In 2016, Erykah Badu performed at Chene Park, now called the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, a beautiful, outdoor waterfront venue in Detroit overlooking Canada. Badu donated proceeds from that concert to the African American 490 Challenge, an organization trying to raise money to process 11,341 untested rape kits that had been abandoned for years at a Detroit police department storage facility. The initiative was named 490 after the dollar amount needed to test a single kit, each of which represents, the organization’s president Kim Trent emphasized, “a living, breathing victim.” Four years later, thanks to their work, 11,137 kits have been tested, and there have been 210 convictions. Eighty-one percent of the victims were Black women. You could call this an archive of negligence.
Recently, my great aunt Cora Mae joined a similar sort of archive. A few months ago, she shocked us all by surviving COVID-19 just shy of her ninety-ninth birthday. But afterward, she lost her appetite and, a few weeks ago, we lost her. Her body was held at a funeral home while my parents kept sending in requests for court permission to bury her. She was terrified by the idea of burning. After a maddening couple of weeks of sending and resending forms, converting Word docs to PDFs, getting things notarized, being sent back to square one again only to be told by the funeral director, “If this isn’t resolved by 4 P.M. I’m going to cremate the body,” we finally got my great aunt a proper resting place. She was buried in a plot at Mt. Elliott Cemetery on one of the first days of fall. “That’s the fastest I’ve seen anyone go through probate to bury a family member,” the hospice social worker told my mom. “I’ve seen it take years.” We thought our experience was an aberration, but apparently it’s common for bodies to wait in funeral homes—on ice, or forced into ash—in a kind of limbo that must devastate so many families.
Cora Mae loved to chew tobacco. She kept a covert spit cup in her hand like someone might hold a handkerchief. She’d often summon somebody over by curling her pointer finger, and give them money to go buy her more chew. Her voice was raspy, as if the effort to propel air through her throat took great effort, but there was also a honeyed quality that came through when she told a joke or a story or claimed innocence about something illicit. Both she and my grandmother began to tell stories toward the end of their lives about the men who had hurt them when they were young. Both she and my grandmother had in their arsenal a particularly childish mode of speaking, a gentle croon, a not-quite whine, though they were always also grasping their fingers around a more lethal, hidden option, just in case things got nasty. A story I’ve heard my great aunt tell over and over again involved her first and only husband and an ice pick. The doctor asked, “Cora, how’d this ice pick end up in Mr. Andrews’s foot?” As she reenacted the moment, she would shrug her shoulders and make her voice go up an octave: “I don’t know.” Then her tone would drop again, coming close to a growl: “I guess he stepped on it.”
Aunt Cora Mae survived life after Mr. Andrews by sporting jars of lye in her purse and stashing a gun underneath her pillow, but most useful to her, I imagine, was that girlish voice. This is how my Black female elders responded to the fact of being a particular kind of silenced, a particular kind of unseeable. In a society that recognizes Black females as neither fully adult nor ever truly innocent, they found a way to weaponize girlhood. That coy effect communicated both a sweetness and an edge. We often laughed when they spoke about their fondness for weapons, but never for a second did we doubt them.
In the second trimester of my pregnancy, I was having a difficult professional interaction over email. I felt distraught, like I couldn’t get this person to pay attention to me, and their silence hurt me more deeply than I could understand. I began to grind my teeth at night and would wake up in excruciating pain. One night, my wife tried to talk me through it. I told her, as an afterthought, about an article I’d read while unable to sleep, about how the reason Black women die more frequently during childbirth is simply because people ignore them. She wondered aloud if the reason I was so frustrated was because this email exchange triggered in me the much more paralyzing fear of being ignored during or after labor. As soon as she said it the throbbing stopped. When I finally went to the dentist, it turned out that I’d split my molar completely in two.
In the video for her song, “Window Seat,” Erykah Badu walks the route John F. Kennedy drove before he was assassinated. First, she takes off her shoes. A blurry man standing half a block behind her begins to look around, then follows her, collecting her things as she disrobes. She unzips her purple hoodie. She takes off her pants. She slips her thumbs underneath the waist of her underwear and pauses before bringing them down. Every time she takes something off, she seems to get a new rush of energy. She begins to run a little. Parents usher their children away as she passes.
The act was completely impromptu. On her Twitter feed, Badu said, the video was “shot guerilla style, no crew, 1 take, no closed set, no warning, 2 min., Downtown Dallas, then ran like hell.” This context makes the reactions of those around her all the more captivating. People peek at her while pretending not to care. She seems to be coasting a wave of adrenaline, coaching herself to keep going, committed to the act of becoming completely nude. At the end, she falls, as if struck by an assassin. This is not unlike the act of giving birth, during which, especially if you are able to labor naturally, you move through waves of adrenaline and oxytocin, toward an unthinkable act of opening. Though the video has its own themes and theses, stated explicitly at the end, what I’ve always been preoccupied by is the way her nakedness is an act of speech on behalf of black womanhood that nobody around her is able to ignore.
