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in memoriam

The Country That Could Not Mourn

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how hard it is for Americans to grieve.

Xinhua/Wang Ying/Getty Images
The front page of The New York Times on May 24, 2020, called the first 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 an “incalculable loss.”

Zoom funerals—I attended two—were haunting affairs. One stage-managed, with prerecorded video addresses and little downtime; the other facilitated toward connection by a skilled organizer, allowing space for tears and new knowledge. So different, and yet I attended both from the same spot on my sublet couch before taking a masked walk to vent the energy that I could not spend in hugging and talking with others once the cameras clicked off. Those Zoom funerals epitomized pandemic life and pandemic death: isolated yet connected, heartrending yet oddly unreal. So many people had to grieve this way, and yet it was profoundly alienating.

In this moment, when plague reality continues to underscore how under-cared-for we all are, reading After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America has been a balm. It soothed like the first in-person funeral after so much death: gathering together people and their stories and different and overlapping memories and giving me permission to grieve, to cry into my mask, for the friend who was gone but also for the millions of others, for all the lost moments of our lives.

After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America
Edited by Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams
Haymarket Books, 360 pp., $24.95

Edited by historians Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams, After Life is a collection of essays inspired by the Works Progress Administration’s writers project to document life through the Great Depression. Beginning in January 2021, the editors asked writers “to try and understand America in a moment that seemed, at once, to be both rapidly descending into something long feared and, simultaneously, to be rebirthing into something wondrous at all costs.” Those writers, most of them historians or scholars of some kind, attempt to provide not only narrative but also missing context for this moment, for its deep inequalities, for its violences slow and fast, and for the inevitability of its unwillingness to deal with Covid-19.

We are so bad at grieving in this country, and yet there is so much to mourn in America. But so much of what we must grieve for is so ugly, and implicates so many of us. The writers of After Life teach us American history once again—history many of us might think we know, through personal stories and genealogies of families, blood and chosen and estranged. They tell it through stories of immigration and deindustrialization, of the fight to protect the water at Standing Rock and the Confederate-flag-bearing putschists storming the Capitol, and most of all of the outpouring of rage and mourning after the killing of George Floyd. They grieve for family and friends and neighbors, and they grieve for the millions lost without fanfare over hundreds of years, thrown overboard from an enslaver’s ship or left to bake in the sun or tossed in a shallow grave. In remembering, they ask: Whose deaths do we mourn? Whose lives, in philosopher Judith Butler’s terms, do we consider grievable?

Death is an uncomfortable subject for Americans, wrote historian and lifelong organizer Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall—who died shortly after I finished reading this book—in her contribution. “Nobody dies here. They pass away.” Yet the pandemic, she noted, forced us to contemplate the possibility of our own sickness and death, to live daily with the knowledge that death was all around us, and it forced us to do the uncomfortable: to talk about death.

There’s something unnerving still about reading the early history of the virus; in the parlance of this book, being called back to the “before life” to experience over again the blunders that led to America’s particular vulnerability to Covid-19. It is not comfortable, even for those of us who insist on continuing to write about the loss, to stare it straight in the face. It is easier to take refuge in statistics, Mary L. Dudziak writes, to subsume humanity into an anonymous whole. To think of a million dead, if we are lucky enough not to know any of them, can be easier than remembering the loss of just one person we loved. It is perhaps why the video of George Floyd’s death—his gasping “I can’t breathe” echoing the reality of Covid-19 infection—drew people into the streets, into a mourning that expressed itself in flames. We could not see what was happening in hospitals and behind closed doors, but we could see what had happened to him.

The virus did not kill equally—Barnes and Merritt remind us that in the first pandemic year, Black Americans died at over two times the rate of white Americans. The writers in this share their own complex and unrelenting grieving of not just those who died of Covid but those who were killed by America’s various pathologies. Mourning George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and their own dead too, they call on us to understand the deaths of despair, of overdose and suicide, of white supremacist murder and ordinary old age, all those losses, the extraordinary and the ordinary, as worth grieving.

Robin D.G. Kelley writes hauntingly of his estranged father, of the brutality he survived and meted out. Kelley himself was hospitalized with the virus. In those moments, gasping for breath and contemplating his own death, he found himself reckoning with the history of his family. His father, he recalls, was “a man trapped in the prison-house of patriarchy.” He was, Kelley recalls, “filled with rage. When he encountered defiance, dissent, disorder, or anything beyond his ken, he responded with violence.” In his later years, when his children were old enough to escape his fists and weapons, Kelley writes, his father would call and unload “misogynistic and xenophobic rants, conspiracy theories, random biblical passages, a critique of how I’m ruining my children and why they need to be saved.”

When Kelley came to write his father’s obituary, he realized he could not go along with the gentle lies the form requires. In insisting on honesty, here in this book, he shows us a different kind of grief—an uncomfortable one that nevertheless recognizes the wounds his father had been dealt—in a family where, he writes, “beating kids made you a good parent, and being a parent made you worthy,” and in a white supremacist country that dealt out daily indignities and abuses to every Black person—as well as the ones he caused. It is a form of memory that allows his father and so many others to be fully realized people, neither monster nor saint.

