“Go on, go on, the brilliant future doesn’t wait”

Reflections on Dionne Brand’s 2021 Kitty Lundy Memorial Lecture

• February 2022

A Year and Memories of Catastrophe

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, heightening speculation and fear about the novel coronavirus. The provincial government in Ontario, Canada, mandated schools to close the following day and imposed a stay-at-home order that affected everyone, except essential workers. The Canadian government followed a few days later by declaring a state of emergency. For the next year, sport organizations suspended their seasons, and other major sporting events, such as the 2020 Olympics, were postponed. Masks became commonplace, if not always mandatory, and partisan politics in the United States and Canada descended into debates that drew false equivalences between the health of the economy and the health of people. Developed and developing economies everywhere searched for answers to ward off the specter of death and the ruin of capitalism, and at least for a time these economies and their governments were powerless before the equalizing force of a virus that refused to recognize geographic or national borders, race or class. Soon, however, it became clear that a large proportion of the essential workers necessary to prop up economies were racialized and poor people, living in priority neighborhoods, favelas, and banlieues, and a familiar hierarchy reasserted itself. Along with the elderly, these workers—forced daily onto the frontline of the pandemic—came to bear the brunt of the virus’s indiscriminate attack. Those people who remained outside this forced labor watched spectacular scenes of loss from the confinement of their homes: military vehicles transporting dead bodies in Italy in March 2020; mass burials in New York City in April of that same year; burning pyres and bodies lined up outside crematoriums in Delhi a year later. Looping media reports of unending catastrophe touched every part of the globe, hovered over and crept into every home and community.

Alongside this daily living in the midst of death, in spring and summer 2020 racial justice protests and calls for police abolition recognized another kind of habitual dying and demanded redress. These protests, which, like the pandemic, collapsed the boundaries of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, became commonplace across the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania in the wake of George Floyd’s death. For the politicians and the capitalists, the world was unrecognizable, descending into anarchy and chaos. But for some of us this was an opening onto a different kind of radical potentiality, a different kind of future. We sensed a change, a shift, a fleeting possibility, but we could not find the words to hold it in place and time. How could one even dare to think life was possible in the presence of so much historical and contemporary dying?

On 11 March 2021, the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the global pandemic and in the midst of Canada’s deadly third wave, Dionne Brand’s Kitty Lundy Memorial Lecture at York University in Toronto gave us a grammar and tense to articulate this feeling, this sense of living “in momentous times” that Brand’s narrator in the long poem Ossuaries signals.1 In “What We Saw. What We Made. When We Emerge.” Brand sits with words as though writing another poem, and in a patient parsing of their meaning she cuts a path to the heart of the hurt and loss accumulated over a year. Methodically peeling back the layers of conflicted and overlapping meanings and desires, she attends to the feelings of an aching city, country, and world.

 

New Language and the “Coming of Freedom”

The three statements in her lecture’s title, Brand explains, are “imperfect in their tense,” signaling a past that is also a present still being lived, still unfolding in weight and meaning—a living past that gestures toward the hope of a future beyond disease and dying.2 The pronoun what marks the unspecified people, places, and things suspended in this indefinite time. Because there are no words that can fully grasp the extent of a catastrophe still unfolding—no precise words to fix the who or what we saw and created, or the still-to-be-named when of our emergence—these statements remain in flux, open to newer and different configurations of meaning. The subject pronoun we in each of the clauses, Brand adds, is also deceptive, signifying the learned group behaviors into which all of us are drafted. This set of social behaviors, carefully constructed to maintain and legitimize the logic of excessive consumption and ideas of Western progress, has come to constitute both understandings of human relationships and of knowledge itself. This generalizable “we” has been created through shared social practices and beliefs grounded in the principles of racial capitalism that work to maintain and normalize unequal relations by safeguarding the interests of the powerful and wealthy while managing the desires of those whose exploited labor makes possible the consumption by the rich. While politicians and the ruling classes invoke the interest of a collective “we” in their defense of life and the economy, they are privileging the interest of an “ethnoclass” that has come to derive its power through what Sylvia Wynter identifies as a bourgeois conception of “Man,” standing in for the category of “the human itself.”3 In the face of the devastating effects of COVID-19, this hegemonic group constituted those who were able-bodied (or with access to the best health care), White, and owners of property. It is this group that is most anxious and impatient for a return to a postpandemic “normal” lodged in the memory of a past/present of unequal race relations, poverty and forced essential labor, environmental destruction, and Black and Indigenous death. As Wynter explains, “All our current struggles with respect to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, struggles over the environment, global warming, severe climate change, the sharply unequal distribution of the earth’s resources . . . are all differing facets of the central ethnoclass Man vs. Human struggle.”4 The social and racial logic on which this struggle rests, Brand further suggests, was exposed by the pandemic’s overwhelming force.

