Kai Wright: Catharsis: “A purification, or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension.” That is how Miriam-Webster defines the word. It also says, the “elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness, and affording it expression.”
It’s hard to imagine a better word to describe the past few weeks. After months of fear and mourning amid a global pandemic, we are now in the streets. Trying to eliminate the complex of racism, by bringing it to consciousness.
God knows what comes next -- whether all of this purgation, all of this new consciousness will take us to a truly new place as a society. But personally, I think I’m finally able to see past all the pain, to something more hopeful. One of my old friends -- a tough, smart woman who’s been present for a lot of protest and uprising -- she captured my own emotions in a group email recently. She wrote, It’s a horrifying but beautiful, beautiful moment.
So in this episode, we pause to think about release, and renewal.
We have two conversations, in which people share their own cathartic journeys through this horrifying, beautiful time.
I’m Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety. A show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
KAI: Hi Veralyn.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Hi Kai. How are you?
KAI: I’m pretty good.
KAI: Our producer Veralyn Williams recently had her first, sortof big break from social distancing when she went out to a protest in Harlem.
VERALYN: Yes. You know. Since the latest slew of black people being killed at the hands of police.
VERALYN: I felt very much compelled to go out there.
KAI: You and millions of other people.
VERALYN: Yea. But also, as a journalist-- a part of what I feel called to do is to bear witness… I just felt like, if my people are out there -- I felt like I needed to be out there, amplifying their voice. And I got there. I was not 6 feet from everyone, and that put me in my feelings a little bit. And then I heard this woman…
[PROTEST AMBI] CROWD: ...Yea Shanika... God is with you Shanika…
VERALYN: ...who climbed on a ladder and talked into a megaphone-- and her voice had so much passion in it.
[PROTEST AMBI] Shanika/Rally: As a black woman, who's raising beautiful black boys. I am often gripped with fear-- that this unjust society will seek to snuff out the life that God put in them.
VERALYN: And it was the moment where I realized, this is exactly where I needed to be. It was like, something that was in me, that needed to break free-- was set loose.
KAI: A release.
VERALYN: A release. For sure.
SHANIKA HART: So, my name is Shanika Hart.
VERALYN: So I’m sure you’re not surprised, but I called her up.
SHANIKA: You can identify me as a disciple of Christ.
VERALYN: And she’s a wife, she’s a mom…
SHANIKA: I'm a sister, I'm a friend.
VERALYN: She’s a social worker.
SHANIKA: More specifically, I'm a family therapist.
VERALYN: And she’s the first lady of The Gathering Harlem, which is the church that organized the protest.
SHANIKA: I wear many, many hats.
KAI: And what did you guys talk about when you reached out to her?
VERALYN: Well we talked about the thing that really struck me, which was the way she was able to so directly speak to grief that she and so many Black women carry.
VERALYN: You know, I was really taken by just how emotional you were describing your fears around being a black mother.
SHANIKA: So the fears that I have around being a black mom is, you know // oftentimes consists of. The conversations that I'll have to have with my sons, my son Jeremiah told me the other day, "you know, Mommy? The police, they only lock up bad people, right, Mommy?" And that broke my heart because while I said yes, I know that I'm also going to be having-- I have, to have, another conversation with him as he grows up and as his, his brain is able to understand that sometimes just being black is enough to be wrong in America.
VERALYN: How old is he?
SHANIKA: He's three years old. He's four. He just turned four. And so, yeah, the fear is that they are ridiculously cute. They're ridiculously innocent. Right. They're ridiculously compassionate and loving. And you know, how we govern our home is how we govern our lives. Right. And we are led by the fact that we are to honor everyone. We are to dignify everyone and love everyone. And my deepest fear, there's sadness around the fact that, you know, my sons might not receive the same as they navigate this world.
VERALYN: And what about yourself? Has the fear of violence touch your life-- as you navigate the world?
