By Caille Millner
A few weeks before my city issued a shelter-in-place order, I gave birth to my first child. While I was learning how to be a mother, the coronavirus pandemic was decimating economies and cleaving communities. It was disproportionately killing Black Americans and laying bare the brutal costs of the country’s collective unwillingness to invest in everything from basic social goods to public spirit.
The week before my city was scheduled to begin the process of lifting its shelter-in-place order, it instituted a curfew to try and control what began as protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and that age-old American menace, the wanton destruction of Black life by agents of the state. Within days the protests had morphed into the century’s largest multi-racial indictment of the institutions and ideas that have failed to provide even a semblance of opportunity to Black people—and, increasingly, everyone else.
In other words, I have spent the past few months welcoming an infant into a world order that is rightfully under attack. In large part, it is under attack because it’s failed to protect my child and all who resemble her. It’s sobering, but not surprising, that the same people who are likeliest to face death by disease due to official neglect have chosen to risk their own lives by taking to the streets against their deaths by official violence. Those with the least to lose are the best equipped to lead.
While the people are protesting in the streets and dying in the hospital corridors, my days are quiet. I feed the baby, change the baby, play with the baby, and sing the baby to sleep. Over and over again. Initially, I was racked with guilt over my embrace of constancy and repetition while the old structures crumble outside and so many brave people fight to expand the world’s imagination. But repetition offers a spiritual dimension for those who are patient enough to listen for it. The baby is my mantra and the repetition is my love.
This is especially true for Black mothers, who must undergo an additional series of repetitions with their children. Over and over again we must explain police violence. Over and over again we must tell them of the burdens they will face and the worry they must carry. When we’ve finished with each of these explanations, we embrace them, over and over again, because we know the world will not. Creating an atmosphere of love amidst this repetition of violence and fear is one of the impossible tasks Black mothers are called on to do, and I knew it would come for me eventually. But I was astonished that it had come so soon.
During the first few days of protest, repetition was what saved me. The hardest moments were when I was nursing, because that was when I had short blocks of time to scroll through the news of teargassed protesters and murderous demands from the highest levels of government. To distract myself from this terror, I started listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
I don’t know much about jazz. I picked the album because I wanted to hear something pleasant, without a lot of lyrics. But what few lyrics they are! At the beginning of the album, Coltrane chants “a love supreme,” over and over again. Like me—like Black America—he’s stuck in repetition.
Then he begins his famous improvisation, or at least what seems to be his famous improvisation. It’s actually the same riff, played in all twelve possible keys. Coltrane is repeating the same thing over and over again. He is creating his mantra. With repetition comes the possibility of transformation. With repetition comes the possible breakthrough of love.
Once I recognized the pattern Coltrane had laid out, I was able to hear something different from the streets. These were not the protests of 1968 or 1992 or even 2015. Instead of dissipating, the protests grew larger. The usual propaganda was employed about order and looters, but somehow it had lost some of its strength. Instead of being undermined, the protests attracted more age groups, more races, more solidarity, and more imagination.
The repetition of despair had opened a crack for something new to seep through. You might even call it love.
No one knows what will happen next. Historical precedents aren’t comforting: the backlash that usually follows racial uprising has a grim repetition of its own.
But the past few weeks have reminded me that every awakening creates space for new possibilities. Led, once again, by its most hated and disenfranchised people, the country has been handed yet another chance to remake its broken republic. The demand that has risen yet again from the streets is what Coltrane might recognize as the sound of love.