The COVID-19 pandemic not only exposed the socio-political and economic hardships that plague vulnerable communities across the United States, but it also challenged academicians with caregiving responsibilities. Teaching from home threatened the very notion of work-life balance. Compounding these pressures, faculty members were tasked with teaching online amidst the traumas of the continued police killings of unarmed Black people, the unanswered demands of Black Lives Matter protestors, the divisive rhetoric of a contentious presidential election, and the concentrated health effects of the coronavirus in low-income and minoritized communities nationwide. This Essay argues that such trauma weighs heavily on Black and other racially and ethnically minoritized law faculty who must balance teaching a legal doctrine that is often portrayed as neutral and colorblind, yet in many instances defines their very marginality, both inside and outside of the classroom. For such faculty, and for many law students alike, the idea of masking and social distancing and fighting the urge to succumb to physical, cultural, and spiritual fatigue are tools of survival that have been employed for far longer than the emergence of the novel coronavirus. These insights suggest that the true threat surfaced by the COVID-19 pandemic is not the coronavirus itself. Instead, it is something residing far deeper within us all.
“Don’t let this life drive you crazy
Find your way back”
The realization will crack like an egg upon the cast iron skillet. A flash of heat, a sizzle upon the lip, yellow scrambling uneven into the white, your brain on drugs. It will dawn on you, after opening the invitation, that this time might be different. Yet, you will conclude, more than likely, this time will be more of the same. You will sit in the same seat you sat upon in days past, the wood cold to the touch. You will plug in the same black charger, and open the same silver laptop, and click on the same blue link because the chime from your cell phone will tell you that the conference session begins in fifteen minutes, and you mustn’t be late. You will adjust your same father’s tie and pull on your same tweed jacket and cinch your sweatpants because you want to look good for the camera. You will prepare for the same dopamine hit and remember that delivering a lecture on Zoom is not so bad after all, although the memory of the ongoing pandemic will also remind you that social distance has rendered the technology merely an emergency solution for what will ultimately amount to a predictable course of events. You will put on the same mask and smile the same smile and dance the same dance late into the midnight hour and realize, eventually, that you are surviving. But before that realization, before it all ends, you first realize that this ritual is merely the eye threading history into and out of a peculiar series of isolated observations.
First, notice yourself walking into class. Your classroom is your home office. Your home office has no door, merely a gaping entryway to the receiving room that swallows you like a bad habit. Notice, even above noise cancelling headphones, you can still hear the faint sound of children crying in the distance because an advertisement has replaced Elmo on the YouTube screen. Notice, you are fighting the realization that homeschooling your two sons with your partner during a pandemic reflects a certain measure of privilege and fear and frustration that converges into bitten cheeks and fiddled fingers and Do the benefits of teaching law at this moment in history outweigh the costs of not playing blocks with my toddlers? Notice, your toddlers are growing more comfortable with the sensitivity of the touch screen by the day, yet they remain wide-eyed by the notion of building bridges to a world that has yet to exist for them but still lives on in your dreams. Notice, you are sitting at a wooden desk preparing to teach a virtual class before a podium of books and it hasn’t always been this way.
Once upon a time you were a restless Black boy hoping to get home fast enough to peel off school shoes and dive into home clothes and wade through a cartoon or two before Granny tells you Get up nuh boy do your homework because books might save you from drowning in her worries one day. Hoping to get home fast enough to escape Papa’s rage like a slave in flight because the dusty corners under a bed frame can become a safe house from the curl of the old man’s wrist upon the leather belt, his voice echoing Black America’s determination to Behave Behave Behave he says. Hoping to understand at the time but it makes more sense now why your Black immigrant grandfather from an island in the Caribbean Sea simply wanted you to wait patiently for Superman and not stir any trouble. Hoping to one day dash across the graduation stage, though not with an M.D., even though ER is your mother’s favorite show and she begs you to give medicine a try. Hoping you understand it better now as a rational adult, after all, your mother was a nurse, and her mother worked in the hospital cafeteria, so what better way to turn a simple immigrant hope into an alphabet soup of dreams than for the first-born American son to learn how to heal the burns of the melting pot. Hoping you will not regret never learning how to heal the burns of the melting pot, and the adult you chuckles like a blind dog in a meat shop because you binged all twelve seasons of ER last month. Hoping upon hope that hunger might be salved with hard work and imagination but learning, slowly, torturously, even lost boys must grow up in this Never Never Land they call America where beasts of burden can become happily ever after Black girl magic and Black boy joy.
