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Grief as Pandemic in an Afrofuturist Novel
Dune’s grief came in the form of anger at herself. She had taken so much time for granted. She had wasted hours and hours of quality time with people that she could never see again. So often she had let her mother’s words wash over her, not asking questions, not allowing her mother to have honest conversations with her. She had gotten stuck in the prescribed dynamics of any daughter in her teens with a mother who confused love and control. Dune had thought she had time.
It’s not that she didn’t believe in death, it’s that she didn’t properly feel it. She didn’t understand what happened afterwards, for the people who lived. She’d grown up dabbling on the edge of systemic faith debates that focused on what happened for those who died. They went to heaven, they became nothing, they became everything. Debating that which could not be known didn’t matter much to Dune, so she had spent nearly no time worshipping. And she had spent no time exploring the challenge before her now: how was she supposed to survive? And how was she supposed to forgive herself for surviving?—From Grievers by adrienne maree brown.
I exhaled in relief when I first read that my friend and Afrofuture colleague adrienne maree brown had written a book titled Grievers. As a current griever, I knew adrienne’s treatment of such a vulnerable experience would be true and generous. Thankfully, I was right. I don’t think I would trust another to take me on this Detroit-centered journey. Her love of Detroit pulses throughout Grievers, turning the novella into a love letter. I hope she knows Detroit loves her in equal measure, if not more.
Grievers is a work of speculative fiction that begins as Dune tends to the body of her mother, Kama, who has died of a mysterious new illness. It strikes people in the midst of ordinary life, freezing them in a sort of living death that lasts for days or weeks until their bodies finally expire. Doctors describe this state as being something like severe depression or PTSD, and name the illness, which spreads throughout the city and only strikes Black people, as “Syndrome H-8.” The name is notable.
We try to manage the chaos of grief while trying to function and participate in the world. We often fail.
Living in Detroit, through Dune, we witness the slow unfolding of a mystery and horror. In intimate detail, adrienne walks us through the city and its transformation as Detroiters fall ill and all the systems that support the life of a city break down. While managing the confusing changes, Dune cares for her decidedly mute grandmother, Mama Vivian, and does a great job of surviving this apocalypse. Dune’s mapping of abandoned city gardens to glean, and gaining new skills like cooking, canning, and gathering supplies, are examples of what to do when the unexpected calls upon you.
Like Dune, I am an only child of two parents who are no longer in the physical realm. I was born and raised in Detroit and returned home 12 years ago. I spent the last four years tending to and ignoring my parents’ slow deaths. I tried to make their lives pleasurable, secretly hoping the inevitable would disappear. It’s a hard and heavy place to be as an only child. Adrienne captures the torture of this unique experience, the emotional weight of watching your parents and city struggle at the same time. She breathes magic into the most inarticulate moments of our lives and paints a portrait of grief so lovely I thought she was feeling my heartache.
Grief can end all productivity. The stranglehold of grief makes it difficult to feel and see beauty. The pain consumes you. The pain of loss, unrealized dreams, shame, regret, and guilt. We try to manage the chaos of grief while trying to function and participate in the world. We often fail. In Grievers, adrienne gives us gentle mercy for our failing and grieving.
As we mourn, we keep moving so grief doesn’t catch us.
As we mourn, we keep moving so grief doesn’t catch us. But in Grievers, Detroiters have been caught, each death reflecting the fragility of our current reality. Any one of us could be caught and held by grief, slowly dying. The syndrome that besieges Detroit transforms Dune into a death doula. She refuses to leave, wanting to care for everyone and to find a cure. Detroit is not a toxic place for Dune. It is home. We feel her love for Detroit as she carefully lays to rest Black body after Black body. She is gentle and kind, compassionate while wading in a cruel and unrelenting drama. She won’t leave the dying. Instead, she confronts the horror, dives in, and grabs hold of everyone she finds so that they may at least die in peace with comfort and perhaps dignity. I admire Dune, and wish for strength like hers.
In Grievers, adrienne delivers some of the most tender and sensitive parts of Detroit. Shining through is Dune’s fierce love and loyalty, a loyalty many Detroiters are known for. A devotion not only to Detroit but also to the Blackness that is the city. By loving Detroit, you love the Black body. And by loving the Black body, you love yourself. But this flesh and blood can only hold so much, stay angry for so long. Our Black bodies can only fight for, march for, and demand justice for a limited amount of time. After a while, the bough breaks. Grievers shows us what happens when the Black body, mind, and soul have reached capacity.
The forces against the Black body in Detroit are multiple. Anti-blackness is embedded in all systems controlling the 78% Black city—cultural, social, economic, spatial, and environmental. Resourced racism is bound to drive people crazy. And the gaslighting doesn’t help. During the first few years after I returned home to Detroit, I was shocked by how these oppressive systems were so brazen, always ready to create trauma. To find solutions, I first turned to the activist community. Their passion, intelligence, strategy, and sharp analysis of the injustice to Detroiters opened my eyes. I immediately fell in love. For the first time, I was able to gain intimate insights into what it took for advocates of justice to show up and show out.
We need the truth-seekers, the justice-fighters, to carry us through the heavy weight of loss, change, and decay.
Detroit’s activist community was so impressive that it inspired people to visit and experience it for themselves. They would travel from all over the world to sit at the feet of legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs, whom we see reflected in the character of Mama Vivian. Boggs was a living ancestor who dedicated her life to liberation. As she gracefully aged as a centenarian, I watched how friends and admirers cared for her, including adrienne, in a way that was simply beautiful. Grace and the work of her husband, James Lee Boggs, have inspired actions for liberation around the world. Their home now serves as a gathering spot and as a library for their written work and references. When reading Grievers, I couldn’t help but place Dune and her family in that house.
As adrienne illustrates, we need the truth-seekers, the justice-fighters, to carry us through the heavy weight of loss, change, and decay. They advocate on our behalf, and in return, we need to make sure we give them care and gratitude. Perhaps Grievers is a warning that activists cannot do the heavy lifting alone because if they do, one day the grief will consume them.
Grievers is the first novella in a planned series by adrienne, and the first in “Black Dawn,” a planned speculative fiction series from AK Press, so look for more to come from adrienne’s vision of Detroit, and from other writers of the Afrofuture.
Ingrid LaFleur is a globally recognized curator, design innovationist, pleasure activist, and Afrofuturist. She's committed to exploring and implementing forward-thinking solutions across multidisciplinary industries, including but not limited to art, technology, education, social enterprise, and finance. She can be reached at ingridlafleur.com