SHANIKA: Um, I mean, one evening, Kenneth and I, we were walking our dog. It was one of those streets that has like an island. And so I was on the island and Kenneth was across the street. And he's playing hide and seek with my dog. And, you know, Zoe's pulling me, trying to find Kenneth. And while I'm walking with Zoe, all I hear is sheeek. And then cops are in an unmarked car. They jump out and they have Kenneth pressed up against a gate. And I'm walking with Zoe. I turn around and I'm like, oh, shoot. Something's going on over there. Walk a little bit closer. I realize that that's my husband pressed up against the gate. And they are screaming at him, "put your hands up","what are you doing?" So come to find out. They thought Kenneth was breaking into a car because he was hiding. For a brief second. But I mean, when I tell you-- full in rage. I ran across the street like, "what are you doing to my husband?" And just to see how they were. They were dealing with him. Right. He did absolutely nothing wrong. But because he was black, he was already suspicious, you know, I had a deep fear for Kenneth's life. He could have made one wrong move and became another hashtag that night. But he also simultaneously had that same fear for me. Right. So it's like "I'm all right, but like, it's all right. Back up. You know, I'm not I'm not resisting, officer. You know, both of my hands up." Both of us fear ridden. For the same people were supposed to protect us, you know? And so that's when a light bulb went off to be like, no. Literally just for being black. There is no all the people in the south like this is happening up north. This is happening to all of us, chiefly because we have black skin.
VERALYN: Mm hmm.
[Protest ambi begins to come up...]
VERALYN: And so in response to the horrific death of George Floyd, your church organized the Justice Love Mercy protest.
[Begin to hear Rally ambi…]
SHANIKA: Yeah. // So our church, // this is within the very DNA of T.G. H. What can we do to respond? Right. To support, to mobilize our church, to act. And Kenneth, made a couple of calls. Next thing he was you know, babe, I think I think this is happening. We have like a few churches in. And as the days were going. It was like. All right. Two more churches in three more churches. And I'm like, OK, Lord.
[Begin to hear Rally ambi…]
SHANIKA: I remember Kenneth and I coming around the corner and as we're approaching the crowd, you know, we have a few people like you, people already outside. You know, people are excited. And then going around the bend, you see floods of people in front the National Black Theater, which is actually where we hold we before the pandemic, we're holding services.
[Hear more ambi]
SHANIKA: In the back of my mind, I'm like, lawd. I'd give me an utterance because, you know, I'm going to have to speak in front of these people too.
SHANIKA: I have to speak in front of all these people. But then I realized that there are mothers who their discomfort doesn't go away. Right. And so everyone has a responsibility. Mine was to let my voice be heard.
[RALLY AUDIO] Shanika Rally/Speech: As George Floyd laid on the concrete. What was it like being suffocated from him? He cried out, Mama. Mama. And this demonstrated. That the 2nd most important thing, to living, was comfort and the protection of his mother ... tell em...
VERALYN: You know, in thinking about the responsibility you all felt for-- mobilizing folks. But we're also in the midst of a pandemic. Right. So, like, what were those conversations like?
SHANIKA: We also did not want it to be the case where people were you know, they were showing up for this just cause, but then having to deal with covid, which is also killing us. Right. And so it was really important for us to make that that clear for everyone who who joined. And there were over 4000 people present. And it was so good to see everyone taking on that personal responsibility for themselves and for their neighbor. Right. It really did demonstrate a sense of one accountability, but also a love. Like I love you. And so I'm going to consider you just by simply wearing a mask. And so I loved that we weren't completely paused because of COVID. But we can still exercise wisdom in the midst of it.
VERALYN: And so in the midst of all this, in the midst of everything you've described with you know, holding the community within your own family, how are you? Like, how are you doing? Like...
SHANIKA: Um, so for for right now, because of the pandemic, an average day for me, looks like, you know, I'm getting up in the morning. I am, caring for my infant daughter, getting my boys ready for the day, brushing teeth and getting breakfast all prepared- before starting remote learning. And then I'm jumping into a day's work for me, but on a random night…
SHANIKA: ...you can find us blasting music, probably Maxwell, and just dancing the whole family in our living room because we can fight for joy. Right. Like it's an act of resistance that we're not going to sit in the sorrows that oftentimes evades us. But, yeah, and that those are such sweet moments for me.
KAI: Joy. Rage. Grief. They’re all part of it, part of the catharsis we’re moving through as a society. And they kinda work on each other -- you know? They’re an inseparable tangle of emotions -- and, a lot of times they come out all at once….
That’s why I don’t think you can separate out the Black Lives Matter uprising -- this huge, cathartic outpouring we’ve seen -- you can’t separate that from the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic. The sheer scale of loss, the feeling of total insecurity against an invisible, deadly threat -- maybe that forced something to the surface that can no longer be repressed.
Here in New York, over 24,000 people have died from Covid-19. Over 100,000 nationally. An enormous number of us have had to mourn the loss of someone we love, and do it under exceptionally difficult circumstances -- when we’re unable to gather close, to cook for each other, hug each other, all the stuff we normally do to celebrate the end of a life.
And so...many, many people have had to find new rituals, to release and renew in the wake of death... That’s next.
