ESSAYS | FALL ’20
POP GOES THE AMERICAN PIE
WORDS by KHARY SEPTH
ARTWORK by DONOVAN EDWARDS
Bayard Rustin writes in Myths of Black Revolt (1969), “Blacks are not demanding revolution, but rather participation in the democratic process and the enjoyment of the fruits of American society; in general, they want a piece of the pie.” And if Rustin—the Black, gay Godfather himself, were to rise from the dead, he’d be delighted to see our faces covered in it; strange fruits dripping from our lips, crust scattered about the corners, and the knife which cut the pie into little bits of mainstream visibility, a mortgage up in Harlem, and fewer lost souls to the AIDS epidemic, suddenly de-weaponized and placed in a drawer. In a matter of two decades, we were no longer watching for a blade at our throats in the dark on the piers, nah. The gays had finally grown into our good fortunes, which had finally become the American sitcom’s recurring theme. As the clock struck midnighte on the roaring new ’20s of the aughts, you could say it was all-you-could-eat queerness in every shade of a Fenty foundation kit, showing up in every cis white girl’s fairytale, and in a sense, this was seen by the community to be a Revolution.
But in February we met a tiny microbe named Miss Rona that did a costume change by mid-March into an all-out pandemic, and suddenly, it seemed the Good Gay Times wouldn’t last as good times—we all know—never do.
She said, “Miss Thing, there is no guestlist, there is no pie, there is no spoon—a young boy tells Neo in the Sci-Fi banger The Matrix, who up to that very moment had lived his life within the limits of the accountable, or the real. It’s a Hollywood paintbrush on ancient Buddhist philosophy which in essence expresses that what we think of as rigid reality is no more real than what we see on the other side of a mirror. The man in the mirror doesn’t move—his mind does, and the coronavirus was here to prove this immaterial truth.
As Black queers, this point can be hard to get, no less stick. With so much struggling, we’ve hardly the time to live highly examined lives, and if we’re thriving, we’re typically thanking from podiums or on panels a generally foolproof system for allowing us in. Sure, we can observe aspects of our life in and for ourselves and put them on the Internet, but full tea: We often preserve the oppressors’ point of view and, like it or not, always work in their tradition. As James Baldwin put it, “It was not the world that was my oppressor only. If the world does it effectively enough, you begin to do it to yourself.”
Yet these days, the man has turned his back on us and when facing forward, has met us with a pie cutter to the face *gags and drops* then a knee to the throat, and we are now uneasily standing on the edge of the future gasping for air, wondering what to do next? As the seasons roll by, and with Pride cancelled and bread lines forming, if the gays had become distracted and docile high achievers up until now, heaven knows there is nothing to distract us anymore.
Cause we saw it: the overrun emergency rooms, the shortage of personal protective equipment, the far-too-few ventilators, and an irresponsible President responding with chaos to a gaggle of Governors trying to rise above it in order to “flatten the curve.”
And you felt it: the panic of a nation with no savings, no social safety net, and soon enough, no compassion. I walked the canyons of the city and heard no crying, and it must have sounded like this before the Dutch colonists arrived in the 17th century to buy it in blood from the Natives, as its population was suddenly, and almost willingly, sent to bed with a lullaby of clanging pots and 24-hour cable news.
And while we were sleeping… Legislation. A cash grab called The Cares Act that was supposed to save Main Street and out-of-work Americans with $2 trillion in desperately needed cash, but which in two weeks was ran off with by the Big Bad Wolves of Wall Street. For the plebs without personal bankers it was a 24-hour-a-day call campaign to the DOL/SBA/PPP/PUA shitshow, where it was processing…pending… better luck next time.
And coming up from the sewers was the stink of celebrity going bad because no one was watching. It was sad to see people used to having such tremendous influence, now the front-page news of endless rooms unremarkably on display for Zoom. It seemed with only the die-hard devotion of their couches, they no longer looked like rock stars, because (come to find out) the Hollywood “it factor” was borrowed from glam squads, and publicists, and mainly us, whose perception of them as stars made them worthy of everything, but yet (come to find out) of no real value at all.
But of course there was Saint Cardi in a protective mask, spitting Keynesian theory.
❝If you think that after the coronavirus… that sh*t is going to go back to normal. You muthaf***ing wrong b**ch, you about to enter a recession. You think you gonna get your job back? Bro, Sis, you might not get your job back no more…❞
And then the epiphany. America was built on the notion that upholding Christian values such as a strict morality, cordial manners, delayed gratification, and so on, were the very reason for an individual’s success in the market. Even the Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote in an essay, Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich, of Invisible Hand “success ethics” that allowed men to create a life of unimaginable financial bliss not only fit for a spot in heaven, but right here on God green’s earth just the same.
But this wasn’t that. This was America writing an essay called Life’s Not Fair for millions of immigrants and working poor people doing “gig work” and working for Walmart, stocking empty grocery shelves, and being treated like trash. These were indeed jobs taken in response to the calling—of a chatbot looking for “low-wage and unskilled labor,” or off a vinyl sign on the side of a building, and you’d have to be wearing rose-colored protective goggles to not see that these workers were at odds with what the free market would consider success. To suddenly be calling them heroes for standing in COVID’S line-of-fire to keep us consuming—but mostly, to keep themselves and their families fed—was an ethical disaster at best.
