Legacies What Is Left, What Is Held, What Is Grown As Roots
Always the most vulnerable will die. There will be others, too, but it begins there. And we see, in slow moving real time, whose life is valued, whose life is not.
I am with my father on a Saturday morning buying mangoes, chutneys, and spices at the little Indian grocery store nestled in a corner of the strip mall in the small California town one over from ours.
I am nine. It is the first time I have been allowed to participate in the choosing of the mangoes. My hand hesitantly reaches toward a juicy looking red one and grasps it carefully, my eyes swiveling towards my father.
He shakes his head. “Turn it over.”
I do, and frown at the soft indentation of an unseen bruise on the underside of the fruit. I reach for another. My father shakes his head again. “Too green. It will be too hard,” he says.
I know he is right, looking at it upon reconsideration, but I have to see for myself—this is one of the many ways in which my mother says my father and I are too similar, in that way she has of letting both of us know that what we are doing is not, according to her, a good thing to be doing.
I touch the mango, pressing it gently within my hands, its rigid firmness echoing that of its larger, pig-skinned football twin and put it down.
I pause, considering the basket. You do not need to touch it to know it, my father has told me before. As a scientist, he knows well the necessity of a well-ordered, logical mind that can process and reason, analyze and conclude; in retrospect, decades later, I will understand that this is the most valuable thing he has given me to take out into the world.
“Look with your eyes,” he would always say. “Your mind is your most powerful thing. Think.”
I see the one that is right. It is red, fading slightly into greens and oranges like a strange sunset from an alien world. It looks outwardly soft, but I know the subtle firmness that will be held within.
The grocery store is so small that all we have to do is turn around from the mango basket and we are at the cashier’s register. It is the wife today, not the husband, her sari violet and gold, her gold bracelets chiming softly as she takes the money from my father and replaces the change in his hand, asking him, as she always did every Saturday morning, about my mother and my siblings, then his research; my father then asking about her husband and her four girls.
She would have laughed at one of his jokes; they had an easy rapport by then; it would have been over a year since we moved to town and her frightened eyes—like so many shopkeepers when they had first seen our Black bodies in that small white majority town—had widened, body tensing and hands resting underneath the counter until my father greeted her, his accent and silly jokes relaxing her until they established that one of her extended relatives had worked in the same city in Uganda as my father before they had both left because of the violence of dictator Idi Amin. In that moment of shared history, she began to see us as human beings, like her, not the stereotyped thuggish threats that she’d been made to fear. She would talk to us, then, away from that spot that held the store’s alarm button and its gun.
I would have watched the mangoes, spices, and sauces slide slowly by on the conveyor belt as my father paid and took his receipt, only my afropuffs and eyes visible as the ripe rinded smell wafted toward me, then away.
Rewind a few years earlier and here we are, my father and I, in his lab at the University of Minnesota. I am four or five years old. My afropuffs, my pink romper, and my father are my three favorite things about my life. I follow my father around, eyes wide in amazement. When we are home, I cry when he leaves and sit by the door with my stuffed elephant and a book until he comes back.
I am a determined child. My mother has given up on me.
I am the one, out of my four siblings, whom father takes to his lab on campus. He has just finished his doctorate and is happily puttering about his post-doc, not yet resigned and weary from years of corporate research gone high-priced and exclusive towards those he was trying to help back home in Uganda with his work on HIV and other viruses.
He shows me a round squiggly plastic toy thing and says it is an agar dish, and tells me to press my hand on it. I do, and we wait a few minutes, and then look at it under his microscope. I am confused; I ask where all these little black floating things came from, and he says they are bacteria, they came from my hand touching the agar dish. He says bacteria causes infection; he explains what infection is.
My mind is amazed. But then why am I not sick? I ask, if this is the bacteria and they make the infection?
Because of your immune system, my father tells me, explaining how this warrior inside my body protects me against disease.
My eyes grow wide in wonder, my mind spinning at the possibilities of science and the myriad unseen protections of the body—this entire world of the microscopic and the invisible, potent with harm.
My eyes grow wide in wonder, my mind spinning at the possibilities of science and the myriad unseen protections of the body.
I am thirty-nine. It is March of 2020. My father has been dead almost a year. My own son is seven, halfway between the two points the aching pendulum of my memory has swung between in this year of missing my father—him showing me how to choose mangoes at nine; him showing me science and thought a few years earlier.
My son tells me: “ When I miss baba at school, I cry on the inside so no one can see .” I cry in the spaces sunken with the memory of my father which I cannot escape in the living—in the kitchen while cooking dinner for my son, in the yard while weeding my garden.
Fathers die. It is what they do. Their ghosts comfort and haunt.
But I thought we would have more time.
As the anniversary of his death nears, there is a new and strange virus spreading. I cancel, reluctantly, plans to visit my father’s grave overseas in the spring.
The virus is novel and dangerous. But instead of science and safety, there is the noise of the president here, known for his lies, saying this disease decimating other nations worldwide is not a big deal. Seven months from now, a journalist will expose the president’s lies in a new book, supported by audio of the president admitting that he lied to the American people by downplaying the severity of the virus that he had known was deadly, but his supporters will still believe this seven-month cemented lie, begun here.
