Dear Manchester Chinatown,
I lived down the street from your gates during 2010-2015. I was in my twenties, an international student living on my own for the first time, in a studio flat smaller than my childhood bedroom. My building was behind an art gallery, next to a casino, which was across the street from a strip club.
You were loud.
And lit up on nights I walked home alone. You were the pocket of a foreign city where I could breathe easier amongst faces that looked more like mine.
You have to understand that for some of those years, I was still trying to tell myself that finding comfort amongst faces that looked like mine shouldn’t matter, that maybe it was even wrong of me to feel this way. You saw me through a masters, and then my doctorate. Apart from ending up in your neighborhood, largely by chance but also by circumstance, I was continuing a trajectory of being surrounded by many white and well-to-do faces.
In those years, Barack Hussein Obama was my president. I was trying to keep quiet about why it pained me to hear white Americans talk about how nice Black people were to them when they wore his campaign paraphernalia in public, and the #joy they found in this being extended overseas, how nice all people Black and Brown could be at the sight of an Obama shirt. I didn’t know what to make of the many mouth sounds that came from highly educated and wealthy white people who sincerely felt that keeping a bumper sticker on their car or a button on their backpack was hard proof of having solved the issue of race; I didn’t know where to start.
I was still trying to swallow back why I didn’t want white people to talk at me about their activism and allyship but really about Black people. Specifically, I didn’t want white people to talk at me about Black people in ways that felt conspiratorial, one-sided conversations that relentlessly led to claims of not seeing color, but especially not seeing color when it came to people like me. I felt amorphous, water to be tested.
Still, for many of those years, and the years before, I longed to be a good immigrant, the best kind of American I could be. I wanted to write about home, in part, to prove that America was my home, specifically the American South where I grew up.
Mine was a neighborhood built over farmland to attract new money, with a country club and a golf course an old white president with a penchant for sexually assaulting young women visited once. Our houses are the kind that replicate proud old colonials. Through manicured streets designed to tastefully evoke winding country roads, I rode bikes with children of bankers, lawyers, doctors, and professors whose parents always liked to ask me where exactly my parents and I lived in the neighborhood, what street, which house, exactly.
I learned how to drive on those same streets. I didn’t understand why my dad insisted that I practice in my mom’s only slightly old Mercedes instead of his ancient minivan. I thought maybe it was another hard lesson in working well under pressure, gritting our teeth to keep sight of aspirations, exactly what a crazy, uptight Asian parent would do, until a cop on regular patrol of our neighborhood started trailing us. We hadn’t made it far beyond our driveway, but my dad directed me back as he opened our garage door. When the cop saw that, he smiled, waved at us, and drove on. There are many signs throughout the neighborhood I grew up in declaring in blue on white: OFFICERS ON PATROL HERE.
I obviously am not white-passing, but I continue to have access to many white-passing privileges such as the police not inexplicably and brutally murdering me or my father. You understand, the price of my privilege wasn’t always something I had to think about, unless I really needed or wanted to.
That driving lesson is one of the few intact memories I have of spending time alone with my dad as a kid. I remember him best as the passing smell of sugar and butterfat. Unlike the parents of the white children in my neighborhood, my parents owned and operated an ice cream store, still do, though that’s harder to say definitively now, isn’t it? I don’t know what will become of small businesses in the years to come. Are you staying safe and well?
On your crowded sidewalks, I’d fall into rhythm just a step or two behind a tiny older woman slumped in the shoulders. I’d stare at her short, curly hair showing gray at the roots and imagine I was walking with my mom. I’d pass men chain smoking in your dark alleyways with an apron over the shoulder or a dishrag still in hand, and better understand my dad, who was hardly ever home.
When drunk white men spilling out of cocktail bars would shout knee how at me, I knew they wouldn’t dare approach me in your neighborhood, amongst my people.
‘Your people’ is what an artist manning an installation piece on Manchester’s campus said to me. The installation was a large cage of books and it was making a statement about subversion and accessibility of knowledge. People were meant to walk around and browse within the cage, but the artist stopped me and said, “You can read this one.”
