On Staying Black and Dying
Last night I slept for about thirty minutes before startling awake. A single yellow light filtered in through the streetlamp outside. My love lay asleep next to me. It was only the third time we’d seen each other since the pandemic came along making travel a logistical impossibility. We both have kids. She lives with a parent in their 70’s. Spending time together has become a rare and precious idea.
As I lay awake in bed a drummer in the park across the street from the bedroom played a djembe with trance-like determination. My partner tells me this person can be heard some nights, appearing near dusk, playing until the time she falls asleep, and apparently beyond. She has never seen the drummer. It does not sound to me like they are “jamming.” The repetition, the intensity, the simplicity, the speed, the hard driving make it sound more like they are trying desperately to communicate with something that can only be reached through the sheer kinetic force of their own insistence.
I lay awake listening to this drummer and thinking of a thing I had seen eight hours earlier: a countdown clock recently unveiled in Union Square in Manhattan. The clock itself was not new, I was in a student at NYU a few blocks away when it first appeared as what I thought was an art project about maybe…time…or something. I was entranced by it. I would sit in the park, smoking cigarettes and watching the numbers insist themselves over the city, its bright light like a twitchy funhouse mirror of Times Square, counting either down or up, either quickly or slowly depending on which particular number you were watching. It was chaotic and about nothing. It was huge. I thought, at the time, that the piece was weird, stressful and brilliant. In 1999 things did feel that way to me, that we were, all of us, counting down toward something, though it was unclear exactly what. Maybe just the formless anxiety of living at the fin of the century. Things were ending, but we didn’t know which things. Things were over but we didn’t know what “over” meant.
Now twenty years later, we do know what’s over. the earth for one, or at least our climate as we know it. We have been stealing everything — air, land, water, people, lives, fire, humanity — with the innocent and blind hope that the bill would never come due. Of course it has come due. And it is to be paid with fire, blood, and death.
The countdown clock finally stands for something, and of course what it stands for is that it’s too late. What else can a clock really tell you? Eight hours had passed since I first saw on Instagram what the clock now said, that we have about seven years before climate change is irreversible. During those eight hours, I read books to my partner’s children, made dinner, asked my partner’s mother about her childhood, walked a dog, smoked a cigarette, answered several emails, watched the sunlight play on the oak leaves, cuddled with my love, texted with my teens, played a game on my phone and fell asleep. It took eight hours for my system to respond to what I had seen.
Across the street the drummer is going and going and going. I find it outrageous that someone would drum at this hour. I want to open the window and yell “Ay! shut the FUCK up!!” like I’ve heard so many more New Yorkers do in movies than I have in real life. I think about all the other people in all the other apartments who are maybe thinking the same thing.
But I don’t do it. Mostly because I don’t feel like I have any ownership over what this drummer is doing. It does not belong to me, it is bigger than me. The beat is fast and simple and direct and unceasing. It calls to the future and the ancestors, the bass sounds ancient, the slap and tone ring off of the hospital, the trees, the colonizer statue in the center of the park. I am illuminated by a single light, from the streetlamp, the person I love so deeply that sometimes it makes my stomach hurt, my breath catch in my throat, is sleeping next to me. She feels like someone I found drifting among the chaos, someone I don’t own, someone who can be blown away just as unpredictably as she has been blown to me. This is what it means to love, I now think. Not to own, but to have a temporary possession of something so fragile that it makes your chest hurt to think of it.
When I was a kid my favorite line in a movie was spoken by Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me. “I don’t have to do shit,” he said, “but stay Black and die. ” It made me and my cousins laugh every time we heard it. We made it a running joke: “You have to draw 4,” one of us would say during a game of Uno “I don’t have to do shit but stay black and die,” the other would answer before we collapsed into a fit of laughter. The older I got, the truer it was, the less funny it became.
All I can predict is that I will stay black and die. That is it. Those are the only drumbeats that connect me to the past and the future. Everything, everyone else is a leaf on the wind. Even those I love. Even the earth I live on. The truth of that is so heavy that sometimes I cannot sleep. Instead I lay awake, wishing for a silence that will not come, hoping that the drumbeat will stop and terrified that it will, fearing the loss of everything, even the things I never even had to begin with. Once upon a time I was sure enough or dumb enough to bring children into this world, even after I had sat for hours smoking cigarettes watching the clock tick. Every single one of us — my children, my love — were all so innocent. So arrogant. So deeply and forever unknowing.