I think about what my father told me about viruses; first in his lab then later, when he was developing antiviral medicines in the eighties and early nineties for HIV treatments: How he would talk about the virus as a perfect organism—efficient, powerful, deadly. How the virus demanded we not underestimate it; that we be vigilant.
I let my father’s voice echo loud in my head, shutting out the noise of the world, and circle around these four points: There is no cure, there is no immunity, people may get sick and die at such a rate that hospitals cannot treat all of them. And it is unknown how extensive the damaging long-term effects on the body, especially the heart, lungs and brain, will be.
I do not go on my annual work trips—one to New York City, one to San Antonio; I participate in the meetings online instead. We wear masks. We social distance at home. People say I am overreacting, but I do not care.
And then the world, as we all know, explodes—is still exploding, in ripples and counter-ripples of disease, chaos, and political machinations.
The first story my father told me of his homeland when I was a child was of how he would climb the mango trees as a boy and reach up and pick the ripened bursts of gold and bite, the juices running down his face. “They never taste as good here,” he would finish. “Nothing does.”
Before he became a scientist, my father, like all the people who came before him in his family, was a farmer—although it is perhaps myopic to deny the art of growing things the appellation of a “science.” His type of farming was not the big agribusinessed GMOed American kind, but the organic, sustainable, and small kind; that was life in the small farming village community in which he grew up.
Later, once he came here to the States, he would work in his garden in the mornings, evenings, and weekends, making things spring slowly into life. I tried, a few times, to join him, but could not get the heavy black iron of the shovel to break through the earth. I would sit under a tree and read a book instead.
I always joked, when younger and a lover of science fiction and fantasy, that I would be useless in an apocalypse—I can’t do medicine and save lives, I can’t grow and harvest food—and I would vow to take an EMT class, a gardening workshop, but I would put it off. And now that the crisis is actually here—a viral pandemic, the West Coast aflame with orange skies and ashed air—all I have are questions for my father, who is not. This is how I know I am missing my father: when I find myself waiting for him to respond and realize that I actually have asked a question and am actually waiting —as if he can tell me:
How do you know where to plant the tomatoes? Why do all my houseplants die and why do only some of the perennials come back—and at different times? How do you keep the squirrels from eating the kale? How do you keep the netting from stifling the plants? Do I need special soil mix and fertilizer? How far apart should the seeds really be? How often do you water?
How come, after all that, nothing grows?
How come, after all that, nothing grows?
It has been widely reported that a surprisingly robust pandemic strategy had been tabled when the president learned that that it was these Americans: Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the working class, and the intersection of both who were being affected most by the global pandemic—and when the president learned that these first spring outbreaks were localized in states led mostly by leaders of the opposition.
I am not quite sure what the opposition party is doing. But I do know that there is a global pandemic that is being deliberately mismanaged by the ruling party of the man in control, in an effort to further suppress voting in fall’s presidential election and quietly dispose of the people that men like him deem the undesirable and expendable, lower castes of the society in a nationally tolerated and quiet ethnic cleansing.
Can you imagine what it feels like to be a Black person in this country watching the white people who try to kill us with guns—documented undeniably by national media—get honored by the president of our country at his convention to push for another four years in office? And this, on the same day we mourn the shooting of yet another Black young man fighting for his life in a hospital, shot by someone just like those white people with their guns onstage?
Can you imagine what it feels like to be a Black person in this country and see gangs of armed white men offered refreshment and applauded by law enforcement, national media, and the president for driving from out of state to shoot Black folks protesting that our lives matter enough to not get shot? And then watch these armed men like Kyle Rittenhouse, who, after shooting several people, walk away free and past police afterwards, before being finally arrested later at their leisure, and alive ?
Protesting and speaking out against anti-Black violence is not new; it has been a constant in my life since childhood. But since the pandemic began, we have had to protest, march, and demand justice for even more Black Americans killed or harassed by white violence: Ahmad Aubery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Jacob Blake. Even while this disease attacks us all, racism does not rest.
Sometimes, more than Covid-19 itself, I am more fearful of this other pandemic of anti-Black racism that intensifies against Black bodies when there is a crisis in America and white Americans need to let off steam, seen now most acutely in their pushing of democracy to its edge in support of the current President’s white supremacy and fascist aspirations.
With past and present racism, with environmental and medical racism, the result is that Black and Latinx people have been dying at twice the rate of white people of Covid-19 in New York City; at six times the rate of white people in Chicago. In Georgia, over 80% of hospitalized Covid-19 patients have been members of the Black community.
“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a White House Press briefing on April 14, 2020. “When you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”
We will all suffer in this crisis. Those who are already vulnerable because of racism and sexism, prior health issues, or financial insecurity will suffer more.
But to us, our lives still matter.
An incomplete list of all the times I want to talk to my father this year:
—When I want to make his cherry coffee cake and cannot find the recipe and understand I never will, and so will never eat this again.
—When my son rides a bike without training wheels for the first time.
—When I am scared about the president’s racism.
