They say after you protest, you should isolate for two weeks like you got the virus. In New Orleans, I protested following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. While the protests were first going on, I found it hard to write, whether from anxiety because of the pandemic, or from the exhaustion all of us are feeling as we fight to keep our homes, or from the toll of adding more and more ghosts to whatever homes we have left. After that first week of protests, I isolated, hoping to make it home to visit my at-risk family back in Miami before the unpredictable fall. I couldn’t return to Cuba this summer, where both sides of my family are from, and I couldn’t go see my family if I kept protesting. So I stayed home. But holing up isn’t so easy after participating in a week of protests. And “staying home” feels anything like being “home” when it is absent the people you love. So I picked up Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing. Physically distancing doesn’t mean disconnecting.
While reading Sing Unburied Sing, I immediately underlined, circled, and highlighted a part where a ghost tells a child that “Home isn’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone . . . Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you.” I couldn’t write on the death of George Floyd and so many others like him, I couldn’t write on anything I was working on before the protests, I couldn’t write on the things that seeing that man die on the street triggered in me, I couldn’t write about my ghosts or our ghosts, even though they have never left me. At the end of the scene, the ghost says that home is “the song and I’m going to be part of the song.” Writing is how I keep my grounding. Writing is how I make my songs, my homes for my ghosts. I kept underlining and circling and highlighting passages echoing so many of my thoughts that I couldn’t put down on paper yet.
In Sing Unburied Sing, Ward writes about a black mother, Leonie, who takes her two children on a road trip through Mississippi to pick up their white father from Parchman Prison. That is the plot on the surface. Underneath, this story (and all the threads within it) are connected to ghosts of an elusive home. Leonie’s brother, Given, was killed by her partner’s cousin. Leonie’s mother wants to see Given, wants to speak to the dead, but she can’t reach him. Given, though, keeps popping up in Leonie’s life, not communicating, but still moving, and without the wounds of his death. Meanwhile, Jojo, Leonie’s older child, sees Richie, a ghost of a boy from Leonie’s father’s past at Parchman Prison. Everything is connected to the ghosts that haunt and love these characters. Or to paraphrase the new Spike Lee joint: death never ends for those involved.
Part of the reason I couldn’t write anything down, couldn’t create that part of home, was because seeing videos like that of George Floyd, of someone being killed on the street, brings up prior trauma for me. When we were nineteen, my best friend was run over and killed by a motorcycle in front of me. In that video, I recognized how a body looks on the ground, I recognized the last bit of life being shaken off on the street, I recognized the pain and helplessness of the faces that surrounded him, of loved ones and strangers. I recognized myself in those faces, as I hadn’t known what to do.
In New Orleans, the weeklong protests I went to were organized by Take ’Em Down NOLA, which is “committed to the removal of ALL symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans as a part of a broader push for racial and economic justice.” The group understands that a home doesn’t feel like a home when there are physical structures built to immortalize those who dehumanized entire populaces. Each night of the protests, they led us into a different neighborhood. Neighborhoods that don’t feel like home with monuments standing or filled with memories of our peoples fallen in the street. But it feels a little more like home when we’re marching, when we fill the spaces of what in Latin America we would call “desaparecidos,” with our own live bodies, our friends, our loves, our strangers, shouting out the names of the disappeared who we try our best for, lovingly. Yelling their names and filling space in order to make a home for our ghosts.
This is why I wrote about police brutality when I first got into town, covering that beat for a small local publication for free. Why I would try to recapture the narrative, do right by the ghosts, with things as simple as replacing the words “died” or “killed” with “murdered.” Trying to capture a little bit of justice bit by bit. Hoping that justice in the mind and on the page could lead to a more physical semblance of justice later. It was a way of me showing to myself that I wasn’t defeated by my ghosts. It was also a way of me better preparing myself to write about my ghosts, to do better by my peoples, both those alive and those who have passed, when time came to write about them. But the week of the George Floyd protests, I couldn’t write about anything. And the week after those protests, nothing came either. And it scared me. Where would I go with my ghosts if I had lost that home?
I read Ward’s novel. I read how Jojo’s grandmother prays to some of the same spirits mi abuela did. To Our Lady of Regla. I think of how I write about Cuba so often, where both sides of my family come from. I think of how my father has never been back to the place where he was born, the place he was exiled from at the age of eleven, the place where his mother is buried. How neither he nor the rest of the family know where she is buried. I think of how I went to the church mi abuela used to pray at, and how I prayed there with my sister. How we told the story back to my father. How that story, how these writings, hopefully work as a placeholder of a home to him.
