This collectively written essay meditates on the antimasker phenomenon, care, breath, and in-person teaching during the pandemic.
Sandy Alexandre and Kimberly Juanita Brown
These offerings for the 2020 issue of Social Text cohere around the marked interiority and isolation that have become features of this pandemic. One of the inevitable consequences of stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, quarantining, and/or isolating during a global pandemic is self-reflection and self-confrontation. One can't help but get to know one's embodied self and one's spiritual self a little better in such close-up quarters. Sandy Alexandre's piece meditates on encounters with one's soul via one's breath. The piece follows in the tradition of the satirical essay—even alluding to Swift's “Modest Proposal” in its title—to target a specific group of people who continue to be very much a plague during the entire pandemic: antimaskers. In an exercise of speculative cheekiness, she satirizes this group of people who have politicized mask wearing by using her fragrant soul against them. It's no coincidence that Alexandre meditates on souls because souls are certainly in the air. For example, the Pixar movie Soul came out in 2020, and the anthology Four Hundred Souls: Community History of African America 1619–2019 was published this year. Alexandre's essay adds to the soulful conversation by reminding us that souls are detectable and that if one can possibly catch a whiff of a soul, we need to attend to ours in ways that ensure they don't start to “go bad” and stink up the joint, as it were. Kimberly Juanita Brown's “Hyperblackness” takes us through the temporality of the pandemic as it is represented through her skin, as she recovers from an allergic reaction that engendered a darkening of her skin. In a meditation on Blackness in the age of COVID-19, Brown is forced to examine the failure of her own resilience as she struggles to attend to public health directives, labor expectations, and family responsibilities. Her corporeal recalcitrance came as a surprise and signaled the important ways survival must be managed with the same care and attention that we give everything else during precarious times. Kaysha Corinealdi's “Masked Professor” extends this discourse of protection and centers those of us who have had to continue working in-person during the pandemic. Corinealdi negotiates the space between self and other, as the apparatus of public movement and conscientiousness—the face mask—becomes part of the mechanism for communion as she and her students occupy the same space at the same time, all while trying to have some semblance of normalcy in an abnormal moment, an abnormal year and counting. Eunsong Kim's contribution, “On Endings & Longing” examines the circular loop of loss and longing, as the quotidian activities during the pandemic shift into a meditation on the existential crisis of the moment, namely, what awaits us on the other side of this. Each offering for the issue is a layered commentary on what it means to be human while the parameters of existence are fraught and increasingly dependent on an unsustainable resilience and the responsive behaviors of others.
A Modest Theory about Why Antimaskers Choose Not to Wear Masks
Before I wax philosophical about the breath, I first want to be practical and break down its chemical composition. What exactly is a breath made of? What are the chemical elements that make up its visible form as exhaled air? How might we reintroduce ourselves to something we take for granted by listing some of its component parts? Nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, neon, and helium.
Perhaps it's because I know myself to be capable of waxing too philosophical that I thought some scientific facts about the inhaled and exhaled breath would create a safe space for readers who need to seek solace in scientific evidence when they suddenly find themselves surrounded and therefore unmoored by words that muse more than offer up conclusive evidence. No one wants any of their readers to hyperventilate while reading an essay that ruminates on breathing. Who needs that kind of irony or that kind of guilt?! Indeed, if an organized collection of words exists whose bonus function is to facilitate calm breathing, I can only hope that this essay is just such a one. And who knows: maybe pieces of writing, especially ones designed to be read out loud, should actually serve a specific prosodic function—that of enabling best breathing practices. Breath-friendly writing.
But it's mostly because we're living in pandemic times that thinking about the anatomy of the breath feels especially reasonable and timely these days. As we well know, the pandemic's coronavirus is transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets or aerosols, so everything from a person's cough, sneeze, breath, and conversational utterances has been visualized for the public to understand what aerosols are, how they travel, and how they're eventually transmitted. We watched television news broadcasts share stories about people who had to be put on mechanical ventilators to assist their breathing. We are aware that, at the time of writing, over 4 million people worldwide (and counting) have “taken their last breath” because of the virus. We also saw people in geographic proximity to the California fires coughing their responses to the smoke that all the flames produced. California crematoriums, forced to ramp up the burning of the COVID-19 dead, also impinged on breath by worsening the air quality. And, of course, breath made headline news in June when George Floyd was murdered by being cruelly denied his own breath, even while he made it audibly clear, in his dying last words directed at his active suffocator, that he couldn't breathe. His “I can't breathe” at once reasonably and eerily echoed the words Eric Garner gasped six years earlier when the whole world witnessed him also being suffocated—this time while being restrained in a chokehold by a New York police officer. Garner would also die, showing how these two Black men's statements of their acute truth—heard around the world—did not matter to white men whose impulse it is, anyway, to counter the declaration “Black lives matter” with “Blue lives matter,” thus needlessly and callously pitting the value of their professions against the value of Black lives. As if Black life is somehow an affront—a tat for white police officers to extinguish with whatever tit they have at the ready, on hand, on bended knee.