I was startled by the way he thrust the book at me with one hand, arm extended in full, expecting me to close in on the slight distance between us to reach it. I apologized and explained that I can’t read Chinese. He didn’t quite believe me. “But this is your people,” he said.
As a teaching assistant, in rooms full of white faces, I laughed along to the open mockery of essays written by Chinese International students in marking meetings, a tactic seemingly deployed by established academics to encourage camaraderie with graduate students who weren’t getting paid for marking. I felt eyes on me whenever the word Chinese came up. The term cash cow was one I heard often, but it was never overtly directed at me.
I have many painful memories of English as a second language: in Korea, my kindergarten origami instructor teaching us the word A-F-R-I-C-A, just so she could tell us not to fold our precious colored paper messily, as Africans would; in America, being the only one called out of my high school English class under orders of the No Child Left Behind Act, missing a lesson on Romeo & Juliet to take a standardized test with standardized tasks such as writing a brief sentence surmising the scene of a family enjoying a picnic, a mother, a father, a son, and daughter, all smiling and white. I remember starting to write something angry before erasing it. I remember writing instead about the bond of family.
There was a time when what I thought I really needed and wanted was to feel a greater sense of legitimacy. I thought studying in the UK, home of so many writers I was taught to admire, would better me as a writer with more distance and perspective, ultimately making me a better immigrant, a better American. There was a time I wanted this very badly. In the UK, whenever who and what I was and where exactly I came from was met with a kind of lurid fascination and an unwavering conviction that race was distinctly an American problem, I often relented.
Maybe that’s why in the UK, I felt more drawn than ever to writing my way into acts of violence that felt historied and unending, in the very air we breathe, without fully contending with why. It was in the UK that I started turning away from the English canon staked for so long into my heart and wondered if I could better identify with the southern gothic.
Born in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana as James William Brown, Yusef Komunyakaa grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, eventually taking on the name of his grandfather, a stowaway to America from Trinidad. There is a classic Gothic quality to the very creation of Neon Vernacular (1993) in which Komunyakaa boldly stitched together a collection of twelve new poems with selections from his seven earlier volumes of poetry. The tome gave new life to the career of the once poet’s poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. In curating his own oeuvre under the declaration of a new language, Komunyakaa provokes participation in the living dialogue of his poetry, urging acts of transcription, transposition, and translation. We are led to transgression, acts of defiance.
In his poem ‘Audacity of the Lower Gods’, Komunyakaa writes:
I know salt marshes that move along like one big
trembling wing. I’ve noticed insects
shiny as gold in a blues singer’s teeth
& more keenly calibrated than a railroad watch,
but at heart I’m another breed.
Can you feel the longing for home alongside the terrible sense of displacement here, the yearning of a creature to belong to the land — not man, but breed — beyond the realms of both the natural and the industrial worlds, its heart neither organic nor man-made. I know you know this is not really a question.
Ruminating on the abject horror of the Middle Passage, Leila Taylor writes in Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (2019):
Blackness in America is still in the middle, residing in the place between opposites: living in the present while carrying the past, being human but perceived as other, considered both a person and a product, both American and foreign, neither here nor there.
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was murdered. A nearly all-white jury acquitted Trayvon’s murderer on July 13, 2013. Reporting for The Washington Post, Janell Ross credits three women for igniting the Black Lives Matter movement in the hours following the verdict: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Trayvon Martin was seventeen years old. Trayvon had dreams of flying. In Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin (2017), Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, writes of a day Trayvon came home from aviation camp:
One day at the camp, Trayvon sat in the cockpit of Barrington Irving’s globe-trotting airplane. When he came home, he still had stars in his eyes. “Mom, I know what I’m going to do,” he told me. He had decided on a career in aviation: either as a mechanic (because he could fix anything) or as a professional pilot. He couldn’t decide which, except that he was determined to be around planes.
