It is his tenth birthday, and in South Carolina, my nephew Zayd sheds.
The roundness of his face slowly leaving. His innocence sloughing off. His jokes thrumming with the sophistication of a child who’s learned life’s plot twists from watching too much CNN.
In January, my pregnant sister Jamila, her husband Alieu (a Gambian immigrant), and their two boys arrived at my father’s house in Columbia from their current home in Beijing, my sister’s belly eight months wide and ready to give birth to their third and final son. Then COVID-19 arrived. They found themselves trapped in America—my newest nephew, Ibramheema Alyaan, one of the many babies born into a world wearing the mark of a pandemic.
Jamila, Alieu, and my father—a visual artist—are news junkies. CNN, Rachel Maddow, and Joy Reid play for hours on a seldom turned-off TV in my father’s living room. Zayd can quote the president. He raises his small shoulders, two fingers from each hand thrown up in the air, his body giggling with satire as it confuses Nixon for 45. Zayd will quickly tell you that “Donald Trump doesn’t like Black people.” Even so, he’s tired of living in Beijing, a country where so few boys look like him.
As the coronavirus death toll rises, as Black folks beg for testing, for treatment, for economic relief—for our pain to be believed—as my nephew watches my father convalesce from a February lung cancer diagnosis and a partial lobectomy, and as bodies flood the street to protest the lives murdered by police, I am reminded that there are a million ways to teach a Black boy about death. I know this country will try and strike down Zayd—still just a child, like Tamir Rice—the same way they do grown Black men.
Up and down my Brooklyn block, white chrysanthemums fling themselves open. In Ditmas Park, the trees have many lives. The eastern redbuds, magnolias, and Japanese cherry trees abandon their winter bareness for an explosion of white, pink, and purple flowers, their flowers then wilting away into bursts of glow green. In America, some of us die a thousand times. Our deaths tallied by views, clicks, by how long it takes a doctor to believe you are sick; by the time it takes for the cop kneeling on your neck to be charged with murder.
Over FaceTime, my white partner Stephanie and I sing Zayd happy birthday. Nuh, four, giggles and tells us that today is going to be his birthday, too. Ibraheema, now four months old, sings to himself in the background where I can hear him smiling.
Today, I woke up crying. I nipped it in the bud, wanting at least one day where grief doesn’t blur joy. But I know what Black folks know: death can’t be outwalked, outtalked from stalking you. George Floyd has been dead eight days and every picture or video I see is of a white cop kneeling on his neck. The cop’s hand on his own hip, so casually it constructs a new kind of violence. Breonna Taylor has been dead for seventy-nine days and we are still begging America, Say her name. Tamir Rice could have been twenty, Trayvon twenty-five, the two of them strolling around with that swagger of Black boys whose mamas have finally deemed them grown enough for them to feel like men.
How does one give up the ghost?
The ghost, in this case, being the one a country makes of you.
I know, too, that though we lace our children with fear, we also flood them with possibility. We daisy-chain them in our lore. Our stories, like our love, are an unconfiscatable armor. I think of my great-grandma Lizzie nourishing households of poor Black folks from her Georgia garden, as if she were some kind of Jesus, with his two fish and five loaves of bread feeding the 5,000. I think of how in a single generation we’ve gone from sharecropping to college. All our miracles have a Black child’s face.
A week after Zayd’s birthday, Stephanie and I head to a neighborhood protest in Brooklyn. The abacus of Black death reminding us that George Floyd has been dead thirteen days.
Black body after Black body. Are we body or are we ghost?
