Many of us have had the experience of standing in front of the window of a hospital’s newborn nursery, a partition that simultaneously protects and allows visitors to gaze at the variety of human life displayed within. The tiny creatures, hatted in little ski caps, are only hours to days old, yet how distinct they are from one another as they sleep, squirm, smile, grimace, and cry. It’s fascinating in those early weeks, especially if the infant is a familial one, to watch the play of expressions that crosses its face and then shifts, calling to mind now the contemplative gaze of one relative and then the loopy smile of another—features that over time will coalesce into a more stable facial configuration.
Even though a virus is blind, we have learned, yet again, that like so many oppressive things, it disproportionately finds its way to those who are already suffering. I feel privileged that, during the coronavirus pandemic
The weather report had been dire—a nor’easter, heavy winds, rain. But the day opens sunny and light and warm. I get up from the room in which I have been working for the past ten months and walk into town: Sag Harbor, a village that goes back to the eighteenth century, curving main street, part of the whaling world of the East End of Long Island, now the sweeter part of the Hamptons, a spot for writers and artists back in the ’60s, a village with outlying neighborhoods including a middle-class African-American world, the space Colson Whitehead writes about in his novel Sag Harbor. I have had a house here for thirty years, so am a relative newcomer, and this past year I have been here more than ever before, moving through seasons, garden blooming and leaves falling, watching through the same set of windows as the light and the seasons change. I am both still and absorbed in a single red room and walking through the village, beaches and gardens, in a natural world that seems eerily benign.
The concept of radical openness proposes not that we empty our minds but that we open our minds to the prospect of losing the understandings to which we are attached. In order to engage in a dialogue that could be described as radically open, we bring our prior understandings into the new, emergent conversation with the idea that they, when brought into contact with the speaking and listening of the other person, may be subject to revision, augmentation, or even relinquishment.
Back in 1987, I was in a doctoral psychology program outside of Los Angeles. I had the good fortune to do my final internship in a solidly middle-class section of town at a community mental health center staffed with social workers, psychologists, interns, and a psychiatrist. Every week, we had meetings to discuss new cases as well as chronically troublesome ones. In many instances, the patients who came to the clinic were from the local community and had been coming there for years, as had their families. Such was the case with the man I came to call Motorcycle Man.
Within the Black community, there exists a hidden caste system of “good” and “bad” hair, just like skin color hierarchies. “Good” hair is considered to be closer to straighter, wavier, Eurocentric hair, and “bad” hair is kinkier, coiled, thicker hair. Although these hair valuations are seen as being on a gradient, there is almost always a natural splitting that takes place when seeing and being seen. This dichotomy contributes to the double consciousness in the upbringing of Black girls in America. This twoness originally described by W.E.B. Du Bois is between the “American and the Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
In the early 1980s, the heyday of Land Rights, I lived in Central Australia, working as a sociologist with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. A senior Aboriginal man, Dick Lechleitner Japanangka, worked alongside me, and we visited many Aboriginal communities and coauthored two books: Health Business and Settle Down Country. We held many meetings and recorded in language—on film and in print—the voices of Aboriginal people. We fought for two-way medicine delivery and for the Pintupi people returning to their lands to be provided with essential services. Some recognition for the dispossessed was achieved by hearing and reporting their stories and by advocating Aboriginal determination. In those days, it was rare to hear the Aboriginal voice—the aboriginal languages translated directly into English in the public and policy arena.
Another fixation of mine has been the impossibility of my ancestors, particularly the abducted and the enslaved. Through the wound which would be called the Atlantic Slave Trade, Black persons were simultaneously the subject, the object, and the labor. Put another way, Black persons were the commodity—something akin to a gold piece, the means of production—which we would now call human capital, though such a qualifier is missing in enslavement and, ironically, in the subject. In the case of Black persons, the traits of subjectivity—communication, relationship, organization, aspiration, ad infinitum—were forcibly recognized either in their negative (as in the forbiddance of some otherwise common human practice) or in their grotesque affirmation (such as with the concession of small pleasures or the mechanic exploitation of human impulses). In this way, the Black person is canceled out in a triple negative, an impossibly impossible subject, further complicated by their intercession with other unreal things.
As I write this at the turn of the year, hospitals are overflowing, and our medical system is about to collapse. Yet the approaching loss of a half million lives in the United States from COVID-19 was entirely preventable. For me, the disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic was always more a mental health issue—of the head of state. So is the reckless discrediting of a normal election, the violence in the streets that have now flowed into the Capitol, and the near destruction of our democracy. This was all foreseen by mental health experts and may have been prevented had the discussion about the president’s dangerous psychology not been quashed by a single mental health organization: the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Growing up in America with immigrant parents, you’re often on your own navigating your future, and so institutions like elementary school become more than just places of study. They become agents of social advancement. One day, in fifth grade, someone came to class and told us about magnet schools, explaining that you could apply to study a particular subject at a particular school. Getting into the program was connected to the category you’d been assigned in tests you’d taken, and there was a mysterious point system that helped you get into this or that school.