Abstract

This article develops the idea of slow loss as a relationship to time, space, and feeling that Black feminist theory has described in distinctive ways, helping readers to consider both Black female subjectivity and the stakes of Black feminist theory anew. This article travels with the central and undertheorized place of slow loss in the Black feminist theoretical archive at least in part because of a desire to emphasize Black feminist theory's long-standing investment in understanding and describing the subject position of Black woman.

i will be forty soon

my mother once was forty

—Lucille Clifton

In the fall of the fourth year of my daughter's life, we move to Boston for my sabbatical. It is in the midst of this season of change that she discovers a new hobby: nostalgia. I understand this as a form of managing the newness of life, a strategy for holding on to something that existed before this year, and that has now disappeared. I also understand it as a way of narrating her own history. When people ask me where I am from, I say, “It's complicated.” She proudly announces that she is from Chicago. Her earliest memories of home are of a place I mark as decidedly not-home. So she begins most of her conversations by asking, “Do you remember when?”

Do you remember when we went to the farmers’ market by the subway?

Do you remember Millennium Park?

Do you remember the museum with the miniature houses?

She asks me to remember the only home she knows, to affirm that it still exists even as she is not there.

But lately, she has started asking if I remember the most ordinary of things:

Do you remember when we made banana bread?

Do you remember when we saw rain?

Just as we finish breakfast, she'll look at me and ask, “Do you remember when we ate breakfast together?” I'll respond, “Do you mean two seconds ago?” “Yes,” she'll reply. Do you remember it?

As my daughter wants to know what I remember—discovers memory to be the basis of our shared history—my mother's memory is eroding. It has been a year since her diagnosis, since my father, mother, and I sat next to each other in a sterile doctor's office, in the town that I grew up in that I also mark as not-home. I think of all the times my parents accompanied me to the doctor: ear infections, strep throat, and a bout of pneumonia in middle school. Now, at thirty-eight, the tables have turned: I hold my mother's shaking hand between mine. I distract her with a running commentary on the abandoned magazines that litter the waiting room table in the doctor's office. When an efficient young doctor hands us each a tissue and pronounces, “You have Alzheimer's. There is, of course, no cure,” we sit in a long silence and feel the cruel force of her sentence. Since that day, I have been braced for impact, for all that is to come. I live acutely aware that my life is newly pulled in two directions—my daughter's remembering and my mother's forgetting. My daughter asks, “Do you remember it, mama?” and I call my mother, and will her to remember with me: Do you remember last summer, do you remember this morning, do you remember where our conversation started? Do you remember it?

Inhabiting this long period of my mother's slow cognitive deterioration—which is ongoing, processual, nonlinear, marked by moments of grief and flickers of optimism—is one I describe as slow loss. Though anticipation is part of the logic of slow loss, this form of time is marked by more than an anxious relationship to waiting, and it is this more that this article seeks to mine. I use the term slow loss to describe Black feminists’ theorization of a metatemporality that describes multiple and overlapping forms of time—waiting, anticipation, the chronic, durational—all of which decenter the primacy of the event and instead focus on the quotidian and the endured. In flagging the endured as a significant part of how Black feminist theoretical work has imagined the Black female subject's felt life, I am not upholding still-prevalent “controlling images”1 of Black female strength—what Joan Morgan famously called the image of the “strongblackwoman”—that treat Black women as impervious to pain.2 Nor am I offering a conception of Black women as long-suffering, or as always already grieving. Instead, I argue that Black feminist conceptions of slow loss disrupt prevailing theoretical conceptions of loss that, as David Eng advances, treat the question of loss as animated by “What remains?” as dividing temporality into loss and its afterlife.3 In his conception, loss is an event that splits temporality into a before and after, that organizes time around a world-breaking or world-reorganizing rupture and the “remains.” This conception of loss presumes that what was lost was once possessed, that its absence is evidence of non-ownership or even of theft.

In place of this reading of loss, I turn to a Black feminist archive that suggests that the “remains” might not be clear, that there never was a coherent “before” and “after.” This is a body of scholarship that troubles the notion of possession entirely, and instead suggests that the feeling of loss is not about mourning something that was once owned, but instead about a relationship to time where loss organizes the ongoing conditions of lived experience. Loss was always there, and its felt manifestations are not a longing for a life where what was lost was present, but rather an attention its constitutive presence. This work emphasizes that even the “remains” are rearranged and reconstituted by the durational process of slow loss, and that this geography that is inhabited—the terrain of slow loss—might be constitutive of Black female subjectivity, that the labor of Black feminist theory might be to understand the ecology of this space.