Black breath is Black life, and recurring images of white police officers bent over their victims and bent on extinguishing Black breath—whether by kneeling or choke-holding—suggest their serious problem with breath, life, and soul in general. How can one ever reform an organization that would have to teach its members something very basic as respect for the breath of life? How can reform even be a solution up for serious consideration when police departments effectively train their officers to be life blockers—to use their very bodies as an obstacle to someone's breathing? These past several months, white supremacy, as a suffocating function of injustice, kept surfacing fully anthropomorphized, partially as a human body part (a determined knee), and as the increasing toll of its consistently breath-deprived Black victims. Breath, in its different instantiations, was everywhere in the news for our consideration.
And, behind the scenes, a branch of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) created an online presence to try to gather up enough people to get a bill that they are calling “The Breathe Act” introduced in Congress. The project aims to redirect resources, support, attention, and nourishment to communities that have for far too long been enfeebled by bloated police budgets, police discretionary power, qualified immunity, and police brutality. They imagine their activism to be a righteous and long overdue siphoning off of the overindulged and overfunded police. Supporters of the Breathe Act want to give these communities some room to breathe, since so much of the space—indeed so much of the oxygen in the room—has been taken up by the police. On the home page of the website (breatheact.org), colorful currents swirl around a Black person's face, simulating eddies of circulating air. The person looks relaxed, meditative, and even grateful—like they know they can finally breathe where they are and that the air they are breathing is fresh, too. The movement one experiences upon entering the site is difficult to convey in a still image, so I include three different screenshots of the home page at three different intervals of time to give you a sense of the beautiful and truly moving portrayal of Black breathing that the site offers up (fig. 1).
But in addition to its being presented to us as a scientific visual, a creative rendering, and as the very essence of life, breath, during the pandemic, had come to mean a scent as well, even if we didn't talk about that aspect of it as much. In the image to the lower left in figure 1, one can see what a visual of smelling breath might look like as the yellow-orange stroke of “breath” wafts right underneath the Black person's nostrils. Indeed, during these past several months, breath has also always been literally in our faces. We have had to encounter our breath every day since we started wearing masks. Nothing made it clear that the saying “you are what you eat” might very well apply to you, too, more than having to confront the smell of anything you had eaten every time you put on your mask. And, so far as I can tell from daily detection, it turns out that I am, in fact, a strong cup of coffee. Pleased to make your acquaintance, everyone! I jest of course, but the crude fact of the matter is: there is no denying and no escaping what you have had to drink or to eat once you put on a mask, especially soon after you have fed yourself.
To put on a mask is, to borrow a stoner's term, to “hotbox” the lower half of your face. In other words, it is to continuously breathe in the recirculated breaths that fill the confined space of what basically amounts to a small tent on your face. Gone are the days when you needed to cup your hand to find out what your breath smelled like. Your mask does that for you every single day. So, what does such intimate contact with one's breath reveal about oneself? Does your breath sit well with you? Do you like your breath? I don't even know if my breath meets some kind of respiratory standard or if such an “aspiration” even matters to me, but I must confess: I really like my breath. In my newfound appreciation for my breath, I began to wonder if the mask-resisting antimaskers of our pandemic times had a problem with wearing masks because they had an unspoken problem with being so up close and personal with themselves.1
In literary studies, the mask motif is often read as a symbol of concealment and disguise. Writers and critics alike often talk about masks in terms of what certain characters want to protect themselves against, conceal about themselves, and disguise for reasons of excitement or mischief. But when a protective mask worn in pandemic times needs, simultaneously, to cover both your nose and mouth, there is simply no hiding from yourself. Having to inhale, confront, and ponder one's breath (and, therefore, oneself) becomes an inevitable consequence of this new sartorial fact of life.
