we must be very strong/and love each other/in order to go on living
by Sonia Louise Davis
writing from my Harlem apartment
more than three months deep into pandemic quarantine
as unrest has pushed many of us out onto the streets,
i am starting to see what has lifted with the smog.
yes, this moment is a historical one,
ripe for change and unprecedented in many ways,
but also displaying all of the same patterns of state violence
some of us have long condemned.
i think it’s true that this uprising is
a convergence, representing
neither accident nor coincidence.
and i know
we must trust and take care of ourselves,
to be ready for whatever comes next.
on may 19 i write the following in one full page of my journal:
from my fire escape,
seated on the wooden folding chair i’ve shoved out my bedroom window,
i get to witness
and time in general
at an altogether different pace,
the daily updates of spring’s arrival:
buds on bare branches become soft and curly baby leaves overnight.
after a rainy few days my view is altered entirely,
many more neighbors are fully obscured by shady tree-cover,
the birds are perpetually active,
even during thunderstorms,
making endless flights from branch to rooftop to windowsill and back.
when a breeze changes direction
new sounds and smells are suddenly present,
i am aware of every layer of my hyper-local ecosystem,
have learned the timbre of the barking dog in the backyard six lots down,
seen the changing light reflected off new construction behind us
that bathes our afternoons in a pinkish hue,
felt the gradual movement of the sun,
know now how much daylight i’ll get
between the end of the noisy work day on that job site and
the sun’s dip behind the roof of the gut-renovated building one over,
after which point only our west-facing windows get blasted
and the houseplants adjust their lean.
i think Busy tried to keep us numb and stretched too thin to notice
just how close to the edge many of us were (in the Before).
of course, as others have stated recently,
but i’ll choose to give credit to the Black womxn leading this charge,
the way things were was killing so many of us:
“I ain’t gotta grind. I ain’t gotta hustle.
I ain’t gotta work myself to death to reach my goals.
I don’t listen to the teachings of white supremacy and capitalism.
I resist those lies. They cause harm.
I am about liberation. I will rest.”
— Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry
writer and activist Sonya Renee Taylor says,
“Normal never was,” and
“We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.
One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
in a mid-march conversation with adrienne maree brown,
community organizer Aja Taylor reminds us that
“The world we are fighting for is just on the other side of apocalypse.”
at the beginning of april,
i compose the following poem
(pasted in the caption of an instagram post under three images:
a close up shot of a new textile piece i am working on;
a call-and-response crayon and liquid watercolor study; and
a cropped detail from a text-based poster i’d created two years prior)
in a strange way, i have been readying for something like this.
preparing to improvise.
seeking out slowness.
telling myself the potential energy is just as crucial as its twin,
the more visible kinetic manifestation.
the artists and thinkers i’m gravitating towards preach a practice of
willful mindful survival, against all odds.
i’m not here for the silver lining talk just yet,
it feels like we’re approaching the eye of the storm.
but i want to honor the teachings i’ve come across and/or invented,
because they seem to serve me well right now.
grateful for health, home, safety and love.
eager to dream up a radically different world after this.
buoyed by the collective efforts i’ve witnessed and
by all the good work happening behind the scenes.
reminded of a mantra i wrote at the beginning of a new year/new phase of my work
[slow and soft and righteous]
may it be an offering to listen to those inner rhythms and slip away,
if only momentarily,
from that productivity pacing we’ve been told we need.
i’ve been enjoying what happens when i let my body lead.
a shift in focus to my immediate
physical, mental, emotional surroundings
and what i have the privilege to choose to do,
has become absolutely necessary
(but miss me with that “now more than ever” bullshit)
how do we make space to grieve?
how can i keep showing up for myself?
the crisis of the pandemic has made clear
to those who simply wouldn’t listen prior,
that we face many ongoing and interconnected crises.
but right now, i am hopeful.
we are witnessing local action
in the face of
widespread federal inaction,
the proliferation of neighborhood-specific
and the implementation of
the wholesale refusal to
return to business as usual,
the long-planned and long-awaited reckoning
this uniquely urgent moment demands.
i keep asking:
how do we successfully navigate
an oppressive and unjust set of conditions
that affect all of us differently
and most of us badly?