Slowness has, in recent years, become a keyword across the humanities. It describes how both Black and Brown bodies are relegated to deathly ecologies, and celebrates forms of living that are thought to oppose the relentless temporalities of capitalism. I take it up here with an awareness of all that slowness has been rhetorically called upon to perform, and because I am interested in what it means to think of slowness neither as the temporality of Black death nor as a romantic celebration of a resistant form of Black life. Instead, I see slow loss as a relationship to time, space, and feeling that Black feminist theory has described in distinctive ways, that help us consider both Black female subjectivity and the stakes of Black feminist theory anew. This article travels with the central and undertheorized place of slow loss in the Black feminist theoretical archive at least in part because of a desire to emphasize Black feminist theory's long-standing investment in understanding and describing the subject position of Black woman. My critical impulse is intensified by a moment where Black feminist theory's conceptualization of the subject is often imagined to be primarily an attachment to theorizing the Black nonhuman or Black nonbeing, or when Black feminist theory's conceptualization of subjectivity is imagined, often by those who come to Black feminist theory through the itinerary of Black studies, to constitute a theory of absence, a theory of the nonsubjectivity of Black people.4 I bring to my engagement with Black feminist theory an investment in its multiplicities and varied genealogies, and a desire to understand the myriad tools it offers its practitioners for thinking about—and alongside—the Black female subject. Thus, I offer slow loss as a project of telling a different story (to follow Claire Hemmings's lead), one that allows us to remember and reinvigorate Black feminist theory's multiple conceptions of subjectivity.5

The Black feminist archive I assemble mobilizes poetic writing, memoir, and lyrical prose to represent and imagine the metaphysical dimensions of Black female subjectivity, the places where time and space work on and alongside race/gender to produce complex structures of feeling that are often presented by Black feminist theorists as constitutive of Black female subjectivity. My reading of slow loss as one—not the—Black feminist theory of metaphysics asks how Black feminists have produced theories of time that emphasize endurance and duration as inhabited terrain, and that ask what both feel like for Black women, and how Black women feel them. In so doing, I think alongside my earlier work's investigation of beautiful writing as a Black feminist method for doing justice to loss.6 That was an exploration of the aesthetics of a body of contemporary Black feminist scholarship that, I argued, through its formal innovation rewrites our collective conception of the Black female subject and the critical horizon of Black feminist theory. Robyn Wiegman underscores the centrality of new forms of writing to Black feminist theoretical work, noting that “in US black studies in particular, an intimate poetics that links the personal to the impersonality of social forces and modern histories has come to characterize the speculative hermeneutics of the field's most important feminist and queer thinkers.”7 What Wiegman terms an “intimate poetics,” Christina Sharpe describes simply as “beauty,” and she treats it as both a Black feminist method and a strategy. Her insistence that it was beauty—particularly her mother's commitment to beauty—that “moved me from the windowsill to the world” not only emphasizes the political import and world-making capacities of beauty but also affirms the formal innovativeness of contemporary Black feminist theory and the urgency of a collective attempt to write differently as a way of describing the experiential, the embodied, and the felt.8 Recent work by Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Tina Campt reveals that the “intimate poetics” that has long been the hallmark of Black feminist writing—here we might think of Patricia J. Williams, Ann duCille, Barbara Christian, and June Jordan as earlier practitioners of beautiful form—has recently been affirmed by both the university and the academic publishing house as a legible and even valuable form of scholarly production, and of writing Black women's lives.

In this article, I turn to one Black feminist archive—work by Alice Walker, Elizabeth Alexander, and Lucille Clifton—that centers the durational nature of Black women's losses. There are other texts in this archive that I could have written about, including June Jordan's “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” Audre Lorde's Cancer Journals, Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls, Karla F. C. Holloway's Passed On, and Radha Blank's Forty-Year-Old Version. I sit with these texts written by Walker, Alexander, and Clifton. These are texts written in different moments but sharing a preoccupation with the question of Black female subjectivity, in part because they traverse genre, spanning personal essay, memoir, and poetry and thus revealing the field's fundamental aesthetic and theoretical commitment to thinking with slow loss as a dense site of meaning. The three texts that I center also situate slow loss in the context of the familial, the intimate, and the relational, yet I do not see that Black feminist investment in the familial as a reification of the logics of the heteronormative that too often structure intimate life. Rather, I see this as evidence of a Black feminist theoretical commitment to embedding slow loss in webs of relationality and interconnection, and even to thinking about the porousness or even collective nature of the self, a permeability that this archive suggests might be more acutely felt for Black women who experience the gendered demands—and perhaps even gendered desires—to care, to nurture, to labor for individual and collective survival. I also explore how all three texts figure loss not to think about “what remains,” but instead to track what it means to live in the midst of. They treat loss not as a temporal rupture but as constitutive of the ongoing present, even as that inhabitation is felt, embodied, and experienced differently.

