In Philadelphia, we are accustomed to fire. Some Black Philadelphians think about it every May. Last month was the thirty-fifth anniversary of an event that has come to define our city, and our springtimes: on May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a row home in Southwest Philly, killing eleven people, including five children. In the aftermath of the fire, an entire block was extinguished—sixty-one homes were destroyed—and the bombing’s sole adult survivor (one child also survived) was sent to prison for seven years. The victims were the Africa family, members of a Black liberation and environmental justice group called MOVE, whose name, according to its website, “is not an acronym. It means exactly what it says: MOVE, work, generate, be active. Everything that’s alive moves. If it didn’t, it would be stagnant, dead.” Despite the political debates about MOVE’s actions prior to that tragic spring, the killings are patently unconscionable. In 1996, a Philadelphia jury found that the city had violated MOVE’s constitutional rights and used excessive force, and was ordered to pay restitution to the bombing’s only adult survivor, Ramona Africa, and the relatives of MOVE’s founder, John Africa; Michael Moses Ward, aka Birdie Africa, the child who survived, settled with the city in 1991. This May, Wilson Goode, the mayor who was responsible for the bombing, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian stating that the city must formally apologize for its actions—which it still has not done, although members of the city council have—and called his decision to approve the bombing “indefensible.”
In light of this unspeakable tragedy, in MOVE’s name, there is what you might call a kind of poetic injustice. Move, or abandon their compound, is what the city wanted the Africa family to do ASAP; move, quickly, is what the inhabitants of the house attempted to do in order to escape the conflagration, and their home—alive—once it became engulfed in flames. Move is what many Black Americans did, during the waves of the Great Migration: from the South and its fires and de jure racial stratification, to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City; to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oakland; to Chicago and Detroit; to what they thought were better opportunities, less overtly racist communities, greener pastures, and the “warmth of other suns,” as Isabel Wilkerson put it in her influential book on the Great Migration. That is not what awaited everyone in Philadelphia. The grass is not always greener. In May, when flowers bloom, some of us who were alive when the bombing happened and present in the area remember the devastation. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of MOVE’s neighbors recall the phantom odor of burning flesh and soot, which doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia smelled when Michael Ward arrived there for emergency care. Those of us who weren’t around can imagine it; in May 1985 I was not born yet, but every time I go to the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, I think of the murders that occurred there. Spring, a time of rebirth, becomes a reminder of life snuffed out. It’s a mnemonic of the inferno and its eventual dousing, and the deadly cooperation of the Philadelphia mayor’s office, and its police and fire departments in orchestrating the event. It’s a natural aide-memoire of desecrated human life, and a block-full of folks’ houses utterly wiped out. What happened to the Africa family is further dispiriting given their frequent labeling as a “back to nature” group. Every spring, I think of the bombing and feel extreme sadness and grief. When the world is verdant and the soil is pliant, some of us notice the bitter irony of the MOVE members going, symbolically, back to the earth on May 13, 1985. When the dwarf cinquefoil, beardtongue, and other seasonal Philly blossoms are rising from the grass and twisting out of vines, we think about the Africa family “pushing up daisies.”
A few weekends ago, my city burned again. Protests at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall eventually turned into statue-toppling and store-burning in Center City. The uprisings and fires spread from the center of the city to the East, in Port Richmond and Fishtown, and to the West, where I live. Around the country, the picture was much the same. In Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City, and countless other places around the United States, the fires burned, a sort of effigy to the memory of George Floyd and the other Black people who the police have recently killed. The protests expressed the pent-up rage of communities unlistened to for decades and centuries. Floyd’s murder comes at the end of a spring that has seen the killings of many unarmed Black people, including Breonna Taylor, of Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by three plainclothes police officers who didn’t even knock before entering her home; and Ahmaud Arbery, of Brunswick, Georgia, a jogger whose February murder by two white men was filmed by their friend. Arbery’s death initially re-energized the long-simmering movement against police brutality.