i attempt to embrace
something like stillness:
trying to put my phone down,
trying to forget the terrible-ness outside,
trying to simultaneously mourn and
deconstruct those longings for normalcy,
trying to get immersed enough in a tactile process
to quiet my overactive worry-mind.
i am unable to pick up a book for very long;
too agitated or distracted or fidgety, i reason.
i wish i’d stockpiled some fiction or short stories.
on april 25, i go on a long solo walk
through the north woods of central park,
emboldened by a handmade cloth mask
recently gifted to me by my mother,
out of work since Broadway shuttered.
the park is so crowded i vow
to wait for rainier days before venturing out again;
my partner and i soon make a pact to this effect.
i sit on a sunny rock overlooking Harlem meer,
and write in my notes app
a meandering walk in the park
takes on a sinister quality,
especially on nice warm days
when maintaining safe distance from others
i find myself easily frustrated
having to collaborate with
huge numbers of strangers
in an ongoing performance:
negotiating my own safe passage
through public space, never mind
the infinite number of personal thresholds
that have been set by others.
i catch myself seething under my mask
at trios of blasé yuppies, faces uncovered,
moving towards me as an undefined blob,
their group indifference threatening
to push me off the path entirely
(a reminder of those unwritten,
and violently enforced, rules of another time and place,
which i am privileged to say
i have never personally experienced…)
my usual cure for writers block
or an uninspired day in the studio
is a long aimless walking practice,
movement through space without a fixed destination,
a chance to improvise my way
towards some small breakthrough or
a new entry into a familiar idea.
these attempts are thwarted
by the overwhelming sense
that every other human
poses a unique threat to my own
autonomous health and well-being,
a paranoid state of distrust
brought on by our common invisible enemy,
while of course, the visible enemies are all around us,
flaunting a lack of concern for themselves
which, in our highly contagious reality
extends outward, including me.
my energy on recent walks has shifted profoundly,
instead of feeling magnetized to explore a new direction,
i’m on high alert,
stuck in constant risk-assessment-mode.
each change of course
motivated by an external stimulus, a
disappointment at the sheer magnitude of
other people’s lack of self-awareness,
the genuine disregard for community,
which now presents itself as proximity.
the irony is not lost.
i could not have anticipated
(although i am not at all surprised)
that the park would soon become
a site of weaponized whiteness.
evidence of nypd
making social distancing violations
the new stop and frisk
is circulating expectedly,
and i make another vow
to limit my time on social media,
which during isolation, presents
painfully triggering reminders that
everyday injustice is not on furlough.
i tell myself that my personal emotional safety
is more important than the constant stream of updates
and that my close friends will still text me
critical commentary memes, like the one
i keep describing in facetime happy hours,
of the anime character looking up at the butterfly,
posing the question as white people,
“is this [quarantine] oppression?”
one sunday in early june,
after attending a modest mid-afternoon
Harlem families march with my mother,
i write in my journal once i make it back home:
have the nightly cheers subsided?
or are they simply unheard
when we have the ac on high,
windows shut, trying to get
comfortable in this sudden humidity.
perhaps they’ve been replaced by sirens
(those i do hear through closed windows)
marking the beginning of curfew,
our city’s decline into martial law,
accompanied by those aggressive notifications
we haven’t yet opted-out of.
sometimes a helicopter hovers
just above our building,
filming demonstrations on 125th street?
hard to say.
a few hours later i record (and then transcribe)
a voice memo, softly, as i lay in bed
in a way
the beginning of the slow down was exciting
because it forced the pace i know i thrive in,
upon everyone and everything, it seemed.
but what the pandemic has done
much more effectively is to
make the fog lift quite literally
and reveal what so many of us have
known and been attuned to for so long:
that there exist inside this country
and even in this city,
vastly different experiences of reality
and that privilege blinds you
to the injustice that is
all the time and
which you are foolish
to think has gone away
if you have never seen it.
