MY TERRIBLE TERRIFIC 2020
After a year of so much loss, I am thinking more and more about the short time we have on this earth, and the messages we are sending to the future.
This year I said goodbye to Allison Ranelle Brown, a pioneering education civil rights lawyer who has been my best friend since 1988. I posted a quick tribute to her on Facebook, but there will be many more celebrations of her life to come in 2021 from her wide circle of advocates and friends — the “A.B. Hive” as we call them.
Allison loved Black children as fiercely as she attacked the injustices against them. She left behind two remarkable teenagers. The same month Allison passed away, a second college classmate (a tad more famous) shocked us by also succumbing to colon cancer. Neither had reached the age of 45. They both did so much with the time they had.
The older that I am fortunate enough to get, the more obsessed I get with archives. I think about future audiences a lot. I wonder about those curious people who may cross my path in the archives 100, 1,000 years from now. What will they make of this crazy place, and this crazy year?
In my graduate seminar on Historic Research Methods this fall, we talked about how mainstream history is rarely told from the perspective of Black people and Black women especially because society devalues our traditions and our stories. I made time this year to work with The People’s Archive at DC Public Library and the Ralph Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife to feed them oral histories. I published another archival study on popular music posters in the research journal Communication, Culture & Critique.
Another intervention came from my friend, the curator Grace Aneiza Ali of NYU. She invited my mother Serena and me to write a series of letters to each other for her book of art and essays, Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora. Here you can see us reading an excerpt during our “virtual” book tour.
Other good things happened. I got tenure at Howard. Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed me to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. My students were featured on CBS Good Morning when Alicia Keys surprised them by stopping by our Gender & Media seminar.
I wrote for 2020 audiences, too. I co-authored an essay on inequalities in the COVID-19 policy response in Bloomberg City Lab with my friend Dr. Andre Perry, a scholar from Brookings Institution. I reflected on the anniversary of the Million Man March, 25 years after I covered it as a 19-year-old cub reporter. I published an essay in the New York Times, but wrote about the iconic moment from the perspective of the Black women who powered it.
My fellowship with the Interactivity Foundation concluded after many fruitful years. I will forever be grateful for the foundation’s support for my last book, A Mouth is Always Muzzled. Freed from commercial pressures, I wrote the book that I wanted to read as a daughter of Empire. I hope to meet other generous patrons who will support more of this kind of work in the future.
I’m amped about a new project in the works, called Traditional Arts DC, that will live in my department at Howard. All year, I laid some of the groundwork for this project by documenting and celebrating DC’s traditional and “folk” arts. I wrapped up a yearlong public humanities project, “Communicating Across Cultures .”
I co-executive produced the 2020 Go-Go Awards with my Don’t Mute DC partner Ronald Moten, who is founder of the Go-Go Museum & Café. I got to escape my house periodically to work on musical protests in the streets. I travelled on Don’t Mute DC’s Juneteenth float that started at the Howard Theatre and ended at Black Lives Plaza. Hundreds of people followed on foot, in the pouring rain, with the band EU playing live from the top of a flatbed truck.
The parade ended near the historical St. John’s church, where just days earlier, thousands had gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd. Trump had called in military trucks to put down the protests. Mayor Muriel Bowser trolled Trump hard on social media, and literally on the streets.
It was all fun and games, but those guns had real bullets. When our teenager asked whether she could join what she called “the riots” at the White House, my husband and I told her no, it was not safe. She sneaked out and left us a video message on my computer: Sorry mom and dad — I had to take a stand. My frantic threats and calls went straight to voice mail. Imagine my horror as I watched live on CNN as police tear-gassed the crowds to make way for Trump’s Bible-clutching photo op.
It added to the pile of provocations coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the past four years. But this one may have unleashed the fury of the ancestors. My paternal great grandmother was said to be an obeah woman. Who knows? Maybe the 2020 presidential election was decided in this moment captured on my cell phone. I mean, the drummer’s name was JuJu. Only some powerful juju could eject 45 and his army from our space.
Once this awful year is behind us, I’m looking forward to life after COVID-19. Getting back on a plane for new adventures. Watching our kids continue to grow as they prepare to leave our nest. Don’t tell her this, but we were scared, but so proud of our daughter, who was among the generation of young people from all around the world, who put their bodies on the line to make change. The future is bright.