphous place with no definite rules or rights. It is, in a particular light, a brutal place where my Black activist self, my Black queer self, our many Black selves, are frequently doxxed, harassed, and discriminated against; a place where my dignity has been violated, and all the data that comes with me exposed or exploited for profit. As an avid user, especially of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., I am, in some ways, a digital resident without citizenship in an invisible nation without democracy, owned by distant corporations and some of the richest people in the world.
And yet, less than a month after the pandemic went viral, there I was, at a kitchen table littered with unread books, my hands a poised arc above my laptop, rocking and clapping on a Sunday morning. Singing. What do you know about how a heavy song can lighten a load? My ancestors knew it: homegrown work songs torn from the diaphragm, pushed like a breath from the throat. And there it was, a song bleeding from the mic of my headphones. A red river of music refusing to clot. A melody bled out over computer speakers, across a video platform. And we were somehow together, pandemic survivors, quarantined and huddled each around our own bright screens. Despite the contradictions and dangers, in the chaos of those early days of confinement, we used an often-unaffordable Internet to find ourselves and sing—defying the isolation called in by contagion and state neglect. We moved, as escapees often do, through troubled terrain to arrive at one another.
Despite a media ecosystem that drowns us in information but denies us insight, despite the fact that one in three African Americans and Latinx people still doesn’t have home access to computer technology, the Internet opened a channel through which hidden bereavement was transformed into a visible public health crisis. But to amplify our collective voice, we need the work of organizations: like MediaJustice, Free Press, and others in the Change the Terms Coalition that confront Facebook’s failure to restrain violent white supremacists. Like Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, whose livestreamed car caravan protests helped transform our grief into grievance. Like Marked by COVID, which uses social media to lift up the faces of our dead and hold the state accountable. We need the powerful leadership of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, which create space for us to mobilize collective loss into collective action.
Quarantined, we sang together, we cried, we remembered. Using digital apps, I created a socially distant swim team, launched online grief groups, an online Freedom Cleanse. This creativity, wielding what cultural tools are on hand in simultaneous service to grief and freedom, is part of a lineage of Black radical resilience. Just as enslaved Africans once went to the “meeting place” to build community and plan rebellions, we found our pandemic meeting places. The Internet, the one I spent decades fighting for, helped accompany me in loss and to turn toward grief and turn grief toward life.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.