Writing in a Time of Peril: 6.26.2020

Mars Near Opposition –Hubble Telescope

The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard reported 2.20 million US cases and 118,695 deaths as of 12:30 pm on June 19, 2020 – From Johns Hopkins daily update.

The New York Times reports 2.4 million U.S. cases and 124, 770 U.S. deaths on Thursday, a record for the second day in a row – From the New York Times Covid–19 update, June 26, 2020. 

The U.S. reported more than 40,000 new cases on Thursday, a record for the second day in a row  (Johns Hopkins Update Not Available) 

From gestation to birth, our paths are chosen or directed by biology, physiology, geography, ecology, history, our time, and our choices. For all of us, we are suffused with incalculable variables and uncertainties, except for one invariable–calculable–constant, our deaths.

I was coming out, a black woman in a majority-black southern city, New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1979. I knew no out black lesbians in New Orleans then. I still don’t. I decided to live an out lesbian life, a different choice than that of all of the black women in my family and community. Other black lesbians chose to live on the ‘down low. My mother and her friends helped black lesbian and gay men hide and pretend that the women and men they claimed to be their dates and fiancés, even husbands and wives, were, in fact, not the center of their love and sexual lives. 

Living on the ‘down low was an acceptable choice. My mother told me that since I had a good education, a master’s degree, I could do and be anything I wanted; the black community, even the church, would support me, but only if I was silent about being a lesbian. The acceptable choices were to be silent, completely repress my affectional preference and sexuality, to pretend to be heterosexual, to convince myself I was heterosexual, or to forget I was lesbian. The consequences were to borne silently and alone. Similar choices and their consequences were made about loving across color lines.

I understood these choices and the underlying beliefs, along with the deeply embedded homophobia. Being an out black lesbian was perceived as a threat, an additional target on all black backs, another shame to bear, and a distraction from activists’ stated priority: the liberation of black men first, black women second, and black children last. I carry the perceptions of these choices and beliefs in the marrow of my bones. I know the consequences of these choices, no matter their religious, social, economic, and political underpinnings. I would cause my family and community shame. I would make my family and community targets for added white hate. I would cancel my value as a representative of our community. 

I understood, however, the most serious consequence of living on the ‘down low, of suppressing, denying, and leaving unexamined essential parts of myself, my affectional preference, my sexuality, and my historic familial and personal loads of racial, physical, emotional, economic, and sexual trauma.  


My deepest fear 

Becoming mad 

Becoming involuntarily committed to an insane asylum

My great-aunt and great-uncle told me the story after Thanksgiving dinner the year my grandmother died. 

In 1916 near Houma, Louisiana, on Bayou Black, my grandmother witnessed her grandfather’s death. Her father and her paternal grandfather had been arguing when he fell off a raised porch without rails. An inquest ruled the fall an accident death. The crucial consequence of my great-great-grandfather’s death, however, was the wrongful commitment of was his son, my great-grandfather, to a notorious insane asylum in Jackson, Louisiana. Louisiana law gives the coroner the power and authority to pronounce my great- grandfather insane. The police, the coroner, the insane asylum administrators, and the insane asylum personnel knew that my great-great-grandfather was sane. There was no recourse for him at that time. 

Not long after he was committed, he was offered a job as a  groundskeeper. In 1935 he was offered a release from Jackson, but he wouldn’t leave. “Why?’ was always the question when this part of the story was told after holiday dinners. The answer was always the same. 

His words quoted, 

“Because if I leave here, I will become a murder or go mad.”

He continued to work as a groundskeeper. He was paid a small wage that he sent home to my great–grandmother. Benjamin England, my maternal great–grandfather, died while living on the grounds of the Louisiana Stare Insane Asylum in 1943, twenty-seven years after he was wrongly committed. 

My great aunts and uncle and the Bayou Black community believed this malicious and sadistic punishment was meted out because both father and son were labor organizers and leaders of cane workers. The death of the father made neutralizing the son possible. Prosecution for murder would have been inciting, maybe giving him an outlet to continue organizing. But pronouncing him insane was diabolically silencing and terrorizing for all black cane workers and their families. 