Volunteers hand out face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. They offer cool water to the sea of protesters whose skin magnets the sun in the cordoned-off Brooklyn streets. Cops in bulletproof vests, without PPE, lean against buildings, licking their teeth like they’re looking for a duel. Together, we demand life for every Black boy and girl, every Black woman, man, all our Black trans sisters and brothers. Together, we are chanting Fuck these racist ass police! NYPD, Suck my dick. We embody a language of people who will not be refused our humanity. On any other day, this would get us killed. We are free and there is nothing the police can do about it, until they begin to do something about it. The cops, whispering, suddenly clump together, moving in angry-ant formation. I tell Stephanie, It’s time to go. On the walk back, we don’t comment on the helicopters we hear overhead. At home we open Twitter. We scan our feeds and see an officer swing a bicycle at someone like a bat. We see cops unsheathing their batons like swords, their weapons making hungry contact with bodies that brazenly demand life. The cops unleash pepper spray on protesters—a sea of skin, blood, and bone—bodies the state never intended to serve or protect.
In this body, in this country, am I dead or am I living? Am I human or am I my country’s ghost?
There are times I don’t know. I peer back into my childhood and my father is painting in his art studio, my dead mother is on the phone with a cousin in Nigeria, her tongue clicking into a language I don’t understand. I see the cackle of my parents’ laughter pouring from their Black bodies like warm rain on our hot, 90s Akron summers. I see my childhood full of warnings, a childhood where to be Black is also a story of hands. Warnings not to touch anything in a store. Hands that keep themselves visible and flayed open on the street. Hands that know always to return empty lest I accidently carry the danger America makes of me home.
I have three little Black and Muslim boys to love. Boys that a pandemic has trapped in the confederate South. Boys who are Halfricans just like me. We are the hunted living inside the haunt.
Lord, Allah, is my shadow my shadow?
Or is it the placeholder for the ghost America begs me to be?
In the COVID world, stories are dying. A woman with a dead mother, this loss I know. How death becomes a vacancy of truth and narrative.
We have lost an astonishing amount of Holocaust survivors. Poof, and Civil Rights leaders disappear. The accountants of history, gone. The voices of people who did the best they could to balance a crooked country’s scales. Larry Kramer, the activist who forced the nation to look at AIDS, dies and COVID prevents us from collectively mourning him, which means something in the world—something inside of us—dies twice.
I try to download my father’s story as fast as I can. Knowing that the virus could take him, me—anyone of us. Knowing that medical racism and an indifferent country ensures this virus kills us at far higher rates than white people. COVID, the gap maker, the history breaker, the eraser. And yet I’m less afraid of COVID-19 than I am of being Black in America and needing help. It’s not just a COVID death to contend with; it’s the indignities of the way Black folks are left to die.
Black is a country and we have died in the cotton fields, both enslaved and free. Have died with our hands chemical-burned from the labor of cleaning white people’s homes. We have died hands up. Have died while being refused our deaths, our water-logged bodies raining over a child’s casket. Our ghost stories populated with ancestors of all ages.
In South Carolina, my father puts garlic in the corners of his house to ward off the evil spirits that stalk the corners of his eyes. He draws my nephews into a charcoal series he’s calling Pandemic. Here my father goes again, imagining us at the end of the world. In my father’s ghost stories, Black folks always make it.
My father’s voice bellows from inside my chest. My dead mother rides the wind around me—the kind of warm breeze that makes her grandson, Nuh, laugh, rubbing his belly in a way that cuts through time. Suddenly I can see Nuh there, in the future, the miracle of him as a much older man. And for a moment I forget that in our country “Black life” is the most dangerous dream—lest our freedom free all. They come for us knowing that We are freedom’s imago. We, America’s imaginal shape. Our freedom could make a new country.
We, the modern-day translation of the ancient Stoics.
The original Stoics believed that to experience true joy you should lean into death. They divided virtue into four types: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Wisdom, in their view, was good sense and good calculation—the way we prepare Black children for the cops. Courage was one’s ability to endure—like Black folks being forced to carry one humiliation after another. Temperance, one’s access to self-control—the way we have yet to burn down this country. And justice is what we owe to each other—the way Black folks, despite a pandemic, protest in order to demand it for both our living and our dead. Zayd, Nuh, and Ibraheema are three Black boys inside the gun scope of a country. But still, despite the floods, I know that in South Carolina, my father leans into laughter and my nephews dance below the sound like bells. Like any Black person, he is trying to stop America from turning our children into our ancestors. Our joy, our shield.