Yom Kippur 5781

Good afternoon.  

During the peak days of the pandemic, I frequently thought of my being tested by God. What do we meditate on during Yom Kippur when we must look deeply into ourselves to do better in our lives? How should we behave in our daily interactions, routine and not so routine, with others? What could we have personally done differently in these daily interactions to make the world a better place? In my own experience being on the front lines fighting COVID-19, I certainly tried to bring out my best and had to think about this throughout the experience.  

I came of age at first as a medical student and then as a doctor, as a physician, during the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic first descended upon our world. At that time, we did not know what we were running into. At that time, all we knew was that we needed to treat suffering and dying people with compassion. Other than some palliative measures, antibiotics, pain medications, etc., compassion was our only tool available. Can we catch this disease from casual contact with a patient? Will we suffer from the same affliction and end up like the unfortunate souls we were treating? We did not know. The younger version of myself was deeply moved by the experiences of what I saw and what I did to combat this affliction, and I ended up making a career of it. You could say that this is where I learned to internalize what the expression “running into the fire” means and act on that when called upon.  

At first, I was naïve about coronavirus and thought that it would not reach us in New York City. Once it hit me that catastrophe was headed our way, I knew what needed to be done. I knew that it was time to run into the fire again and that all that mattered was saving lives. 

The leadership of Downstate Medical Center quickly put together plans to convert the hospital into a COVID-only facility. We struggled to find our own personal protective equipment/PPE, the N95 masks, the protective garments, gloves, hand sanitizer just to respond to the call. The personal risks were high. We heard ambulance sirens wailing outside continuously throughout the day and night. We heard “Code 99” called out on the PA system over and over again every hour. This constant assault on the psyche was overwhelming.  

In the face of these horrible circumstances, I was deeply moved one evening watching a CNN special on Downstate’s response to COVID-19. One of the ER doctors was quoted saying: “We are going to do what we have to do to fight this thing or die trying.” I was inspired by the courage shown by front-line providers to put their own lives at risk. 

What did I really expect of myself? I considered it my duty to respond and volunteered to work with a group of pediatricians who were tasked to convert a pediatric floor into an adult COVID ward. I say that I volunteered because many did not want to take these duties on. Some refused to come to work at all. I went on daily rounds with my fellow doctors, called family members who could not visit their loved ones and gave daily updates, and experienced the camaraderie of what felt like soldiers in wartime. While we did have some guidance from adult medicine physicians, we literally had to relearn medicine on the spot.  

I did this on top of my other daily duties of trying to manage my HIV clinic. At one point later on, one of the pediatric chief residents personally thanked me for doing what I did. I responded by telling her that I didn’t really think I did that much. She quickly corrected me saying that volunteering in the first place was what mattered when many of the residents were terrified to be assigned to caring for COVID patients. The very fact that I was there by choice, when others knew that I didn’t have to be there, was what mattered and gave some inspiration to others to be there as well and perform their duties.  

I adapted to the new world we were confronted with by giving up my daily commute on the subway and biking to work every day, a ride I needed to de-stress and prove to myself that I was still alive and in good health. It was on these bike rides that I thought about how much every little act of kindness to others matters in making the world a better place. That led me to think about how I would be reflecting back on my COVID-19 experience during this year’s High Holy Days. In discussing this with Rabbi Sam, I was reminded of Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance where he writes:

It is, therefore, necessary for every man to behold himself throughout the whole year in a light of being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if evenly balanced between innocence and guilt; thus, if he commit one sin, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of guilt, and be a cause of its destruction; but if he perform one duty, behold, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of virtue, and bring about his own and their salvation… 

When a friend from medical school, Dr. James Mahoney, a pulmonologist at Downstate who was teaching us pediatricians how to take care of adult COVID patients, died in the line of duty from catching coronavirus himself, the grief was both singularly for me and collectively across the hospital extremely palpable and unbearable. I believe that James’ courage and commitment to others is what Maimonides was referring to in overbalancing the whole world to the side of virtue and I dedicate this talk to him.  

The words of Maimonides resonate deeply with me; everything you do and every action you take matters. Whether it is a positive act or a negative act, it all has an impact on the lives of others. This became something immediately and profoundly self-evident for me during the early days of COVID-19. I remind myself of this every day, I teach it to my medical students, I say it to my children and hope that my few words have helped Maimonides’ teaching resonate with all of you as well.   

Thank you. 

© Jeffrey M. Birnbaum 2021

Healing Our Founding Pandemic

As virus panic mounted in the United States, I was already researching the psychic and actual sickness that came with the Mayflower four hundred years ago. Appalled to find myself descended from six of its passengers in a year when big celebrations were planned, I wanted Americans to see our history through the lens of disease. A full ninety percent of the Indigenous Wampanoag people had died from European illnesses even before the ship landed—and our founders themselves faced a deadly mortality crisis. I also knew that healing was possible, even now. Then one morning it became a story.

There they were, ancestors from four hundred years ago, on a zoom call. Four boxes, gallery style on my screen, each with a family name in the lower left corner. Tilley—an older mother and father with their young daughter. Rogers—an older father and teenage son. Howland—a young man on his own. And me, in my eighties but twelve generations younger. They were calling to see how I was doing in the pandemic. 