—When my son has a serious health issue and I cannot figure out what is wrong.
—When I try six consecutive times to make the blueberry muffin recipe he has left me and they will not taste or look the same as his.
—When my mother and his sister are sick in this global pandemic and I need to buy them food and we do not live in the same state.
—When I am scared about the president’s national and global destruction.
—When my son’s chronic health issue is finally diagnosed, and I have to figure out how to fix it, and how to pay for it.
—When the white supremacists burn my aunt’s block and attack the students at the university where I teach.
—When some of the folks who think people who look like me should not be in their boardrooms weaponize racism during the largest Civil Rights protest I have seen or been involved with in a while, and I am scared and exhausted.
—When my son’s father, whom we left to find safety in a domestic violence shelter when my son was a few months old, follows us here to our new hometown and begins to harass us again.
It is September 2020. In just a few months, the year will be ending. To date, over 200,000 Americans have died from Covid-19—an amount that both increases by the thousands each day and which experts say is underestimated. But what is, perhaps, equally disturbing is the rhetoric arising that these deaths, and other deaths, are necessary because “the cure must not do more harm than the disease.”
“There must be people who have to die,” said Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator my parents escaped from in the 1970s. It is how my family ended up in America.
Amin, at the time, was quoting Hitler, one of his horrific idols for efficiency in terror and killing. When we hear rhetoric like this now—that so many of us must die, or a certain group of people should die, and no one bats an eye—it is because Americans are so used to the idea of the vulnerable masses who must suffer for others to have the comfortable life of the desired, trademarked dream patented and sold as what it means to be of this country, when the reality is far from it—and not just for those of us here by the violence of theft of slavery or colonization or genocide.
Perhaps I am made so uneasy because I am the child of Africans whose generation saw how language like this, when combined with rabid allegiance to a leader and a general denial of truth, turned swiftly into violent action.
Always the most vulnerable will die. There will be others, too, but it begins there.
And we see, in slow moving real time, whose life is valued, whose life is not.
And we see, in slow moving real time, whose life is valued, whose life is not.
With the pandemic and its travel restrictions, we still have not been able to visit my father’s grave overseas. This separation is what I had feared when I was told he had changed his plans, no longer wishing to be buried in southern California, but back home in Uganda.
Instead, the flowers we bought for him one of the last times we went to the grocery before quarantine bloom underneath his picture in my kitchen, nurtured by the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows streaming in as my son and I do our work at the kitchen table as we have done since schools went remote in March. There is lavender, because it was his favorite, and the succulents like those that used to border the front yard of his house in southern California. That we have kept the plants alive this long is a rarity for me, the daughter of a long line of farmers who cannot keep any growing green garden successfully thrivant.
When political pressure forced the opening of school in opposition to scientific advice this fall, many parents were forced, accordingly, into decisions with no good options. Because of my son’s asthma, I opted out of in-person learning. Because of my son’s severe anxiety around visitations with his father that had begun to affect all aspects of his life, including his schoolwork, and the school’s admittedly lower priority towards remote learning, the only alternative left was homeschooling.
All summer, the rhetoric being pushed by the Trump administration was that kids were immune to Covid-19, but kids were at home and not doing school or activities. In the short time kids have been out in the community like adults, there has been a much higher case count for kids. But they are being used as guinea pigs to test the virulence of an unknown virus that science cautions is spread in these exact conditions. Within two weeks of fall instruction, “70,630 new child cases were reported from Aug 20 through September 3,” reports CNN . “This is a 16% increase in child cases.”
Even while I struggle to convince my son’s father to follow Covid-19 precautions on his twice monthly visitation—a stress in itself—I know I am fortunate in the privilege that allows me to homeschool my son and work from home because of our health issues, unlike other single mothers I know who have had to balance childcare and working outside the home, and are now dealing with the presence of Covid-19 in their families as a result.
My son and I are living now in a time that we are surviving, I know, in large part because of what my father prepared me to do in this strange new world where the first thing my son and I must do when coming in from our daily bike ride—because asthma, because homeschool—is to take off our face masks and wash the two of us down; place our clothes in the bin to be laundered.
It is not just the science—what my father told me, what he taught me about viruses, about disease and health and safety—that has guided each of my choices the past six months as people, exhausted and without end in sight, begin to relax into the president’s claims of normalcy and the spread of disease and death skyrocket; as we try to use what little privilege we have to help keep loved ones and those working in the community safe.
It is not just his history—my father’s knowing how to prepare to survive in times of desperate crisis, and then actually doing so—that he inhaled with the air back home during Amin’s time, saturating my childhood.
Thinking about what is left, in this first year of my father’s absence, I am understanding it is about what came before. When, without me knowing it—in his lab, in the grocery store—he was showing me concepts of self-definition and independent thought before I could understand how vital this lifeline would be for me as a Black woman in America, where Black womanhood is rarely respected and more often devalued, stereotyped, and violated. This is science, called logic ; my father taught me. This is how you choose a good mango , called discernment.
Which is to say it began with seeing, with trusting your mind; your perception and ability to reason, to think.