Fiction: The Neowise Comet Listens In

This narrative blends the voice of the protagonist, a Black Jew, with the imagined voice of the comet. Among the many whose words were overheard by the comet are fellow congregants of Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C. Thanks to Louise Parker Kelley, Susan Vitale, and Ruth Secular.

I remember you from before. Weren’t you here the last time I came? It was before Gilgamesh, before Anansi, before Apollo. I saw you there. It was six thousand years ago, or seven.

Black Lives Matter, of course it’s true. But the fact that something is true is NEVER the reason for saying it. So why say it? If you’ve got to ask why, then you don’t get it, you don’t understand. I know you want time to understand the saying of it. Is it a group? Is it an idea? Why do we need to say it if we already know that it’s true?

I am a returning departing comet. The last time I was here Gilgamesh hadn’t been born yet, but you were here. You’re Black. You’re Jewish. I saw you in tents, in huts, in booths, under canopies – corridors, hallways, chambers. You crossed the sand and came to the salt water, you saw islands.

Black lives matter. Black lives started it. You all came from Africa. All of you. All of us. That’s what I overheard returning and departing. All lives are Black lives that matter. But sometimes you forget. Say it so you don’t forget. Black Lives Matter.

I overheard someone speaking, “I was not the one who did it.” They were words coming up from Sixteenth Street in front of the synagogue, her congregation, Tifereth Israel, every Friday.
They were standing along Sixteenth Street, in support of Black Lives. I heard someone explaining, “I did not arrange it for everyone to stand along Sixteenth Street, six feet apart, social distancing.” She was holding a sign. She said, “I do it because I want a change, I held a sign but so did the others. Did you see my sign? I got worried. What is my country doing? Why does my country hurt Black people so much? That’s why I was there.” That’s what she said, that’s what she does.

Do you want to know what I do? I make returns and curves and circles and ellipses around and around and around. I come back and back and back I was here six thousand years ago and when I came by this time I heard her say, “I want it to change.”

Most of the words that were spoken the last time I came are lost now, but not all of them.

I am black and beautiful,

As the tents of Kedar,

as the curtains of Solomon

Black. Beautiful. Then. Now.

Hebrew words spoken all the way back. I was already there. Why are you saying it now? One said, “Y’all hear that, Chile? She went down to the Capitol Building, yes she did, She went all the way down to the Capitol Building to see the casket of John Lewis. That’s what she did. She kept saying, Black Lives Matter. She went before to see the casket of Rosa Parks. She went this time to see the casket of John Lewis. The moments were different.”

Rosa was in the sunlight. John was by night,

And there were floodlights on the Capitol Building.

When I was still approaching, back in 1987, I overheard when one said, “Black Power.” She was there with Stokely Carmichael in the basement of Douglass Hall at Howard University. One said, “We’ve got to call ourselves something. We have lots of words to choose from. Let’s call it something. Let’s call it Black Power. We didn’t know it would end up being a thing. We didn’t know where it was going.”

Black Power. It didn’t say, nobody else has power. It didn’t say anything about anybody else’s anything. It just said, Black Power. And if you don’t know that it’s replacing black non-power. That means you’re clueless. You don’t know what’s going on. And if you think Black Lives Matter is trying to say Black Lives Matter instead of White Lives, instead of other kinds of lives, then you don’t know what we’ve been going through.

But one said, “What about the word forbearance. One day I hope somebody’s going to have forbearance for some stupid thing I’m probably doing right now, and I don’t even realize what it is. Forbearance. Give somebody a chance to learn something.”

I overheard. One told a story. “The first day I showed up at Howard University, first year student, first day of college, I started in the summer time. I arrived, and there were policemen there holding us all back as we were about to make the turn into the campus. One, two, three, four, fifteen, twenty buses came driving out onto Georgia Avenue and turn south, going to sit in somewhere. They were going to risk their lives somewhere. And I was a little first year student, scared to death. I said, ‘I’m glad they’re going because I ain’t going nowhere. I’m glad someone’s willing to go there for me’.”

When those buses were gone, another one came up to that one and asked, “What are you going to do? Your country is a mess.” And that one answered, “I don’t believe my country would ever do anything to hurt me.” Yes, that one said, “I don’t believe my country would ever do anything to hurt me.” That one is a descendant of Jews who were kicked out of Spain in the Inquisition, in 1492. That one is a descendant of slaves in America. That one is a descendant of slaveowning rapists and murderers. One of that one’s ancestors signed a parchment with the words, “All men are created equal.” That one said, “I don’t believe my country would do anything to hurt me.”