The pandemic did not just take lives; it took time from us, accelerating the sense that there was little to life besides work and exhausted doomscrolling. It took so many of the dreams we might have had; it squashed things we were excited for, postponed weddings and parties, concerts, graduations, and holidays, as well as funerals. It took so much of what makes life worth living. It exacerbated already existing heartbreak, loneliness, frustration, and disappointment, accelerating decline already begun in so many parts of America. Philip J. Deloria, in a piece recalling musician Jerry Jeff Walker, asks, “If life and dreams fit seamlessly together, each sustaining the other, then death’s junior partner might be the broken dream—the busting up of futures, loves, lives, the planet itself.” Are the griefs, he asks, for the dead and for our dreams “of a piece, a question not of essence but of scale?”

In our isolation, could we really understand what other people were going through? Perhaps more importantly, can we truly process what we have lost if we have to do it alone?

American history is littered with unmarked, unvisited graves, alongside its more spectacular moments of violence. History does not unroll easily or gradually. It happens in leaps and spurts and—if the overturning of Roe v. Wade taught us nothing else—reversals and retreats too. The spread of capitalism across the world brought fabulous wealth for a few, while spreading disease and violence for far more, its concern for the dead mostly limited to whether there were enough able bodies to carry on production for profit. The diseases brought by European settlers to what is now the United States killed millions of Native people, and while the settlers continued to kill and expropriate Native nations, they also began to kidnap and enslave people from Africa—a journey on which millions more died, as enslavers preferred simply capturing more people than they needed and disposing of bodies to taking even a modicum of care of their captives. No grief was permitted for these dead, and those ungrieved deaths haunt the country still.

The Vaccine Act of 1813, Barnes and Merritt write, was the first time the federal government endorsed a medical practice of any sort, or got involved in the distribution of medication, in this case the smallpox vaccine. But the vaccine was never intended for everyone—as Mary Kathryn Nagle writes, Lewis and Clark traveled through multiple tribal nations bearing the smallpox vaccine but did not share it with the people whose land they were traversing, who continued to be devastated by the disease. (Now, in 2022, the smallpox vaccine is being revived for use against monkeypox.)

Tera Hunter, in one of the collection’s strongest pieces, writes powerfully of the similarities between the spread of tuberculosis in the nineteenth century and of Covid-19. The workers, she writes, who did society’s “dirty” work in the post-Emancipation days of T.B. were Black women, cleaning and cooking and doing the laundry for white Southern society, and they were blamed for spreading the disease, when in fact they helped protect their employers from it. Covid, in its unequal effects, has become, she writes, “a new ‘Negro Servants’ Disease,’” ravaging the bodies and communities of the “essential” workers who kept the rest of us safe by cleaning, stocking, and delivering the supplies we needed to survive the pandemic.

The AIDS epidemic saw grief used as a form of protest in the 1980s, after it had been swept out of public notice. The gay men who suffered first from the virus’s ravages knew their country would rather they die quietly, out of sight, and they refused to do so; as Barnes and Merritt write, activist Mark Fisher’s last wishes were that his body be brought to George H.W. Bush’s reelection office. “Death takes place behind closed doors and is removed from reality, from the living. I want to show the reality of my death, to display my body in public; I want the public to bear witness,” he wrote. His friends indeed carried out his wish.

Covid-19’s very conditions made such acts of protest difficult. The virus was both everywhere and nowhere, impossible to avoid and exceptionally isolating. Nurses I’ve spoken with over the past few years reiterate the way hospital precautions themselves left the dying and their caretakers alone with their grief, how the closing of communal institutions placed the work of caring once more squarely on the backs of women. Grief, like love, is women’s work.

The prospect of a reckoning offers the editors of this book some hope after all this grief. In his essay, Peniel E. Joseph argues that we are already in the middle of a reckoning, which he calls a Third Reconstruction. The first, of course, was after the Civil War, and the Second Reconstruction was the era of the civil rights movement. The third period, Joseph proposes, has been marked by four hinge points: the election of Barack Obama, the 2013 round of Black Lives Matter actions, the election of Donald Trump, and the uprisings of 2020.

It is Black radical politics that anchors the idea of a Third Reconstruction for the editors and authors here, but for it to work it must be as broad-ranging as this book mostly succeeds in being. Reconstruction requires the acknowledgment of the harm done to the people at Standing Rock and so many other places, with the theft of land in the first place and the poisoning of water and food. It requires reconstruction too for the abandoned deindustrialized towns and the people who still live in them (who have never been, despite the popular imaginary, all white). It must include room for the grief we all carry and for the rest we all so desperately need. It must leave space for the days when all we can do is breathe, and even that is difficult. It must help us tend our wounds.

Yet, Merritt and Williams warn, a Third Reconstruction will not happen without “a massive interracial grassroots social movement—a movement of the people—the likes of which no one from even our generation has ever seen.” It is of course easier to exhort people to do such a thing than to make it happen, but the seeds of it are here. They are in the Starbucks union and the strikes of Nabisco and Frito-Lay workers, in the independent Black-led union that shocked the world by winning at Amazon on Staten Island and in the streets marching for legal abortion. They are in the organizing bit by bit to close prisons and jails and to turn funding to schools and social care.

Grief for America is uncomfortable, messy, at times hard to see. But part of grieving is letting go of the pretty illusions that we cling to; it is exactly in the refusing to tell the easy lies that we allow ourselves to truly mourn. It is in this way, I think, that After Life can help us process the pain of the last two and a half years of death and isolation. It attempts, through an honest accounting of harm done, to leave us with the hope that there’s something worth reconstructing out of the ashes of pandemic America.