Unmuted, we chatted excitedly. “I’m amazed to see your faces at last,” I said. There was no photography in their time and even now the light around them was dim, and the men’s facial hair obscured their features. I hoped my uneasiness about being a Mayflower descendant wasn’t showing through.

“We are curious to see YOU, Daughter,” one of the older men answered. “We have wondered which one of you was thinking about us. It means a lot here.” I struggled with the intonations in the older English and hoped I hadn’t offended with my critical thoughts. But they wanted news of our family in the crisis. I told them about my 97-year-old uncle and the zoom birthday party with my sister’s grandchildren. 

After the first flurry of conversation, it seemed like a time to ask one of the big questions that had troubled me in my research. “Dear Relatives,” I began, “you also went through a time of sickness and death. I’ve been trying to imagine what that was like for you. Elizabeth, you lost both your parents.” I looked hard at her family on the screen: John and Joan Tilley were around fifty, Elizabeth only thirteen. “And Joseph, you lost your father.” I watched the younger man draw closer to Thomas Rogers. “Half of the ‘first comers,’ dead in a few months. I can hardly imagine that level of loss. Please tell me how it was for you.” I had weightier questions to ask, but I wanted to understand their pain first.

Their stories began to pour out, first John Howland’s. At twenty-eight he’d taken ship as indentured servant to another passenger and looked strong and in good health. “It will be hard for you to picture, Cousin,” he said. “Your world has so many protections from sickness and death. We had nothing. No Lysol, no ventilators, no masks, and very little food. Less understanding of disease than your people have. It was the beginning of a winter much colder than we were used to and we were coming off a difficult voyage with no shelter on land. Almost 150 people were crowded onto a ship just 100 feet long and losing its caulking. Sea-water came in everywhere. Even our bunks were damp and cold. Many had scurvy from sea rations with no fresh foods. As you know we were blown off course, hundreds of miles north of our destination, and decided to settle near Cape Cod, but many were sick. We called it ‘the general sickness’ or ‘distemper.’ Your people say it was a mix of scurvy, tuberculosis, and viruses like flu and pneumonia. Our immune systems were weak from the rough voyage.”

As my relative spoke, I could feel the discomfort and sickness of the Mayflower in my bones, more than ever in all my reading. The close quarters, stressed immune systems, lack of good information, and uncertainty about the future all struck a chord with our times. I wanted to ask how they’d dealt with the emotional side of it, but others chimed in. Father and son whispered in the Rogers’ corner and young Joseph spoke. “Dear Relative,” he said looking into space as if his gaze could penetrate all the way to my living room. “It was very, very hard. I was eighteen, the only family member traveling with him.” He turned to the man beside him. “My father died in February, in what they called ‘the first sickness,’ the first wave, while we were still sheltering on the ship.” “Waves of disease,” “sheltering”—it all sounded so familiar. 

The screen was quiet for a long while before I heard the girl’s voice—Elizabeth Tilley. “I was thirteen that year,” she began, “and it was very hard for me too. My uncle and aunt both died on board in the second wave and then, when we finally went ashore in the spring, my dear parents John and Joan Tilley died too. The winter made it much harder for the older ones. I was left alone in this place, with no family.”

A roaring sound arose at that moment, some kind of zoom static. I heard the voice of William Bradford, later governor of the colony, speaking words that have become famous: “They die sometimes two or three a day,” he intoned, “the living scarce able to bury the dead, the well not sufficient to tend the sick.” I shuddered, thinking of endangered medics around the world today.

Then Elizabeth’s fresh young voice again, her parents nodding agreement as she spoke. “This is why we wanted to be in touch with you, dear Relative. We know your people fear this same kind of collapse—that the caregivers will not be strong enough, that many will die without spiritual assistance. That is the kind of panic we felt. We are concerned that this fear is bred into you somehow, into your bones.” 

“Yes, Daughter,” her mother broke in, “we think the fear may be unhealed suffering you inherited from us. We are here to help you release it.”

Hands on my heart, I looked back across the years at the six of them. “Dear Family,” I heard my voice tremble with emotion, “it is healing already to hear your words. I’ve wondered whether our suffering is some replay of what you felt, even though our situation is so much milder. We fear the very scenes you describe. And our scientists tell us now that trauma like yours becomes embedded in what they call our DNA. Some say we can release it from our bodies if we acknowledge our feelings—no matter how painful. To think that you have come to help us do this! Dear Relatives, I am so moved by your understanding and care for us.” 

I might have stopped there, but my heart was urging a deeper question. “Can you tell me more about your emotions and how you dealt with them? Were you able to grieve? Knowing this could help us a lot.”

The screen was silent for a very long time, and I remembered that Puritans were known for suppressing emotion. Finally John Tilley spoke, one of the elders on the call. “Daughter,” he said sadly, “We couldn’t do anything like that. We thought we had to stay strong. No matter how many of us died, we wanted to believe we were God’s chosen people, destined to make a home in this new land. We had to numb ourselves to the fear and the grief.”  

There was a murmur from his wife that I couldn’t hear, and he added, “Our spiritual leaders told us the only way we could get through this was not to break. Sadness and grieving over death was to question God’s will. It was something the Pagans and Savages did—not ourselves. Our people were called to hold fast against grief.”