But now you are smiling as the video comes alive and law students await in tiny squares on the screen stationed above a stack of casebooks positioned before a shelf of fiction that helps them see you better. You are a law professor, giggling to draw attention away from the sweat congealing beneath your beard, determined to teach your law students how to use a legal entity to shield one’s assets from liability. You open a PowerPoint deck, turn on the Zoom camera, begin a careful study of someone else’s problems and wonder if, in an odd way, the case study is you. You are breaking the mold, shattering childhood assumptions of Black criminality forged by years of television documentary legal education: Black men as bad boys bad boys running from the cops. Now you hold the law in your hands, a Black man as law professor teaching a new generation of law students how to shield their moral judgement from liability with objective legal reasoning. Can they pierce your veil? Are you liable for casebooks filled with legal opinions that ignore the stain of racism in the law?
After all, when you sat on their side of the screen—a naïve law student still waiting for answers—no one blamed your law professors when the officer approached your driver’s side door to demonstrate the doctrine of search and seizure. No one blamed your law professors when the phlegm that invaded your vocal cords stifled your right not to remain silent. No one blamed your law professors when the officer handed you a ticket for a noise violation you had not discussed in class. No one blamed your law professors when the facts did not fit the rule of law that rendered you guilty. No one blamed your law professors when the officer ignored your objective legal reasoning and declared That muffler is too loud as sweat gleamed upon his walnut chin above a starched blue shirt—not dissimilar to the sweat now gliding down your sugar pine neck toward a crisp white collar above the wooden desk. Were your law professors liable for that cop’s legal opinions? Were your law professors obligated to bring your experiences of racial injustice into the law school classroom? You wonder if you are making something out of nothing. You wonder if cabin fever is a genetic disorder. You wonder if this pandemic is a disease you were born to survive, so long as you locate a safe house. At least I do not teach criminal law you consider because you know all too well how the law criminalizes people like you.
Notice, the law students don’t know about your giggles or sweat or liability concerns, all they see now is your smile and suit jacket and white shirt and father’s tie and you’ve been wearing masks long before the pandemic made home a hospital for delirium. You are good You are good You are good you say a third time because three times makes a charm, unless you are standing in front of a mirror in an urban legend, in which case three times is only two steps away from breathing life into the ghost of Black rage himself, and perhaps that monster is you. You do not know if this movie will end with Coming to America’s celebratory parade, or Candyman’s gutting of the soul, but at least, you conclude—staring at yourself staring at yourself from inside the screen—at least you are safe behind the mask. At least you are safe inside your walls. At least you are safe in this receiving room, the one you fashioned into a cozy container for work. At least you’ve heard it all before, you remind yourself, as you close another pop-up box on the laptop screen.
Remember, it was Michelangelo who taught you about masks and quickly became your favorite superhero of them all. How amazing is it that one can be born in an urban swamp, raised with rodents, spark fear in the hearts of strangers at the sight of dark skin, and yet, turn broom sticks into weapons, fast food into joy, a skateboard into adventure, a mask into purpose, a cowabunga protest song into hope, and all after being labeled a mutant. It amazed you because, in an odd way, Michelangelo and his gang of ninja turtles reminded you of you. Notice, even now, you still long for simpler days of running through Papa’s row house with a shirt tied around your head and paper towel nunchucks nestled in your hands and a book waiting in the corner and sweatpants and white socks and your law students likely do not know that you are still wearing sweatpants today. Your law students likely do not know there is a part of you that does not fit in this picture, a part of you outside of the familiar frame, a part of you still playing make-believe. Your law students likely do not know there is a part of you still using the language of scholarship to pay homage to your grandparents’ yearning for home in a foreign world, a part of you still mesmerized by the stories of Roseau, Dominica you heard in the kitchenette as a child, accented memories caressed with the cadence of laughter until tears washed the stain of American life away.
