Review of adrienne maree brown's Grievers
Several years ago, the writer Claudia Rankine published a poignant essay in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.” The work can also be found in Jesmyn Ward’s edited volume, The Fire This Time (2017). Rankine’s piece eloquently delineates the many reasons being black in this country gives people of African descent ample reason to be mournful. She writes, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning into this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.” Living under this pall puts us in a perpetual state of grief that no amount of crying or wailing can alleviate. Because we know in our bones that even before we finish one wail, we will be assailed with yet another reason to keep it going, even louder and longer. This FACT should make all of us mournful.
If we’ve been paying attention at all then we know that black life has never been valued beyond how it can be devoured by the capitalist white supremacist machine. Rankine make plain the many ways that this is so. Although the essay was published several years ago, it continues to haunt me. How could it not when in addition to the big and everyday assaults against black humanity that are common knowledge within our communities the world was made aware of it when the COVID 19 pandemic revealed the larger, longer pandemic of racism that we suffer and die with and under? And although the symptoms of that larger, longer pandemic continue to manifest, “the world” has moved on. Black people continue to grieve.
More recently Nneka M. Okona wrote an article for Yes! Magazine titled “The Imposition of Black Grief.” She observes in the article that, “For Black people in the United States, grief and loss are intertwined with our very being. Our ancestors knew the trauma of loss intimately; many of us, myself included, are descendants of those enslaved. The institution of chattel slavery throughout this country—not just in the Southern states—depended upon breaking up families in order to use our Black bodies for labor. We lost so much then. Though we’re generations removed from it now, those losses remain within us, embedded in our consciousness and our psyche, lying dormant in our bodies.
A few nights ago, just before I pulled my quilts over my weary body and settled in, I finished up Grievers, a recently published novella by adrienne maree brown. I first learned about brown’s work several years ago when she published Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, a collection of essays inspired by science fiction writer, Octavia Butler’s explorations of human beings’ fraught, often resistant relationship to change. I also picked up brown’s follow-up offering, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which, through a black feminist lens, explores how social activism can be a source of joy and pleasure. These are just two of brown’s many publications and offerings.
While I can’t see myself reading her nonfiction writing beyond her Yes! magazine column, “Murmurations,” anytime soon simply because there are other stories I’m more invested in at the moment—as a literature addict, when I found out about Grievers, I couldn’t resist the pull to dive in.
Grievers, the first in a series, launched “AK Press’s new speculative fiction series Black Dawn, dedicated to authors creating “alternate realities through visionary works that imagine different ways of seeing, being in, and remaking the world.” The second in the series, recently released, is titled Maroons.
Grievers’ main character, Dune, is of Black and Chinese heritage. Her mother, Kama, is patient zero for Syndrome H-8, a mysterious illness that renders people catatonic until their bodies give out and they die.
The opening pages of the novella were a bit disorienting for me, partly because I didn’t recognize Dune as the name of a person. It is also partly because the narrative begins with a disorienting scene with Dune moving Kama’s body from her bed to the makeshift funeral pyre that she’s built in the backyard. Indeed, disorienting--as it should be. We learn in the opening pages that Kama, African American, had been married to Dune’s now-deceased father, Brendan. The two live with Brendan’s mother, Mama Vivian, “once a formidable Chinese activist in Detroit movements for racial and economic justice.”
The novel moves from the body-burning to the pivotal flashback moment in the story when Dune is sitting at the table in the kitchen of her family’s small house half listening to her mother, a political activist, rant about going to pick up her check from “the capitalist pigs” as one example of the slew of indignities she endures as a poor woman of color. Kama suddenly goes silent. When Dune finally registers the silence and approaches her mother to see if she’s okay she finds her, “her back stiff, a wall between nations.” Dune takes her mother to the hospital where she is told by a black doctor named Rogers, “She is not technically brain dead, it’s more the kind of inactive prefrontal cortex we see in the severely depressed, but with the elevated stress hormonal flooding in the hippocampus that we associate with, well, with PTSD.” This revelation made perfect sense to me as someone of African descent born and raised here. Of course Kama has PTSD!
Okona writes, “There have been several studies in recent years into the ways “Black people can develop racial trauma profound enough to be considered a psychological trauma comparable to PTSD.” This is “according to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). ‘Racism can and does create damage to one’s psyche and personality in the same way that being subjected to community violence, being held captive, or being psychologically tortured can create emotional damage.’”
As has been done countless times when black people have sought relief from their suffering in the U.S. medical system, the doctor pronounces Kama’s illness psychosomatic and sends her home. Shortly thereafter, the illness that has overtaken Kama begins showing up all over Detroit. The illness, which only afflicts black people in Detroit, “stops people in their tracks—in mid-sentence, mid-action, mid-life—casting them into a nonresponsive state from which no one recovers.” Many are found outside or bent in grief or standing on the street surrounded by the blight with which much of Detroit is associated.
Again, Syndrome H-8, the name given to the sickness that overtakes Detroiters makes perfect sense. brown gives a name to what so many of us experience on a daily basis; a profound grief and mourning over our condition in this country. Clearly Syndrome H-8 is a stand-in for COVID-19, a disease that laid bare what we have known for centuries: that racism is a disease, as the meditation teacher Ruth King teaches; an illness of the heart.
Racism weakens our resolve to heal from sicknesses of the body because it is a heart sickness. While scientifically we can point to comorbidity as a way to explain the number of black and brown people who succumbed to COVID, we also know that even with some of the conditions that are believed to have led to increased death amongst BIPOC present, when people are happy, joyful, and feel like they have something to live for they are much more likely to recover from illness, even serious illness. Think about the many stories of people who were given months to live in the US, but who returned to their home country to be amongst family, relieve themselves of the stressors of US-living, the bad food of this place and the pollution, and living significantly longer than their prognosis allowed! (see the story of Stamatis Moraitis who lived 35 years in Ikaria, Greece after being given 6 months to live from US doctors.)
What “home country” do African American Detroiters have to escape to? Nowhere. The transatlantic slave trade means that this is it; this is our home country—and it has shown us time and time again that we are not welcome here. Surely, this is a source of heart grief.
There are many things to love about the novella:
I love, love, love the way that brown’s love of Detroit comes through in the care that she takes with describing the environment.
I think the narrative would be a great teaching tool for any number of subjects.
I love that I was inspired to read the Chinese-American Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs’ autobiography.
I love that brown addresses the profound damage that unacknowledged and unprocessed grief does to our bodies and hearts and minds. People have died from a broken heart. Clearly those who suffer from Syndrome H-8 are plagued by having their hearts broken by a country that does not value black life and in which they are left to languish and die.
That said, there were many moments when I felt like I was making my way through a fast-paced catalogue of characters, none of whom I found to be particularly well-developed or compelling. As such, the story didn’t stay with me in the ways that I would expect it to given the subject matter.
I’ll be reading the second in the series, Maroons, soon.
I’ve taken a break between the two installments to read several other new and timeless treats, the latest of which was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Actually, I didn’t read Invisible Man; I listened to it read masterfully by Joe Morton. As soon as I began listening to the narrative memories of reading it in my early twenties came flooding back. The “novel” read, with such verve by Morton, takes on a whole new meaning in 2023 and feels truer than true.
 brown has a couple of podcasts; one with her sister, Autumn, and one with Toshi Reagan. She also has a regular column in one of my favorite publications, Yes! Magazine. In addition, she’s running an online program with Sonya Renee Taylor and has founded an institute (Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute) and a podcast based on Emergent Strategy.