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.”