This chapter by El Jones, titled Fragments for a Pandemic, first appeared in Sick of the System: Why the COVID-19 recovery must be revolutionary, edited by the Between the Lines Editorial Committee, published May 2020. We are publishing the chapter in full during Black History Month as we remember and celebrate Black writers, artists, community activists, prisoners, and all those fighting for their communities.
There’s a map of cases in Nova Scotia that is updated daily. This many cases in this region, so many over here. This is where people vacation, here is where the cottage is, there the childhood home.
In my map of the province, the prison is always super-imposed over everything. Here is Springhill. Here is Nova Institution. I drove through that community on my way to Renous. I stopped off here going to the halfway house in Cape Breton. A geography of prisons, the spread we never talk about, populations expanding across the map. How many prisoners are in your community today? Are the cases going up? When are we going to flatten that curve.
Like a Scythe
H. tells me that one of the doctors came to speak to them in Burnside. He says they were told, report your symptoms early because you won’t get a ventilator. “It was then my hands started shaking,” he adds.
J. calls from Springhill. He’s more than twenty-five years into his sentence, but they won’t let him go. Every time he gets close to parole, they find some reason to send him back to a max. Talking to a guard, selling some chips, anything. They never want to let him out. He’s older now and he’s got bad lungs. He put in for a compassionate release, but he just got back to a medium, so there’s no way they’ll consider him. When this hits, he tells me, “I’ll just close the door of my cell and stay in there by myself. I’ve saved enough food for fourteen days.” If it gets to him, he says it will be a death sentence for sure. He’s already been buried alive, and now he’s scared he’ll die choking too.
M. says, imagine that the people you have to rely on to keep you safe are the same people who abuse you day after day. One day, they pepper-spray you in the face. The next day, they’re the only thing standing between you and an infection. How are you supposed to cope with that?
R. is volunteering in the kitchen now that only one range can go down to work. It’s a chance to get out, to do anything. After the first day he tells me that he got to talk to people, and he hadn’t realized how much the silence had affected him until it broke.
Imagine lying in wait, powerless, for blows to rain down on you with nothing you can do to protect yourself. A lung collapsing inside a chest. Something fragile, paused before a breaking storm. They cry out, all of them, but everything is just stopped, held in place, no movement, lockdown.
Black people are always imagined in place. White people are the adventurers, the explorers, the pioneers. Black people are imagined in place until we are out of place, and then the full weight of policing comes down on us. We must be controlled, put back in our place before we contaminate others. Go back where you came from. But we are already where we came from—inside our communities, down the long roads, close enough to clean their houses but not close enough to have to live beside us—and still we are targeted. When will it be enough, asks Lynn Jones. When we are dead? When we disappear? When will it be enough for them?
The premier of Nova Scotia and the chief medical officer hold daily press conferences about COVID-19. For weeks as infection spreads, they say to not stigmatize communities. There is spread at a St. Patrick’s Day party in Lake Echo, and they warn us to be compassionate. White people who travel make up all the cases in the province for almost a month, and so we must be very careful. A soap bubble we mustn’t pop.
And then the virus hits Black communities. And they call us by our name. We are the gyrating Black body, partying during isolation, dancing with naked breasts in the jungle, we deserve it, every part of what they do to us for having this Black nerve, this sexuality, this movement, this audacity to be living. Wilful, they call us as they heft those white man’s burdens, how we’re always half devil and half child.
They fear we will leave the community and spread the virus, they say, as if all those planes filled with snowbirds—white as snow—as if they never touched down. Apologize for infecting us, someone says in a comment on the letter the community writes asking an apology. A Black dot, spreading all over the map of Dartmouth. Make sure you call 811 if you have a fever, if you cough, or if you feel a sudden urge to start listening to hip-hop.
On a scale from 1 to negro, how North Preston are you? asks Rasheda. You know they see us all the same, and North Preston has always stood in for that unforgivable Blackness.
A fourteen-year-old Black boy, shooting hoops alone in the playground of the local elementary school. Tell me you don’t know the ending to this story. Tell me you can’t anticipate the plot, the white fingers on the phone, the call to 911. Tell me this wasn’t already written when they passed the state of emergency, when they told us they moved from education to enforcement, when they decided the police and not Purell are the solution to a pandemic. Tell me we are not always the emergency. Tell me they are not always trying to wash us away.
Wash your hands. Wash your hands of the violence you do to us. White people call the police on a young Black man running after another man. Five cops show up to arrest him. They are not wearing masks. “Can you step back?” OmiSoore asks the officer when he comes to take her statement. “That doesn’t apply to police,” he says.
I don’t like going outside in the day, under the gaze, but also I remember a study that said 100 percent of Black people in Canada in the winter have vitamin D deficiency. Black bones being washed clean at the bottom of an ocean, no sunlight ever again. They said that they were too delicate to stand the heat, but we were made to work in it like beasts. Night coming tenderly, Black like me. We’ll walk right up to the sun. Choose your own adventure: someone might call the cops on you in broad daylight, but stay inside and your bones might fail you. There’s probably a racist joke in all of this. I heard since COVID-19, all the Black parents called their kid Anemia.