Notice, you are home in a foreign world with a European name that sings of revolution and an African heritage that cries for liberty. Your zest for academic freedom has rendered you a slave to enlightenment and you wonder if the law can build an underground railroad. You wonder if the law can yield enough crop to salvage the bones. You wonder if the law can dismantle the master’s house and still leave behind a few stories under the mattress where Granny saved a few dollars each month from her pension check. You wonder if you are safer now. Perhaps critical theory is a necessary tool to make sense of law’s contradictions, to dig up the dirt and examine law’s foundations, to make it make sense. Perhaps you are making something out of nothing. Just in case, wear the mask. Even if no one in the virtual room knows that you are struggling to breathe. Even if no one in the virtual room knows the origin of your name. Even if no one in the virtual room knows when this pandemic will end. Wear the mask.
But remember, by saving you from the pandemic, the mask has condemned you to a prison of sidelong glances in the law school hallway. By distancing your allies from the parts of you that threaten to infect, the mask has turned the canker sores of America’s troubled past into hitching breaths and cleared throats from the back of the law school classroom. By keeping you alive and well, the mask has buried the manacles shackled to your lips during faculty meetings and obscured the threat of extermination lingering at your office door. You cannot say what you want to say because they cannot see who you were meant to be. The mask will forever be your salvation and condemnation. What are the facts? you ask your law students. Why have we not overturned this case? you ask your law students. What shall be our holding? you ask your law students while staring down at empty Black hands. Does anyone have an answer for this problem?
Should the defendant go to prison? you ask your law students. Remember, home was a prison long before the pandemic made home into a prison. You were born in a concrete jungle that was burning in a city that never sleeps upon a block that is hot where you discovered the brutality of policing long before police brutality became the kind of news that floods social media timelines. Long before death became the kind of news that floods social media timelines your mother would stand with one arm holding the other at the elbow and pluck you from the front steps until you played in the rear alley and made a baseball diamond out of cinder block and fence post and brick wall and wood plank because sometimes the American Dream is simply the son of immigrants making an all-star game out of a yellow plastic bat and a one dollar Wiffle ball before darkness settles upon the land. Junior high school taught you that police officers might shoot if a Black man pulls out his wallet too fast. Amadou Diallo lived three blocks from your home, so you concluded not long after the incident that your mother was right; it is too hot on the block when you are Black in America so the alley is a good enough place as any to turn an open batting stance and a Darryl Strawberry smile into every Black boy’s quest to be cool. This is when you first learned how to social distance.
Remember, the second time was during your first year at a predominantly White all-boys private high school where you discovered the Black table in the center of the lunchroom and decided that sitting with the other Black kids is the price one pays to avoid the sting of Blackness. The price one pays to avoid the contagion of self-doubt and pestilence of fear. The price one pays to social distance from a world where you can get killed for walking too fast while grasping Skittles, where you can get killed for moving too slowly while selling loose cigarettes, where you can get killed for just standing while holding a toy gun in a park. A world where you can get killed for sitting in the passenger seat while driving with your girlfriend, or falling asleep in your car at a Wendy’s drive-through, or standing in your grandmother’s back yard with a mobile phone in your hand. A world where you can get killed for not paying attention during a traffic stop, or attempting to pay with a counterfeit $20 bill, or not paying homage to the men dressed in blue, your spinal cord inexplicably severed in the back of a police van. A world where police violence feels like an arcade game in the back of a pizza shop, and you are Ready Player One leaning into the glove compartment for coins to avoid game over and this feels like a joke gone too far but sometimes laughter is all we got.