What if who you are flashes before your nose every time you breathe inside your mask? And what if you don't like what you smell or indeed what you perceive to smell? In your sniffing, you might detect—and right under your nose, too—a soul gone bad. Cue André 3000 crooning: “I know you like to think your shit don't stank, but lean a little bit closer, see [your] Roses really smell like poo-poo-ooh / Yeah [your] roses really smell like poo-poo-ooh”2 I do, therefore, suggest—and with all due respect—that antimaskers stop deflecting attention away from their bad breaths and work, instead, on getting their breath “game up,” as the young people might say. And while I don't have the tools to collect the evidence that would make the causal connection among putrid souls, bad breath, and antimaskers, even the most perfunctory research shows a correlation between defective souls and antimasking. Here is at least one case where we are given some inkling of how an antimasker's soul operates based on what he says to a woman who has revealed to him that one of her parents is in the hospital with COVID-19. The tweet depicted in figure 2 is from a longer thread in which Samuel Braslow, a staff writer at the Beverly Hills Courier, reports on a group of antimaskers who were first at Ralph's and then at the Century City shopping mall banding together on January 3, 2021, to protest the mask mandate in their city.3
If you listen to the recording that Braslow was able to capture in that tweet, what you clearly hear is that the blue-masked woman claiming to be a doctor says that her father is in the hospital with COVID-19. Braslow's use of mother in the tweet is a typo, but what is also clear is that the antimasker 1) doesn't think the parent's COVID-19 hospitalization warrants much ado and 2) anticipates (and one can argue even wishes) that the hospitalization will end in death. The doctor said her father was hospitalized; she did not say that her father was dying or dead. He chooses in that instant to use his knowledge of her hospitalized father against her. The antimasker's taunt is that of a person who knows that suggesting that the doctor's father will not pull through will certainly upset the doctor. In that quick retort, he kills the hospitalized parent through his words and takes perverse pride in presenting himself as someone who dares to say something so intentionally insensitive in the first place and who dares to say it because he prides himself in being contrary at best and flagrantly irredeemable at worst. The real question here, however, is this: how rank must the soul of this person be, if he could utter these words to a fellow human being who has just shared such a personal and devastating piece of information? I would venture to diagnose that there is either a rotting or an already rotten soul inside that man and that sometimes that's just the kind of offensive language that rottening souls have the capacity to utter. People with rotten souls speak. His rotten soul is not special.
To be fair, maybe bad breath is not the issue. What if some people think that to encounter your breath is to confront your own mortality, and that's not something people are ready or willing to do as often as mask-wearing requirements ask them to do it? Maybe they're scared. Maybe it's just as the antimasker said in the above tweet—that some people think dying being a natural fact and part of life means that one should seize the day by enjoying life (maskless) while one can. I don't know. Help me out: What do you have against your own breath, antimaskers? Why won't you spend some quality time with it? Does the quality of your breath suggest that the time spent with it would not be quality, after all? Fresh breaths want to know. I want to know.
I think 2020 brought an entirely unexpected interpretation of masks—the mask as “olfactory mirror.” The public health face mask literally reminds you that you're delving inside yourself for breath. And as it turns out, what is ultimately revealed is what Emily Dickinson called “Ourself, behind ourself.” Mask wearing in pandemic times has made it possible to consider how interiority can be manifested as breath. I don't know if one's breath is like a fingerprint—that is, unique to each individual—but it's clearly an integral part of who we are. Indeed, some cultures think that your soul inheres within the breath. As the poet Rumi allegedly wrote: “The soul lives there in the silent breath.” The Greek word for breath—pneuma—is the same word used when one wants to say the word soul.
Several years from now, all that we will have to say about the experience of wearing protective face masks during a global pandemic will need to take self-confrontation into account. In the equivalent of a self-affirmation that asks if you are comfortable in your own skin, having to wear masks in pandemic times almost demands that we ask if you are comfortable with your own breath—with inhaling your own breath, sitting with it, and, indeed, stewing in it. Whom does your breath introduce you to every time you wear your mask? And what exactly does it take to make one's breath and therefore oneself likable in a truly enduring way? For the sake of that person whom we must confront every time we breathe into our own faces with our masks on, may the interior core that our breaths come from never be rotten. May we continue to do all we can to ensure they never devolve into such a depraved condition. “No racist bones” in one's body doesn't mean there isn't a racist and therefore putrefying soul deep down in there though.