In the interval between Arbery’s death on February 23 and the widespread publicization of it in early May, there was a lacuna of attention, a dearth of media focus, accounted for by an abundance of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, and general news media bias. Arbery’s death, and life, will come to be defined by this spring and all that it connotes, despite its occurrence earlier this year, amid frost, when it was buried under the news of coronavirus-ravaged corpses accruing in refrigerated trucks. The lapse is indicative of the way in which Black death is ignored and glossed-over, until it starts to pile up, as it has now. Until it becomes an inconvenience; until it starts to stink.
Arbery’s killers, and the accessory to his murder, were not arrested until more than two months after he died. Breonna Taylor’s murder, on March 13, is also characterized by delayed coverage: it too was not widely reported on in the national media until George Floyd’s killing went viral and galvanized the country. In addition, despite the Louisville city council’s passing on June 11 of “Breonna’s Law,” a ban on the kinds of “no-knock” warrants that led to Taylor’s murder, as of this writing, the police officers who killed her have yet to be arrested, although one officer has been fired. There is also a cruel contrast in the lag of injustice for Taylor’s killers and the almost instantaneous nature of her murder. Think of the amount of time a no-knock warrant gives a person to adjust to the presence of armed officers in her home. And last week, on the occasion of Juneteenth, the spiritual and symbolic culmination of a spring of resistance and a new American anti-racist reckoning, there was another resonance: Juneteenth is a holiday which is characterized by a major lapse in the conveyance of both justice and necessary information.
Of course, as is widely known now, the holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had legally freed them two years earlier. The timing issues that marked that egregious lapse in notifying the enslaved of their manumission are still urgent now. Juneteeth’s resurgence in popularity is ironic, because similar conditions exist today; the holiday’s resonance manifests all these years later in a way that is characteristic of how time functions for Black Americans. Our time is devalued and inherently marked by delay. A classic Black joke about police showing up late—or never at all—for emergencies in our neighborhoods, finds a brutal photonegative in the murders of unarmed Black people by those very same cops. As a Juneteenth statement by Black Artists for Freedom observes, “Now it’s June 19, 2020. It seems much of America is just getting the news, more than a hundred years late.” Perhaps the snarky way some people think about CPT (“colored people’s time”) should be reassessed; in the term there has been traditionally a suggestion of Black people’s pathology, where lateness is viewed as a burdensome infection of our being, an expression of our inherent laziness, and evidence of our biological clocks being permanently off. If one considers lateness as the condition of how we’re dealt with, CPT makes a whole lot more sense.
Questions of timing address who gets left out of history: the nature of historical archives, and how long it takes them to be updated. In a journal article on periodization, the process of categorizing and naming historical moments, the scholar Peter N. Stearns writes, “As in any historical endeavor, periodization is an attempt to manage change, and present it coherently, by noting points where key breaks in framework occur.” At this key break from the collective disregard and passive mainstream attention to systemic anti-Black racism, I’m considering the language used to talk about some resistance and radical change movements in the world, in the West, and in this country. The periodization of this moment is undoubtedly premature, as history typically takes a long view (centuries, “long centuries,” millennia, epochs) but this year is already being digested, from memes that address 2020’s unprecedented events, to forecasts of the pandemic’s impact on architecture, business, and medicine, to long-ago sociological predictions that have unfortunately come true; as far back as 2012, the scientist Peter Turchin suggested 2020 would come with intense social upheaval.
Since periodization is inevitable, I wonder what we will end up calling this time. Will we deem this entire encompassing moment the Black Lives Matter Movement, in the tradition of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Women’s Liberation movements, and in keeping with the #MeToo Movement, which, like Black Lives Matter, is also named for its original organizing hashtag? How will the overwhelming emotion of this moment—melancholy, grief, justified rage—figure into its historicity and what we choose to call it? Will the name merge elegiac language with the seasons, a way to distill one of the Gregorian calendar’s three-month cycles of beauty, growth, and gloom into an agreeable political phrase? Will the term reflect the jargon of holidays, using the vocabulary of comforting sentiment and capitalist success to describe blooming unrest? Maybe it will be something to do with the spring?
