Halfway round the world the same slow empire rising, the same dark music coming up the stairs visa-less and without translation. It's what links us—the need for a boat when there is no boat, this revelation that never surfaces in some hearts, forever sloshing at the bottom like dregs, while in others it tolls through every fiber of their being, their whole body a bell.
In Boston, Sophie holds the cereal box up to her face. It’s a little past 2:30, the world not quite dim but strange, as if someone has turned down the contrast on a screen, the shadows an eerie gray-green, the color of thunderstorms and new bruises. When I put the box to my eye, I see it, the shadow not quite dime-sized and gibbous, the thing as if bitten by an unknown mouth. We are not in the path of totality; within another hour, the flesh is healed. But all day I think of that little black spot floating at the bottom of the cereal box like a prize. 2024 I want to be in the path. I want to stand in the sudden dark and then be there when the light comes back and burns even brighter than I remembered.
Perhaps because I am a POC, within seconds of my arriving at the vigil, someone hands me a candle, makes room for me on the stairs. Tonight, the Perseids are ending, the sky a roof / a shroud / an emptiness / an indictment though just yesterday I saw three of the brightest I have ever seen, each one competing with the gibbous moon’s light. This is what I believe, that the writer fundamentally has the right to tell any story in the human family, & that in return, the reader has the right to be offended. I do not believe that writing about a community to which you do not belong is, in & of itself, an offense; if we are only allowed to tell our own stories, then think of the terrible burden that places on the marginalized, the weight of being the only one to tell her story, of being confined to the ghetto of identity, of not seeing yourself in the discourse unless you yourself pick up a pen. Narrative belongs to all of us. The role of the imagination is what powers art—to imagine oneself as Other, to imagine the experience of living another’s truth— but yes, the reader absolutely has the right to be offended when someone tells it badly, when the writer paints it in ways that ring inauthentic, sloppy, ill-researched, naïve. Watch as I light a torch & take to the streets, my white face ablaze w/power, so many of us, so many of us! & for a few hours in this zero-sum world I matter, my kind seemingly ascendant, this hole gratifyingly filling in me which I cannot name & which I cannot fill fast enough.
From the ferry’s top deck, a picturesqueness I hadn’t seen elsewhere, the water like when the sun streams through a piece of blue glass, a shade I often wear on my fingers and toes, the instant serenity of that color, or the stateliness of the French colonial architecture, the buildings tastefully distressed by time; in short, it was an idyll in a country still climbing its way out, but how to reconcile such beauty with the 20 million brought here, then kept days, weeks, months waiting for the airless hull that would bear them west? In la Maison des Esclaves, everywhere rooms carved in stone, each no bigger than my master bath, rooms for les hommes, les femmes, les enfants, children as young as two, rooms for men under sixty kilos to be fattened up for sale, tiny rooms where a person can’t fully stand for les recalcitrants. And to think that the owners of this house lived just upstairs, that some family went about their daily lives floating a few feet above hundreds of souls in irons. The House of Slaves was one of twenty-eight on Gorée Island, Gorée one of too many markets on the west coast of Africa. In more than 300 years, six million died while waiting on this spit of land not even one kilometer long— to avoid contagion, at the first sign of sickness they would throw you into the sea, the waters teeming with teeth. According to the UN, today there are 36 million slaves world-wide; yesterday in Texas, ten people died in the back of a truck. On Gorée, I stood in front of the Door of No Return, the door through which millions were shunted away from their homeland in chains. I stood in the doorway facing the sea, listening to the sound of water lapping the shore. Then I turned and walked back into the dark.
Anytime one of the four of us leaned sideways, you could feel it tip, your body kiltering toward the place where on land you would've fallen, the thing 13 meters long and five feet wide. I tried to imagine fifty others crowded aboard, then fifty more if the pirogue were slightly larger, some with every important thing in a single bag, others with just their souls clutched to their chests, which is to say their children. Masser says in the beginning it was just boys, teenagers stealing a boat at night and heading for the open sea, Spain's Canary Islands a thousand miles away, or maybe to Libya and then onto Italy. And still they go, he says, though 4 out of 5 die-- death by water, death by hunger, death by lack of water, death by lack of a compass, death by a hundred desperate people at a time crammed on hoping for better lives. On the radio, the most popular entertainer in Senegal sings, "Last night in my dreams, all over the world: food for all. Ça, c'est necessaire," he concludes. In the pirogue on the relatively glassy waters of the Sine-Saloum delta, I lean east, and those with me lean east. I lean west, and we all lean west towards the setting sun whether we want to or not.
Consequently, there are maybe only a couple hundred here, all of us standing on Wright Terrace and peering hopefully across the water towards Monona, people like me who are fireworks junkies, who will drop anything for even the briefest encounter with ephemera, and from the look of things, people who are new to the city, people who do not know that Madison does not have a proper Fourth of July fireworks show. If I had to guess, I would say that like my grandfather, like me, the crowd is maybe 60% foreign born. The woman next to me wears a headscarf, speaks to her two small daughters in a language I cannot name. As for me, in this brave new world, I am beginning to arrive in a place where I cannot tell the difference between numbness and ease. Day-to-day, it is possible what I feel is both. When the fireworks begin, one of the woman’s daughters starts to jump up and down as if on a spring. Watching her, I feel my own heart leap with some emotion of yore. In the Declaration of Independence, the founders wrote of the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions. I want to say this is in the past. I want to say it’s complicated, but actually it’s not. Overhead a firework explodes, creating a red heart ringed in blue. When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… The little girl is still jumping up and down, her heart flooded with it.