Over eight years since Trayvon was murdered, I’m still hearing highly educated and wealthy white people retort that all lives matter, worse still that blue lives matter. Blue on white on white on white unending; my jaw has been clenched against it for so long.
I was warned of Manchester rain, but not of the way faces like mine meant we all became Chinese. When I registered with the local GP, the nearest to me and yet beyond your territory, I was called in for a health check that consisted of the nurse asking me why I hadn’t ticked a box to declare my race. She said, “You can pick Chinese or Asian (Other).”
“I’m not sure,” I said, apologetic.
“You have to pick one,” she said. “Chinese?”
My first medical appointment there was for a UTI. The doctor who saw me sat much too close to say, “So you’ve moved here and now you’re having too much sex.” He didn’t quite believe my utterly American English, my calm explanation that the women in my family have a history of UTIs and that the stress of living in a new city alone was likely causing mine. The doctor looked down at my file and studied it for some time, “Ah, the American South,” he said, “Home of stunning antebellum mansions.”
There was a particularly brutal PhD workshop when I was told by a white woman to watch Gone With the Wind to better visualize the American South, that when she thought of the Civil War, what she saw were those gorgeous dresses the belles wore. There weren’t any such dresses in the chapter she’d read of my novel, and that really disappointed her. I remained silent for the duration of my portion of the workshop, keeping my head down to take notes, listening to one white woman after the other, a white man leading the circle, nodding his approval.
Before and during the Civil War, white writers from all across America and beyond wrote in defense of slavery. After the American Civil War, white writers from all across America and beyond began to write with nostalgia for slavery, or, academically put, an idealization of antebellum society, glorifying the Confederacy and mourning the Golden Era lost to them. This hasn’t stopped. Black literature continues to stand in defiance of the prioritizing of white feelings and white experiences central to a linear reading of the conventional history of the southern gothic.
Charles W. Chesnutt’s voice as a Black man who could have passed as white but chose not to do so brings a complexity to his work that is out of the depths of many of his contemporaries. The subversive social commentary in Chestnutt’s most famous work, The Conjure Woman (1899), has only relatively recently been studied with greater gravity to position Chesnutt as one of the most significant American writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In ‘The Goophered Grapevine’, a white northerner meets Uncle Julius, introducing readers to the central character of The Conjure Woman with the unflinching racism more commonly attributed to southerners:
He resumed his seat with somewhat of embarrassment. While he had been standing, I had observed that he was a tall man, and, though slightly bowed by the weight of years, apparently quite vigorous. He was not entirely black, and this fact, together with the quality of his hair, which was about six inches long and very bushy, except on the top of his head, where he was quite bald, suggested a slight strain of other than negro blood. There was a shrewdness in his eyes, too, which was not altogether African, and which, as we afterwards learned from experience, was indicative of a corresponding shrewdness in his character.
Unlike the typical fervent poetics of a white southerner describing a Black man — the tone of the white northerner has a sense of clinical observation. The “quality” of Julius’s hair and the “shrewdness” of his eyes speak to the whiteness that is the “slight strain of other” that ultimately makes Julius unsettling to the white northerner, because whiteness fears to be recognized for what it is. We know the “somewhat of embarrassment” is a presumption made by the white northerner as first person perspective limits such knowledge, particularly for a narrator so clearly lacking in empathy, speaking more to the need for the white northerner’s shame. Chesnutt imbues whiteness with a viral, disease-like quality, suggesting that the quality and arrogance of whiteness fully embodied in the alien presence of the white northerner yet only a strain in Julius, is an infectious threat to the Black man.
As the nameless white northerner notes that Julius is a tall man “though slightly bowed by the weight of years”, Chesnutt signals for the reader the significance of Julius’s role in The Conjure Woman in two ways: that there is literally more to Julius’s stature than meets the eye; that there will be a name and a complex history to the Black man while the abstracted white northerner remains unnamed. By introducing readers to Uncle Julius through a northern white man’s eyes, Chesnutt calls for an upheaval of the discourse on race, you know, in 1899.