If I highlight how Black feminist theory helps us think about the Black female subject anew, I also underscore that Black feminist theory offers us a distinct epistemology of loss. The loss that brings me to write this article emerges not from the moment of my mother's diagnosis—the doctor's brusque announcement of a future marked by disorientation—but from my newfound inhabitation of a temporality of anticipation: measuring change, planning for a future marked by caregiving. I use it to describe a terrain that is inhabited, that at first feels unfamiliar and then comes to constitute the everyday, even as it is always a disorienting one. And I deploy it to describe a temporality that must simply be endured precisely because it is unending—or seemingly unending—and cannot be overcome. I use the term slow loss to describe the durational and even seemingly endless nature of loss, and how it is marked by the unknown. Alzheimer's, for example, progresses according to its own logics, and the diagnostic tools currently available are shockingly imprecise. We are told only that my mother is experiencing mild to moderate symptoms that may intensify earlier because the timing of her diagnosis—one week before her sixty-sixth birthday—constitutes early onset. This sense of the seemingly endless duration of Alzheimer's and the cruel and unknown temporality of deterioration that we experience personally is intensified by a set of structures that include the gendered demands of care-work, the neoliberal economy of care that delegates the labor of caregiving to networks of kin, and the entrenched racism of institutionalized medical spaces. We do not know if we are in the beginning of it, the long middle, or close to the cruel end. We simply find ourselves in this territory, sitting with a loss that is both already here and anticipated, present tense and future tense, the here-and-now and the what-will-come. It is this conception of loss as a territory marked by unknown duration that unfolds against the always-present context of anti-Black patriarchal violence that I argue constitutes the terrain that slow loss maps.

Archives of Slowness

Alzheimer's is a slow illness. Or we are told to hope it will be slow, to understand slowness as an encouraging sign. Our doctor tells us that with the limited medication available to manage Alzheimer's symptoms, all we can do is encourage my mother's “behavioral modifications” that might slow cognitive deterioration. This is how we have found ourselves in a medical purgatory, in a holding pattern. Once every few months, my mother reports to the doctor, who celebrates the slow unfolding of her illness, who champions this slowness as good news. He tells us that my mother is a good “masker” and that we should be proud of this—her brain is intensely laboring to hide her symptoms. I cannot understand this apart from my mother's long-standing performance of Black respectability. She was a child of the Black professional class—her parents were educators who lived by a dual ethic of frugality and respectability—and she learned early the importance of a certain bodily comportment to signal her propriety. She has always known how to perform politeness, and even now, she empathically nods as she listens, even if she is not entirely sure of the conversation that is unfolding. The doctor tells us that this masking might be our only hope.

Slowness has become a keyword in the humanities and social sciences, even as it has been inflected in different ways. For some scholars, slowness is an ethic to be cherished, a temporality that challenges the relentless speed of capitalism. Louise DeSalvo, for example, advocates “slow writing,” a form of creative production that writes against the notion of virtuous speed and that enables new forms of self-knowledge. She notes, “Slow writing is a meditative act: slowing down to understand our relationship to our writing, slowing down to determine our authentic subjects, slowing down to write complex works, slowing down to study our literary antecedents.”9 For DeSalvo, slow writing is a process that produces insight and that enables complexity, one that builds on the ideas of slowness articulated in the slow city movement and the slow food movement to unleash new forms of knowing. Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness takes a similar approach, critiquing the “cult of speed” and arguing that the mandate of speed has injured all aspects of life, particularly domestic life.10 He writes, “Consider the damage that living in the fast lane can inflict on family life. With everyone coming and going, Post-It stickies on the fridge door are now the main form of communication in many homes. According to figures released by the British government, the average working parent spends twice as long dealing with email as playing with her children.”11 Honoré suggests that the mandate of speed has meant that we can no longer enjoy, savor, relish, or simply be. He notes,

In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts. . . . When did you last see someone juts gazing out the window on a train? Everyone is too busy reading the paper, playing video games, listening to iPods, working on the laptop, yammering into mobile phones.12

In this formulation, slowness is a necessary refusal of the logics of capitalism, and a way of allowing the self to attend to the quiet details that constitute the ordinary.

In the wake of COVID-19—the long moment in which I write this article—Black feminist theorists have turned sustained attention to the radical possibilities of slowness. In a Zoom session designed to describe slowness's world-making potential, Tina Campt describes the disparate access to slowness:

When we were originally supposed to talk about slowness and how has this shut down forced us into a different modality of being where we're having to struggle with lack of structure, the lack of the things we usually do. Lack of the urgency that we normally might feel. So that's one thing, that's for those of us who are shut in, who aren't supposed to go anywhere, and the exact opposite is happening for that sphere of people, . . . hospital workers, delivery people, nurses, anybody in health care. They are being asked to work non-stop now. Non-stop. There's no slowness at all.13

If slowness was unequally distributed, Campt imagined a more equitable configuration of this temporality that might be a guide to a different kind of relationality, care, and kinship. As she suggested,

There's one thing to me about slowness that is really important which is . . . slowness as not only a question of kinetics but also of intensities, of generating an intense field of micro-perceptions. It's not just about movement, it's about literally the intensification of all forms of perception, down to this really minute level, and so what happens if we actually mobilize slowness . . . ? How can we exploit that on the one hand to slow down capital from exploiting so many people and at the same time to be able to ramp it up for ourselves, to be able to perceive more, connect more?14

The “slowness” that COVID-19 seemed to mandate for some people was taken up as a call for noticing, for attending to detail, and for sitting with an intense array of feelings and connections that the buzz of capitalism and its temporality of rush make impossible. This is a view of slowness as a reprieve. Here, crisis is a lesson that reveals how slowness is unequally allocated and how it can offer an unparalleled opportunity to forge new forms of being-together.