“Oh my God,” I burst out, forgetting who I was talking to. “I don’t mean to offend,” I continued, “but we are learning that expressing grief is necessary—the only way to honor the pain and protect ourselves from this inherited trauma you spoke of. For most in our culture today, grief is still suppressed.”

Joan’s voice floated into the mix with words from the New Testament: “’Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Our hearts knew these things, Daughter, but we were unable to practice them.” Then a sweet silence.

“Could we do it together, dear Family?” I said impulsively. “Just let it out, whatever way seems natural?” It wasn’t the kind of thing you say to your Puritan ancestors, but already the sobs were welling up in my own throat and I let them come rumbling out, choking and gasping, moving my body as it seemed to want. Sobbing out all the bottled up fear, sadness, anger, and horror that had not been spoken for four hundred years, for all the violent ways we had displaced our trauma onto others, and for all the fear, suffering and death happening around me now. For those crowded together without food or clean water under freeways, in prisons, bombed-out cities, and locked-down borders.  

My own sobs were so loud they drowned out the others—that’s how sound works on zoom. But I could tell I wasn’t sobbing alone. Looking up at the screen, I saw each of those bodies bending and shaking in grief. It had been terrible to be stuck that way in fear and loss, and for so many loved ones to die. My relatives seemed aware of all the suffering that had stemmed from theirs. I felt my common ground with these first comers who had finally shared their grief with me. At last my heart warmed to them, and as our sobbing calmed, I knew it was time for the much bigger question I needed to ask. 

“Dear Family,” I began with some hesitation, “there’s something more I hope we can grieve.” I took a long breath and let it out slowly to calm my heart. A deep wrong had troubled me most of my life. The six of them looked at me in that strange way that happens on zoom—everyone’s eyes trained in a slightly different direction. Elizabeth and her parents held each other. Joseph leaned close to his father. John Howland sat alone in his frame and I stumbled on with my question.

“Most Americans know little about your deaths on the Mayflower, but even less about the terrifying epidemic that hit the Indigenous people before you arrived—far more lethal than our pandemic today. Descendants of survivors tell of a mysterious “great dying” that killed 90% of the coastal people, even before you came ashore. Beneath your own fear and grief, you must have felt the impact of their deaths too. How was that for you?” I took another deep breath, knowing this could be challenging for them. “Did you feel the pain of these fellow humans?”

Again the screen was quiet and I hoped I had not gone too far. John Howland broke the silence. In a few years, he would marry Elizabeth and both would live into their 80s with ten children and 88 grandchildren. Genealogists estimate ten million descendants. “Your information is accurate, Cousin,” he said quietly. “I was one of those sent out in a small boat to choose a site for our settlement. Storm winds blew us into Plymouth Harbor, where a village called Pahtuksut lay in ruins—beautiful corn and pumpkin fields with little pine trees starting to grow back. As we walked the land looking for water sources, we found the mounds of many graves. Elder Rogers can tell you more, as he was also with us.”

My eyes shifted to Thomas. “Yes, Daughter,” he began. “It’s good you ask about this part of the story. Before we got to Plymouth Harbor, our people spent a month exploring the outer regions of Cape Cod. Our own dying times had not really begun. Though we’d lost a few to sickness on our voyage, we had no idea what was coming. Just imagine what it was like ashore, feeling the strange earth under our feet as we made our way through the sandy woods of the outer Cape. Trying to sense the lay of the land and wondering when we would meet the savage people we had been told were all around us. As you know, European trading ships had plied this coastline for ten years, circulating reports back home. Even though we hadn’t planned to come this far north, we knew of massive illness in these parts the past several years. We didn’t know the diseases were of European origin and contact with us was spreading them. Reports told of empty villages with piles of human bones, unburied and unsanctified in the rapid onset of sickness.” I thought of the ‘makeshift morgues’ in today’s pandemic. “We didn’t see piles of bones, Daughter. Only clusters of abandoned bark houses and mounds of fresh graves. I felt a tingling in my very flesh to see how many had died here. After passing many graves, we came to one that looked so unusual we found ourselves opening it.”

I gasped, and Thomas must have heard me because he stopped to explain. “Yes, Daughter,” he continued. “The act feels wrong to us from where we are now. With the other graves, we’d felt respect and awe for the sheer fact of so much death. But with this one, some strange energy rose in us. We were not ourselves.” There was a stirring in John Howland’s quadrant as he nodded agreement. “We touched the bodies,” Rogers continued, shuddering. “We even took artwork from the mound back to our ship, the ‘prettiest things’ someone called them. We found ears of corn buried too—beautiful blue and rose-colored and ivory—and took them too. Now we know that corn was seed for the survivors’ crops or food for the journey of the dead. Our theft likely prevented them from reaching the place of their ancestors.”

He paused, bending forward as a wave of emotion passed through him, but John Howland took up the narrative. “Thomas speaks truly, Cousin. We violated a grave and stole corn—completely against our spiritual principles. And we exchanged fire with Natives at one point. We justified these things with a story our leaders began to weave after we reached the empty village near Plymouth Harbor. ‘God promised us this homeland as He did the ancient Israelites. He’d cleared the land of savages through this dreadful pestilence.’ This was wrong thinking.” He paused for a moment, bowing his head as I sat spellbound to hear him speak so critically of his own beliefs. “Throughout the ordeal of settlement, we held tightly to that story. It became our foundation, explaining our title to this land and why we could steal and kill for it.” He paused again. “Most of our descendants still feel this entitlement, dear Cousin. Most are frozen numb in it, unable to feel grief for these deaths or the four centuries of killing that followed—the burning of villages, our quest to wipe out a whole population we saw as ‘savage.’ There is a terrifying word in your language for it now—‘genocide.’ We have not been able to grieve this action or forgive ourselves, and we need your help.”

