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we must be very strong/and love each other/in order to go on living

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

growth

change

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,

chattering coo-ing

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

protests/vigils/marches

and the implementation of

community-designed solutions,

the wholesale refusal to

return to business as usual,

and perhaps

 

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

is impossible.

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.

but now.

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

everywhere

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.”

 

 

References:

 

https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/about/

 

https://www.sonyareneetaylor.com/about

 

http://adriennemareebrown.net/2020/03/14/on-rushing-toward-apocalypse-with-aja-taylor/

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/opinion/coronavirus-cities-density.html

 

https://www.mfabrownart.com/about

 

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.

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