KAI: On May 6th, Lloyd Porter lost his battle with Covid-19 at a hospital in New York City. He was 49 years old -- just one of well over a hundred people in the city who succumbed to the pandemic on just that one day.
KAI: But in life, Lloyd stood out.
LLOYD PORTER: Yoohoo
KAI: In the videos he posted on social media, you can hear: he’s playful and funny… and loving.
LLOYD: Good morning, Hillary!
KAI RETRACK: In 2004, he and his wife Hillary opened a cafe called Bread Stuy
LLOYD: How’s it on your first day of official business?
KAI: not far from their home in *Bed* Stuy…. Or Bedford Stuyvesant, an historically Black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
LLOYD: How’s it on your first day of official business?
KAI: I lived in Bed Stuy around that time. And while I didn’t know Lloyd personally in the decade I was there, I knew *of* him... almost everyone did.
Bread Stuy -- and later... another cafe they called Bread Love --they were among a handful of small, Black-owned businesses that were in many ways the heartbeat of the neighborhood. The entrepreneurs who ran them created spaces for a wide, eclectic and mostly black community to come together. It was a beautiful collection of Black people from all different walks of life, and we’d all gather in these businesses -- to work, to socialize, to celebrate.
LLOYD: Happy New Year!
KAI: Lloyd Porter was instrumental in bringing that world to life. He had a lot of friends. People loved him.
[FADE MUSIC UNDER KATHLEEN]
KATHLEEN: You know how people talk about there’s the mayor of a neighborhood or the mayor of a block. Lloyd was that and more. He was like the beating heart of Bed Stuy.
KAI: Kathleen Horan is a reporter who’s written a lot about death and mourning. It’s been her beat for more than a decade. And so -- throughout this time of unprecedented loss -- she’s been writing obituaries. Chronicling the lives of the New Yorkers who didn’t make it… including Lloyd’s.
KATHLEEN: He completely created this special place where anyone could come. I mean that was really important to him.
KATHLEEN: And You know, it was just the center of the neighborhood. And so they would have barbecues and dance parties. They would have pumpkin carving contests and Shakespeare festivals.
MANDISA TURNER: There was chess tournaments or chess lessons for kids. There were Scrabble tournaments. Or going and cleaning up the playground together. There was just so much energy and community built in that space.
KATHLEEN: Many of his friends started as customers, and Mandisa Turner is one of those people.
MANDISA: Anybody who was in Bed Stuy in the Bread Stuy era has fond memories of it.
LLOYD: Right on, right on. You know how we do.
MANDISA: Lloyd was like the… um. His wife Hillary is a pastry chef. And Lloyd was the personality. And…
LLOYD: Just hanging out. Cruising Jester
MANDISA: There was always something fun and engaging to do.
KATHLEEN: It sounds so joyous to me.
MANDISA: Yeah, you know Lloyd was a great connector. So if you were working on something and he knew someone who could help you he would introduce you. His voice…
LLOYD: [Laughing] He made me my coffee and didn’t let me put my own cream in it...
MANDISA: … was just very booming and jovial and happy.
LLOYD: [Singing] Grandmama! Grandmama! On mother’s day!
MANDISA: And he always remembered people. So you didn’t have to come in there more than once, and you know if he had the opportunity to engage with you, he was going to try his best to remember something about you.
[FADE MUSIC UNDER PORTER]
LLOYD: Here we are, on Travis’s birthday. Happy birthday Travis.
[FADE PORTER UNDER KAI]
KAI: Where was Lloyd Porter from? Where did he grow up?
KATHLEEN: He’s originally from Bakersfield, California, just north of LA. He’s one of eight kids.
GREGORY PORTER: Kathleen.
KATHLEEN: You know, I spoke with his brother, *Gregory* Porter.
KATHLEEN: Nice to meet you. I’m sorry it’s for a terrible reason.
GREGORY: Yes, yes, yes understood...
KATHLEEN: He’s a Grammy-Award singer… who also *lives* in California.
GREGORY: Lloyd was my running partner. Because we were so close in age, we did everything together
KATHLEEN: He’s your big brother right? Where are you both in the eight kids?
GREGORY: He’s sixth and I’m seventh. And he is a year and a half older than me.
KATHLEEN: And Gregory told me this story about what it was like growing up in Bakersfield and why he and Lloyd had this very deep and lasting bond with each other.