Hands on my heart again, I looked slowly around the screen for confirmation. All six ancestors were nodding agreement. My head spun with the implications. It sounded like they wanted us to change our founding legacy—or what we had thought was that legacy. Malidoma Somé had been right about ancestors—once they leave the earthly world, their vision clears. They see the harm they caused and yearn to repair it, to restore the balance they disrupted. They’re ready to acknowledge, restore and repair, but can’t do this without the help of their living descendants. And most of us are still stuck in false stories, unable to assist. 

Now it was Joan Tilley who spoke. She hadn’t lived to see how their early relationship with the Wampanoag people near Pahtuksut would deteriorate into distrust and warfare, how her descendants would want more for themselves and use the land in ways that harmed its delicate balance. “No one of us on this call personally caused the disaster,” she began. “But we all share the misguided mind that came from Europe. We thought we were separate from, wiser than, this land and the other humans here. Our ideas have led to sickness and distress for you now, your loss of connection to the earth. All of us who share this mind of entitlement are accountable. From our side, we stand ready to help our living descendants do what is needed to restore the balance.” A general murmuring of agreement rose from the others.

I looked at Joan, marveling at her freedom to speak while our male relatives listened with attention. It hadn’t been so in her day. “Thank you dear Family,” I said, “Restoration and repair will mean a big shift in consciousness for us—and maybe the pandemic will help. It is teaching many of us to deepen our relationship to life on earth and learn the Indigenous version of this history. But at the same time, our leaders are exploiting the turmoil, taking even more land and autonomy from the First People. Just recently officials used the courts to take land from the very Wampanoag people we’ve been talking about. The Wampanoag are responding, as other tribes face renewed attempts to build oil pipelines through their remote communities—bringing infection like the trading ships did. There are many actions we can take as citizens to stand with them.” I paused for breath because I knew of some remarkable healing initiatives underway as the Mayflower commemoration drew closer, but the ancestors on my screen had something of their own in mind.

Several of them started to speak at once. Then the noise of voices fell away and I heard Thomas Rogers say four words, “Grieve, apologize, repair, forgive. This is how we hope our descendants will commemorate Mayflower history, Daughter. Go deeply into your grief for the harm we initiated. It is our grief too—we welcome the tears we could not shed in our lifetimes. We need release from the stuck suffering—as you do too. Acknowledge, offer apology for all you have gained from our misdoings. Make your apologies public, share them widely, and find ways to give back. Please understand that to move forward without shame, you will need to forgive yourselves and your ancestors. Already some First People are responding to apology with forgiveness for the most heinous acts of this history. We hope for our sakes, yours, and our entire earth system that you can live into this vision.”

I was sobbing gently now, with something like relief, for this seemed the kind of deep change we could make as the pandemic opened our hearts. Where I had once felt loathing and even shame, I now felt love for these six people who had come to share their need for healing with me. “Thank you, dear Relatives,” I said, reaching toward them on the screen. Alas, I must have clicked an unfamiliar zoom signal. All of a sudden, with a “bing,” their faces faded into bright light that hurt my eyes. Zoom had cut us off, with no link to get back. But we had connected at a deeper frequency than zoom, and I knew they would be around to help.

© Louise Dunlap 2020

Louise Dunlap
Louise Dunlap

Louise Dunlap is a writer, Buddhist practitioner and active elder living in a place once known to the Ohlone people as Huichuin (now Oakland, California). She knows B.Michael only through this website but feels a deep connection across time and space and into the spirit world. Back when B.Michael was teaching, she was also an activist teacher—in the Boston area at MIT and with communities of resistance. In the years leading up to 1992—like B.Michael—she worked to counter the colonialist narratives around the Columbus quincentenary. Her forthcoming book, Inherited Silence, looks at her ancestors’ role in colonization of the continent and how descendants, ancestors, and our country can heal. It’s an honor for her to contribute a story to What I Miss? Learn more at www.louisedunlap.net. Photo: Skip Schiel

58 Minutes

I arrive early and take a seat on the bench that overlooks the East River, on the Brooklyn side, the only concession you would make in order for us to meet. It’s fall but feels like the last days of summer. The air is clear, and there are boats on the water. The bridge traffic creates a dull hum. Background music.

Students in uniform, just out of school, pass by in twos and fours. They are laughing, oblivious to me and my anxiety about what the next hour will bring. They have a right to their joy, still too young to know that the dead can visit you. They eat potato chips and sip sky blue and fuchsia drinks, unaware that you will visit me and we will talk and laugh, and I will cry.

I check my phone for the fourth or fifth time. You’re late: Dead or alive, colored people time is a thing.

As I lean forward to slide my phone in my back pocket, I see you standing at the far end of the bench. You are smiling and so am I. As I make my way to you, I start to cry. I blurt, “Gurl, you are still so gorgeous!”

