In her column “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
My great aunt Cora Mae can’t hear well. She is ninety-eight years old. When the global pandemic reached Michigan, the rehabilitation center where she was staying stopped accepting visitors. There were attempts at FaceTime, but her silence made it clear that for her, we had dwindled into pixelated ghosts. She contracted COVID-19 and has been moved again and again. When my mother calls to check on her every day, she makes sure to explain to hospital staff that my great aunt is almost deaf, that they have to shout in her left ear if they want to be heard.
Cora Mae has a bawdy sense of humor. Most of the time when she speaks, it’s to crack a joke that would make most people blush. She wears leopard print and prefers for her hair to be dyed bright red. I have tried to imagine her in the hospital, attempting to make sense of the suited, masked figures gesticulating at her. She doesn’t know about the pandemic. She doesn’t know why we’ve stopped visiting. All she knows is that she has been kidnapped by what must appear to be astronauts.
The film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, begins with a little black girl gazing up into the face of a white man wearing a hazmat suit. A street preacher standing on a small box asks: “Why do they have on these suits and we don’t?” He refers to the hazmat men as “George Jetson rejects.” It feels wild to watch the film right now, as governors begin to take their states out of lockdown knowing that black and brown residents will continue to die at unprecedented rates, taking a calculated risk that will look, from the vantage point of history, a lot like genocide. The film’s street preacher sounds obscenely prophetic. “You can’t Google what’s going on right now,” he shouts. “They got plans for us.”