But there are other scholarly understandings of slowness that figure this form of temporality as indicative of the particular kind of violence inflicted on Black bodies, a violence inflicted so regularly, punishingly, and slowly that it eludes visibility. Aimee Meredith Cox thinks of “slow death” as a “social and spirit death,”15 invoking Patricia J. Williams's conception of “spirit murder” as a profound and unremedied form of violence.16 Rob Nixon's conception of “slow violence” captures “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”17 For Nixon, environmental disaster is the quintessential slow violence that produces the “long dyings” particularly inflicted on Black bodies that elude representation and thus seem not to exist. Similarly, Lauren Berlant characterizes “slow death” as opposed to spectacular “traumatic events.”18 Slow death—the slow wearing away of the body—consists of forms of violence that have come to be understood simply as ordinary. Taken together, these scholars see the temporality of slowness as itself constitutive of a form of violence that is inflicted on Black and Brown bodies, and with an incessant duration that often renders the violence invisible.

These are conceptions of slowness that treat it as either as a temporal marker of Black death, or as a sign of radical resistance that ushers in a new kind of futurity marked by care. I think about slowness differently, in a way where it is neither romantic nor imagined as the quintessential marker of anti-Black violence, but instead a terrain that is inhabited, one that has its own temporality and that is marked by experiences of endurance, of sitting in a place for a time that is often of unknown duration. If Black feminist theory has long been preoccupied with questions of homemaking and world-making, with what it means to produce temporary sanctuary in a fundamentally inhospitable world, slow loss thinks about the inhabitation of a place, the making of life in a place that can be uncomfortable, disorienting, or even, as Kathleen Stewart's work suggests, simply ordinary. My impulse is to understand how reading the Black feminist theoretical archive as organized around temporality both transforms conversations about the critical possibility of the tradition, and helps us think about new keywords in Black feminist thought.

In this article, I see slow loss as one of many Black feminist efforts to theorize the metaphysics of Black female subjectivity. My understanding of the metaphysics of Black female subjectivity draws on work by Nicole R. Fleetwood on the racialized metaphysics—time, space, and matter—of penal life,19 by Michelle M. Wright on the physics and “spacetime” of Blackness,20 and by Alexis Pauline Gumbs that treats Black feminist metaphysics as “breathing.”21 My analysis is also informed by Brittney Cooper's reading of Black feminism's ongoing grappling with metaphysical questions. She writes, “Working out an account of race that accounts for the material lives of Black people is just one way that new Black feminist theorizing can help us dislodge a metaphysics forced down our throats. We must clear our throats of a metaphysics that is alien to how the vast majority of Black women in the global north and south are structurally positioned regardless of their relative degrees of jeopardy within those structures.”22 And I am indebted to Ntozake Shange's now-canonical formulation that “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma / i haven't conquered yet.”23

While I see slow loss as a Black feminist metatemporality that aspires to acknowledge and capture the felt life of Black women, I particularly center endurance as one crucial and highly theorized aspect of slow loss. I use the term endurance not to romanticize Black women, to paint us as distinctly able to bear myriad forms of pain and trauma, or to champion Black women's imagined heroism. Instead, I use it to capture what it means to have one's slippery and always-contingent sense of self constituted by being in the midst of something of unknown duration and of unknown outcome. Slow loss describes what it means and how it feels to reside in that space, one that is marked by waves of grief, apathy, tedium, labor, bureaucratic entanglements, and intimacy. I understand this conception of the self—its long entanglement in uncertainty and contingency, in anti-Black bureaucracies (like institutionalized medical spaces)—as fundamental to how Black feminist theorists have conceptualized the subject position of Black woman.

In the Black feminist archive that I mine, endurance is always embedded in the intricacies of intimate life. But it is also situated in a larger context marked by violence that is inflicted privately and publicly, by grief that troubles the boundaries of the private and the public entirely. In her recent reflection on raising sons who are part of the “Trayvon generation,” Elizabeth Alexander describes Black mothering as a realization that “a being comes onto this earth and you are charged with keeping it alive,” and as the recognition that this is, at least in part, “magical thinking.”24 The intense wish to “tend” to her children—to “all” of her children, biological and nonbiological alike—is always met by what must be endured: the persistence of anti-Black violence, the materiality of racial terror. Her reflections reveal that the temporality of anticipation is marked by both intimate life and political struggle, by quotidian practices of care and by larger structures of anti-Blackness.