Remember, You are so lucky the high school boy tells you with a snicker, his shoulders hunched forward like a cock standing over his hen. Before the disease was airborne it lived in the mouths of young White men. You’re not really Black tho right you’re different you’re so bright I never really had a Black friend the boy says. The ‘compliments’ stung your ears and caved your chest as your butterscotch reflection in the locker room mirror left a bitter taste in your mouth. How do you have green eyes? the boy asks you with an incredulous stare. How is your surname so French? the boy whispers later in class. No one in your immediate or extended family is White. You do not speak French. Your parents’ home island is a British commonwealth once dominated by coffee plantations. There must be a moral to this story. You are so lucky the boy says three years later when you are admitted into the Ivy League. You are so damn lucky.
Remember, the third time you learned how to social distance was when you became a parent. You concluded, in that moment, that perhaps social distancing is the price one pays to keep a newborn safe at all costs. The price one pays to teach a toddler to believe in social justice while passing an unhoused man sleeping on the street. The price one pays to raise children who believe a milk crate hammered to a wooden board upon a telephone pole can carry hoop dreams out of the ghetto and into the league; who believe Sesame Street exists and sometimes all you need is a book to read; who believe they will always find comfort under the fanciful veil of LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow and the healing sounds of Robert Johnson’s Black Entertainment Television.
Remember, you discovered there can be joy in social distance. Your younger brother at the kitchen table blowing out birthday candles on a homemade cake with rainbow confetti sprinkled atop Betty Crocker Rich and Creamy. Aunts and uncles and cousins grasping hands on the parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, everyone chipping down the road behind the winding hips of a thousand revelers at the Labor Day West Indian Carnival Parade. A sea of multicolored faces in church pews on Sunday morning raising palms toward the heavens and working a pulsing drumbeat and the tongues of an emphatic preacher into a miracle, each racing across the Atlantic to the ring shout ceremony of a village along the western coast of Africa. Black and Puerto Rican boys break dancing on a flattened carboard box in the school basement after Saturday little league games, their knees and elbows pop-locking and spinning to urgent hip-hop lyrics that unleashed the fire shut up in dry bones.
But you soon learned that the joy of social distance is fleeting. You smiled on the first day of high school, and smiled again on the first day of college, and you realize now, as you reposition the two casebooks propping up your laptop on the wooden desk in the receiving room, that you had already learned the dark side of social distancing by the time you inhaled marijuana for the first time in a muggy dorm room. You concluded then that social distance could not cure this disease. Remember how the disease spread when a security guard lingered before asking to see your ID to confirm that you and a group of Black students and a table of college textbooks belonged in the student center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Remember stilling flighty hands and stretching cramped thighs while struggling to understand the chemistry of it all. Remember how the disease spread when you studied urban planning in South Africa and met a Black kindred spirit who could very well have been your brother by the looks of it. You’re not really Black tho right? You’re so bright he said with a snicker, and you wondered if social distancing had blurred your vision. Remember how the disease spread when you joined Engineers Without Borders in graduate school, traveled back to Africa to dig trenches with poor Black farmers, and returned with a knowing grin, yet cast a wandering gaze at the Black Baltimoreans loitering near your university’s back yard. You ignored the hypocrisy, despite the irony. You are such a hard worker they told you. You washed the soil off your hands and smiled back in return, content that social distance was keeping you alive and paving the way toward success.
Remember how the disease spread when you arrived at law school and sat near the front row and listened to your third Black teacher in twenty-five years of schooling and wondered whether you belonged. Wondered whether you had earned your place in the Ivy League. Wondered whether you would find the Black table at Pub Grille and settled for the Black Law Students Association office in the basement of Hastings Hall instead. Wondered whether everyone knew that your front row seat had long become your safe house under the bed, socially distanced hands formed into a steeple under the promise of tomorrow etched across the chalkboard, socially distanced chest leaning away from the sting of yesterday peeking from behind the smirk of a silent majority, socially distanced voices towering above you in the amphitheater that sometimes sounded like Behave Behave Behave. Wondered whether your grandmother ever considered how a book could save one from drowning if it also weighed them down with despair. Wondered why pressing weights at the gym felt easier than pressing your way from case to case in the thick law book filled with legal opinions. Wondered if you were clever for navigating your contracts class with a pad of paper and a pen, or if you kept the casebook at home out of fear that all those legal opinions—all that history—would prove too heavy to bear. You realize now as your stare at the law students on the computer screen that—even to this day—some of your law students still feel this way.