In an attempt to imagine different formations of the category human, Brand invokes another collective, one that is “most often partial to Black people.”5 When Black people are placed in the subject position of the three clauses in her title—when they become the subjects that determine the action produced by the verbs to see, to make, and to emerge—possibilities open up for a different vision, a different kind of activism, and a different set of human relationships. For Black people in the Americas who from enslavement to its aftermath have lived in an imperfect, continuous past, the looking back may be instructive but it is never romantic or nostalgic. In the present conjoined moments of a global pandemic and calls for racial justice and police abolition, what Black people see is the continuation of a catastrophic past in which they themselves were constituted as property and remain the means by which others consume. In his recent book On Property, Rinaldo Walcott makes this argument cogently: “Black people, once owned as property and now the main (if not the exclusive) target of mass criminalization and incarceration and all the not-so-deadly and deadly actions of modern policing and its extensions, understand that property remains a central roadblock in our collective quest to figure out how to both live differently and better together.”6 It is this figuring out how to live differently and better together that animates Brand’s lecture, that pushes it beyond the contours of death toward the potential for creating something new—toward an abolition of the existing structures of violence—and toward what she calls the “coming of freedom.”7

In the stillness and heightened perception of our senses and thought during the long months of the pandemic, Brand suggests that something changed irrevocably. For many Black and other racialized people, activists and abolitionists, artists and thinkers, this increased self-apprehension, this attunement to life among the dying revealed the world in all its brutality, destroying the veil of capitalist logic and making impossible any return to old interpretations of “normal.” In this space of intersecting time, Brand tells us, where the past, present, and future meet, “we must attend to some urgency that is in the process of defining itself.”8 And so the Black woman poet sits and listens to the loud silence of words. Parsing their meaning—what M. NourbeSe Philip calls “the exercise of dis-membering language into fragmentary cells that forget to re-member”9—the poet attends to the past violence of language to find a tongue that may heal.

Turning to the work of Caribbean, African American, and continental African writers, Brand extends her narrative intervention, situating her voice and words within a longer Black tradition of resistance and reinvention. In Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative, Brand finds a road map “to survive the crushing enclosure and more . . . for how to imagine and make real something like freedom.”10 Beauty, Saidiya Hartman reminds us, “is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given.”11 Brand discerns this radical art making in Jacobs’s loophole of retreat. With Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, and Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, Brand offers us a series of novels that narrate the history of Black and colonized people’s survival both within and beyond the conquest of slavery and empire. With the stories and novellas in John Keene’s Counternarratives, she further invites us to attend to this history in all its expansive and generative diversity and complexity. Read in these books, she tells us, about “patience and cunning and imagination and laughter.” Read in them too about “surviving and enduring with compassion, with resolve . . . and a determination to live otherwise.”12

Brand finds this determination to live otherwise in unexpected places in the city of Toronto. The Toronto Tiny Shelters (small wooden shelters for unhoused people) constructed by Khalel Seivwright—a young carpenter and activist of Jamaican descent—were a selfless gift to help address a housing crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. In response to Seivwright’s efforts to help people live and survive with compassion, the City of Toronto filed an injunction against him in February 2021, calling his intervention illegal and citing safety concerns.13 Many others, however, supported him though a GoFundMe campaign, signed petitions of support, and protested the removal of homeless encampments in the city. The hegemonic we has begun to disaggregate. BLM-Toronto’s Black Emergency Support Fund and signs and graffiti across the city have also given form and voice to new cooperative relationships based on reciprocity and care. These signs—“Disarm, defund, diminish, abolish”; “Tenants organise, keep your rent”; “Land Acknowledgement is Land Back”—signal a commitment to a new set of social relationships and a resolve to think independently of the controlling forces of the settler colonial state. These Toronto-specific protests and community initiatives have taken place alongside and in solidarity with global demonstrations against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. In this global rearrangement of thought, ideas, and action, Brand explains, “we made new language, usual.” The contours of a new world, heightened awareness, and new thoughts became usual. As Brand explains further, “We shook institutions. We put states on notice, that if their only plan is to reintroduce the desires for having and the fears of losing it all, our only plan is abolition.”14 Abolition, according to Walcott, “is a bold demand for a different kind of freedom.”15