There was one point during the pandemic when it was rumored that certain brands of toothpaste and mouthwash were able to neutralize or kill the coronavirus altogether.4 These findings, if true, are pretty impressive—demonstrating that these toiletries can work double duty as breath deodorizers and virus killers! But Listerine and Colgate are no match for a fetid soul. If the root of the breath is the soul, one has got to get at a thorough brushing and washing of the soul in order to breathe freshly again or, indeed, for once. Unfortunately, there is no magical product that one can buy for a good soul cleanse. I do, however, recommend a good soul searching, first, to at least diagnose the extent of the rot. Instead of squandering it, perhaps take advantage of the opportunity the pandemic has given us to do some serious soul searching. May we all get to the place of enjoying the experience of being alone with our own breathy souls—so fresh and so clean.5
Kimberly Juanita Brown
Six months into quarantine the skin around my eyes went dark. Darker than my dark brown complexion, this hyperpigmentation announced itself in the mirror as a judgment against me (what I had neglected to pay attention to was sufficiently offended enough to make itself known). A mark on my complexion that somehow made me foreign to myself. Not quite Sigmund Freud's wolf-man in the mirror, but something/someone other than the me who entered the pandemic imperative like a good citizen, willing to deepen the separation between self and others to survive a deadly viral epidemic. Somewhere along the way, months into the pandemic, I lost track of myself.
My journey into hyperblackness did not begin and end with my skin. This has been a year of recovery and redress. The virus has had disproportional effects on Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities and has heightened the already existing strain on those communities. News reports with statistical data concerning hospitalizations and testing for Black people as well as the death totals filled every information resource available. An onslaught of hypervisible blackness, fraught and precarious.
How It Started, How It's Going
First, a backstory. An ode to my flesh. I have few natural gifts, but one of them is skin that needs very little attention to thrive. When asked about my skin-care regimen in the past, I would often shrug. Soap and water? Love poems? I'd be a bit ashamed of my inattention until I recalled that my skin seemed to require very little of me (fig. 3). And I took that for granted. That ended in the early part of the fall term. It ended quickly. Contact dermatitis. The skin around my eyes broke out in hives and got puffy and swollen. A severe allergic reaction to a purchase I had made weeks earlier: a gel-filled eye mask meant to relieve pressure around my eyes from Zoom meetings (the bane of my interfaced existence) (fig. 4). In the aftermath, days after being put on steroids and having the swelling go down, a layer of darkening skin sat like a cloth over my eyes and settled in as if invited. It was remarkable, this intruder on my skin. An asshole who claimed space on the prime real estate that is my face, using one of my greatest features—my eyes. I was both interested and appalled. What a precise irritant. Who sent you? Messages were being passed along to me via this recalcitrant intruder, and eventually I began to listen.
How Are You?
The introvert in me took to a remote existence very well. At first. I began calling people on the phone like it was 1987, and we were living a landline existence. I mailed postcards to my friends with Black Heritage stamps all over them. I took the order to quarantine seriously and rarely left home. I pulled out my unfinished quilts and imagined long stretches of time when I might be deeply invested in returning to rituals that brought me comfort and calmed my spirit in the past. But something in me would not be comforted. Would not be calm. Tension stored itself across my shoulder blades and sat there daring me to exert more than a small modicum of stored energy. I did not dare. In a semidetached state of mind I drift-walked through my days, aware of the general time of day only if I had a Zoom meeting or once the sun set in the evening. No other indication of my temporal state made its way to my consciousness. I ordered packages with abandon: notebooks, shea butter, computer technology, comfort Zoom-wear outfits, way too many hair products, and, yes, the gel eye mask that was almost my undoing. I ordered items then swiftly forgot what I had done, my mind a sieve that would hold only so much information beyond its immediate serotonin benefits.
What I immediately recognized as retail therapy was allowing me to believe it was possible to stave off the virus with protective purchases. First aid kit(s). Neosporin. Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen. Gauze. (Gauze? Was I planning to perform surgery on myself?) I tried to consumer-purchase-binge myself through the pandemic, and in this I was keeping pace with capitalist imperatives that were consistently enforced. If an item flitted across my mind temporarily, I found a way to deep-dive the purchase under the imaginary headline of “ways to stay out of the emergency room if you do not have COVID-19.” I want you to imagine how much can be justified therein.
