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148 CLA JOURNAL COVID-19 and Black Grief in the Academy Elizabeth J. West On April 22, 2020, more than a month into the state of Georgia’s shelter-inplace decree, I found myself like most of my colleagues madly trying to bring a chaotic semester to its conclusion. In the throes of this madness I received from a white colleague an e-mail with the subject heading, “Good article.” In his routine reading of the NYT, this rather optimistic, happy-go-lucky, save-theplanet , regent’s professor kind of guy informed me, with a seeming tone of glee, that he had just encountered a stimulating article: “I read this really moving essay in today’s Times and thought you might know the author— she works on Black women’s spirituality and got her degrees at Emory.”The article was an opinion piece by a prominent scholar from one of those name-dropping northeastern liberal arts colleges. My colleague thoughtfully embedded the article into the e-mail, saving me—one who does not have a subscription to the Times—the trouble of having to click on the link or log on for library access. As I perused the first lines of this article with reverberations of the tone of self-satisfaction that emanated from my colleague’s words, I thought of Herman Melville’s anti-heroes in his short stories, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). The narrator in “Bartleby” is a lawyer who confesses that he is an old man who, from his youth, “has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (1103).He further explains that his discomfort with conflict is evident in the nature of his work, which entails“a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds” where all who knew him considered him an “eminently safe man” (1103). This narrator is no less dangerous than the more racially conscious but also cheerful Captain Delano of “Benito Cereno,” whose sense of an ordered world is Black people remanded to their intended place as slaves in the manifest world of whiteness. He explains this to the distraught Cereno who has been traumatized by the slaying of his shipmates at the hands of the Black insurrectionists and then later by the brutal image of the leader, Babo, who has been executed and his body burned to ashes, with the exception of his head “fixed on a pole in the Plaza . . . [where it] met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites” (1183). To this horrifying and barbaric end, the optimistic Delano consoles Cereno with the assurance that“‘all is owing to Providence. . . . the past is passed . . . Forget it” (1182). It is worth noting that Melville’s works were not so widely read or acclaimed during his own life but were minted “American classic” at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century with the invention of a field of study called“American Literature” in the discipline of English Literature. This transformation hints at the CLA JOURNAL 149 COVID-19 and Black Grief in the Academy grim and sinister heart of the academy. That the foundation of American literary greatness—the notion of its very Renaissance1 even—rests in works that teach and celebrate the casualness at which whites may gaze the grief and suffering of others, especially Black others, reflects the very casualness with which too many white academics feel they can enter and exit Black spaces of pain for the satisfaction of a “good read.” While Bartleby is not Black, he is a silenced, impoverished other whose suffering serves only as a spectacle in the quiet and solitude of the lawyer’s insulated world of privilege and financial comfort. He has the privileged position of “studying” Bartleby and his unfortunate plight without having to feel any responsibility or obligation. Similarly, aboard the San Dominick, Captain Delano amuses himself with observations of the Black captives and how fitting he finds them for the role of slave. Reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson in Query 14 in Notes on the State of Virginia, Delano assumes the position of objective and authoritative gaze. This is no less the...