But there was forbearance. That one had time to learn something and figure things out. That one believes in teaching and forbearance. Someone taught her and had forbearance for her.

That one thinks about her friends. “One of the hardest things for me,” she says about Black Lives Matter, “is not affirming that Black Lives Matter, but that all of my white friends are all feeling bad and searching their lives and hearts and dealing with all their pain about racism as if their lives are not connected to mine. Who am I supposed to have a cup of coffee with and a good laugh while they are out there in the midnight of their souls digging out their racism? Who am I supposed to have a giggle with while they’re off attending anti-racism seminars? And we’re so close that it hurts my heart too. It’s not like it’s only hurting on one side of the friendship, and the others are home free.

“So, I keep thinking, maybe I’m the wrong person to listen to… Black Lives Matter… but too late now, I’m here, and I’m already talking, so you can’t uninvite me.

“I feel so weird sometimes when I see the lack of forbearance. It’s a new word that has never been heard before. Hold back a little bit, give somebody a chance to learn something, to teach something, to understand something.”

This is what I overheard six thousand years on my way back, or maybe seven. Mostly I just lie down and wait for time to pass, lying down in space. And I remember you, all of you, from
before. You were here the last time I came. Before Gilgamesh. Before Anansi. Before Apollo.

But there you were, Black, and Hebrew, and Jewish.

Black and beautiful

as the tents of Kedar

as the curtains of Solomon

One said, “There were more barriers when I went to see John Lewis. I don’t remember barriers for Rosa. John’s dark was so beautiful, he changed the night. Rosa was joy, John was solemn.

One said, “You want to tell it as if I did it all myself. I looked at it, I because I am a part of it, standing along Sixteenth Street holding a sign. Is that just performance? Is that nothing.”

Another one spoke to that one. “What do you think holding a sign on Sixteenth Street is going to do to help Black Lives?” White people were up there yelling at other white people, “All ya’ll are doing is performance. You’re doing nothing, nothing. All you’re doing is standing there holding a sign. That’s just performance.”

And yet I overheard young men, Black men speaking one to the other, “I’ve never seen this before. Usually when the trouble comes, white people disappear. Every other time they disappeared. This time they didn’t run away.” Performance. A way to get started.

Surely you were here the last time I came ellipsing around your sun, hearing your earth.

One remembers a song she sang as a child.

We’re marching to Zion,

Beautiful, beautiful Zion

We’re marching onward to Zion

the beautiful city of God.

But another one said to that one, “Zion isn’t yours.” But that one thought… Yet the other said, “If you’re a Zionist then something is wrong with you. If you want to be a Zionist you better be it secretly in your heart. You’d better not tell anybody. Send secret money to Israel while marching on the Plaza with Black Lives Matter downtown.”

“Do you think the land was given to Jews only forever for all time?” “Not exactly that, but I figure if G_d gave us that land, then let G_d set it up,” that one said. “As for me, my joy is to have peace with the people around me. If G_d wants to make a change, then G_d you come in here and do it. I want peace. I want the people in Israel to know they don’t have to worry about food. They don’t have to worry about having a place to live and stay. My hope is that given the freedom of enough food and enough support, there will be time to know how can we live in Israel in peace.”

I overheard as I ellipse around her sun. I remember that one. I saw her before, when I came by before, this is what I saw,

I saw Moses standing before Pharaoh. There was a little Egyptian girl behind a curtain listening. Hail was about to fall. Moses said to Pharaoh, “so tell your people to say inside and get the cows in, or the hail will fall on them and they’ll die.”

And the little Egyptian girl behind the curtain said, “That’s the first time any G_d has ever cared about what happens to the enemy, and tells the enemy to protect themselves. I’ve heard of many a god, but I’ve never heard of a G_d who cares about the enemy. So I’m going to follow this Moses. And I’m going to be there.” And the little Egyptian girl left Egypt just behind the children of Israel, and spent 40 years catching up with them, crossing the desert, and came to the land. To Israel. Black Lives Matter. We’re Marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.

I remember you from before

You are Black and beautiful

As the tents of Kedar

As the curtains of Solomon.

Carolivia Herron, Ph.D., teaches Classics at Howard University. Her books include Peacesong DC: A Jewish Africana Academia Epic Tale of Washington City; Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History; and Asenath and the Origin of Nappy Hair: Being a Collection of Tales Gathered and Extracted from the Epic Stanzas of Asenath and Our Song of Songs.