Weekly conversations with family members—my parents and youngest sibling in Florida and my sister in Texas only heightened my stress, but because I was employed, virus free, and able to work from home, I didn't think about the toll of this anxiety on my body. Until it was too late. I was experiencing the range of emotions that go along with surviving a pandemic yet considered myself lucky because I was. All things considered.
To resist the urge to absorb all the rhetoric that surrounds Black women's survival strategies, I listened to what I thought my body was telling me at the time. I thought it was telling me to rest. Not to do too much. And I thought I was failing, but I didn't know it because I didn't see the nuance in my stasis. Stillness set the boundary marker, and there was little I thought I had to do. In my estimation, I was able to be home comfortably, able to work from home, and keep some semblance of my former life.
You Are Here
A sample text exchange:
Friend: How are you?
At the point of my allergic reaction I am a mask-wearing, handwashing, antibacterial wipe–carrying, social-distancing, vitamin-popping, Zoom-meeting homebody just waiting for the virus to abate. I was “rested,” though still tired, and “hydrated,” though clearly none of this was enough. It is still striking to me that I had assumed I was doing well, but what is it to be “doing well” during a pandemic, and in the middle of political upheaval brought on by the previous president and nationwide protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery? I was not doing well. I was not/am not okay. But for a while there, I could pretend. The “darkening” changed all of that.
Every day, in the mirror, there was a visual reminder that I was not well, and no amount of corrector, concealer, or liquid foundation (all new items subsequently added to my extensive list of purchases) would undo the damage to my face. Only time would do that. “The darker your skin,” my dermatologist said, “the longer it takes for the overproduction of melanin to clear up.” He had me at “overproduction of melanin” as the response to the swelling brought on by the allergic reaction. I've thought of little else since. This intruding overproduction of melanin told me to stop what I was doing, whatever I was doing, and attend to my body, my skin, my Black life. There was nothing about my day-to-day activities that would allow me to center myself. I desperately needed to center myself.
Do the Harder Thing
In the early part of 2020, before COVID-19, I put a note on the wall near my writing table. Do the harder thing. It was to be my mantra for the year. At the time I wrote it I had much to consider: the direction my book project would take, a job offer that would alter all I had known over the last few years, the tender delicacies of my personal relationships, and my long-term living arrangements. Is it time to buy a house? Should I leave the state? The harder thing was all around me. As a mantra it felt right. What's easier for me? Well, I should probably avoid that road. My skin went dark, forcing me to contend with the ways in which I am always already doing the harder thing. Everyday. All the time. Black, woman, writer and teacher, sister and aunt, daughter, friend. For weeks my body was telling me I was doing too much. Telling me to stop.
And ultimately, though it took a couple of months, that is what worked. I dropped everything that wasn't absolutely essential to my survival. Everything. Book review? Cancelled. Meetings about the future possibility of meeting? Refused. Writing? Not happening. Committees formed to curtail the formation of future committees? Not it. If it wasn't vital to tenure and promotion for others or paced with a lot of wiggle room for me, I dropped it. I've never sent so many apology emails in my life, but I felt free.
The skin around my eyes began to blend with the rest of my complexion like a deity appeased by the time, effort, and fealty of the religious subject.
The Masked Professor
During fall of 2020, I was among those professors who returned to their institutions for in-person classes. Returning was not an easy decision. To a large extent I felt that I did not have a choice. Allusions to the school going under if we did not make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary actions abounded in all institutional meetings. The college, we were told, had promised students that they would have an in-person experience. We were tasked with living up to that promise. I spent late summer and early fall thinking through how I would conduct my classes in the context of mask wearing, social distancing, an ongoing pandemic, and the expectation that as the professor I would model how to handle this new setup. I cannot say that I achieved this. It was an impossible goal. What I did find was the emergence of a sort of alter ego that I call the masked professor. This version of me was even more observant. I used the mask as a double form of protection—from the pandemic but also the expectations of performing as though these were “normal” times. The masked professor paid attention, with minute detail, to every word, to every glance, and to every breath. Using a combination of notes from my planner and my journal, below I offer a brief snapshot of two days of my life as the masked professor.
Thursday, October 8,
2047, Nope, It's Still 2020
8:30–9:10 a.m.—Mask up, leave house, get to campus
I keep forgetting that I can't power walk with a mask on. Always, right after that hill, my heart starts to beat a little faster, and I start breathing through my mouth. You would think that after weeks of this same walking routine I would have this figured out.
As I make my way to the train station, I cross paths with one or two other people. We make eye contact, nod our heads, but give each other ample space. A year ago this moving away from someone would have been read as rude. Now respecting space is a sign of respect.