 

“Go on, go on, the brilliant future doesn’t wait”

In her long poem Ossuaries, which Brand invokes in the closing of her lecture, the persona Yasmine is in constant motion, trying to escape the past. The regret from a life only partially lived is perhaps most palpable in “Ossuary XIII,” in which Yasmine writes a letter that she will send back in time to her past life. “If only,” she muses, “I had something to tell you, from here, / some good thing that would weather / the atmosphere of the last thirty years.” As she looks back at all the loss and decay, she decides that the gift of wisdom and hope she will send from the future into the past is simply this: “Look out, that’s all it will say, but go on // go on, the brilliant future doesn’t wait.”16 Like for Yasmine, what we have seen is too much to hold easily—too much loss, too much profound grief. But we have also glimpsed the possibilities for a new language. We have enunciated new syntaxes, tried out the shape of new words on our tongues. We have begun to think and create new forms of cooperative and reciprocal human relationships.

Still, we remain in suspended time, facing new waves of the pandemic, even as the world prepares cautiously for a possible emergence into the future. In North America, politicians talk about reopening schools and the economy and a new “normal.” They are confused by people refusing to rush back to work the hard-labor, minimum-wage jobs needed to prop up an economy dependent on overconsumption. As the generalizable “we” of capital has disaggregated, as more of us have come to realize and refuse our role in upholding the apparatus of power meant to keep us from imagining otherwise, Brand encourages us to look at the past without flinching. Like Yasmine, what do we see now and what do we remember? More than anything else, we must remember what we saw and what we made. Like the Uber driver Brand recalls in her lecture—who critiques her desire to have a gin and tonic in a bar as though time has not intervened—we must remain committed to a practice of refusal: “No. Something big is happening.” We must refuse the twisted logics of capitalist progress that try to seduce us into going backward but offer no change to our original circumstances. Emergence, Brand concludes, “is not sudden; it is durative. It suggests an eventual clearance.” And so what have we cleared away? What knowledge have we accumulated at the crossroads of this present-past that is also an emerging future? What gift have we been given and what lessons have we learned? What is there still to clear away, still to learn? “Go on,” Brand says finally, “go on, the brilliant future doesn’t wait.”17

 

Andrea A. Davis is an associate professor in Black cultures of the Americas in the Department of Humanities at York University, Toronto, and a coeditor of the Journal of Canadian Studies. She is the author of Horizon, Sea, Sound: Caribbean and African Women’s Cultural Critiques of Nation (Northwestern University Press, 2022).

 


[1] Dionne Brand, Ossuaries (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2010), 9; Dionne Brand, “What We Saw. What We Made. When We Emerge.” (Kitty Lundy Memorial Lecture, 11 March 2021, York University, Toronto). The annual lecture at York University is endowed by the Kitty Lundy Memorial Fund, established by the Lundy family to honor the late Kitty Lundy, a sociologist in the former Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies from 1986 to 1989.

[2] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[3] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—an Argument,” CR 3, no. 3 (2003): 260.

[4] Ibid., 260–61.

[5] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[6] Rinaldo Walcott, On Property: Policing, Prisons, and the Call for Abolition (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2021), 27.

[7] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Ragweed, 1989), 40.

[10] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[11] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), 33.

[12] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[13] Seivwright provided these tiny shelters in Toronto parks in the winter of 2020–21 to protect those who were without housing from the city’s freezing temperatures. In August 2021, after reaching a settlement with the city, he announced he would no longer provide the shelters and closed his GoFundMe page. See Abby Neufield, “Toronto Tiny Shelters Announces It Won’t Return This Winter after Legal Fight with City,” Toronto Star, 28 August 2021.

[14] Brand, “What We Saw.”

[15] Walcott, On Property, 16.

[16] Brand, “Ossuary XIII,” in Ossuaries, 103, 105.

[17] Brand, “What We Saw.”

 

Related Articles