I

THE IDEA FOR MY TEN-MINUTE SESSION COMES TO ME SOON AFTER I RESPOND to Candace Hunter’s call for participants. She asks friends—fellow artists, collectors, and other supporters—to sit across from her in silence on her house’s front lawn on a Sunday afternoon, the first weekend in June. We will sit six-feet apart and masked at scheduled intervals, follow the protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We will take a moment to contemplate how we endure during a pandemic that by late May has killed too many Black people. We are participating in making art and in documenting this pandemic.

At first, I consider wearing multiple masks, one on top of the other. I will take each off with a dramatic air as if I were a burlesque performer teasing the artist by revealing part of my body that doctors and the governor have urged everyone to put away in public. I quickly abandon that approach, fearful that I will accidently remove one mask too many. I am afraid that I will be clumsy and expose my full face, my breath. What if I carry this virus in my lungs and have no symptoms? I’ve carried others. Viruses are so lightweight and significant. Did I pick up latent TB while taking the El or living with squatters in Windhoek as a grad student?

Candace sends her invitation three hours before a Minneapolis police officer puts his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost ten minutes. The video goes viral. Later, I will wonder if my Twitter is Black enough. I manage for a few days to avoid seeing clips of the actual murder, an extrajudicial killing of a Black man around my own age. Videos unmask the horror of police violence against Black men, but our collective outrage at individual deaths masks the fact that police kill three people every day in the U.S. Too many of the dead are Black (but I know half of the total are white). I learn that almost a third to half, all too many, live with an invisible disability, bearing mental illness or disease that does not disfigure the body in a way anyone can see. Smartphones and body cams cannot capture a chemical imbalance in the brain, a poisonous virus in the blood, or an infection in the lungs. We only see an interaction that an officer turns deadly too quickly. Later, sometimes, we discover the deceased’s actions reflect a health crisis. Nearly 1,000 deaths by police in a year averages out to almost three a day. I smooth out the stats, my mind a hand running over creased fabric.

But this invitation concerns the pandemic, and the almost 100,000 lives lost in this country by the time I sit down across from Candace in her yard on that first Sunday in June. Too many of the dead are Black folk, taken by the virus that finds opportunity in the wealthiest country where people go without healthcare. I will sit in front of the artist’s home that is blocks away from vacant lots and boarded up houses. I will sit in a neighborhood where it is easier to buy chips and soda and beer than fresh vegetables and bread. The virus finds opportunity to thrive where Black people struggle to live. 

II

GOVERNOR PRITZKER MANDATES THAT starting May 1, all Illinois residents must wear a face covering when they are in public and cannot practice social distancing. I start wearing a mask in public at least ten days before May 1.

April 4: I email a local company about masks I ordered on March 31. This week, I also buy six masks for $5 each from a seamstress in my neighborhood. She gives me a seventh one for free. I wonder if my halting Spanish amuses or impresses her. I just want to respect her, to acknowledge that I live in a largely Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. As I walk to stores and the laundromat, I notice the English and Spanish signs in house and apartment windows—we are in this together.

April 24: I set up a subscription to receive two masks every month. Those masks—a tie dye spiral and a Steven Universe Lion—arrived on May 13. I hate seeing people wear masks of skulls. Aren’t these times scary enough? I don’t want a reminder of death when I’m trying to choose vegetables in the grocery store.

Just like the State of Illinois, I try to procure my own PPE to build up a stockpile. I bring six different masks with me when I sit down across from the artist.

What a blessing it is to still be employed, to have a roof over my head and steady internet access so that I can shop for face coverings with images and designs on them. Since mid-March I have been in self-quarantine, sheltering in my apartment. Five hundred fifty square feet. My thoughts turn to squatter communities in Namibia whose residents don’t have these luxuries or even basic amenities like indoor plumbing. It is a privilege to leave the house thinking about which face mask best coordinates with an outfit.

The invitation is for the first Sunday of June, and I still haven’t finished sewing two masks I started to make from old T-shirts back in April.

III

I SIT ACROSS FROM the artist in silence for ten minutes: one minute for every 10,400 persons lost to the coronavirus in the USA by early June.

I open the kudu leather satchel I purchased in Namibia in August 2019.

I hold up the Steven Universe Lion mask. I bought it because I liked the image and I like the warm message of love and courage this cartoon expresses through its characters. The mask brings a smile to Candace’s face. Smize: I see the smile in the artist’s eyes.

Candace recognizes the Chicago flag mask when I hold it up. I came to Chicago 25 years ago. It was a month after 700 died of heat, stuck alone in hot apartments because they lived in neighborhoods too scarred by violence and crime. I’ve lived elsewhere, but I willingly come back to this city where I have found professional opportunities. I know Chicago has offered a cold shoulder for decades to Black people who continue to make big plans in the face of corruption, neglect, and the conscious withdrawal of resources. Too many Black people are dying from this virus here and across the nation, and I wonder if I have turned away too because I’m doing all right in my career. Am I doing enough to speak out against closing schools and health clinics? Am I supporting Black businesses enough? Opposing policing as usual which results too often in Black suffering? Bearing witness can be heavy; its demands for fortitude and perseverance require a different strength than taking a daily pill or wearing a mask to block a virus.