On the train I see the same people. Mostly women my age. Going to work or going home from work. All of us keeping social distance. The toddler in the stroller who patiently keeps her mask on. Those dosing off. I wonder how many of us had to talk ourselves into coming outside today. How many of us, in the deep quiet of the train, were coming up with contingency plans if we became ill with COVID-19. The screech of the train on the tracks jolts me from my thoughts.
As I leave the train station, a station worker, also a woman, says good morning and nods. She has been there most mornings that I've made this train trip. Always standing, red jacket, red mask, hair in twists like my own. She is likely there all the mornings when I am not. I return her greeting, share a nod, and make my way above ground.
10–11:45 a.m.—Class No. 1
Today we are talking about student protests at the University of Puerto Rico and how critics sought to dismiss the movement by portraying the students as masked troublemakers. Looking at the work of Marisol LeBrón, we discuss police surveillance on the Río Piedras campus and its connection to surveillance practices dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.
Something about wearing a mask while talking about students being dismissed for wearing masks makes me bold. The mask requires that I be succinct. Every breath is precious. Every word requires an extra effort to ensure that my pronunciation is clear. Through the mask I share a bit more about myself than I might have otherwise. I tell them that for some of us police surveillance started from high school. I ask how many in the room had to go through metal detectors every day before the start of classes. I raise my hand. Mine is the lone hand raised. I am more visible than ever. But I also have my mask. All they get to see are my eyes. All they get to see is the masked professor.
12–1:45 p.m.—Class No. 2
They are my favorite bunch, but don't tell them that. Two students always sit in the front row and appear joyful to be in the same room together, even if six feet apart. Through their masks I can see their excitement at seeing each other. I wonder if they made plans to enroll in the class together. A way to ensure they were not alone during a pandemic semester.
I eventually ask this class the same question about metal detectors, and my hand is not the lone one in the air. Three others raise their hands. One student looks back and around. They all make eye contact with one another. With me. And we are suddenly in a unique four-person club. One student reflects on how they thought metal detectors were the norm for everyone but realized that this was not the case for most of their peers. What does it mean to always have been surveilled? To not have had a choice? I ask. We ask.
Emboldened by my mask, I ask, how many of you would be okay with the college installing cameras in every classroom? They look around. They want to see how others will respond before raising their hands. In time, most raise their hands. If it's for safety, then it is okay, they say. Would you also be open to sound being captured as well? They ponder a bit longer. A reluctant yes makes its way from about half the class. The other half continues to ponder. At the end there is no consensus. And as I tell them, that's okay. The intent of the exercise was to gauge their sense of what kind of surveillance could/should be allowed.
Class ends. I remind them to wipe down their desks before leaving. I proceed to wipe down my work area and computer station. They wave goodbye and wish me a good weekend. I do the same.
2–3:45 p.m.—Departmental meeting
All meetings this semester are taking place via Zoom. I head to my office. Close my door. Sanitize my hands and pull down my mask. I eat leftovers I've brought from home. I listen with video off. I can hear that we are all tired. There is an agenda, but can anyone actually power through the agenda? What is more important than just getting through this semester?
4–5 p.m.—Head home
I walk to the bus stop. A twenty-minute walk. The wait for the bus can take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. Today is not too cold, so I don't mind the wait or the silence. Three other people, standing, gazing forward, in their own thoughts, also wait for the bus. In the quiet, with a slight chill in the air, I momentarily forget that we are in the middle of a pandemic. The fresh air on the exposed parts of my skin feels glorious. I've never enjoyed fall weather as much as I have now. I've never treasured fresh air as much as I do now.
The bus arrives. With each stop it fills with more people. Still we all do our best to keep a couple of feet apart. No more complaining about that person with their bag in the seat next to them. Standing, as opposed to squeezing into that tight spot, is preferred. Everyone wants to make it home quickly and safely.