Your smile broadens. As I raise my hands to touch your shoulders, you shake one of your pianist-long fingers to remind me of the most important rule: no touching. I wipe my tears and gesture for us to sit down. You speak for the first time, “Miss Honey, you look fabulous.”

Your voice still sounds the same, not a minute of age on that joy. In fact, you look exactly as you did before your death in 2001. No gray hairs, no disfigurement, not even a pimple on your almond-colored skin.

I am excited and nervous and emotional. My body has been buzzing with anticipation ever since we agreed to meet. “Oh my gosh, Bert, I can’t believe we are sitting here, together. How? And why . . . ?”

Bert jumps in, “Jacquie, we must do this quickly. Once I explain to you some of the how and why, we’ll only have 58 minutes to talk. So we’ll ki, but we won’t be able to kiki.” His playfulness makes me smile.

“I know this is complicated, but I – actually, we – need your help,” he says. “And this is the only way we could figure out how to talk to you. Can you do this?”

Still unsure of what I’m agreeing to, I reply, “Yes, Bert, I can do this.”

We both smile, and begin the work. You tell me that there are things the dead are able to do, like walk through a room, leaving their scent, and visit the living through their dreams. But there is more. Some things would remain secret, but this meeting one-on-one would be the most ambitious experiment yet.

“Experiment?” I ask.

“Jacq, I could try to explain, or you can trust me so we can spend as much time as possible talking about the main point.”

Reluctantly I nod in agreement. “OK, I get it. Let’s start.”

“Jacq, I will speak in shorthand to try and squeeze in as much as possible. If you have a question, ask me. OK?”

Again, all I can do is nod.

“I am sitting here because you still care. It was decided.” And before I can ask him by whom, he lifts that finger again, tilts his head, and says, “Some of the other guys and a few women too thought that you’d be a good person to start with.”

I listen though my smile is dimming and there is gurgling in my stomach.

“Jacq, you still call our names and we hear you. I came to you because, while we could always laugh together and shared many a stage, we were casual friends. We knew that if one of the other guys came to you, neither would get past the kiki to get to the Q&A.”

My stomach calms down. I want to touch his hands and feel his warmth but that is against the rules. It’s late afternoon and the sun is lowering. He is wearing sunglasses and taking them off is also against the rules. I’m startled when a woman with a small child sits next to me.

“Don’t worry,” Bert says. “They can see a person sitting next to you and hear their voice, but they can’t see me or hear my voice. Do you get it?”

I am somber and, beyond reason, whisper a yes. “OK, Miss Thing,” I say, trying to lighten my state of being. “What is the what?”

“The 1980s and 1990s were difficult. Men and some women died so young. Their bodies were ravaged by disease. Too many of us died before we could figure out what we were truly meant to do.” I nod, listening intently.

“Those we left behind – friends, family, a next generation not even born …” His voice drops just a bit. Is it sadness? Regret? I wish I could read his eyes. “Jacq, you took care of a lot of people in different ways. As each person transitioned, you noted it in ways that went beyond your initial grief.”

I am crying again. So many years of lifting bodies too weak to carry their own weight. In this moment I have no words.

Bert continues, “We wonder if we made a difference. Did our deaths, our work, our way of loving, make a difference in how our communities move today?”

I rub my forehead back and forth searching for some profound words or images. But all I come up with is, “Yes, you made a difference, and we have more work to do.”

I elaborate: “So much was taken with each death. Bert, you were on the first board of directors for GMAD. They held meetings every Friday so Black men in need and desiring the company of other Black men could come together, talk, politicize, affirm their racial and sexual identities. You helped GMAD collaborate with other organizations to help strengthen the support and love and care for our people. Well, GMAD’s Friday night weekly community meetings went the way of the dodo bird. Because of online dating apps and social media, people can meet each other without ever leaving their homes. In fact, without ever building community or mutually beneficial friendships. So where does the next Craig Harris* take his art to perform for the community? Where does the lonely confused kid who just came out go after their parents have kicked them out? The Center is still there, but many of our organizations have grown and now have their own offices throughout the city. That is good. But there is no central place, there is no …”

My voice trails off. I take a deep breath and continue, “They are like other social groups that got funded as nonprofits and had to professionalize. It’s just sad. I have no suggestions that haven’t been made: cross-generational programming, focus on housing, youth street teams, stay-in-school initiatives, collaborating with the House Ball communities, etc.”

It’s Bert’s turn to take a deep breath. He audibly exhales as he leans back against the park bench. His forehead crinkles. I can tell he’s listening.

“In so many ways, it’s easier to be gay today than when we were younger. Online services make it easier to talk to kids. There are campaigns to help those coming out. Laws have changed to protect us instead of criminalizing us. You were a proper, well-educated lawyer who gave that up to teach. Imagine what it would have meant for you and the students if you were a teacher today – loving kids, educating them, opening their minds to possibilities, you as an out Black gay man? Damn, we have drag queens doing storybook time at libraries!”

Bert laughs out loud and hollers, “Alrighty Miss Thing!” with his finger snap for emphasis. His perfect, crisp, Black mother getting the attention of her child ’cause the ass whipping can’t happen in public kind of snap. I’ve so missed that.