My conception of endurance draws from multiple traditions, including Sandra Ruiz's conception of “enduring time” in relationship to Puerto Rican subjects who, she argues, are “the infinite example of that perennial subject of the world, always already working against their own life at the cost of perpetual death, while simultaneously revealing how practices of Empire surpass the annexation of land.”25 For Ruiz, endurance refers to the “inexhaustible constraints of one's life under limited self-control in a nonstop state of economic and political impotence,” so that Ricanness itself comes to be an endurance performance, an embodied response to the endless nature of colonialism and its afterlives. I borrow Ruiz's conception of endurance and inflect it differently, considering slow loss as a positionality marked by what must be endured, and centering the body as a crucial site in and through which endurance is felt, lived, and experienced. My conception of endurance is also informed by Dagmawi Woubshet's work on compounding loss. Woubshet studies the “grammar of loss” that marks the archive of early writing on AIDS, noting that “each loss builds on the loss that precedes it.”26 For Woubshet, this work orients loss not simply toward what is already lost, but “also to the soon-to-be-future” losses, toward “that which is still outstanding.”27 This is an orientation toward endurance that reckons with its complex connections to time—pasts and futures. I draw on Woubshet's work to theorize slow loss as marked by a curious temporality organized by a “grammar” of anticipation. I am also indebted to Elizabeth Povinelli's conception of endurance as the opposite of exhaustion, as a distinct territory marked neither by absence nor presence but by a relationship to time. She writes,

If we hear someone has been abandoned, we might ask how she is doing. But if we are told that someone is enduring a tragedy, we do not usually ask how she is doing but how we might help. Moreover, endurance encloses itself around the durative—the temporality of continuance, a denotation of continuous action without a reference to its beginning or end and outside the dialectic of presence and absence. Enduring isn't a singularity.28

Taken together, this scholarship has led me to think endurance as a significant form of slow loss, a temporality that is felt distinctly precisely because it upends both presence and absence, possession and remains, past and future.

Living With

What does time feel like when a doctor offers a warning that a “sympathetic” eye—one that feels too deeply—might eventually lose its vision? What is one's relationship to time when one lives in anticipation? What happens when that feeling of anticipation is produced through multiple forms of violence—anti-Black and misogynistic violence—that unfold both inside of and beyond family life? Alice Walker's now-canonical In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is a rumination on the necessary labor of finding and claiming one's history. For Walker, this includes finding her literary foremother's grave, and reckoning with her own place as the mother of—as she emphasizes—“one child.”29 For Walker, claiming her history also requires grappling with the trauma of her brother injuring her eye. This injury—which Walker describes as both world-making and world-breaking—is fundamental to Walker's vision of both her body and her self. She describes the injury as a rupture: a life that was marked by “being cute” was cut short by the painful reality that “one day, it ended.” The “end” for Walker is marked by violence: a world where her parents buy her brothers BB guns and where, as Walker notes, “Because I am a girl, I do not get a gun. Instantly I am relegated to the position of Indian. Now there appears a great distance between us. They shoot and shoot at everything with their new guns. I try to keep up with my bow and arrows.”30 Access to violence divides Walker's childhood along gendered lines: boys aim their guns, girls are shot. And violence is what divides Walker's childhood along temporal lines: before her brother shoots her in the eye, and after her eye comes to be marked by a “glob.”

While the essay offers a temporal mapping of a before, an injury, and an after, it is actually a meditation on a life lived in the long time of “after,” on what it means to see her eye transformed, and to live—often uneasily—with that transformation and its histories. Those complicated histories include reckoning with home as the site of violence, intimate relations as actors of violence, and a family that deals with trauma through elaborate choreographies of denial that must simply be endured. Walker carefully traces her family's insistence that “you did not change” after the gunshot, that the injury was not a rupture but a continuation of normal life. Their insistence that her injury was absorbed into ordinary life is as complicated as Walker's hope that the removal of her “glob” from her eye—a surgical procedure designed to change the appearance of the eye—will transform her perception of herself, and will restore her to a vision of normative femininity that garnered currency inside and outside of the familial home. Yet Walker quickly learns that this physical change does not undo the histories of violence that swirl around her eye: Attending school in the former state jail when one of her classmates tells her that a circular imprint on the ground is where the electric chair used to be. Or her brother's memory that after Walker was shot in the eye, her father flagged down cars on the side of the road, but the white man who stopped his car refused to take them to the hospital. Or her quiet reminder that “my brothers grew up to buy even more powerful pellet guns for their sons and to carry real guns themselves.”31 While the essay sits with Walker's eye as wounded territory, it maps a constellation of violence that the wounded eye only makes visible.

