Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The world-building of Ms. Comey's granddaughter

 Yesterday, I read a very interesting book review by Petal Samuel in Public Books, one of my favorite sites for reviews of academic books. Professor Samuel is a brilliant scholar in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She reviewed two books that explore speculative fiction and fugitive science. Her discussion of one of the books -- Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction -- particularly resonated with some recent, local events:

[In Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata, a novel Schalk analyzes], Perry’s black woman protagonist, Lizzie, is misdiagnosed, institutionalized, and inappropriately medicated because she shares her consciousness with her ancestors. Mental instability is attributed to those who resist white supremacist order and deployed as a way to discredit marginalized perspectives. Put simply, Schalk writes, “race and gender are important factors in who gets labeled mentally disabled and how a person is treated as a result of such a label.”

On Saturday, my partner and I were talking with a neighbor, when I heard someone nearby sobbing. It was the granddaughter of Ms. Melissa Comey [sp?], who had owned the house and Comey Hair Salon near 10th and C Streets, SE. Ms. Comey's granddaughter was reliving her life at that house and the loss of the Comey family home, the dispersal of her family members and community, which were, in her words, "all gone." The sobbing woman's grandmother had sold the house several years ago and her family was forced to leave, but her granddaughter had not abandoned her connections with the neighborhood that gentrification had forced her to leave. She explained that sometimes she forgets that she isn't living anymore in that time or this place. She shared stories with us about playing hopscotch on the sidewalk and parts of the life she lived here. Then she turned the corner and disappeared. To me, her arrival was a gift or maybe a very important message from the past about a different potential future.

A few minutes later, some people involved with helping the homeless approached us to ask where they could find Ms. Comey's granddaughter. They had their own perspective on the situation. They could only see Ms. Comey's granddaughter's sharing of "her consciousness with her ancestors" as mental illness. They wanted to arrange a quick intervention by mental health professionals. They deployed mental illness, in a way Schalk described: "as a way to discredit marginalized perspectives" like hers. 

Whatever mental illness she suffered, Ms. Melissa Comey's granddaughter also showed what Samuel called, "modes of black innovation, creativity, and improvisation in the face of ongoing social, economic, and intellectual oppression" and white supremacist order. She was able to envision and live within another world in which she or her family and neighbors still lived at 10th and C Streets, SE, a world in which she still had a home that her neighbors recognized, a world in which she was not classified as "homeless" and as "mentally ill." Ms. Comey's granddaughter and the many people like her, including the authors of speculative fiction that Samuel discuses, demonstrate "the capacity of black speculation and experimentation to generate world-building visions that are inclusive and sustainable for multiply marginalized black subjects." How many worlds and futures exist or are emerging around us? Are we hearing them or silencing them? Could we step into these worlds we are invited to view and take off into another future?