America in particular (but not exclusively) loves to find snappy phrases to name its heady times. Big moments become bite-sized and easy to repeat. For example, a feeling now is that the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love,” has been simplistically framed. In a 2017 interview with historian William Schnabel about his book Summer of Love and Haight: 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, writer Patt Morrison unpacks the contradiction in the seasonal name:
Some fraction of the country—the young, the curious, the rebellious, the rootless—went to San Francisco 50 years ago; much more of the country watched it and read about it. The 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ is a freeze frame, a template, sometimes even a self-parody of flower power, of love and LSD, of mind-blowing music and countercultural thinking. Its backdrop was the Vietnam War, the generation gap and the 1967 urban riots. Its future, diluted somewhere amid political assassinations and law and order and Kent State—and more Vietnam.
Does the phrase “Summer of Love,” even ironically convey the darkness that undergirded that year? Was there perhaps a more encompassing term that would have holistically addressed the totality of what happened then, and the not-so-seasonal oppression that cheerful tag leaves out? As Schnabel points out, “The Summer of Love, it’s a buzzword, and everyone knows or thinks they know what it is, but in fact it’s an extremely complicated and complex period in American history.”
There are many more examples of seasons being used to name periods. There’s the “Spring of Nations,” or the “Springtime of the Peoples,” which encapsulates the European revolutions of 1848. There’s the “Red Summer”, which actually lasted from spring to late fall of 1919, as NBC News notes that from April to November of that year, approximately “30 riots broke out across the eastern U.S., with hundreds of accounts of beatings, lynchings and the burning of churches and buildings.” The Red Summer, which describes a scourge of anti-Black racist violence in 1919, was allegedly prompted by what History.com calls, in language of dark and comical understatement, “steadily growing tensions surrounding the Great Migration.” The temporal flexibility of the terms “Spring of Nations” and “Red Summer” is much like the name for Europe’s 125-year period of radical change and literary history, known as “the long nineteenth century,” which lasted roughly from 1789 to 1914, according to whichever historical focal points you’re tracing.
There are other notable periods marked by hefty symbolic phrases, punctums of temporal language: the “Arab Spring,” which encapsulates the uprisings across the Middle East in the early 2010s; there is Black August, a term and commemorative gesture meant to celebrate the notable birth and death dates of Black freedom-fighters, as well as to highlight significant events. Black August amplifies key moments, from the birthdays of Marcus Garvey and Fred Hampton, to the death day of W.E.B. Du Bois, to select dates of the Watts Uprisings, the March on Washington, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, and the Haitian Revolution. Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization that shares Black August resources, says that the month “bursts at the seams with histories of Black resistance” and acknowledges “a long and unbroken line of resistance and sacrifice of Black people throughout history.” The “Autumn of Nations,” that august term, refers to the decline of communism across Europe circa 1989. And of course, there is “Winter in America,” the title of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1975 song, a lament for the pain of this country’s Black and Indigenous communities and the dystopian, apocalyptic aftermaths of their oppression. “Winter in America”’s prophetic and elegiac qualities position it somewhere between “the winter of our discontent” (both Shakespeare and Steinbeck’s applications of the phrase) and “winter is coming.”
As periodization teaches us, titles are more or less just markers of chronology; they are descriptive, often poetic terms meant to encapsulate a moment in understandable language. Appellation helps us discuss and organize entries in encyclopedias and history books. Yet the nomenclature used to frame these instances of resistance and transition have a way of tricking the ear into hearing these periods, and even long-simmering examples of systemic oppression, as fixed or locked into single modules of time. This framing is in opposition to the “long and unbroken line of resistance and sacrifice” the Black August movement celebrates annually. Of course, there are the technological parallels between this moment and the Arab Spring of the early 2010s. And there are the convergences between this spring and the spring of 1968, right after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered: both periods of protest are catalyzed by the death of a Black man, cities all over the country burned in the wake of the killings, and NBA players are debating whether to resume play now, just as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and their respective teams did then, during the ’68 playoffs.