I’ve wanted to write about “Window Seat” as it relates to Detroit for years. I am drawn, perhaps, to the uncanny patriotism of this black woman retracing the last moments of a fallen president’s life, stripping her way toward an irrefutable, and radical, Americanness. It’s like Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Stars game—that exquisitely relaxed beat and altered tune were a way of claiming a country that tries at every turn to refuse us. Implicit in both actions is the importance of slowing, of prompting a kind of de-escalation for the observer, entering us into a new somatic rhythm.
Badu’s walk reminds me of a performance by the conceptual artist William Pope.L, in which he crawls on hot cement through New York City, holding a yellow flower. And also, it reminds me of a piece wherein the artist Gabrielle Civil holds a red rimmed mirror toward her audience as she reclines in the ocean surf, inviting viewers to see themselves attached to her body. A few years ago, I started to paint black performance artists. Amateur depictions of both these scenes live on canvases in my office. This allows me to ritualize and more fully enter into their chicanery. To feel into these ways of being heard by a world that will not listen.
Badu’s guerrilla walk beckons to mind, more recently, the protests that have been taking place in Detroit and other cities around the world for the last hundred days since George Floyd was murdered. The most obvious comparison would be the white woman who showed up naked to a protest in Portland, known as “Naked Athena,” facing her vagina squarely at a police line. I am moved by the bombastic nature of this action, by what so many have gleefully hash tagged, “pussy power.” But it’s the endurance and constant vulnerability of a community that shows up, night after night, in the face of increasing police violence, that astonishes me most.
My fears around the pandemic and my pregnancy have kept me from protesting with my body this year. I’ve been surprised to see that the marches in Detroit are largely absent from the national news—a grand gesture that has managed to evaporate into thin air, to be ignored or forgotten. But if you follow “Detroit will Breathe” on Instagram, there are black and white photographs of protester’s faces broken open in laughter and shouting and song. They have walked in solidarity with Yemen and Palestine. There are images of ocular bones bruised and broken by batons, swollen with tear gas. Calls for donations, a lawsuit against police brutality. Mostly this feed is full of photos torn through with joy. It is a spiritually indelible archive. Proof of life.
Erykah Badu was a doula, and is now a certified midwife. In one video online, she supports the performer Teyana Taylor while she moves through contractions in a bathtub. The two take turns singing and rhyming, even while Taylor’s eyes drift back in pain. Badu also sits with people in hospice, singing gospel hymns and playing Richard Pryor performances so they can laugh one more time. In the attempt to assuage my anxiety, I’ve found a Black doula to work with, who also works with incarcerated women. I’ve been lucky enough to take a birthing and prenatal yoga class with a queer Black doula, surrounded by other pregnant people of color. These efforts have helped me to cope with the intense fear of being forgotten. It has done incalculable good for me to weep and breathe and feel held by a group of people who know the same fear in their bones.
My aunt Katherine flew from Detroit to Los Angeles to help my mom after I was born. My great aunt Cora Mae moved to Detroit to live with my grandmother after my grandfather died. Both aunts acted as postpartum doulas of a kind. We lost them both this summer. There is something especially cutting to me about losing these aunties while awaiting the birth of my child, like some sort of cosmic test. On FaceTime, I told my aunt Katherine how much I loved her as her head craned backward, looking toward some unseen presence. As if reporting from another dimension, she told my cousin, “I’m washing the baby’s feet!”
We were granted access to visit my great aunt Cora Mae weeks after she recovered from COVID. I am convinced that the time she spent without seeing us in person took a toll on her spirit, prompting her to stop eating. Guilt made me obsessed with the idea that she should make it to the age of one hundred, and I rallied like a cheerleader. I showed her my belly. I tried to use the baby as bait. “We’re having a baby?” Her voice sang out as I revealed the bump. Later, she told me, in what felt like a goodbye, “You take good care of that baby.” The last time I saw her, she was deep asleep. I put the TV on mute and placed a photograph of her with my grandmother in her line of sight. I paced around her body, humming softly the songs that came into my head: “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby.” My wife said a prayer quietly to herself and soon after, the sun burst through the blinds, covering Cora Mae’s body as if in music, silver keys of light. My great aunt’s remarkable voice emerged only through periodic puffs and sighs. Her leg was curled up like a wing.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan Writers’ Program.