I turn my body toward him and fold my left leg under me and say, “Yes, Miss Honey, you and the others made a difference. But there is more work, more yungins’ who don’t, to quote a line from a song, know what it’s like to have a graveyard as a friend, and how that motivates those of us left behind. HIV/AIDS is still a scourge and we have lost our urgency. Because of the meds, folks are not dropping dead in the street as they once did, but it’s still a hard way to live with that virus flowing through their veins.” Bert is nodding, but stays quiet.

“You guys, each in different ways, were my big brothas. You allowed me to hang and, by doing so, learn. That your okayness with your sexuality and your willingness to teach me about it helped me learn about my own and pass that knowledge onto others. I have worked with teen mothers who did not know where their clitoris was. I have worked with women who have never had an orgasm.”

He raises one of his thick full eyebrows as he says, “Gurl?” He snaps but, this time, to mean, “Really?”

“And some organizations are doing better than others in reaching our kids and maybe even our elders. So you wanna know if you made a difference? Yes, you laid the groundwork!” A half-smile crosses his face.

At that moment, more kids, a little older and louder, walk past our cocoon.

When we arranged to meet, I wanted to throw a party and invite those of us left behind. I’m not the only one who calls your name or is motivated by the trauma we continue to feel in our freaking bones. I’m not the only one who would want a visit and a chance to hear your voices and see your bodies, healthy and strong. George and I would cook, someone would bring cards and play music, and we would tell stories punctuated by laughter and questions and mis-remembrances and more finger snapping. We would be together again. But that would be against the rules. Strictly one-on-one.

My phone alarm goes off. I pull it out of my pocket and notice I have just 25 more minutes with you. “Damn,” I mutter. I turn toward the water again and take a deep breath. A towboat blows its horn as it passes under the bridge. The park is busier with passersby. The mother who is sitting just arm’s length away from me is bent over the baby carriage. I wonder what she sees or overhears. Does she see that I am crying? Angry? Loving you and this opportunity?

“Bert, the way Essex spoke about Black masculinity – Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act – has inspired legions of men to understand that being gentle is affirming, not emasculating. There are Black gay and trans people on television in positive affirming roles. The way you all, we all, worked to demonstrate that Blackness and gayness is a singular and intertwining identity that we don’t have to choose one over the other. Yes, that is your legacy. Black male actors, straight or gay, can kiss on television and hug and have a sex scene. Black male writers in newspapers and magazines can come out and have careers and speak about their partners and about our communities. And yes, there will always be some who will shake their heads and suck their teeth and note the shame of it all. They are the same ones who cannot tell a sissy from a punk so I ain’t worried. If they don’t or can’t see me or you as an individual and representative of our diverse community then … ” I end with the universal Brooklyn Italian gesture for “Eff ‘em!”

My phone buzzes again. Ten minutes left. I go over a list of accomplishments that we as a community have achieved: Black president, transwomen elected officials, gay marriage, and more. But now I have questions.

“How were you able to contact me?”

“Jacq, I can’t answer that one. We worry that someone else will try to figure out how to contact us in ways that would be dangerous. Sorry.”

“I’m not even sure how to phrase this . . . Is everyone together? Are you OK? Who’s holding court? Something, give me something,” I’m pleading now. I know the next time my phone buzzes he will stand to go.

“Miss Honey,” he offers to calm me down.

I peek at the water from the corner of my eye and notice that the din on the bridge is getting louder.

“Yes, we are all OK. We are neither in a heaven or a hell, unless that’s how you’d like to think of it. In which case,” he flashes his pearly whites, rocks his head a bit, and gestures skyward, “the party’s up there!” quoting a popular refrain. We break out into laughter.

Bert thanks me. He tells me our conversation was very important, helpful. He knows I am unsatisfied. I want more details. I want more time. I want to tell him how the survivors have aged. I want to share that we caregivers live with PTSD and how it manifests in our relationships, our choices of work, our own bodies. I want to say that I quote them, I quote him. A poem he wrote more than 25 years ago still haunts me, even though he couldn’t have known that he was writing about me and my own mother, about how we kids always had to be quiet because Mommie was always sad. Yeah, there is so much more.

“Jacquie, your phone will buzz in a minute.”

I am overwhelmed by emotions. My stomach gurgles and my eyes well up. I grip the bench’s metal armrest a bit tighter.

“Gurl, we know how hard it was, and is, for you and the others. We were all so young and unprepared for that time. And yet …”  His voice trails off. He rises from the bench while I stay seated not trusting that my legs will support me. Bert bends down to whisper in my ear, “Jacquie, thank you, SistaGurl.”

On cue, my phone buzzes. I don’t bother to check it. I know what it means. As he walks away, the city noises rise to their normal levels.

*Craig G. Harris was an Afrofemcentric griot, community health educator, AIDS activist, and staff member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who died on November 26, 1991, at St. Luke’s Hospital of HIV-related complications. He was 33 years old. Mr. Harris’ articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Advocate, The New York Native, OutWeek, and Art & Understanding, and in the following anthologies: The Road Before Us, Tongues Untied, and Brother to Brother.