On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C were shot and killed by a white man who had been welcomed to their late night bible study session. The nine victims are: Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, and Tywanza Sanders.
A statement from the Africana Studies & Research Center at Cornell University explains the significance of Mother Emanuel:
The Emanuel AME church has a stellar history of resistance and spiritual nurturing that began with its founding in 1816 by enslaved and free blacks and, together with other such places of worship in the country, became a beacon of inspiration to African Americans in their calls for justice, equality, and moral reckoning for generations. This history in which resistance to injustice and the nurturing of the faithful are inextricably intertwined helps to explain why the church’s faithful refer to it as Mother Emanuel. We are saddened and enraged that the faithful were killed after extending hospitality to a stranger in this most sacred and historically important place of black leadership in the United States.
The loss of these nine Black lives at Mother Emanuel prompted intensified protests against the confederate flag flown prominently atop a dome of the South Carolina Statehouse since the 1960s, when it was placed to commemorate the Civil War centennial as a symbol of the state’s defiance of integration and the civil rights movement. This one flag was successfully removed on July 9, 2015.
A day after the hate crime at Mother Emanuel, The New York Times published an online curation of six attacks on Black churches starting with the burning of a church in Springfield, Massachusetts by three white men shortly after the election of President Obama in 2008, tracing back to the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the week following the hate crime at Mother Emanuel, at least five Black southern churches were set on fire, with arson suspected for at least three.
On September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all age 14, and Denise McNair, age 11, were murdered when the KKK planted approximately fifteen sticks of dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Church. More than twenty other members of the congregation were injured. The hate crime at 16th Street Church is cited as a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the FBI and local authorities had four strong suspects, no prosecutions were made until 1977 when just one of the original suspects was convicted for the murder of Denise McNair alone. It took until 2002 to convict two more of the original suspects. The fourth remaining suspect had died in 1994.
At the age of 26, Tywanza Sanders was the youngest victim of the hate crime at Mother Emanuel. Tywanza died while trying to convince the gunman that he didn’t have to do this, while shielding his great aunt, Susie Jackson, with his body. Susie Jackson, age 87, was the oldest victim of the massacre.
When the hate crime at Mother Emanuel occurred, I had three months left to finish my doctoral thesis. In my thesis, most of the victims’ names, of the mass murder at Mother Emanuel and of the mass murder at 16th Street Church, were in the footnotes.
Novelist, poet, and historical sociologist Erna Brodber’s novel Louisiana (1994), opens with a fictional editor’s notes on the text, harking back to the letters of authenticity accompanying the literary hoax of Otranto. Brodber’s false preface explains that the text we are about to read includes transcripts of tape recordings from an academic’s failed case study on Black life in Louisiana.
As West Indian American Brodber imagines African American Ella Townsend’s conversations with spirits transcribed onto the page from audio recordings, her prose departs to the realm of poetry, singing of the significance of translation as an act of shifting from life to other realms:
And they were all there. Every jack one of them I had told you about was there to celebrate my translation. They came in carts and every scrammie there was; they came through short cuts with their shoes in their hands; up shalley hillsides with nothing but coconut oil on their feet. They came in groups; they came alone. They came with […] their velvet banners in the brightest reds and blues, the words embossed in opposite colours, tassels flying; they came in long white gloves; they came with swords; Ezekiel’s boom-boom band with the round white faced drum, pulling itself up the hillside by sheer faith.
White is the funeral colour here as there. Against the green of the trees, the black of their skins, the vibrant colours of their banners, it telescoped one loud clear report, ‘Hail Aunt Louise’, I could cry. Anna, I was seeing every corner of that scene. Being translated is like that. You can see from every angle. And I tell you. What a sight! Like so many clean white birds nestling in a Portland thicket […] shaded by the flowering mulatto companion tree. And the singing. Vox populi. I hear the voice, the gentle voice. Is the voice of God. That calls me home.