(my world would not have slowed
if i drove a bus for mta
or staffed the check-out line
at fine fare or trader joe’s,
where i hear about union busting
and attempted negotiations
for hazard pay.)
in other words
my intense personal discomfort
comes at the realization that
this is a moment unlike any other
when things are rapidly shifting
and i feel ill-prepared
to document or even follow
the overwhelming wave
of news that is triggering, the
videos circulating callously
of violence and the
feeling of being under attack and also of
being insulated from that attack.
the very real acknowledgement that
in many ways, my life is not in immediate
danger at all times, and for that
i am grateful but furious.
the balancing act has become:
how to stay informed and/or
gather inspiration from trusted sources
with intention, while somehow
avoiding the worst parts of the endless scroll that
i know will destroy me.
casual cellphone video
of knees on necks, or cops kneeling,
“think-pieces” about thriving in quarantine,
reports of exponentially increasing outbreaks
in prisons across the country,
how-to guides for getting the lighting
right for your zoom calls,
empty statements of solidarity from arts organizations
with notorious track records on race and gender equity, the
suggestion to drink bleach (i wish he would).
this shit goes on and on, and doesn’t need me as an audience.
friends and family living elsewhere
constantly ask us
how things are “on the ground”
in NYC, seeing the numbers spike
and the in-fighting between inept elected officials.
we share what we’ve been cooking.
i keep trying to cultivate something like joy.
june 20, 2020
from my partner’s art studio
on the corner of east 118th street
we stand outside on the fire escape
overlooking third ave
and witness a Black Lives Matter
bike protest, 7 minutes of which
i film on my phone while
choking back familiar tears
as i watch whole families clapping
from the sidewalk on either side,
a father and young son in masks, fists raised.
the woman from one of the cars
stranded at the intersection
has jumped out leaving her door ajar
and is holding a baby and cheering
for the endless line of bikers,
some waving flags and homemade signs, others
banging drums with only one hand steering.
i cry like this, i remember,
at the marathon runners
as they flow down upper fifth ave at the end of our block,
overcome with emotion i can’t quite explain
(proud of their effort, perhaps?)
but this feels different today.
honking cars are blaring in rhythm
to chants of “no justice, no peace”
and “whose streets, our streets” as
waves and waves of wheels keep coming
up the avenue for at least another
7 minutes after i stop recording.
i love knowing that actions are
everywhere all the time now,
and that one finds us to briefly interrupt
traffic and hold our attention this muggy afternoon.
and what now? these facts remain:
the virus is surging in parts of the country
where officials shrugged off health experts’ warnings.
cities’ population density is not itself
a reason for those early waves of infection,
instead, legacies of injustice are to blame:
the intersecting crises of un-affordable housing,
chronically low-wage work and lack of healthcare,
which has exposed our most vulnerable
yet “essential” neighbors
to more potent strains of the disease.
there is finally a national conversation about
abolition, as police departments around the country
are being defunded and restructured, but
the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor as she slept
have still not been arrested.
Audre Lorde, whose words i’ve lifted for the title of this piece
from the last lines of her 1969 poem “Equinox,”
elsewhere famously called (our) self-preservation
an act of political warfare.
the work continues,
calls for accountability abound, and
folks on the ground keep pushing,
making sure this moment stays connected
to the movement that spawned it.
we yell and scream and rest, and somehow, still
stay hopeful. repeat after me:
“we must be very strong
and love each other
in order to go on living.”
This piece is supported by The Laundromat Project through the Creative Action Fund, and also supported in part by an MFA Brown Art Research Award. Special thanks to Ladi’Sasha Jones, Emma Colón, Carlos Rosales-Silva, Greta Hartenstein, iris yirei hu, Kristin Juarez, and Ivan Forde.
Born and raised in New York City, Sonia Louise Davis is a visual artist, writer and performer. She has presented her work at the Whitney Museum (NY), ACRE (Chicago), Sadie Halie Projects (Minneapolis), Visitor Welcome Center (LA), Ortega y Gasset (Brooklyn) and Rubber Factory (NY). Recent residencies and fellowships include the New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (Brooklyn), Culture Push Fellowship for Utopian Practice (NY), Civitella Ranieri (Italy) and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Artist in Residence Program (NY). An honors graduate of Wesleyan University (BA, African American Studies) and alumna of the Whitney Independent Study Program, Sonia lives and works in Harlem. Her book, “slow and soft and righteous, improvising at the end of the world (and how we make a new one)” is forthcoming with Co-Conspirator Press, a publishing platform that operates out of the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. She is a proud alumna of the Laundromat Project’s inaugural Create Change Fellowship cohort in 2011.