Tessa McWatt is a professor of creative writing at University of East Anglia. Her most recent book is Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging.
You don’t like the rain. Caribbean people, even in Canada, huddle inside at darkening skies, bracing for a hurricane. But the sound of rain here in London has started to perk me up. I get hopeful when people rush back into their homes, emptying the streets, the parks, the stoops where they have congregated over the past few months. I get to pretend we’re in lockdown again.
When I call you in Toronto, as I have done every day since the beginning of the pandemic, to commiserate and laugh, both of us lonely and agitated, you assure me you have your mask on. Not understanding the rules, but not wanting to worry your daughter, you continue through the gauze and say, “Things are opening up here,” and my heart sinks.
I miss lockdown.
Of course I don’t miss the illness, which I and many friends had, from which far too many have died, while politicians balance capital against lives, making them equivalent. I don’t miss the fact that you, at 86 and on your own, have gone without being touched for more than 100 days, your memory looping tighter and tighter in the confines of your tiny house. I don’t miss imagining the quarantine of those who lived in two rooms with an entire extended family, the women who quarantined with their abusers, the suffering of those without an income, or those who were forced to work because the “economy” had to keep running. I don’t miss the news reports with faces of the Black and brown health care workers dying disproportionally, the bus drivers, the Uber drivers who didn’t have the luxury of both a paycheque and isolation.
But COVID-19 is a truth-sayer. Truths previously silenced beneath the din of so-called productivity have been spooled out over the internet: A white policeman kneels on the neck of a Black man in the same week that a white woman calls the cops on a Black birdwatcher. Police drive a car through crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters. Elon Musk calls the coronavirus a cold and sends his workers back to the Tesla factory. Hawksbill turtles breed in record numbers on the now tourist-free beaches of Thailand. Arctic fires emit 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in one month, and the region is heating twice as fast as the rest of the planet, leading to sea ice melting faster than scientists have previously predicted. All the homeless people in London are taken off the street and given only temporary shelter.
These events are not unrelated.
As you know, mom, in my memoirs on race and belonging, I dissected the persistent racism and inequality we live in. I flayed a system born out of the scientific racism that was developed to serve the greed of capitalism. I traced the plantation economics that made you, made me. COVID-19 has confirmed that the plantation structure still governs, that some people are treated as chattel, put in cages, in ghettos, behind walls, behind bars.
The profit motive requires producers to expand the reach of goods, producing cheap things at the cheapest rate, based on the cheapest labour. Cheap clothes, so we all look the same. The same but not equal. Cheap food, cheap energy, cheap care, cheap technology, cheap pharmaceuticals. The product itself does not define the plantation. It is defined by its structure and the labour done by the people upon which its cheap products rely – without care or duty to the people who make them, with blind extraction from the bounty of the earth, until we go too far. We’ve gone too far.
As the COVID-19 lockdown ends, what world awaits on the other side?
Will we return to a state of mind that says there’s not enough for us all – that state of mind that doesn’t put each other and the planet first? Will we open up to a world that seems to perpetually choose disrespect for nature, racism, extremist nationalism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and many other forms of hatred?
The scaffolding of how we live has been duly exposed. Why would we go back?
A recent essay by Dionne Brand nails it: “Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was the homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal? Were pervasive surveillance and policing of Black and Indigenous and people of colour normal?”
I refuse to get back to normal. I want off the plantation. But to where? The despicable loss of life, loss of biodiversity due to human extraction, plundering, poaching, continues everywhere. What is this space to which I might escape? It cannot be only literary, with more demand for reading lists and right thinking; it cannot be only virtual, with angry tweets and a verbal war. Because the revolution cannot only be televised.
“I hope things don’t get worse,” you say, and I know you’re thinking of the virus and not of all the worse I’m imagining. Your hope is such a fundamental part of who you are, mom. Perhaps it’s a hope that the pause in the machinery of normal might reap something new.
It surprised me how many puppies were bought or rescued during lockdown. What a paradox to want to bring something so vulnerable into such a violent world. But I think I understand this now – that hope has nothing to do with optimism. It can be brutal and paradoxical. It can even be violent.
The hope that I’m speaking of is not about asking for more inclusion into a system that is already broken, but rather about replacing it. It’s a hope that we align our responsibility to ourselves with our responsibility to others. And it’s time for us all to engage in radical, mutual care to repair our relations with each other and the planet. As Angela Davis has said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
In our dispossession and our rage, we can ask revolutionary questions. We have powerful tools – language and imagination – with which to reinvent realities. Everywhere, every day, there is invention, and there are new organizations that form to address structural change, to make a model for how to live differently, off the plantation. These are networks of locals, working in their own communities, but with common causes that are global. Challenging current systems, there are networks of Black activists; climate crisis groups in action-oriented disobedience; groups opposing fracking, opposing pipelines that invade Indigenous land; opposing corporate buy-outs; opposing the destruction of the ocean.
La Via Compesina is a coalition of organizations in more than 80 countries that advocates family-farm-based sustainable agriculture for food sovereignty. The Wretched of the Earth is a grassroots collective for Indigenous, Black and brown and diaspora groups and individuals demanding climate justice and acting in solidarity with communities in North America, Britain and the global south, where migrants are escaping climate disasters. Toronto’s Activist Calendar is packed with events and news of small and large victories. Black Lives Matter, Bridges Not Walls, Queer Solidarity Smashes Borders, Unite Against Islamophobia: the placards on protests across Europe and North America say everything about how organizing is the only way forward. These small groups will need to join up to dismantle the current structure.
Because normal is toxic. Surely normal is also a failure of imagination.
In my book, I had to resort to my imagination to picture your Chinese grandmother with her bound feet and my African great-great-grandmother enslaved in Demerara, but in imagining them I brought a whole new dimension to myself. I opened up to my own body. It’s this opening up that I think must happen now. Imagining what will allow us to be bigger than our bodies, to be greater than the sum of our parts. Opening up to new, physical, safe spaces for all of us who have been terrified in the street. To citizens’ assemblies, to universal basic income, to settled land claims, to abolition of state systems of oppression, to defunding the police, to guaranteeing and fully funding education and health care, to creating urban farms, to the end of fossil fuels and the beginning of new ways of participating with our environment. To balance. To peace.
To a postviral reconstruction that has nothing normal about it.
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