Here, the funeral is translated as a celebration of life, lending itself to loud, painterly colors. Particularly resonant is the joyous reclamation of the color white, of its purity and sanctity to Black culture. Brodber’s transcendent prose poetry gives room for this celebration of translation to resound across place and time, history and fiction, the author’s lived experience, memory, and imaginings as well as those of Ella Townsend’s, both author and character enacting so many identities, urging the reader to participate in the intersection of it all, a plenitude of everything happening at once, in this life and elsewhere, wherever that may be.
Brodber’s generous literature is invested in the idea of unity through differences. Born in Jamaica in 1940, Brodber states a primary concern of her work in an interview from 2002:
I believe it is necessary to the development of black people and therefore the development of the world if black people get together. There are large fissures between African Americans and African Caribbean people that need to be bridged.
In the Journal of West Indian Literature (April 2005), writer and academic Kezia Page adds to this that:
Brodber’s Louisiana, consistent with the spirit of a novel concerned with making connections, explores trans-cultural alliances as important psychic and cultural progress for black people, but even more so, because Louisiana is set in the 1930s, in the USA, in the South.
I was warned by friends and family claiming intimacy with London, Cambridge and/or Oxford, that Manchester is a rough city. I was warned of rival gangs — rival Chinese gangs, it was always qualified — fighting for your turf, of stabbings in broad daylight on your busy streets. But no one warned me that when riding a bus in London, I shouldn’t try to pay by holding the money out with both hands, a gesture ingrained in me since my birth in Korea, the passing of something with both of your hands into someone else’s hands, always with both hands to show the other person: I have this much care for you.
“Put the fucking money on the fucking tray,” the bus driver said. “Fucking Chinese.”
In the days before the first wave of lockdown began, I was walking across one of the squares around my office in Bloomsbury — I still don’t know which is which to be honest with you — when I was struck by the way a man I’d never seen before was staring at me. I know I don’t have to tell you that it really did feel something like being struck, a blow to some softer part of us. I know I don’t have to tell you that he was white. I know I don’t have to tell you that his eyes were filled with a kind of hate I recognized innately. In his eyes, I was the virus. I thought of you then, and wondered if it’s better where you are. You don’t have to tell me that it isn’t; we know, you and I.
In Randall Kenan’s ‘The Foundations of the Earth’, from Let The Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), Mrs. Maggie MacGown Williams looks out from her porch, wishing she was alone:
[…] fields surrounded Mrs. Maggie MacGowan Williams’s house, giving the impression that her lawn stretched on and on until it dropped off into the woods far by the way. Sometimes she was certain she could actually see the earth’s curve — not merely the bend of the small hill on which her house sat but the great slope of the sphere, the way scientists explained it in books, a monstrous globe floating in a cold nothingness. She would sometimes sit by herself on the patio late of an evening, in the same chair she was sitting in now, sip from her Coca-Cola, and think about how big the earth must be to seem flat to the eye.
At once ringed by people and a “monstrous globe floating in a cold nothingness”, Mrs. Maggie MacGowan Williams is suffering from the symptoms of her speculative cosmology. Meanwhile, Kenan’s prose sings, calling for a revolution, a new world order.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), James Baldwin writes:
“Run on, little brother,” Elisha said. “Don’t you get weary. God won’t forget you. You won’t forget.”
Then he turned away, down the long avenue, home. John stood still, watching him walk away. The sun had come full awake. It was waking the streets and the houses, and crying at the windows. It fell over Elisha like a golden robe, and struck John’s forehead, where Elisha had kissed him, like a seal ineffaceable forever.
And he felt his father behind him. And he felt the March wind rise, striking through his damp clothes, against his salty body. He turned to face his father — he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile.
They looked at each other a moment. His mother stood in the doorway, in the long shadows of the hall.
“I’m ready,” John said, “I’m coming. I’m on my way.”