But I wonder if this lingo is ultimately limiting. More and more, the naming of formative periods has resembled the process of conceiving a “rigid designator,” a term coined by philosopher and logician S.A. Kripke, which describes the purpose of a proper name. Greek mythology scholar Claude Calame explains the role of the rigid designator in his book on poetic speech in Greek culture: “in contrast to other ‘designators,’ the proper name always points to the same unique object, in any possible world.” We know that time is not “unique,” or an “object,” and does not mean the same thing to everyone, as the number of possible worlds is as countless as the tally of the people who live within them. Time is subjective; after Reconstruction, although the lynched Black people Ida B. Wells reported on and their racist killers occupied the same physical space, in reality, their experiences were part of different worlds.
In addition to Greek naming traditions, the titling of periods in America aligns with mordant business trends. In a 2016 episode of 99 Percent Invisible on “acronaming,” a naming convention of rebranding neighborhoods for gentrification a la “Nolita” and “SoBro,” Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said, “These are names that are created out of thin air, they’re fantasy, they’re fiction, they’re made up, solely, in my view, to artificially inflate prices.” I have similar concerns about the names of critical moments. When we say “Arab Spring,” do we psychologically rezone all contemporary progressive protest in the Middle East to a two-year spurt of Western news attention? When we say “the Summer of Love,” do we elide the terror of that tumultuous season, thereby artificially inflating “free love” and “flower children” above all else, crowding out what’s not so sunny? Do we minimize the racial horror of the twentieth century when we say “the Red Summer,” gerrymandering it into a chronological pocket, a ghetto of time, if you will, a boundary where some people are uncomfortable treading? When we use catchall language to name these times, do we see an unbroken line, or do we seal eras from each other?
The animating quality of springtime, that classical process of blinkering growth, which sees people stepping out of their homes en masse to take pleasure in the world and its lovely weather, has obviously morphed this year. The transitional expectations of this spring have been upended—especially in a harsh season attended by COVID-19—but have found an outlet in nationwide protests. Now, in a moment of stillness and reduced mechanical noise, as many recent articles have pointed out, people have said that they can hear birds more clearly. Who could have thought, during the season when we were all becoming amateur birders, that nationwide protests would also better enable America to hear its own most vulnerable citizens? However, our truly most vulnerable, Black trans folks like Tony McDade, who was killed by Tallahassee police on May 27; Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, whose body was found in Philadelphia on June 8; and Riah Milton, of Liberty Township, Ohio, who was killed in an attempted robbery on June 9, have only been publicly acknowledged in death, and so have not been heard at all.
When I first learned about the long nineteenth century in a college course on Irish literature, I wondered about the seeming contradiction in its etymology. I thought, Why not just break up the timeline conveyed in it? Why extend a period past its descriptive limits? But I think there’s something intentional and subversive about nodding to a particular moment in time with language that refers only to a portion of it, and by including the adjective “long” to point to ongoing chronological tensions and inescapable throughlines.
To that end, will we name this moment in honor of the untimely deceased? Will we call it “the Mostly Silent Two Months,” to mark the delays between Ahmaud Arbery’s death and its national acknowledgment? Will we say “the Unbearable Eight Minutes and Forty-Six Seconds,” when we say their names, in honor of the approximate amount of time Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck? When we are flipping through history books in 2070, will we see sections on this moment and its misogynoir titled “the Long Sudden Death,” to memorialize Breonna Taylor’s murder? Should we term it “The Recurring Smoke Break,” to reference Sandra Bland, who was smoking a cigarette when she was pulled over by Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia, and whose refusal to put it out resulted in Encinia saying “I will light you up” and threatening to drag her out of her car; the smoking has been cited as an escalating event for his arresting her, an event which somehow led to her being found hanged in a Waller County, Texas jail cell three days later. It would also evoke two men who couldn’t breathe (Elijah McClain, who Aurora, Colorado police killed last year, is another): Eric Garner, who was killed in July 2014 after selling loose cigarettes, and Floyd, who was allegedly buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill when he was apprehended? The phrase would nod to both the prevalence of smokes in these critical murders and the reason those people might have been buying, selling, and puffing on them in the first place; the Midlife in the United States Study, conducted between 2004-2006, determined that there’s a strong relationship between the smoking habits of Black Americans and our feelings of “psychosocial stress,” which we experience at higher levels relative to other groups.