My grandmother was never the same. “Teched,” they called her, the colloquial word for crazy. My mother’s early life was shattered by my grandmother’s mental illness. My childhood was lived in a soup of my grandmother and mother’s untreated and unhealed emotional, psychic, sexual, and spiritual wounds. All my life, I have been making sense of what I have come to believe is their “adaptive lifesaving madness,” a way for black women and girls to navigate life in hyper-misogynist and racist landscapes.


It was 1979. I had pain in my back. Right side. Below the shoulder blade. Lung? Diaphragm? It was excruciating, hard to breathe, to speak, to move, and to walk.

Diana was–is a masseur. She was–is beloved to me, extended family, my daughter’s co-mother. We had graduated from the Tulane University School of Social Work together in 1975.  While in graduate school, Diana studied massage and became an internationally recognized practitioner and teacher of relational-somatic connective tissue work, which is especially useful to heal survivors of trauma.  I agreed to a massage, only because I loved her and trusted her with my life, my family, my daughter, my body, my heart, and I knew she loved me. Despite all of that, I still thought the only reason to take off your clothes and let someone touch you was to be sexual. I thought ignorantly and hilariously that the naked touching thing must be a white thing or a Yankee thing since Diana was white and a northerner. 

In the sunny room off her kitchen that served as her massage room, she supported me onto the table and began to work. Kali Ma, a full skeleton, hung from a stand, a sage witness to her care. The room was scented with arnica and almond oil. 

The sound of her hands rubbing gently together.

Her warm touch on my skin

Her pause 

Her hands hovering above

Heat deepened touch.

When I tensed up and held my breath in the pain’s overwhelming presence, Diana told me to relax and breathe. That did not make any sense to me. When somebody is hurting you, you don’t relax! You don’t think about breathing! 

Patiently she guided me into breathing and relaxing with her breath and touch. 

The deeper her hands moved into me, the more it hurt.

I cried out.

“You’re hurting me.”

“Ann,” she said, using my family nickname.

“The pain is here, in you. I am moving into it.” 

I heard and felt her patience and love moving into me, through me. 

“What you are feeling is the pain leaving,” she said. “Relax, breathe into the pain. It will abate.

I still have pain in that same spot. I can feel it now as I write. It is always there. It has contracted and twisted and squeezed in agony in times of catastrophic change. A death. A lost possibility of home. A lost opportunity. A breach in a relationship. Intense unhappiness. When beloved ones suffer.

I live within its abatement.

When I write, I tend to that pain. I imagine. I remember. I re-remember. I study and research the stories that comprise the pain. I live within its abatement while the writing breathes, relaxes, warms, and allows its continual lessening.

The gifts and the beauties are in the lessening.

Death’s transformations are what we are here for 

The beauty is what lies between the brilliances of our adaptive and resilient insistence on lives of joy while we reduce the transmission of othering to future generations.

I listen to Nina Simone.  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX8OYzU0lx5hL?si=EKmgbzSvSouoa9COuVxbFg

And I add a song I need today: I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to be Free. https://open.spotify.com/track/5CKHhg31HcYYhwUeeGqvhq?si=MJUjFAJDRMSV2ypoLjt2mw

I add another song I want today: Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige sing: “Never Gonna Break My Faith” from Bobby’s motion picture soundtrack. https://open.spotify.com/track/1oZ1SqJrCNokYRw5nvhoOd?si=pPKZ3p-ESESakFdQe1M7KQ

I go down my to-do list of self-care: meditate, eat well, rest well, get exercise, connect, connect, connect, stay home–except for the pharmacy & the grocery & then only with mask and gloves & when there are very few people about. Watch less TV, but stay informed. Laugh a lot—Channel fear, grief, and rage into expression, action, and art.

I continue to chronicle these times.

In Joy,


© Andrea Canaan, MSW, MFA




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