Remember that you are still asked to this day to explain how you contribute to diversity and inclusion, but never have been asked if it helped or hurt to grow up in a world where social distancing was an expectation for people like you. To grow up with the buried tremor of someone noticing your father on the job, wondering whether he drove the public bus in Queens to avoid running into you and your siblings in the Bronx. To grow up in a world where you were taught to fight for recognition in the classroom like a mouth growing dry. To grow up searching for the Black table in the lunchroom like a drunken sailor on the mast. To grow up standing at the end of the line with tray in hand gazing out across a predominantly White expanse and shaking in expectation because it felt like a storm was brewing. To grow up making friends of janitors and clerks and secretaries because diversity and inclusion always forgot to include them on the welcome brochure, but they never forgot to smile and head nod when you passed them in the hall. Your partner smiles and head nods now from the hall beyond the entryway of the receiving room as she opens the front door and retrieves a package of food left upon your front stoop by a DoorDash driver. You smile and head nod back from behind the laptop stationed upon the wooden desk and remember that your students are still waiting for answers.
Remember how it felt to observe while standing for the first time in front of the classroom as a law professor that the disease had spread into a pandemic. Are you our teacher? they asked you on the first day. You adjusted your tie bar and shifted your tweed coat and rubbed your elbow patches and ruffled your pocket square and grasped your cufflink and smiled a cheerful smile, the shine from your buffed leather brogues twinkling under the florescent light, your fingers vibrating fretfully under the weight of the casebook in your hand, your podium socially distanced from the rows of eager faces. Yes you declared. Yes, it’s me. Remember how it filled your chest with soothing heat to remember that you had already mastered social distancing; that you already knew it was safer to keep yourself at home; that you already knew it was safer to mask your accent in public spaces; that you already knew it was safer to wash the grime of the Bronx from your palms for at least a minute or two before shaking the hands of colleagues; that you already knew it was safer to wait and hope for a cure as the death toll of Black bodies surges faster than you can explain why your posture at the podium is not aggressive, you simply have learned to always lean forward to keep from stumbling behind; that you already knew it was safer to lay a hand on the heart and grin narrowly at the rebuke of course evaluations that deem you too focused on racism and politics.
Why should you be liable for all those legal opinions? Why should you be the one to dig up the dirt that could very well bury you alive? Far safer to forget as you teach the law of contracts to a new generation of students that some reasonable men do choose to accept offers premised on coercion and duress and exploitation because, where you come from, the unreasonable contract is practical and familiar. Far safer to forget that Yes sir thank you sir is more than enough in some neighborhoods to signify mutual assent, to pretend you agree with it all, to pretend you get it. Far safer to forget that the origins of modern contract law in the United States is entangled with the origins of United States chattel slavery and labor exploitation and the will of masters. Remember, you remind yourself, as you stare at the computer screen in the middle of the receiving room upon the wooden desk—curious whether your law students even understand the lecture tumbling out of your lips, if they have discerned the nuance between your offer and their acceptance—Keep asking questions maintain strong eye contact make believe.
Remember, social distance means pretending America’s dream of liberty and justice for all through self-determination and raised bootstraps is not a type of bullying. Pretend that America’s offer of student debt to secure the return of a good education for a living wage is not a type of harassment. Pretend that America’s threat of legal sanction for workers who break the chains of non-competition in boilerplate contracts is not a type of abuse. Pretend that America’s rules of private property crafted by men who pledged fidelity to the rule of enslavement and genocide and frontier conquest is not a type of illusion. Pretend that the motto of public citizenship sewn into the law school banner flying high above the law firm career fair is not a type of sham. Pretend that slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, that mass incarceration is a crime control strategy, that stop-and-frisk is economically efficient. Pretend that some scholarly critiques only emerge later in one’s career, post-tenure, when interests converge with experience. Distance yourself from classroom conversations on the social constructions of law that define your marginality. Distance yourself from radical voices in scholarship that challenge liberalism, reject capitalism, and call into question the rule of law itself. Your job is to teach the law and make it make sense.