© Jacquie Bishop 2019

Jacquie Bishop
Jacquie Bishop

Jacquie Bishop is a native New Yorker living in Boston. She is a published writer and works in public health.
Photo: Craig Bailey, Perspective Photo

Love and marriage, not the same thing

There’s … a lot of freedom and mobility in being gay. And choosing not to raise children. Without the status of children, we’re not validated in society. My point is less wanting to get validation from someone else. It’s more important to be self-fulfilled. It’s a point of empowerment. You’re not trapping yourself by convention, buying into status-quo. I still think working toward self-fulfillment will gain the same financial rewards or benefits that “selling yourself to a corporation” would buy.

Having been in a different situation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to use others’ measuring sticks of how I should view myself in the world. This automatically sets you up for failure. Everyone has a little bit more, someone else is a little bit taller. Ranking is dangerous. Some status that you fall short of makes you self-hating, self-destroying.

B.Michael Hunter in “Windows & Water Towers”, an essay written with John Manzon-Santos and published in Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write about Class (South End Press: 1995, ed. Susan Raffo).

In our book, you wrote about love. This is what you and Johnny decided to share. You wrote about love and relationship but not in that starry-eyed, soften all-the-edges way. Instead, the two of you argued, you disagreed, you rubbed up against each other, and you showed in a hundred small ways the depth of your commitment. You wrote about what it means to pay attention to your relationship, about the ways you are gay and the ways you are different from each other, how these differences are the core of your relationship, the things that make you disagree, and what strengthens your commitment.

For the last six years our relationship, perhaps like any other, has been in search of anchorage. We have learned how commitment, trust and yes, intimacy, can ebb and flow over time. What grounds us is when we attempt to break our familiar Catholic patterns of silence, especially when it feels most risky. In this case, we hope that our talking through issues together (and sharing them via a transcribed dialogue) – seams and all – will demonstrate some of the ways in which we struggle to understand how class is braided with other factors in our relationship.

Windows & Water Towers, 1995

You died, my friend, just at the turning point for how gay – and all kinds of queer – relationships would be understood. You died on the edge of a lot of change and oh, my friend, you’ve missed some things. You’ve missed this moment when love turned from something generative and unapologetic, the radical compost of having to find it deep within ourselves to fierce-claim our love of another person, to something that has the necessary legal support needed to make its revolutionary nuances disappear. I am talking about marriage. I am talking about the capstone on a struggle for acceptance and safety that started when AIDS became, not a crisis that brought care and compassion, but an excuse for making our queerness disappear.

You are now on the other side, Bert. An ancestor. I am telling you about what you have missed but I also know that you know much of this already.

In the essay in Queerly Classed, you wrote about being on the founding board for the Audre Lorde Project, about organizing the People of Color contingent for the 1990 Lesbian & Gay Pride March. The two of you list a who’s who of radical queer New York POC organizations, most of which don’t exist anymore. While we were talking about the book and your essay in it, the March on Washington was getting ready. In 1993, an estimated 1 million people attended the March on Washington for LGB Equal Rights and Liberation. Were you there? I was there with my partner at the time and thought it was amazing. The march platform focused on reproductive justice, racial and economic justice and universal health care.

At the 1993 March on Washington, not a single part of the platform included gay marriage in any form. We said things like “family liberation,” saying, just as you said in the book, that family is not about having or not having children. It’s not about getting married. It’s about deep commitments to each other’s well-being. Like universal health care, we were demanding that those things traditionally accessed through marriage become available outside of that traditional institution, like shared health care, economic safety and the right to have our children no matter the shape of our families.

It was also in 1993 that organizers on the Right started to gather around the idea of “traditional family values.” This was brilliant, right? A coalition of religious fundamentalists and economic conservatives began to build a base that would have enough power to push back the love and rights based work of the Left. Their fundraising and mobilization work called out AIDS as a threat to the traditional American family. They mobilized fear. They began to design their new enemy, using our bodies and their terror to justify all kinds of things from disappearing manufacturing jobs to earthquakes and floods. You know this, Bert. You were in those conversations while you were organizing in New York.

1993 was the year they passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was the year when the film Gay Rights, Special Rights went viral. This was a new kind of film, one that was designed to drive a wedge between LGBT and Black communities by positioning gay folks as privileged white rich people who just wanted to have everything our way, to operate outside of morality. Again, you remember this. We all talked about this, pushed against this, struggled with this.

In 1993, few of us were interested in or advocating for legalized relationships. Gay marriage was not a mainstream or even much of a marginalized LGBT issue. Prior to 1993, there were only 8 attempts to either enable OR prevent same-sex marriage through some form of legislative or court decision. Each was an isolated individual initiative, not connected to a broader movement. But between 1993 and 2000, right before you died, there were suddenly 26 attempts to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming legalized. Each of those 26 were organized by these Right coalition groups like Focus on the Family and others. Between 1993 and 2000, there were 6 pro-same-sex marriage campaigns and 4 of those were in 1999. Let me spell that out more clearly – the coalition Right created gay marriage as an issue. They spent seven years getting it into the national imagination as a threat that had to be stopped. It wasn’t a threat. Us queers weren’t talking about marriage. We were loving each other, surviving AIDS and talking about healthcare. The opposition named same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional family values, they raised lots of money and we started to fight back.