Yet the spine of Walker's essay—and the core of her meditation on slow loss—is a doctor's warning. He scolds Walker's parents for not bringing her to the doctor immediately following her injury, and tells them “eyes are sympathetic. If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.”32 Walker's essay asks: What does it mean to live a life alongside that warning? To forge a relationship with one's eye that casts its capacity to become “sympathetic” as a future loss? As Walker reveals, she has lived her life “storing up images against the fading of the light,” inhabited a territory marked by the anticipation of loss. She connects this hungry desire to see the world, and the fear of losing her sight, to what she describes as her form of “prayer”: poetry. In fact, she narrates her writing life as, at least in part, animated by a desire to record everything she has seen, to do justice to her capacity to continue seeing, to record what she can see while she can see it. Indeed, her essay reveals that she has carried that doctor's warning with her like an invisible suitcase, lived a life with the expectation of future loss. As Walker suggests, this anticipation constitutes the present tense that must be endured, that must be inhabited simply because she lives a life with the uncertainty and anxious anticipation of a future life that might be marked by lost vision.

If Walker reveals that the sense of anticipation that her eye comes to represent constitutes a terrain she inhabits, one where a past event shapes her perceptions of the possibilities of the future, Walker also suggests that this anticipation simply cannot be resolved. Ironically, Walker's essay promises a kind of resolution—one that is made possible through motherhood and her daughter's curiosity about Walker's eye. Walker narrates her anxiety about when her daughter will discover “that her mother's eyes are different from other people's. Will she be embarrassed? I think. What will she say?” One afternoon, Walker notices her daughter staring at her eye. She braces herself for questions, even for “cruelty.” But her daughter declares that her mother has a “world in her eye” and asks, “Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?” Walker presents the site of violence—family—as the site of resolution, though she suggests that healing can come through the replacement of the patriarchal family, where fathers buy sons guns, with the intimate and tender bonds between mothers and daughters. Walker implies that it is her daughter's declaration, her narrativization of the “glob” as a “world,” the wound as a capacious way of seeing, that allows her to “love” her eye: “for all it had taught me of shame and anger and inner vision, I did love it.” The essay concludes with Walker listening to a Stevie Wonder song and dancing with another figure. She realizes, though, that the other dancer is herself, “beautiful, whole and free.”33

But even as Walker's daughter renarrates the eye, the site of trauma, the essay sits with irresolution as enduring. Walker tells readers that her daughter's declaration meant that “for the most part, the pain left then,” but she also reminds us that “my brothers grew up to buy even more powerful pellet guns for their sons and to carry real guns themselves. So what, if a young ‘Morehouse man’ once nearly fell off the steps of Trevor Arnett Library because he thought my eyes were blue.”34 Perhaps, she suggests, learning that one has a “world in her eye” is about the embrace of a different and even uncomfortable conception of beauty—here not about the inculcation into a norm of conventional desirable femininity. Instead, beauty is about having witnessed—the complexities of familial violence, of mothering (which Walker takes up later in the volume)—and continuing to witness, a commitment to sitting with the brokenness of the world—internal and external, the world of the family and the outside world, even as they are broken in distinct ways. The pain that Walker documents, which includes violence at her brother's hand (and what many readers know becomes the pain that follows this essay, Walker's estrangement from her daughter) cannot be undone, but only seen. And even seeing, her essay suggests, is something fraught, something Walker continues to fear can be lost or taken.

Life is lived, then, with a hungry desire to see because of a sense that seeing itself might fade. What I call slow loss describes a life lived with the ongoing threat and promise of the “sympathetic” eye, which is both an innovative way of seeing the world and a mark of violence. Her essay suggests that Black female subjectivity is marked by an anticipatory temporality that must simply be endured, that living is actually staged in the midst of this anticipation which is undergirded by violence. Slowness is a way of reading Walker's account that neither romanticizes the poetic “vision” that she argues undergirds the wounded eye nor treats violence as constitutive of her story, but instead recognizes slowness as the tension among these, and the peculiar temporality it engenders.

Living On

Lucille Clifton's widely cited poem “The Thirty Eighth Year,” like Walker's essay, is an exploration of Black women's experiences of slow time. Clifton sits with a multitude of feelings about aging, on the realization of having arrived at another year “plain as bread / round as a cake / an ordinary woman.” Scarlett Cunningham interprets this poem—and Clifton's oeuvre more generally—as a rumination on race and age.35 Similarly, Hilary Holladay analyzes the poem as an homage to Sonia Sanchez's “poem at thirty,” and as a reckoning with “hope against disappointment, strength against vulnerability.”36 She writes, “The poem is not so much one of hopes dashed or dreams deferred as it is one of hopes tempered and dreams revised.”37 For both scholars, “The Thirty Eighth Year” is a reflection of the necessary “revisions” that aging can engender, or perhaps more precisely, that middle age can engender. I read this lionized poem differently: while it is a reflection on aging as a process of grappling with vulnerability and even mortality, I analyze it as a meditation of what it means to outlive one's mother. Clifton's poem marks time: while it is a measure of a thirty-eighth year, Clifton reminds readers “i will be forty soon / my mother once was forty.” The thirty-eighth year becomes a reminder of her mother's life and its end, and reveals the poem's preoccupation with the passing of time as a link between a now-deceased mother and a still-living daughter.