Maybe we call this moment “the Audubon,” to reference both pandemic chirping and the bird-protection society Christian Cooper belongs to, to evoke the moment when Amy Cooper called the police on him under false pretenses. Perhaps we will describe this time as “the Albatross,” to reflect, again, the preponderance of pop-ornithology in the first six months of this year, and also the rampant inequity America has yet to fully address. We might refer to this era as “the Great Ramble,” to allude to the word’s many connotations, including Central Park’s lush woodland where the Cooper-Cooper interaction took place, and the peaceful gallivanting Ahmaud Arbery had in mind when the longtime runner set out on his jog. I think he’d planned to ramble—in fact was rambling, spreading out, pleasurably exploring the world on foot—when he was snuck up from behind and shot.
Maybe we call this spring “Winter in America,” for the ways that the song is being figured into the mood of the past month, and the entire Trump era, as Jack Halberstam wrote in the immediate days after the 2016 election. Who better than Gil Scott-Heron, that bard of grit, sweetness, abject realism, and Black sensitivity, to re-emerge at this moment? His messages, like an unbroken line, are always relevant, and frequently come back into vogue. Consider the re-emergence of his 1981 track “B-Movie,” a reflection on the entwinement of politics and celebrity circa Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term, which gained some prominence back in the first days of Donald Trump’s administration for its seeming prescience. “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the 1966 nuclear meltdown that took place thirty miles from there, was incredibly forward-looking in its foreshadowing of the D’s environmental racism and the city’s rebuild. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is now having a moment—has a moment every few years when there are widespread protests, when we catch a police murder on cell phone sousveillance and body and dash cam footage, when reporters are dropped into Ferguson and Minneapolis to capture uprisings on location. In Winter in America’s liner notes, Scott-Heron called winter a metaphor for “the period of our lives through which we are traveling.” In a live version of “Winter in America,” Scott-Heron put the conditions the song explores into allegorical terms:
I’ll tell you a story: there used to be an agreement between the seasons…they agreed that they would more or less come and stay about three months each and then they would go to wherever seasons go when they’re not where you are. And this would be a cycle and it would go on all the time. And then one year in America, one of the seasons got mad and decided it was going to stay. It decided that the way things were done there made it feel at home…It wasn’t in terms of the temperature, it was in terms of the philosophy, the politics, the psychology, the way things were going in those directions. And so for a long time now, where we come from there has been no spring, no summer, no fall. We have been taken over by the season of ice. Very few people recognize it for what it is although they feel uncomfortable. Very few people recognize the fact that the seasons don’t change…I mean, you get politically acclimated, you get philosophically acclimated. You start to relate everything to the season of ice. And so your dreams become frozen and your ideas become frozen, and your promises become frozen…frozen aspirations and frozen inspirations.
In a 2009 interview with Vibe writer Jalylah Burrell, Scott-Heron further explained the conception of the song and the album of the same name, which had been released a year before the song premiered. “We felt as though we had come across something that people did not understand or did not recognize but that’s the season that we were going into, not for three months but for an extended period of time.” He noted that “a lot of the folks who represented summer and spring and fall had been killed and assassinated” like the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King. It’s somewhat notable that the song “Winter in America,” was written and recorded after its namesake album was released; it originally premiered on Winter in America’s successor, The First Minute of a New Day (1975) but has since been added to later pressings of Winter.