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Last day of in-person classes! The timing could not be better. The number of cases is spiking throughout the state, and after a number of weeks with zero or single-digit positive cases within the college, there is now a double-digit number. The topic for today's class is citizenship and migration during COVID-19. In designing the course, with the backdrop of national and international reports on how the pandemic continued to rage, I purposefully created a couple of sessions dedicated to discussing how various nations in the Americas had responded to the pandemic. In a course that examined xenophobia, state-sanctioned violence, and anti-blackness, the pandemic was both a continuation and a beginning. The United States, the wealthiest country in the world, the country of residence of everyone in the classroom, surpassed all other countries in the Americas (and the world) in terms of positivity rates and deaths. These deaths, and their disproportionate racial impact, further highlighted how, for many Black, Native American, and Latinx people, life in the United States remained a precarious condition. The verbal and physical attacks targeted at anyone with apparent Asian ancestry, a manifestation that at least one of my students witnessed, also reminded us all of deep-rooted xenophobia across the Americas.
We speak of US citizens for the first time experiencing travel bans, but we also reflect on how the dependence on tourism meant that a select number of nations in the Caribbean welcomed back US citizens. We discuss the brutality that migrants continue to face throughout the Americas and how in some cases, COVID-19 has been used as an excuse to speed up deportations or prolong incarcerations. I have them read about how efforts by workers at Amazon warehouses to speak out against unsafe working conditions have been met by retribution. They cringe at an interview in which a news anchor, addressing a strike organizer, inquires as to who will deliver his packages. The very workers touted for being “essential” are quickly reminded that being essential requires remaining quiet.
Students dive deeply into the discussion, readings, and viewings, but the rising number of cases in our state and on our campus is of course on their minds. For the first time they look palpably worried. In the previous weeks I had detected the fatigue that comes after the mid-semester mark. This is different. Concern has provided a burst of energy. They speak with great clarity through their masks. They too have learned to over-enunciate. To speak from the diaphragm. Some admit that they were surprised it had taken this long for the virus to make its way more fully through the campus. One student admitted to having their bags packed several weeks into the semester, imagining that the call to leave campus would be made any day. Others confess to having started to feel a bit more relaxed. Yes, there was a pandemic happening, but the school was safe. They were safe. Now they weren't so sure. They share how they are strategizing to return home. On trying to get a last round of testing done to ensure they don't go home and infect their families. Some have parents that will make hours-long drives back and forth to make sure they arrive home safely. Others ponder out loud about what it will mean to have to quarantine once back home. How will they get groceries? How will they handle the isolation? Unsaid but ever present in the room is the question—when will this pandemic be over?
I listen to this mix of confessions, queries, and concerns. The pandemic was always with us, I say. Most of us have tried our best. I never once had to tell anyone in the class to put on a mask. Some, I noted, had their own cleaning supplies for their desks. We did our best to make this work. But a bubble is not enough to keep a virus at bay. We are part of a community. We are not immune from what is happening in the city, state, and country as a whole.
We say our goodbyes. The masked professor made it to the last day of in-person classes. I made it to the end of in-person classes. The thought of having to do it all again in the spring semester sneaks into my mind. How will I handle even bigger classes? Already we have been told of higher enrollments for in-person spring semester classes. For how long can I continue being the masked professor? The mask, like the bubble, is only temporary. What will be my back-up when the masked professor needs a break?
continuing: On Endings & Longing
You live through a pandemic, and it is nothing like they described. the zombies look human; the nonzombies look human. everyone sort of looks human; there are no zombies. infection is always possible and the recovery is wealth. the cuff of the film, when everyone believes the frantic professor/detective/lawyer/person's theories the cuff never comes. people believe and disbelieve and gather for parties and remain far away from each other and this is a spiral, a loop, a rhythm.
You read more and read less. you think more and think less. like some failed film plot you read once more about how the rich invent, procure things for their liking, their well-being, for the strategizing of their immortality. the summary of their historical activities is the destruction of the world. you will not apologize for didactically stating, unpoetically with no alliterations metaphors how their vision for the world destroys the world. You've spent your life learning to understand them and understanding fortunately has neither blunted nor lessened the desires to hunt them. you learn about virus jumping and you imagine the people working in this plot, becoming ill and how this illness travels from person to person, air to air, across arenas near you.
You think about how seeing someone knowing someone has nothing to do with being next to that person, and this reminds you of love. you think about them and you want for the air and all the surfaces to be kind toward their body toward their touch toward them. is there even a need to say this out loud? is there even a need to reach out. in all the clichéd and tactical ways in which they remain, too, here and already. they have never not been, too. you feel and feel more.
During the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, these antimaskers, who likewise resisted masking strictly for political reasons, were called “mask slackers.”
In this day and age of ubiquitous social media influencers, the writer would like to make it absolutely clear that this essay is not sponsored by any brand of toothpaste, mouthwash, or hard mint candy.