Make it make sense you think, as your stare at the law students on the screen who stare at you with blank faces, or in some cases, simply a black box with their name hovering in the center in white letters. You provide a socially distanced and neutral answer about the legal opinion in question and shield yourself from liability. Today you are safe. Thank you Professor they say in unison before sifting out of the virtual room, leaving you alone once again at the Black table with a body that does not fit in the frame, alone with toes left tingling from being confined for so long inside the hull, alone with hands that still struggle to grasp the contradictions of your professional role, and for some odd reason this tradition reminds you of church, reminds you of that silent moment between benediction and exit song before everyone goes their separate ways. Remember, some rituals start and end with the sacrificial becoming the sacrificed without realizing that they were worshiping and being worshiped all at the same time.
The conference organizers offered you an opportunity to submit. Tell us about the crisis of care and the impact of the pandemic for people like you, they ask. Tell us about the collapse of work life balance and the invasion of public belief into private space for people like you, they ask. Tell us about home. Tell us about the public disregard for risk and the urgency of private sacrifice for people like you, they ask. Tell us about the feeling of being shut down, blocked out, and left for dead for people like you, they ask. Tell us about education. Tell us about the shortfall in workplace output and the uptick in police brutality for people like you, they ask. Tell us about the lack of healthcare and the uncertainty of politics for people like you, they ask. Tell us about the law. Tell us about the experience of disparity and marginality and precarity as the pandemic pulls the country under like a million books strapped to the backs of a million children still waiting for Superman, they ask. Tell us about the urgency of scholarship and pedagogy and public discourse as people like you drown in silence like sundials in the shade, they ask. Tell us in words we will understand. Tell us about us.
You think about the opportunity to submit and the lifetime of fake smiles and trembling lips that people like you have hidden during years of wearing the mask. Cold sweats and body odors that people like you have hidden during years of social distance. Body tremors and night terrors that people like you have hidden during years of waiting for the cure. Holding your tongue and holding your fists and holding your breath and smiling for the camera and you wonder if all this holding has shriveled you into someone or something no longer like the people like you. Has all this clenching turned the virtual room into a safe house where Black hands submit to the welcoming bed springs of a hiding place beyond the sting of the lash? Is submission a crammed cargo ship moored by a hand-me-down anchor still battling the tempers of the Atlantic, or a river falling into the ocean after the levee has been crushed to pieces? Is submission the Virgin Mary standing innocently beside your grandmother’s bed upon the nightstand, or the rack of leather belts your grandfather kept tucked away in the hallway closet, their rattle audible each time you grasped your jacket to go outside? Has all this submission made life easier or harder?
Your break is over, a new session is beginning, and your law students await in tiny squares on the screen stationed above a stack of casebooks positioned before a shelf of fiction that helps them see you better. You smile. Will there be a review session to help us pass our test? they ask you. You remember that you are providing a service, an employee trading knowledge of the law for your student’s time, attention, and tuition dollars. Soon, your law students will become lawyers and trade their own knowledge of the law to serve marketplace demands. This is a system, even if they don’t see it that way yet. You consider explaining to your law students how a life submitted to law’s empire can impose unanticipated demands, can change you from the inside out.
You consider explaining how you traded an admissions essay about your grandmother’s Caribbean smile and your grandfather’s firm hand for a free plane ride across the Atlantic to a dungeon upon Cape Coast with Harvard Law. How you traded shoulder length locs for a Caesar taper fade and a summer associate position because the promise of long hours at a downtown law office felt worth the pain of cutting off unruly Black hair you often braided into a crown. How you traded evening phone calls with your brother and sister for billable hours with the client; Sunday afternoons with novels and essay collections for the prospect of lock-step promotion; courtroom speeches in childhood daydreams for corner office nightmares and the law firm partner insisting that you are not learning the law fast enough. But these are your demons, your hidden traumas born from submission to the rule of American law. Yes, you finally declare to your law students. We will review the doctrine and discuss key takeaways for the bar exam too.
