We’ve been talking a lot about our deaths lately.

If I die before you, I instruct the people I love, don’t let my name be used for wack shit. I’m counting on you. I follow with instructions for various scenarios. If I die violently, remember how I felt about prisons. Don’t let one of the racist crowns take my case. Don’t let people water my politics down at my funeral. Don’t let me be at some funeral with police if I die in some kind of mass attack. Don’t let the people who had no use for me in life use me in death. Don’t let people pretend I was a saint that I wasn’t. Don’t let people take in death what I wouldn’t give them in life. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

I’m not imagining my death; I’m just protective of it. Perhaps that’s because it seems that Blackness can’t be uncoupled from dying. The Afro-pessimists argue this, that to be Black is to be haunted by captivity, violence, and death. I had a friend once who, when people asked her how it was going would always respond, “I’m alive. And that means something because we’re not supposed to be here.”

Perhaps it’s just that historical sense, the way that our Black grandmothers worked all their lives, to only be lauded in death. The funeral is the most expressive space they had. It was a resistant act, this way of dying, the way our enslaved ancestors sung about stealing away home and they meant death and they meant liberation and they meant escape. When we died, we believed our souls would return to Africa. We believed that we would walk again in our homelands. Our body could no longer be used for labour. It was our final triumph.

It’s like how a young man in prison once paused and said to me thoughtfully, “well, one way or another, we all will be released.”

But there are more practical reasons for thinking about our deaths too. We can’t pretend this work doesn’t take a toll.

Idil says to me what we never talk about. “Somebody has to clean up the blood.” Even to each other, we don’t talk about the hardest, most traumatic parts of this work. Who planned the funeral after the shooting. Who mopped out the apartment. And who can’t speak about it while those names become currency for activism. Who isn’t filling their resume with that work, and who is eating off it.

People talk about self care, but what can that mean when the people who care most deeply for you, and the ones who you love in return are the people to whom you owe your labour? It isn’t a burden to do this work, not when the trust and solidarity and profound love you build by your commitment to each other are the reward. But still, when the calls from segregation come in the evenings, it means that there’s no going to movies, or out to dinner, or even watching a whole show on Netflix. And that’s the work that won’t get a tenured job. That’s the work that puts pain in your body and takes years off your life.

But when Miguel calls me and tells me I sound down, and I tell him I don’t know if I’ll have a job next year, he says, “I get a welfare cheque every month. Let me send you that. Someone like you should never have to ask for help.” Nobody else, not the heads of departments, not the colleagues and friends, nobody else has offered everything they have like that. This is why we answer the phone evening after evening.

But still, sometimes love is a ragged blanket to warm yourself with at night.

I think often about Rocky’s portrait in the law school at Dalhousie. I knew Rocky, knew at the end of his life that he was still having to scramble for cash. The institutions that spend tens of millions on buildings could have funded a Chair for Rocky. If they had wanted to, if they valued him, they could have done it. After all the years of fighting white supremacy until his heart literally gave out inside him, the institutions to which he gave so much could have made a place for him to live out his life in dignity. They chose not to. And the same universities that couldn’t spend a few thousand to make sure Rocky was taken care of display his picture now that he is safely dead.

Desmond says to me, we may not be religious, but what we do is like a religious act. We imagine and work towards a better world. But the heaven that we are trying to make is here on earth. And while we are living here and struggling, we are in hell. But heaven and hell are the same place for us. So every day we wake up in hell, and we have to do our best to enter heaven. Every single day we have to try to knock on heaven’s door. And so we have to sacrifice for that. And we have to pay the price for that.

We don’t hold anything back in this work. Not savings, not our tongues that get us labelled troublemakers, not even our tears, although we push them back and get up the next morning and keep fighting on. Because someone has to buy the groceries, put clothes in the prison boxes, pay the gas for visits. Somebody has to hold the hands in court, and call the lawyer and visit the jail and take the call from the suicide cell.

And somebody has to stand up at the meetings, and in the places of power, and at the panels and even the parties and call relentlessly on those with the power to do more, to end it. And when you stand in that love, and solidarity, and rage, you can’t expect to have the bills paid. You can’t expect to have the comfort of the world too. You have to make your choices.

Sometimes I lie in bed and think about the books I should have written, the papers I could have published, the poems and articles and chapters I didn’t give my time to. And everyone tells me I wouldn’t be lying here if I had just written those things. But then I ask myself, which life would I exchange for that book? Whose life was worth less than a chapter? And I know I wouldn’t choose differently, just as nobody would choose differently, not if you knew the life that was in front of you, that you had the power to sustain and hold.

We are the living archive, I remind myself, and there is no tenured position, no degree, no qualification, that can give me what is worth more than one life.

And so, I make plans for leaving sometimes. I imagine other cities, cities where I pretend that people would open doors for me, and where I wouldn’t have to worry year to year about whether I’ll have somewhere to live. But then I ask myself if I can walk away from the lives that offer me their last penny, the ones who pass the phone around on the ranges believing that I will know how to fix things and so I figure out what to do because when people trust you like that there is nothing, nothing you won’t do to pay that back.

It is not that I save them; it is that their trust and care sustains and nurtures me, that every day when I despair, when I don’t know how I can pick up and rebuild again, when I don’t know how I can fight these fights without sickening and dying from it, it is their voices that remind me, over and over, who I am and why we do this work.

And these are my instructions to the people around me. If I die before you, make sure those who loved me and whom I loved are the people at my funeral. Scatter my ashes outside the prisons of this province so I can haunt them forever. Don’t use my name for wack shit, and don’t let the institutions that wouldn’t love me in life take hold of me in death. If I die violently, remember that I hated prisons and honour me.

I’m not imagining my death, these are my expressions of my commitment to the living. To my life and the life of others. To the sacrifice that isn’t a sacrifice, but a sacrament, a blessing.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. I know this has been said so many times by so many, but I too am so grateful El Jones continues to publish this writing. I hope I’m not naive to think that it plays a real and important part in leading us to action, change, justice, and humanity.