You were already sick in 2000 and so you might have been watching this happen or you might have just ignored it as your world got smaller. Things always get smaller when we are preparing to pass. Almost everything shifted and reversed right around the time of your passing. Starting in 2000 and 2001, there were twice as many attempts by the LGBT community to legalize same-sex marriage as efforts to prevent it. It took the Right seven years to ramp us up but then, starting just as you were dying, we reached down and picked up the rope and starting pulling hard against them.

What do we do when someone wants to pick a fight? Evolution tells us we are hard wired to either run, freeze up or turn around and fight back. What is hardest to do, even when the lion is running straight at us, is stop and take a deep breath and determine the best course of action. Liberation is about choice. About stopping and breathing and noticing, rather than responding to this fight that we didn’t pick. What would happen if we just ignored them? Turned our backs on their fear and refused to engage?

The National Millenium March in 2000, an incredibly white and professionalized march, focused their platform on hate crimes legislation, the right to marry, employment non-discrimination and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In addition, they had a range of soft goals that said things like LGBT People of Color exist and need to be more visible! Liberation politics, Bert, had turned to inclusion politics in only 7 years. The specificity of our experience, the foundational leadership of Trans and queer people of color, and the beauty of our sex that had been branded as diseased by the US mainstream: all of this was disappeared into a platform focused on being included in middle class US rights. By the 2009 National Equality March, there weren’t even any soft goals related to the breadth of our experience. By 2009, 16 years after the March on Washington, the platform was simply a call for equal protection under civil law. Inclusion. Inclusion. Inclusion.

Your essay in Queerly Classed refuses to define your selves or your relationship by comparison with any external standard of success. Instead, you choose to spend time deeply inquiring over the histories and experiences that have led you to make the class-based choices you have made. You died, Bert, before we had internalized their stories about us; before we believed that our right to marry is part of what legitimizes our right to exist.

Bert, they used our greatest vulnerability against us. You write in this essay about what it felt like to be young-old, someone who had seen so many of your people die as a result of AIDS. You and John both write about what it is to be in relationship when one of you is positive and one is not. You talked about how you navigated this. John noticed when things shifted so that AIDS no longer felt like it was ready to pounce from just around the corner. And it was still there, the truth of it, there in your home as you talked about family and race and the differences in calling a cab in New York when you are Black or Filipino.

They used our greatest vulnerability as a weapon to further destroy our belief in our own lives. And we helped them. We were not immune from the wounds of this country: white supremacy and its dance with capitalism being the base that brought the concept of land ownership and the ownership of human beings to the oak savannah and prairie where I live. The patterns that this violent founding established showed their way into our fabulous queerness just like everywhere else. Like a form of disaster capitalism, the coalition Right used the fear and vulnerability that came from seeing so many lovers die to inflame the mix of internalized oppression and race and class supremacy to move rapid-fire away from our beautiful differences to the death knells of inclusion and assimilation.

In the midst of the marriage fight here in Minnesota, a friend reminded me that all legalized discrimination needs to end. And this is true. Yet in its ending we lost so many other things. Some of us are very safe now, Bert. There are gays and lesbians and bi folks with legally recognized relationships and protected retirement funds and no need to do what we did: get all of the legal papers needed so that we could tend our lovers when they died. Just like before, the queerer you are, the Blacker or more Native or undocumented you are, the less those legal rights guarantee a difference in your living condition. It always comes back to this, doesn’t it? From the beginning of this country, it’s what it comes back to. Those first wounds of attempted genocide and the institution of slavery are the foundational trauma that is not finished. Like all trauma, these wounds and the systems that protect them find a way to come back and recenter themselves again and again.

I don’t know what you would have thought about marriage, Bert. So many folks surprised me by their excitement for this protection. So many others, people our age and older, quietly told me behind the scenes that they hated everything about it but also believed that legalized discrimination should end. We sat and felt frustrated with the steps that had led to marriage as the moment of our supposedly greatest victory.

So this is what I want to tell you, Bert. I want to tell you that as messy as things were before you passed, as much deep grief was (and still is) not healed or integrated from what AIDS did to our communities, still there was clarity. While we described it in lots of different ways, still, there was often a shared sense that as gay or queer people, we had a special insight on sexual liberation, on gender liberation and on family liberation. And together we were struggling to link this truth with the truth of the original wounds of this land. We knew that things were not what we had been raised to believe. Many of us were actively struggling within our identities as lesbians, gay, bisexual and increasingly transgender to more deeply understand and fight-feel for our shared liberation.

Some of us are safer. But many of us are not. It’s just that those who are not safer no longer turn to LGBT organizing as the place of changing that. And that makes me sad. It’s not a good way of memorializing all of you who passed, whose lives were shortened because the U.S. was afraid of our beauty and so refused to show up when we were sick and dying.

© Susan Raffo 2017

Susan Raffo
Susan Raffo

Susan Raffo is a writer, cultural worker and bodyworker. In 1995, she edited the book Queerly Classed which is referred to in this essay. It was here where she met both Johnny and Bert and got to share a stage with them in New York after the book had come out. Since 2000, Susan has had a kid (Luca born in 2002) and has taken her organizing work into the overlap between healing justice and collective liberation. (Source: www.susanraffo.com)

“When Johnny reached out about this book, the first thing that I thought of was marriage. The year Bert died feels like such a turning point in how LGBT community understands itself and its struggle. The marriage debate might or might not be over, depending on politics, but its impact is still felt.”