You remember the impending deadline for the law conference and the graciousness of the conference organizers who invited you to submit. You had decided to write an essay about all that you have learned from the pandemic. About the importance of putting textbooks away and playing blocks with your two Black sons as they learn how to build new bridges in a world of broken pieces. About the importance of exchanging laughs with old college buddies even as the career ladder lures your gaze away toward visions of grandeur. About the importance of making room for disregarded voices and peculiar experiences and alternate views, even while the accent of traditionalism paints your foreign perspective as radical.
You wanted to be honest, once and for all, about the way Blackness can breed both despair and joy like a finger playing sad music in a park. About the way poverty can breed both despondency and ambition like a tree climbing toward the sun while shedding winter leaves. About the way patriarchy can breed both neglect and conceit, as the moon by day. But what you produced—perhaps what you are—is merely another symptom of the disease. You struggle to imagine a life without the mask, struggle to imagine a world without social distance, struggle to imagine an age beyond this pandemic. Your son reminds you from afar that the kettle is whistling. Daddy you coffee he sings in a high register from the second floor that signals his age, his tender voice still hovering in the entryway.
Convince them you whisper back to your son, even though he cannot hear you and is still too young to understand. Convince them that legal education begins long before law students enter the building and lived experiences must always be integrated into classroom discussion. We must take off the mask—the physical and metaphysical guards we wear to ensure our safety—to create opportunities for human vulnerability. Convince them that law is never neutral and critical theory is a necessary tool to expose law’s fundamental flaws. We must limit our social distance—the learned strategies we employ to avoid the sting of past mistakes—to discover empathy through honest dialogue. Convince them that diversity, equity, and inclusion demand far more than a seat at the table: they demand an earnest recognition that some tables were built without you in mind. We must not submit—the avoidance of dissent that protects the status quo—if we are ever to overcome. Convince them.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
– James Baldwin
You stare at your reflection on the computer screen, alone before the wooden table in the receiving room, and feel yourself transported back in time to a day long gone. You remember the way she looked at you. In routine fashion, you had burst through the front door, stomping toward the kitchenette to park your Jansport bookbag in a dusty corner of the dining room. Along the way, moving with the vibrance of a teenager and before proceeding to the bedroom where you would peel off school shoes and change into home clothes and dive into a routine dialogue with strangers in the virtual chat room, you found her crying while seated at the kitchen table in that same chair that he so often occupied on similar afternoons in years past.
On those days, he could almost always be found sitting at that table in that chair in this kitchen around this time of day, waiting patiently with an elbow on the placemat and a transistor radio on the lap, or sometimes, simply a bag of saltine crackers in his oversized palm, but waiting all the same. His eyes would look up fast and find yours, a soft smile returning the gentle kiss you laid upon his chin. Good afternoon Papa you would say, your cheeks itching from the white stubble on his saggy yet warm nutmeg skin. But he was not there on that day. Instead, it was her, neck bent toward the shores of a distant past, head cradled above folded arms on laminated wood, elbows shifting back and forth as if her body were dancing to a slow song that no one could hear but her, as if she were attempting to fold into herself the same way she folded and arranged your white school shirts into smooth rectangular stacks in the bedroom dresser drawer.
She looked up, eyes finding yours, and you knew immediately that a kiss on the cheek would not be enough to soothe her anxiety in the way it had soothed his. You knew that a verbal affirmation of the goodness of afternoons, of the joy one finds in finding their way back home, would not be enough to bring a smile to her lips. You knew that the recitation of a paragraph from your textbook or the flutter of a starred exam sheet from your folder would not be enough to keep her afloat. You knew this time was different. I miss Jones she said, tears welling inside of her eyes as if a faucet had been left discarded above a growing pile of mess, as if a broken fire hydrant had taken residence inside of her heart and the memories of a lifelong friendship had decided today would be the day to dance a slow dance under the steady rain of summer days, as if an August storm was brewing and the elderly woman you affectionately called Granny had decided to search again for the end of her rainbow.