GREGORY: This was when we were seven, eight, nine. And Bakersfield in the 80s was a complicated place. It’s in California, but its, it has Southern roots. And in that Southern roots was some hardcore racism that still existed here in the Central Valley of California. And my mother was always worried about us because we had threats. And we had a cross burned on the front lawn. They threw watermelons and pumpkins through our window and beer bottles with urine. We were having some real trouble for a long time. Almost for a couple of years from some racist group that was here in Bakersfield. And my mother was always worried about us when we were walking out the door. When we’d go wake up in the morning to do our paper route. When we would walk to school. When we were just going out to play. She was like, “Be careful, watch out for each other.” So we had this kind of like secret task: No matter what happened, just be there to watch each other. There were cars that would drive by yelling names at us. And we felt like we were these, you know, two little black boys kind of traversing this world feeling like we were in danger because quite frankly we were.
KATHLEEN: That sounds so scary.
GREGORY: It was terrifying. It was terrifying. But mother was constantly in our face reassuring us of our value and our beauty of our kinky hair and our big noses and our skin. And at one point, I guess I was eleven years old, we just, my mother gave up and we just moved away. And she felt defeated in a way by doing that. And we ended up moving back to a different house and into a different area. But Lloyd and I were like these just, you know, we were watching out, looking out for each other.
KATHLEEN: And you know the good thing, as Gregory tells it, was that Lloyd had this sense of humor that was disarming and inviting. He genuinely cared about other people. It was like a superpower that he had in spite of everything he lived through.
GREGORY: He would actually -- and he’d do this my whole life -- he would search for the person who was lonely or who might have had some affliction, whatever it be. Whatever the other is, he liked to bring that person into the mix and help them bring out the true person that they are. It’s just what he did.
KATHLEEN: Do you think it’s partly his talent of making someone feel like they’re the most important person in the room?
KATHLEEN: When you were in his orbit?
GREGORY: He did that. He did that. And he always amazed me how he would get to, very early in a friendship or in a relationship he would get a lot of intimate information. And I always thought it was like p… I was like, “Man, Lloyd don’t ask people that.” BUT people felt comfortable talking to him about some really deep things and because of that they would become quite deep friends because they would have talked about some hidden thing.
GREGORY: Funny thing is, is after he passed, there is a group of of men, none of which who know each other. Really. I mean, but all of them called me and said, yeah, Lloyd was my best friend and I was his best friend. And at the moment, the count is about 18 people think that they are Lloyd's best friend...So he had he had a lot of best friends. He had. He made a lot of people feel they were his best friend. That’s a gift.
KAI: What a lovely testament to your life.
KAI: So at what point did Lloyd realize he had Covid-19?
KATHLEEN: You know, around March he started feeling some symptoms.
GREGORY: I was talking to him. I said, “Lloyd, don’t play with this. You know, if you think by chance at all that it could be this Covid situation go in and get checked out.
KATHLEEN: So his wife dropped him off at the hospital, and he went downhill fast.
GREGORY: They put him on regular oxygen that first day and then the next day they intubated him.
KATHLEEN: He got put on a ventilator, and the ventilator really became sort of like the point of return for many people, even when they got off of it. It became like this equator.
GREGORY: Just before that it was just a few text messages, basically. You know, this is the best thing for me to do. And you know, he said, “Goodbye.”
KATHLEEN: Is it right that he passed on your mother’s birthday?
GREGORY: He did. Just after 12 o’clock New York time on May 6th, he… [LEAVE THIS PAUSE] he passed away. [DEEP BREATH] Yeah, and it feels so empty. I couldn’t fly there and touch his hand. You know, it’s just, it’s heartbreaking in that he’s almost kidnapped by this disease and taken away, you know. You feel cheated. I mean, we, I still haven’t hugged my brothers and sisters who are a ten-minute drive away. We haven’t hugged each other. It’s strange.
KATHLEEN: It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of. When you most need comfort, when you most need physical comfort is the time that you cannot receive it.
GREGORY: It’s cruel. It’s cruel is what it is.
KATHLEEN: I've spoken with so many families experiencing these profound levels of grief. And it’s made all the more intense because of social distancing rules. But I’ve also seen people come up with really unique ways of still somehow mourning together while following those rules.
You know, in Lloyd’s case, that community he’d worked so hard to build in Bed Stuy… was absolutely devastated.
MANDISA: We were just crying and feeling really sad, and feeling like there was nothing we could do, and you know we have to do something...
KATHLEEN: So Mandisa, Lloyd’s friend, she and a couple of other neighbors thought -- you know -- we *can’t* just sit in our houses. We need to *show* our support. We need to somehow go and deliver our love to Lloyd’s wife Hillary and their young daughter... somehow. So they sent out a message by text and social media -- kind of to the neighborhood -- let’s just go and walk by the Porter’s house and grieve with them at a distance.”