The First Responder Pride mask: fifty white stars on a black field with black bars on top; followed by a yellow bar, a green one, a white one, a gold one, and a red one. I’m proud of the medical workers. We call them heroes for saving lives, for risking their own, for sacrificing their own safety, sleep, time with family, and selfish pleasures. Of course, heroes have powers mere mortals don’t. So, nurses and doctors, EMTs, firefighters, grocery store clerks, slaughterhouse workers, delivery drivers, and agricultural workers don’t need PPE, better and safer working conditions, or hazard pay. Just our praise is enough to sustain a hero.

I turn the First Responder Pride mask upside down: my silent cry of distress. Candace nods.

Unhappy the land that needs heroes, Bertolt Brecht says, and for the first time, I truly understand.

IV

I PUT MY MASKS away. I sit across from Candace, unable to see her full face. I know what the mask covers: a smile and a mouth that has spoken kindly, honestly, and with humor to me. A mouth that has spoken passionately about art and art making and spoken honestly about the challenges of being an artist, a woman, a Black woman artist.

The mask over my own lips and nose covers my fears about mortality. I have to outrun this virus that is killing too many Black people just like I have tried to outrun another virus that killed too many gay men. I have to outrun this virus so the only child in the family can outlive his parents, aunt, and great aunt. I succeeded in ridding my body of latent TB by taking a daily pill for nine months. I’m outrunning HIV by taking a daily pill until who knows when. I have to outlive this virus because I remember three days in ICU and eleven in the hospital fighting meningococcal disease and pneumonia five years ago.

I know the importance of breath. I remember the medical procedure that drained my lungs of fluid during that hospitalization. I felt that paper balloon fill with air as I lay on my side in the operating room. I remember the long road to recovery after that two-week hospital stay. I had to force myself to walk daily and for longer distances. A month out of the hospital, I still felt weak. I wake up many mornings grateful and relieved to take a full breath of air into my lungs.

I haven’t been to the gym since early March. I miss the pool. I learned to swim in my late 20s. I would see sailboats on Lake Michigan when I was in grad school. I wanted to be on that water, to skillfully harness the wind. First, I had to learn that moving through water requires blowing bubbles that would push my fear of drowning just ahead of me in the pool. I have sailed a few times off Chicago’s beaches, enjoyed the view of the city from the water. And for years I swam at least twice a week at the gym where I am often the only Black body in the water.

This virus has pushed me to ride my bike more.

V

MY LITTLE SHOW OF masks lasts less than two minutes; we have eight more minutes of afternoon sunlight together, sitting in silence before I get up so the next participant can sit across from Candace. Eight minutes: the length of time a Minneapolis cop held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, killing him.

Through Twitter and news reports, I see images of people taking to the streets to protest. My boyfriend attends a protest in his neighborhood. I tell him that I am proud of his action. I am also surprised. He has been strict about staying home as much as possible. We saw each other for the first time in more than two months over Memorial Day weekend. I circle a date two weeks from now when I will be able to see his handsome face in person rather than as a square on my phone or laptop.

I feel guilty that I haven’t joined in these demonstrations for Black lives, for trans lives, for an end to police brutality. I can’t get this virus.

I make a few keystrokes to donate to the city’s only Black queer non-profit, to a bail relief fund, to the church down the street after I see a line of people waiting to receive a free meal. I like and retweet messages of outrage over George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s murder, so many murders. I still wonder if I am doing enough. Bearing witness isn’t like wearing a mask.

I wonder if we are really all in this together. On a bike ride to donate books to a literacy charity, I see signs on the 18th Street storefronts: Protege su barrio/Protect your neighborhood. I ride my bike on shorter trips, not venturing into parts of the city I do not know well. I stick to major streets with bike lanes. I don’t want people protecting their neighborhood to see me as a threat. I don’t want to be harmed simply for being a Black man out of place.

VI

THAT SUNDAY MORNING IN early June, I ride my bike from Pilsen, take Western Avenue south to 35th Street, and then head directly east to enter Bronzeville before turning south to the Candace’s coach house. She lives only a few blocks from the Obamas.

So I don’t see the city sanitation trucks and the raised bridges forming the outline of a mask around downtown Chicago until I bike home. We are not all in this together; we never have been. I breathe deeply and continue to pedal, pushing my fears in front of me. I will outlast this virus; I will do what I can to end police violence. I will do all this with fear that these actions are never enough.

Clinton Nichols
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