I am alone in my apartment and it is quiet, and I read Sing Unburied Sing, read when Jojo asks his grandmother if she’ll be a ghost, and she responds, “I think that only happens when the dying’s bad. Violent. The old folks always told me that when someone dies in a bad way, sometimes it’s so awful even God can’t bear to watch.” I think of the violence that people in Black communities experience day after day due to systemic racism. I think of the George Floyd video, and how that violence dehumanizes someone so much that their soul can’t even leave this earth. How it took me time to get the courage to watch it.
I worry these writings are just more trauma porn. Who does this benefit? Were policy or minds swayed? Did it do more for others than it took, out of those I wrote about, out of me? I think of all the protesters I interviewed for a piece on police brutality during protests that never got picked up. How many of them had to relive traumatic experiences telling me these stories, and it never even made it to print somewhere. Just like asking my old man about Cuba, or writing about my dead friend. Am I helping or hurting my loved ones with these questions, these thoughts? Is this an attempt of building a home, or is it setting the one we all had for the living on fire? This is the question that Jojo is faced with when the ghost asks him to get the story of his death from Pop, a story Pop never wanted to finish.
I think of the videos trapping these ghosts in the memory of their violent death. Without policy or systemic or spiritual changes, what do these videos accomplish, besides beating down the victims? What does revisiting my friend’s death accomplish, or revisiting the ghost of my father’s home accomplish, if we don’t manifest something out of it? Is there a song of a home to be made from all of this? I still struggle to write, to formulate anything meaningful from the night of my brother’s death, and yet I can’t stop that video from replaying in my head. What good would it do, replaying it on my computer or phone?
I think about how all of these peoples were more than just their violent death. They were mothers, fathers, ballers, artists, lovers. I think of how my boy is more than just his violent death. How he taught me how to play guitar, how we won every streetball game before we went to the beach and he died. I remember the stupid night we smoked and drank and watched the Great Alaska Shootout in a nice house. I think of sweaty ska shows in Gainesville.
It is raining and I think about how Ward set her novel in Mississippi shortly after Hurricane Katrina, which echoes the disaster of the unnamed storm that hit the same region in 1927. The Tuesday of the George Floyd protests, we marched under the I-10. The I-10 was constructed straight through an affluent African-American neighborhood in New Orleans, one that was filled with parks and green space. New Orleanians reclaim the space whenever a second line goes underneath the interstate, a dome of music echoing and horns blaring. Then, nothing exists outside of that dome of sound. The night of the protests, the names of the dead echoed as we shouted them in that space. That night, we went up the onramp, echoing the protests in Baton Rouge after the murder of Alton Sterling years before, when protesters were arrested for blocking the highway. But in New Orleans, no one was arrested, traffic stopped, and we weren’t happily hidden underneath what they built through so many peoples’ homes. We were making noise for everyone to see. Cars stopped, people raised their fists out in the air, a UPS truck driver blasted his horn in support, a woman stood outside of her car, filming on her phone, crying and thanking protesters who walked by. The moon rose before the sun fell, and the action felt good and strong. I got home too tired to write, but for a moment, we had done enough to at least strum a chord of a home.
But this home was fleeting. Echoes of pain came back the next day as the New Orleans Police Department fired tear gas canisters towards the protesters at the Crescent City Connection Bridge. Protesters ran back to New Orleans, fearful of falling over the bridge, echoing the pains of those who fifteen years prior were fired upon when trying to seek refuge from New Orleans after the Federal Floods had destroyed so much of their city, their home. And even though I wasn’t there, it is days like that where not writing is unacceptable. Where I need to do more. But I have rage, and my rage controlled me, and I had nowhere to put it, so I sat up all night with my ghosts, with no home to rest it.
The last protest for George Floyd that week was held at Jackson Square. After speakers and poets and performers sang and spoke their truths, we all went to the river, like how my father used to sleep by the sea every night in Cuba before being exiled and struggling to sleep away from his home. Like the beaches I used to love to go to, that used to calm me, but that now on colder windy nights remind me of the death of my friend, and of how I re-humanize every person we’ve lost violently on these streets, every person we’ve lost quietly in this pandemic.
Near the end of the novel, a ghost tells Jojo that a home is a place that pulls “you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived.” I love a lot of people in this world. And we all exist in different places. My writing is how I try to sync up those heartbeats of a home for my friend, how I make a home for every person we’ve violently lost, how I take my old man back to Cuba, how I make a home for me. It is how we make a space for all the desaparecidos in our lives, how we make a home for the ghosts, and ourselves too. I can’t be in Cuba with my peoples, in Miami with my family, and at the protests with more of my peoples at the same time. I can’t be with the living and the dead. But with my two weeks almost up, I’ll be going somewhere soon, choosing a place of a home. And no matter where, I’ll be writing a home where we can all be there. Living in the same song, living in the same writings. So I pick up Ward’s book, I read it over again, the parts I underlined and circled and highlighted echoing in my mind, and I pick up my pen, and start trying to re-humanize my home with all of my peoples, one line at a time.