Granny what’s wrong? you asked. I miss Jones. I miss Jones. She looked up at you the way the infant child looks at her parent after the bottle has run dry, the way you sometimes looked at a daydream in the distance before your brother would slap you back to the game, and you realized that you—merely a fledgling high schooler who had only recently grown easy with a daily sojourn into the big city on the crowded subway train—did not have words of comfort. You’re the man of the house now your mother had told you, her divorce barely two years old. Perhaps that’s why Granny spoke of him to you not as Papa, but as Jones. Perhaps she saw you not as a teenager, but as a young Black man with a knowledge of books and a chance to fix things, no matter how much you knew that she was wrong. You stood there, six feet away, staring silently as her pandemic oozed onto the kitchen table, wondering if there would ever be a cure for this, wondering if one day it would be you sitting in that chair in that corner of this kitchen above a wooden table attempting to fold your Blackness into someone safe.
Jones has flown away with the angels the priest had said, but all you knew for certain was that Papa had left behind the steady chant of his name inside the quivering lips of your mother’s mother. All you could believe at the time was the way his goodbye on this land had twisted your mother’s mother’s tongue into a crude and unsavory American plea. All you could hear was the sound of English words in her foreign accent covered with tears and that was the observation that frustrated you most. She fashioned his name into a skeleton key to a treasure chest of American memories that clung onto her for dear life on that table in that chair in this kitchen, as if saying his name—Jones—might help erase the pain of failed dreams. As if saying his name—Jones—might turn back the hands of time to that moment she stood on American soil for the first time as an immigrant holding your mother in one arm and his hand with the other. As if saying his name—Jones—might be the only answer she had left for you, kin to a generation of Black men and Black women who would one day demand that Black lives matter in America. As if saying his name—Jones—was the secret code to remind you that you were in the safe house, but you might need to run again soon.
You stared at her, and she said his name again and you breathed it all in. No mask. No distance. Simply submission as the crisis seeped into your skin and took form in your bones and filled your spirit with the virus. You smiled at Granny as tears tiptoed down your cheeks and you became—alongside her and Papa and so many others—another monument of American sorrow.
* * *
Before COVID-19, you would occasionally find yourself at a table in the back of a coffee shop, invisible mask across the face to keep yourself safe, arms folded as elbows shifted from side to side to keep yourself distanced, chest dancing a slow kind of dance as tears welled behind foggy glasses. Now, it is getting difficult to determine whether these will be the days your dreams came to an end, whether this is what it means to survive America, whether there will ever be a cure for missing someone or something from a time before that no longer can miss you back. You realize this disease has changed you in ways you have yet to comprehend. You wonder if it is slowly killing you from the inside out. Maybe you have already lost your damn mind.
You close the laptop and turn off the light in the receiving room before leaving the makeshift office and returning to the family room upstairs in your comfortable rowhouse. I am so damn lucky you think. At least you are willing to admit, as your partner turns Netflix back to E.R. to pick up where you left off, a pandemic can blind you to the value of relationships when you are lost in the virtual reality of an unending mission to change the world. At least you are willing to admit, as your youngest throws his bib onto the floor and shouts No Nemo in anticipation of your reply to an unuttered question—your eyes pressed downward toward the cellphone, thoughts lost in a timeline of ideological woe—a pandemic can blind you to the power of transformation, even while you are safe at home. At least you are willing to admit, your partner now fast asleep under the purple blanket next to you, you restless for someone on Facebook to say You matter, to honor you with a comment or perhaps simply to touch your heart, a pandemic can blind you to the meaning of connection, even as your battery is winding down.
How do you survive a pandemic? the conference organizers asked you. Is now the right time to tell them? you consider, hands curled above the keyboard in the dark living room, the boys fast asleep in their cribs, stiff wrists filled with bittersweet ennui, The pandemic is us.