I’m running at night and a Black guy across the street sees me, yells across, “There’s white people out here, make sure you carry a knife.”
My students write me emails. I’m sorry, I know the assignment’s late but I couldn’t get the documents to get back home, and they kicked me out of residence. I’m sorry, my dad got COVID and I had to stay home to care for him, do you mind if I hand in the discussion questions later. I’m sorry, my mental health is just really bad right now, I’ll get it in, I promise.
Life matters, I tell them. Life matters more. Something fragile, paused before a breaking storm.
I always think of the ways I could be watched. Whiteness is the panopticon. We are giving you a week to move your courses online. How will they know if we did it, I ask, but the part of me attuned to the camera on the corner, the click before the call connects, the data entry into the system, the street check, the neighbourhood watch, the floor walker murmurs back: they always know.
The university sends us an email. Tell us the great things your department is doing to help your community during the pandemic so we can put it on the website. Well, we wrote a letter to caution the province about anti-Black racism and policing of vulnerable populations like people experiencing homelessness or mental illness during a pandemic. This does not appear on the website.
A dear friend has a heart attack, ends up in hospital. We can’t visit him. The waiting room sits empty.
We sat together in the Supreme Court lobby, five days on the cold benches, waiting for a verdict. On the fifth day, R. sent up a note. Be strong family, it read. In court, they told us to avert our eyes. Our eyes were staring, intimidating the victim’s family, intimidating the jury. A new offence: having eyes while Black. You can wave at each other in the courtroom, but no touching. You can talk on the phone behind glass, but no touching. In federal prison visiting rooms, a quick hug to say hello and goodbye, but no touching. Calls, but no touching. Love, but no touching.
We are experts at not touching.
Z. is from Iraq, came through the United States, claimed refugee status in Nova Scotia. Her daughter was born in the US. Z. has health care, her son has health care, but her daughter does not. She is three years old. It’s hard, she keeps on telling me on the phone, it’s just hard. She says it over and over, and starts crying.
N. is from Nigeria. Her son is fifteen months. Neither of them have health care. He sits on her lap while she tells me, it’s terrifying. What if we need the hospital. We just wanted to be safe here.
In the press conferences, Premier McNeil likes to speak directly to the children sometimes. He scolds us about the children who can’t play outside or see their friends. They see you outside, he lectures us, and they ask why. Not obeying the rules hurts kids.
Think of the children.
The power goes out in some places during high winds. People complain, it’s bad enough being home, now we’re home without electricity.
The police are called because a man is self-harming. They taser him and he dies.
This year there was no church service for my mother to go to. Church is her entire social life. I once told her, after attending the Christmas Eve service with her, that I thought the sermon was quite good. “Oh, I don’t listen to the sermon,” she sniffed, and then proceeded to share with me all the gossip of everyone else’s children who allegedly have PhDs in English and have better jobs than me.
It’s true, the priest is quite irrelevant to her one-woman bulldozer of service: bringing the communion to all the people in the care homes; taking food to the churches that run food banks and somehow managing to also gossip and find out the life stories of everyone there; calling all the shut-ins. The priests can’t keep up with her, or with her encyclopedic knowledge of every single congregation member. Sunday is nothing compared to my mother.
When I called her this morning (“He is Risen!” she greeted me, waiting for my dutiful response), she told me the Easter service would be live-streamed. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to watch. I haven’t attended an Easter mass in years, but you can’t be forced into altar service for your entire teenage years and not have the responses bred into your bones. It all came back to me as the priest moved through the service.
There was no procession, no hymns, no choir. There’s al ways a mixture of the bittersweet anyway when you tread the spaces of your childhood, that inevitable sense of loss. Hearing the organ valiantly attempt to fill the empty space with joy, but without the voices of the congregation, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Who would think it would be a church service that would move me during these times of isolation. I don’t tend to dwell emotionally on the things we can’t change, but my heart hurt a little inside me.
The sermon was about how Jesus was surrounded by the voices of women. I thought of my grandmother, and the pride and joy that made women of her generation dress themselves for Easter like members of the royal family. I thought of what prayer means to Black women, even when we have left the church or are not religious: like the time we attended court for a young Black woman who was sexually assaulted. The man was acquitted. Afterwards, we stood in a circle, crying out for justice for all of our sisters and mothers violated. One after another as our foremothers did before us, we prayed. It is not about God, even, but about survival, the will of our great and great and great grandmothers who had nothing but faith and who brought us through anyway.
And of course I thought about my mother, knowing she would be singing loudly along with the organ, choir or not, and shouting all the responses. I thought fondly of her joy on Easter morning, her dismissal of the trappings of religion—of the sermon—but her deep embrace of the meaning of Jesus. All of our mothers back and back, whose lives have always been about resurrection, about holding on, about coming back.
Visit the prisoner, my mother taught me. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly. Whatever you do to the least of my people, you are doing that to me. In less religious terms, we gon’ be alright.
After covering production costs, Between the Lines is donating all proceeds from Sick of the System to the Migrant Rights Network. The Migrants Rights Network is a cross-Canada alliance to combat racism and fight for migrant justice. They are a network of self-organized groups of refugees, migrants, and allies.