Because of the significance of its name over the past week, I can’t help but think of Juneteenth, another work made in the spirit of continuous alteration, as “Winter” was, and which directly and elliptically speaks to this moment. The belabored publication of the novel, Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second book, shares similar interests with “Winter in America,” including American political turmoil and the country’s own ongoing revision. The book, which was released in 1999, concerns the life of a child of ambiguous race who is raised by a Black preacher and goes on to become a race-baiting senator. Juneteenth is a swirling, expansive text suffused with considerations of high political crime, conspiracy, the construction of identity, and acts of self-editing and reimagination. (Based on interviews Ellison gave, one reviewer was left with the impression that the book “seemed intended to encompass the entirety of black experience in [the twentieth] century.”) By many accounts, Ellison’s original manuscript and much of his notes were destroyed in a 1967 fire, though from 1960 to 1977, he published eight excerpts of the book. After Ellison’s death, in 1994, Juneteenth was compiled by his friend and literary executor John F. Callahan. In Juneteenth’s introduction, Callahan suggests that Ellison had regained a solid draft by 1980, but vacillated over the years about how much he’d actually lost in the fire. In 2010, the book was republished as the thousand-page Three Days Before the Shooting…, a title which reflects the narrative’s zig-zagging through time, and highlights the novel’s key event.
I am fascinated by the conception and publication of this book in its many forms and iterations over the years, and the assertion that Ellison came to overrepresent the damage of the fire, sometimes blaming it for what he couldn’t produce. If this allegation is true, what does fire cover up, both in Ellison’s story and the American narrative? Why was there a fifty-year gap between the publication of Invisible Man and Juneteenth? What happened in the gap? And why did a man like Ellison, who was interested in distinguishing between the binary of “literary fact” and “historical fiction,” as this 2002 essay by Callahan lays out, leave his magnum opus to be constructed without his involvement, further troubling the line between those two concepts? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the intra- and extratextual issues encircling Juneteenth prompt an investigation into timelapses, history, naming, fire, and the trauma of waiting. Ultimately, the circumstances of Juneteenth’s creation echo the intrinsic delay of the historical event it calls back to. James Alan McPherson has suggested that he believed Ellison was “trying to solve the central problem of American literature,” and “he was trying to find forms invested with enough familiarity to reinvent a much broader and much more diverse world for those who take their provisional identities from groups.” He summed his feelings by asserting he thought Ellison was attempting to “Negro-Americanize the novel form.” For that reason: what if we call this entire spring “Juneteenth,” to nod to the country’s hopeful reinvention, the Negro-Americanizing of change, and the waiting that’s been endemic to it?
Springtime in Philadelphia is an annual callback to gaps, fires, and the seasons that have disappeared, or which have blurred into one consolidated season of ice. In Gene Demby’s piece on MOVE 30 years later, he notes the devastation of the inferno and the period of grief and confusion that resulted afterwards.
By the time firefighters brought the fire under control a little before midnight, 61 houses on that once-tidy block had been completely destroyed. Two hundred fifty people were suddenly, shockingly, without homes. It was the worst residential fire in the city’s history. In the end, 11 people died in that fire on Osage Avenue, including five children. Weeks passed before the police were able to identify their remains.