In America, I lived in quieter, greener spaces with songbirds in the morning and crickets at night. But you became my town. In your restaurants, all I ever had to do was order and pay for my food. I learned to ask for char siu, which was more streamlined than asking for pork on rice. I learned that I could ask for my choice combination of vegetables in oyster sauce, off menu (straw mushrooms, baby sweetcorn, and bamboo shoots). You packed my takeaway carton so full, the lid would barely close.
Once, when I came back to rainy Manchester after a long visit with my parents, the owner of Happy Seasons recognized my order and said, “You haven’t called in a while.” I felt then what I felt going to the one Korean restaurant on your outskirts, when I could speak in my broken Korean to the young owner and call her 언니 and hear her call the older women in the kitchen 이모, both of these words which sound a little like 엄마.
I rarely speak Korean with anyone but my parents; I’m too self-conscious of how broken it is, but I was caught off-guard by 언니’s delight when I paid for my meal with both hands.
“어머!” she said, which sounds a little like 언니 and 이모 and 엄마. She smiled and held out my change with both of her hands. “You’re Korean,” she said.
“네,” I said, grateful and proud.
I got my PhD in the end. I have a job that I love enough to try to be motivated by perpetual imposter syndrome rather than debilitated by it.
I owe a tremendous debt to Black literature, Black scholarship, and Black activism, to Black lives lived more generously than mine. It is a debt that I cannot repay in this lifetime, but I am trying my best to honor it and give in kind as a writer and educator.
My position is secure enough that I hardly ever hear the d-word to my face: diversity hire. I will do everything in my power to ensure there are more faces like mine in academia, more people of color, but most importantly, more Black scholars in secure, permanent posts. I will do everything in my power to ensure our progress is marked, if slow and painful and unending.
Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury, 2017):
Change is incremental, and racism will exist long after I die. But if you’re committed to anti-racism, you’re in it for the long haul. It will be difficult. Getting to the end point will require you to be uncomfortable.
Komunyakaa’s ‘Epilogue to the Opera of Dead on Arrival’ opens with what could be such a hopeful line:
I can still sing
“Ain’t Going Down to the Well
No Mo’” like Leadbelly.
Blow out the candles
& start anew.
But the song that could be sung is a work holler about tests of faith. And even if it could be sung, it would be in pale imitation of Leadbelly, patron saint of the blues. Without due invocation, without the presence of true song, the absence of the repeated lines “I ain’t going down / I ain’t going down / Oh I ain’t going down to the well no more ” resounds as a futile resistance of being sunk so low, a desperate denial of sin rather than a resolution to stand tall. We already know that a childish wish with a single breath will never be sated. As the candles blow out, in the darkness, we are taken back to a lovers’ tomb. But the story here is all wrong. The roles are reversed. Juliet shouldn’t be dead first. That is, that woman shouldn’t be dead like that. The speaker, that is, Romeo, he shouldn’t be touching her like that.
Where’s Sweet Luck? —
a kiss from that woman.
It’s the way starlight
struck the blade. If only
I could push down on her chest
& blow a little breath
into her mouth, maybe.
He should have saved that single breath for her, maybe. But it’s not so much the story’s changed, only that it’s already ended. It’s only that the lovers are already dead, have been dead for some time. Romeo, that is, the speaker, isn’t touching her at all, much less blowing her like a horn. Or was it candles? Or maybe I’m getting confused because I missed that lesson on Romeo & Juliet.
Even in spirit, he is denied her body and soul. Only he has returned to their cold grave. In this hollowed out ground, there is something like Prayer of Prayers, an inhalation if you will, towards the end of the epilogue, an extension of that last-breath wish:
Handcuff me, slam my head
against bars of the jailhouse,
use your blackjacks,
zero in on my weaknesses,
let enough melancholy
to kill a mule
settle into my lungs.
But it’s all useless here. No more crime or punishment. Only the echo of Leadbelly again, that old outlaw, that Black murderer. We don’t need deep love or deep violence to silence us anymore. It’s all there is, this strange little verse that is a scrap of silence. There’s no more ending to wish for, no more love or luck, there is no song. There’s not enough air for any more breath, much less sound. We can wait, but it won’t come back. She won’t come back. We were warned about this opera from the start. We were warned about the stage, all the men and women. This is the end of the line.