For Clifton, the arrival of the thirty-eighth year is one that requires her to contend with memories of her mother, a woman whom she describes as “very wise / and beautiful / and sad,” and with her own place as the “girl” who was “left behind.” Clifton suggests that her task as daughter has been to “dream dreams” for her mother, to “ma[k]e you live again more than once.” In fact, the labor of mothering is presented as an act of honoring her own mother, as Clifton describes how she has “taken the bones you / hardened / and built daughters / and they blossom and promise / fruit.” To “build daughters” and to watch them “blossom and promise fruit” is a tribute to her own “wise,” “beautiful,” “sad” mother, a living tribute. Yet Clifton's vision of her life as an extension of her mother's is coupled with another call, for her to grapple with the “middle” of her own life, and to “come to it whole / and holy / not afraid / not lonely / out of my mother's life / into my own.” Here, the imagined continuity she traces—her life as her mother's, her daughters’ lives as her life—is seen as a barrier to freedom, as something she must shed as she makes “the final turn / into the shining dark.”

Ultimately, the arrival of the thirty-eighth year, “a perfect picture of / blackness blessed,” comes, Clifton tells us, with loneliness. For many critics, this “loneliness” has been imagined to be the realization of the author's status as an “ordinary woman,” a reckoning with a life that is incomplete, unfulfilled, or somehow not as hoped. Yet I understand this “loneliness” to be confronting a life lived—for an unknown amount of future time—without her mother, and grappling with what it means to come to an age her mother did not. This living-without and living to an age that one's mother did not reach is the kind of slow loss Clifton's poem explicates, a loss that is enduring and unending, that in its unendingness comes to constitute and shape the self. In making this claim, my attempt is not to render sentimental or romantic mother/daughter relationality, which Black feminist theory—including crucial work by Alice Walker—has always troubled. Instead, I highlight Black feminist theory's investment in “losing your mother”—to borrow Saidiya Hartman's title—as itself constitutive of Black female subjectivity, with genealogical rupture from the Atlantic and from familial loss as the ecology of complex feelings that constitute the Black feminine ordinary. Perhaps, much like Walker, Clifton's poem suggests that the conditions of the ordinary are living with a kind of loss that cannot be mediated, transformed, or undone, a loss that becomes constitutive of life itself. Clifton reveals that the loss of the maternal is a particular kind of constitutive absence for Black women, that it is both ordinary and deeply felt. She suggests that slow loss is the traveling in the ongoing space between one's mother's life and death, and a living-on in that terrain. In marking this feeling of loss as enduring, as something that Clifton lives alongside, I consider her poem as offering us an epistemology of loss: loss is carried and thus alters a relationship to temporality, making the passing of years a tribute to living without, and to “loneliness”—as well as the deep forms of reflection and even self-transformation—that it can produce.

The Long Life Beyond

In an interview in the New York Times in which Elizabeth Alexander and Sheryl Sandberg described their respective books, their experiences of loss, and the process of writing grief, Alexander said, “My husband's death ravaged me, but it's meant to. If we have any life span, we don't outrun this stuff. It may not be a husband at 47 or 50, but these things will happen. Somehow, we have to let the ravages shape us and make our souls stronger and more beautiful. Because that is life.”38 Alexander's Light of the World asks what it means to live in the long afterlife of loss precisely because loss and love are bound up in each other, and the feeling of loss—its profound capacity to reorganize life—is an ongoing testament to love. The intensity of the loss reveals the intensity of the attachment. She begins her memoir by noting simply, “Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”39 But loss is also marked by the feeling of living on and without, and her memoir is an extended rumination on what it means to inhabit the world without the embodied presence of her husband, her love, Ficre.

Alexander describes her husband's death as always deeply personal—her loss—and as also always socially embedded—a Black death. Slow loss, then, is both about the depth and gravity of her love, and about the depth and gravity of a Black love, about the intimate connections between the personal and the social, the intimate and the historical. Alexander's husband's sudden death is inexplicable except for one doctor who suggests that it might have been that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.”40 Alexander writes, “Black men die more catastrophically, across class, than anybody else in America. . . . He was an African man, an Eritrean man, and an African American man. He was a Black man. He was not the descendant of slaves. He literally walked across his country through killing fields to escape, when he was sixteen years old.”41 This is loss in an epic scale even as it is lived intimately, as when Alexander narrates meeting her husband, a “story,” she writes, that “began in the winter of 1961, when two quietly mighty women were each pregnant, one in Asmara, Eritrea, and the other in Harlem, USA; one with her sixth child, one with her first.”42