There were racialized headlines (Coronavirus is Disproportionately Killing the Black Community) and racialized fear (The Citizen’s Arrest Law Cited in Arbery’s Killing Dates Back to the Civil War), and for our EntertainTment, there was even a COVID comedy of errors starring a colored CEO at the helm of a cruise ship. ACT ONE: a floating Carnival is found making transatlantic trips and bouncing around the Caribbean. On the bridge of the ship we find a negro named Arnold Donald, who is one of only but a small handful of negroes at the helm of billion dollar ship. He knows a virus is spreading, but continues to send ignorant masses of poor and old and fat white people to their deaths. Perhaps, it was a present his people’s past would have wanted, and so no apologies would have to be made.
My Gawd, it was moral mayhem, and it made me terribly sad for the future of the human race. To see rich white folks flee the city, leaving their sick and tired doormen behind to get the memo that we are all just apes trapped on a piece of intergalactic coal in the middle nowhere, where no optimistic venture capital or silly white boy founder was going to build anyone a rocketship to Mars.
But in America, living on the edge is not a vice, why it’s a virtue, and like Wile E. Coyote (the Looney Tunes character said by his creator Chuck Jones to be “a living, breathing allegory of Want,”) these white boys have driven us right off a cliff. At 2,000 feet and falling even the good Pastor will markup the price of a coronavirus test for his desperate flock, and at 4,00 down, the greedy pharmacist will fill a billion bottles of time-released pain just to make a quick buck.
In God-blessed America, by the time one hits rock bottom, even the boys in NYPD Blue are selling ass and murder-for-hire on OnlyFans, and the federal government is stealing shipments of PPEs and ventilators from the states for a few points of political gain. The coyote in Mark Twain’s book Roughing It, upon which the cartoon is based, is described as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton” and, yes indeed, that sounds about right. Like an empty stadium of NBA owners, or the attendees of an “Ideas conference,” whose BIG IDEAS, just like the cartoon coyote, are nothing more than the same ol’ Saturday morning mistakes.
Through the forty-some-odd years of protests and outrage I’ve lived through, it just may be that a real choice has yet to present itself. Somewhere on the protest line, I became subconsciously aware that the day-in and day-out misery of tens of millions of Black and Brown folk that was just to be our problem, was a hard-knocks distraction from the fact that our demands could not possibly be fed by a pie and the machinery that makes it, that is not real.
Blood, sweat and overpriced GDP heels, our sense of self as personal net worth, the myth we’ve been told from birth that if you hustle hard you’ll be Rich & Famous is just not real. An economic system that couldn’t survive a two-week shutdown was so not real. There is no spoon: The pie is just dessert to be nibbled on by the rich. There is no spoon: The exhaust from all the ovens and baking has ruined the air. There is no spoon: For decades, even as political power has shifted from Left to Right, deciding whose turn it was to don the baker’s hat, Blacks, with watery mouths and hungry hearts, have seen no more than the Revolution of a plate.
There was never enough pie to feed my N!g*as, no less the Natives, and let’s just forget about the developing world. According to the chief economist at the World Food Program, before the coronavirus arrived, 135 million people were already facing acute food shortages around the world. Now amidst the pandemic, 130 million more will go hungry this year.
And yet, there’s a whole planet. The majority of us living without adequate jobs, healthcare, education, security, electricity, no less, political stability and WiFi—preheating the ovens (cheap energy) and fixing the fillings (even cheaper labor) and looking at us as a model for how to bake a pie of their own.
Maybe it’s not a pie we need, but a sheet cake with Karl Marx’s face on it. And maybe it’s not “Get Rich Or Die Trying” scribbled on top, but “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” written in Black Panther meringue buttercream, and then covered with rainbow sprinkles for cunty effect.
Perhaps after COVID, we can move on from the killing fields of capitalism where we fight to death for success. Maybe it’s time to rethink our shopping plans and summer vacations and stand still like the stamen, no stress—a wage we can water our seeds of inspiration with until they become Big Leafy American Dreams again. Or maybe, this is all just wishful rage better left for a subreddit, and nothing will change the fuck at all.
In her book, Provisional Cities (Cautionary Tales for the Anthropocene), Renata Tyszckuk defines, what she calls “Anthropocenophobia” perhaps best understood by its usage in a passage about contemporary life in the Anthropocene, which is defined as “the current epoch in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”
❝She found that the frequent references to a new epoch brokered by a novel sense of human calamity and talk of an “apocalypse that was already here and now” induced in her a kind of Anthropocenophobia. She was aware of an unfolding global catastrophe—who wasn’t? She didn’t care what it was called, whether it was a good or a bad Anthropocene, whether it was about saving business-as-usual or this-changes-everything. She simply found it frightening: fear of human hubris, fear of human vulnerability, fear, in fact, that in spite of all the epochal talk, nothing would make a difference. The sky would just keep on falling.…❞
To be honest, maybe holding on this fear is what we need, and it’s time to let go of the rest: the American Dream, the temptation of technology, and what Martin Luther The King Jr. phrased, “the poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.”
Because God only knows how long it will be before we’re back on the subway, and no one but the housing courts know the next time we’ll be paying rent. But as we reach for “enlightenment” in the Age of Corona, we should be interested in becoming a new person through all of this. Think about how you can change. Don’t think for one minute about your old luxurious life now hanging in the balance and rush to get back out on the town with your friends. I know this is a difficult exercise for the American mind, that even if we experience a glitch in the Matrix, it will be nearly impossible to alter our course in any meaningful way. But human freedom is the state of change from a condition of being suffocated to one of breathing fresh air, so breathe deep—under a mask and six feet away—and find the meaning of life amidst all the paranoia, the random optimism, and unfortunate pain.
is the editor-in-chief of The Tenth Magazine, looking to redefine conventional knowledge about the self and about the world through a Black queer lens.
is a Portland-based artist and musician who is also a stenographer for the ancestors, using energized text and scribbles to share celestial stories and riddles.