There’s a retirement speech from a very famous white male professor that other white people have probably described as luminous a lot. Full disclosure, this particular very famous white male professor happened to be retiring from the university I earned my Bachelor’s from, the same university Professor Randall Kenan earned his Bachelor’s from and now teaches at. In this retirement speech, the very famous white male professor contends, entirely with good intention, that there is a single, simple test for the quality of Southerness in literature: Is there a dead mule in it?
While the very famous white male professor largely makes light of what he describes as the Dead Mule Zone, referred throughout his speech as DMZ, Komunyakaa spends the last scraps of his ‘Epilogue’ resisting the white space of a blank page — the silence there — on an Imagined Mule Death (IMD) instead.
Mules, in white southern literature, are often viewed with the pity appropriately reserved for poor beasts. At the same time, the ire against them is often justified by the idea that these dumb animals should be grateful for being fed and clothed to do no more than work the land, that as much love and kindness and good intentions their owners can give them, these ill-natured creatures are bound to turn nasty. On September 22, 1862, the Day of Jubilee, a proposal set forth by Northern politicians for the Reconstruction was to give every former slave land and a mule. After all, Black hands had worked the stubborn, obstinate, foul-tempered beasts best all this time.
In ‘Epilogue to the Opera of Dead on Arrival’, the dying wish of the speaker is that we take what moment we have left to us to find empathy for the poor mule, the black and ugly spirit animal of St. Leadbelly of the Blues. We can look into that white space and know there are mass graves of bodies that when living were considered no better than beasts.
I think of the very famous white male professor’s speech and recall, too, the way the letters DMZ felt cutting on the page; I think of the country I was born in and the DMZ that further wounds the first land I called home, and I remember that I am a daughter of a neo-colony.
You were at your most generous on Chinese New Year, what I have always known as Lunar New Year. I remember you — louder and brighter than ever — red and gold and grease, sugar and salt and families. In this way, I often imagined a life had I been raised in communities with faces more like mine, celebrating the passing of time marked by the moon, breathing in the gunpowder of fireworks, cooking our many rich foods, speaking our many loud tongues which are supposedly always louder than English of any kind.
I thought of you because you sheltered me and fed me better than England alone ever could. I thought of you because I miss feeling somewhat at home with you. I wish I felt more at home anywhere. I feel I don’t have to explain myself to you that thoughts of home keep taking me back to Black Lives Matter. I wish the Black Lives Matter movement felt less relevant today than when Trayvon died. I wish Trayvon was alive today to hear his name still being spoken. I wish there weren’t so many more names to say.
As I close this letter to you, I’m seeing news of thousands of people in Hong Kong defying the police to gather for the annual vigil in memory of the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. There, American flags are still being held high by protestors as a symbol of democracy. All the while, protests for the Black Lives Matter movement in my first adopted home are spreading here, to my second adopted home, and I feel strongly that the flag should burn, just as strongly as the inspiration I feel from it as the symbol for freedom for Hong Kong. There are many voices daring to express that this time, things feel different. The momentum, the urgency, the movements on the streets and on the whole feel different. Many leading voices belong to students in higher education and I am proud and grateful to be a part of this international community. We hold our hope in a complex space, trying our best to take responsibility for making sure that what feels different this time stays different.
A collection of Toni Morrison’s nonfiction writings is entitled Mouth Full of Blood (2019). In her eulogy for James Baldwin, Morrison writes:
I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me were nevertheless unmistakable if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form; that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy; that “the world is before [me] and [I] need not take it or leave it as it was when [I] came in.
I don’t have to tell you that Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd won’t be the last to be murdered for being Black. I don’t have to tell you that I’m not sure anymore that there will come a time we can look back and say: at least there was justice, if not peace. I thought of you because I hope we can stay loud about it until that time comes, and then I hope we can take in all the air our lungs can hold, and get louder after that.
June 4, 2020