This epic story of Black diasporic love is also a story of a shared life lived expansively and communally. In many ways, this memoir is an homage to the transformative power of Black intimacy to build and cultivate Black communities. Alexander's memoir includes Ficre's recipes, lengthy descriptions of beautifully prepared meals, and careful accounts of intentionally crafted home-spaces. Alexander writes,

Our house is unusual amongst its neighbors: people don't reside here long, in a community where professors buy these lovely homes and tend to stay forever. When Ficre and I chose the house at 150 Edgehill Road we felt we could see our entire lives in front of us, our grandchildren coming there, sleeping in their daughter's childhood rooms left intact. We searched for a table big enough to accommodate feasts of friends and extended family in the dining room. . . . We relished our role as Command Central.43

Alexander's “open house”—to borrow Patricia J. Williams's term—reveals that the act of making home for family and chosen kin is an act of love, and that what makes that Black communalism possible is her shared love with Ficre. But even in this strongly voiced conception of Black intimate love as public, open, expansive, Alexander also emphatically voices the portions of her love that are hers, and hers alone. After Ficre dies, she describes seeing his body one last time. She writes,

The penis, which is mine alone, lies sleeping on his thigh, nestled in its hair, the heart outside his body, and that is what I remember of his body, after the emergency room doctor met my eyes and made his pronouncement. Him, still him, still Ficre, still a him, the last trace of him. The penis with which he actually made the human beings who are our children, is sign and symbol and substance of what I have lost.44

This is the complex landscape that slow loss traverses—where loss is personal and shared, intimate and social.

Light of the World is, in many ways, a memoir focused on the long duration of grief, which comes simply to constitute the ordinary conditions of Alexander's life, even as she emphasizes how loss shifts with time. Indeed, she suggests that part of the complex geography of slow loss—its past-looking and forward-looking temporality—is that it engenders a preoccupation with remembering and forgetting: What might it feel like for grief to recede? If loss is an index of love and its intensity, what might it mean when loss feels different? She asks, “Do you see why I miss him? I call out, to no one. Will I remember everything? What am I meant to keep?”45 We might, then, understand Alexander's memoir as written in the service of “remembering everything,” even as memoir itself is a highly crafted and constructed genre. It is a form of “keeping” close to loss, and treating it not as something to be moved beyond, but as something that organizes a life in ways that might even feel like companionship. Indeed, Alexander's memoir emphasizes the importance of staying with loss, sitting as close to it as is bearable, even as its contours and pulls change with time. She writes, “It is ten months, almost one year. I did not cry today. I cried yesterday. I may well cry tomorrow. But I did not cry today, and neither did either of my sons, though mostly I am the one who still cries. It is not an accomplishment, just an observation, but one that marks the passage of time.”46 Alexander's day spent not crying is presented not as an “accomplishment” but as a shifting and enduring relationship to loss that comes to mark life itself. Loss is of unknown duration, but it is also a companion, a marker of an enduring relationality that persists even in Ficre's death.

Being Together

In this article, I consider slow loss as a temporal framework advanced by Black feminist theorists that connects various forms of durational time, and that produces distinct forms of Black female subjectivity. Without presuming what slowness feels like—and while embracing its many lived manifestations—I examine how Black feminist theorists have treated a slow relationship to time as constitutive of Black female selfhood. What this archive shares is an investment in thinking endurance as a core condition of Black female subjectivity, and a way that time—whether anticipated, lived-in, or lived through—becomes fundamental to an understanding of the felt life of Black female subjectivity. My rumination on slow loss necessarily centers relationality as a crucial element of Black feminist theory's conception of endurance, precisely because Black feminist theory emphasizes the self-making and self-transforming aspects of being-together. As Alexander suggests, loss indexes the intensity of love, connection, and intimacy, and the texts that I study sit with slow loss as unfolding in the intensities between us. This archive suggests that slow loss is about our embeddedness in webs of intimacy and interconnection that make possible the dense circuits of feeling that slow loss reveals.

I come to this article as a daughter in the middle—or perhaps even the beginning, since I have learned that the timeline of Alzheimer's is always imprecise, that the temporality of slow loss is nonlinear—of my mother's unbearable diagnosis. I come to it as a mother watching my daughter claim her memories. I have learned from my daughter about the possibility of being nostalgic for something that happened a moment before, and I have learned from my mother the desire to remember each moment of being-together, as every second we share is tinged by a single question: who will I be when she does not know me anymore? This logic of memory and forgetting, of loss and longing, constitute the complex affective circuitry undergirding slow loss. We are in it. I am in it. Living on.

Thank you to Samantha Pinto and Emily Owens for reading earlier iterations of this project; thanks to Charles Kronengold for his generative feedback and questions during my presentation at the Stanford Arts and Justice Workshop.

Notes

1.

I am drawing on Patricia Hill Collins's foundational work on controlling images in Black Feminist Thought .

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