All this time later, the anguish is still with us. As “urban culture observer and adventurer” Bobbi Booker offered in a Medium essay on the bombing published last month, “MOVE is still a hurt piece for Philadelphians…While it took days to extinguish the fire that raged there in 1985, in reality it has smoldered for decades. And it still hurts.” Twelve thousand, eight hundred and twenty eight days after the firebombing of MOVE, one hundred-twenty five days after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, one hundred and six days after the shooting of Breonna Taylor, thirty-three days after the murder of George Floyd, at the beginning of a summer’s worth of probable revisions to this country’s credos and unkept promises, I meditate on periodization and perennial disquiet. As we move into summer, I literally shiver at the cold treatment of Black people, which is prevalent here, especially when a clip from Javier Ambler’s death video plays in an article without my awareness and I accidentally catch a glimpse of it. I actually get chills when I read Breonna Taylor’s tweets, or see her smiling with her EMT certificate, or look at Rem’mie Fells’s selfies; you take a selfie casually, when you have time on your hands. I consider what Scott-Heron said about the wicked agreement between the seasons in this country. As it warms up and gets ever muggier here on the East Coast, I think of the frozen aspirations of George Floyd, who was starting a new career as a truck driver and bouncer when he was killed, and Breonna Taylor, who before she was shot had been following her dream of helping people by working as an EMT, who planned to become a mother this year, and who wanted to live. Last December she tweeted, “I wish I could see the future.” She wanted to see herself here.
Maybe we use the Black American naming tradition to dub this moment, since in general, that tradition emphasizes creating a linkage to the past while suggesting a new future. Or maybe we signify it like book titles. After a Black book. I’m thinking of how Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon explicitly highlights the Black naming tradition, and is partially about the power of naming oneself. The contrast between the “heavy” moniker of the first Macon Dead (aka Jake), a mistaken name “scrawled in perfect thoughtlessness by a drunken Yankee in the Union Army,” and the given name of Pilate Dead, the book’s heroine, who was named in the break between Black American and Christian biblical conventions, demonstrates the difference between rigid and reflexive traditions. (As this article on biblical naming and poetic etymology points out, the proper names in the Bible are not “rigid designators,” because they were meant to invoke ancestry.) Or we name it after a Black event, like Juneteenth, as Ellison did, or the MOVE bombing, as John Edgar Wideman did in his 2005 novel Philadelphia Fire. Incidentally Isabel Wilkerson named The Warmth of Other Suns after both a Black event and a piece of Black writing: a note from Richard Wright’s Black Boy, which was itself inspired by Black flight, and his own great migration from Mississippi to Chicago. The passage is stunning:
I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown…I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.
I might like to call this spring “To Bloom,” in honor of Wilkerson, in honor of Wright, in honor of his movement, inspired by the possibilities he was inspired by. And “To Bloom” has another layered meaning: after the season of ice comes spring. In Winter’s liner notes, Scott-Heron predicted a “spring of brotherhood and united spirits among people of color.” He observed that “Black people have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination,” and “everyone is moving, searching.” He continued, “There is a restlessness within our souls that keeps us questioning, discovering, and struggling against a system that will not allow us space and time for fresh expression.” In the case of Elijah McClain, who was walking home from the store when the police arrested him, wearing a ski mask because, as his younger sister told The Denver Post, he had anemia and would easily get cold, and who died trying to express who he was—a vegetarian, “an introvert,” “just different,” someone who doesn’t kill flies and judge people—that message still eerily applies.
Perhaps we look, respectfully, to MOVE. I’m gripped by Gene Demby’s observation that Ramona Africa, who survived the bombing, and several of her former neighbors, those who lived in MOVE’s two-block radius, recite the full name and date—“May 13, 1985”—when recalling the event. The invocation of this date is unlike the listing of boring, unmemorable days in history books, and yet it doesn’t convey the branding of something like a “Summer of Love.” The full recitation of that date feels like a nod to the unbroken line, in that it is imbued with commemoration, and means something different to each person who says it. Some of the meaning of MOVE’s name applies to what activists are doing now (and have been doing), and that group’s “conscious desire to be uncategorizable,” as Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a writer quoted in the Demby piece suggests, fits the idea behind expanding neat, seasonal language. Again, the name means “MOVE, work, generate, be active,” because “everything that’s alive moves” and “if it didn’t, it would be stagnant, dead.” We should call this moment something that symbolizes honoring the Black people we have lost—lose everyday—to state violence, as well as work, generation, and activity, the nitty gritty actions of protest and resistance. If we didn’t, the name would be a rigid descriptor. It would be stagnant, dead.