MANDISA: Let me see if I can find the note for you and I can read it to you.
MANDISA: It says, “Words cannot express how we all feel with the passing of our dear friend and neighbor Lloyd Cornelius Porter. He has touched so many in ways that will stay with us forever
KATHLEEN: And from that, it snowballed into this very well-orchestrated memorial procession.
KAI: Oh wow.
MANDISA: Let’s show them our love with a candle light, walk-by vigil. Bring your handmade signs, bow ties, shabby hats, flashlights and all.
KATHLEEN: And, Mandisa live streamed it.
MANDISA: You guys want to show Mackelmore your signs?
KATHLEEN: You can hear her sort of making sure things are going the way that they should.
MANDISA: Whatever we’re going to do we need to start because we can’t have people congregating together. It’s gonna cause a problem.
KATHLEEN: And everyone took a job from you know monitoring the corners to someone who made sure that people were walking by slowly enough but not taking too long.
MANDISA: Just walk by.
KATHLEEN: You know, they’d only get a few seconds in front of his family.
MANDISA: So as they were coming by they would just stop in front of the Porter’s house and kind of make the symbol of a hug, like your arms in an X, like hugging yourself. And Hillary and Mackelmore were outside returning the hugs. And it reminded them that this community loves them and supports them and is mourning with them.
MANDISA: We love you Hill. We love you Mack.
KATHLEEN: It was just such an elegant, heartbreaking procession.
MANDISA: Hi [CRYING]
KAI: How many people do you think showed up and walked by?
KATHLEEN: At least a hundred she thought.
KATHLEEN: You know, in only thirty minutes the stream was so constant.
[SINGING FROM VIGIL UP AND UNDER]
KATHLEEN: This is one of the best instances of people coming together and improvising something that felt really special and intimate without breaking these rules.
MANDISA: Alright guys, we gotta go. Let’s go.
[SINGING UP AGAIN]
KAI: It strikes me listening to this Kathleen, and meeting Lloyd through you, how many people have been lost in this way in such a short time. But I wonder about, when you describe what happened with his family and friends, to me it almost sounds better. You know, I’ve sadly buried a lot of people. And it sounds almost more useful and more fulfilling than what we would normally do in terms of just have a funeral and speak words over the body and go to the grave side. All of that action of people walking and community together -- and it’ll be different for everybody, everybody needs different things -- but I wonder Kathleen, what you think about how all of this is actually going to change us and how we deal with death in the long term?
KATHLEEN: You know, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who’ve lost loved ones over the past few months. Many of them have said, this pandemic -- and not being able to have what we might usually think of as a traditional funeral -- that that has kept them from having any real closure.
But as someone who has covered death and funerals for a really long time, I can tell you, the idea of closure from a funeral in one day or a week is misguided. This pandemic has only brought that in focus. It's going to take a lot of smaller intentional acts. Both individually and gathering with others virtually or in a distant way to get to the other side of being through the worst of your grieving. I mean this is something that has never happened in our lifetime, this amount of people dying in such a short time. And so I think one of the bigger changes will be death is less conceptual and more of a lived experience, that we let it come in a little closer and respond to it a little bit more authentically.
KATHLEEN: And so maybe we will be able to make our lives more meaningful as a result.
KATHLEEN: You know I was so wowed by the things people were sharing about Lloyd. All of the little details of his life, all of the ways that he affected these people that he came into contact with. His talents, his playfulness, his sweetness, his kindness. And during that walk by, Mandisa said that she imagined him jumping out from some hiding place saying, you really do love me!
And so it just made me think is there a way to share these sentiments with each other before we die. Can we somehow snack at that buffet before we go. Can we know a little more about what we mean to each other.
KAI: [CRYING], but yes, it’s… it is the problem with grief and death in general is, we always want to know, did we snack at the buffet beforehand. And it’s impossible to know.
KATHLEEN: We’re always pushing forward, you know. And this time has allowed us to really consider how we can sort of step forward into what is valuable about our life. If it was snatched away, what will we be remembered for.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios.
Reporting and producing in this episode by Veralyn Williams and Kathleen Horan, who is hot and creator of Mortal City, a podcast available on Audible.
The episode was edited by Christopher Werth and Karen Frillmann, who is also our executive producer.
It was mixed by Jared Paul.
Our team also includes Emily Botien, Jenny Casas, and Marianne McCune. With help this week from Kim Nowaki.
And a special thanks to Leticia Theodore-Greene, Amy Cunningham and the Porter Family.
Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band.
Keep in touch. You can follow me on twitter at kai_wright.
And as always, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.